Cognitive psychology concerns the study of internal mental processes such as: thoughts, memory, perception, attention, problem solving, and learning. Cognitive psychology is one of several branches in the field of psychology. It evolved in the 1960s as a counterpart to other branches of psychology such as the psychodynamic theory.
While psychodynamic theory viewed human as a being driven by unconscious needs, feelings, and wishes, developed during childhood and highly influenced by childhood experiences and relationship dynamics, the cognitive psychology viewed human beings as an entity that processes information and often used terms from the computer world when describing mankind.
A main focus of cognitive psychology therefore becomes to understand how human beings think, discern, make decisions, and then act based on their assumptions and conclusions. That is why the clinical application of cognitive psychology is referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT tries to understand the interplay and connection between thoughts (i.e. assumptions, beliefs, etc.) and behavior (i.e. actions, habits, etc.).
While there previously were a significant difference between cognitive and psychodynamic therapy, they have in the last twenty years become more and more similar in their practical expression. Cognitive therapists now recognize phenomena that previously were reserved psychodynamic therapists such as; the unconscious, defense mechanisms, and feelings, while psychodynamic therapists today recognize concepts that were previously regarded as exclusively cognitive such as; thoughts, patterns, behavior, assumptions, and beliefs, etc. Both schools of thought have naturally made use of both thoughts and feelings as psychological constructs, but they differ in how they assume that the causal relationship between thoughts and feelings occur. Psychodynamic psychology assume that feelings come to exist before thoughts in our psyche, while cognitive psychology assume that thoughts occur before our feelings.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT rests on the idea that thoughts and perceptions, meaning how we perceive, interpret, and give meaning to situations, challenges, other people and their intentions, and ourselves and our role in relationships, influence behavior and actions.
CBT tries to identify dysfunctional thoughts and assumptions in order to motivate the individual to turn on these and then implement more constructive ways of thinking that will hopefully change the behavior to also become more constructive. When behavior then has become more constructive it will hopefully lead to symptom reduction since the uncomfortable feelings have become more tolerable and easier to manage.
CBT postulates that stress and anxiety can influence and change our perception of reality so that we no longer relate to the actual reality since we have concluded that reality is what we believe it to be in our fantasy, imagination, or worries. That is why a central part of CBT is to challenge our perception of what we believe is reality by presenting observable facts of the actual reality. Different strategies and techniques to achieve this will be taught in CBT.
In addition to learning how to identify and challenge unrealistic and dysfunctional thoughts and assumptions, CBT is also an effective method in order to enhance problem solving skills. Many people that struggle with anxiety, stress, and depression do so because they lack the ability to deal with the continuous problems and challenges that life presents. Often times they worry and picture a negative result they assume they are unable to influence. Through CBT you will learn strategies and techniques regarding how you can improve flexibility in thinkingness and achieve self-confidence in the ability to handle problems when they occur in a spontaneous way. Many people, especially those struggling with anxiety, doubt that they are able to handle an unforeseen problem when it comes, and therefore they spend a great amount of time worrying about the future. For many, it has become a habit to worry and focus on things that might go wrong. They believe that focusing on potential problems that might occur makes them safer in their daily life. However, the truth is that worrying doesn’t make you safer or more prepared for the challenges of life, worrying only make you more anxious and afraid.
CBT & Problem-solving strategies.
Several of the problem-solving strategies entail breaking down the problem in as small and specific parts as possible. It is easy to become overwhelmed by a problem because the attention is focused on the general outcome in the future, rather than attainable smaller goals in the near future. One may be overwhelmed and downtrodden by the worry; “What if I can’t finish my studies?”, since the focus is on a large and general goal. One problem-solving strategy is to define smaller but more specific sub-goals which outcome you are able to influence today. Such an example would be: “I choose to spend one hour every day studying exam papers in the course I have an exam in at the end of the semester.”.
CBT focuses mainly on problems in the here and now and how to change thought patterns and dysfunctional behavioral patterns that subsequently will lead to increased sense of mastery and accomplishment in everyday life. The aim is that this will change how one feels so that stress, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms subside. The therapeutic method works on practical ways to increase both quality of life, relationships, and state of mind through a here-and-now focus. Even though one in the therapy sessions also may explore upbringing, childhood, and early relationship patterns, it is done so mainly to identify dysfunctional patterns still present that can be worked on and overcome in present day. The psychodynamic approach has a greater focus on past experiences and relational conflicts and dysfunction, and directs a greater focus and effort to achieve awareness and contact with feelings towards central characters from childhood than CBT does.
CBT as a therapeutic method is applied towards many psychological ailments. Already mentioned are anxiety, stress, and depression, but CBT is also an effective method towards: sleeping disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), relationship issues, self-confidence and self-esteem issues, addictions, and burnout syndrome and chronic fatigue.
The link between thoughts and feelings.
Cognitive psychology focuses, just as psychodynamic psychology and ISTDP (Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy), on the link between thoughts and feelings, but while ISTDP postulates that feelings are triggered before thoughts in our psyche, cognitive psychology claims that thoughts are triggered before our feelings.
Cognitive psychology uses the term “automatic thoughts” to describe emotionally activating thoughts that enter our stream of consciousness. It is possible to learn how to identify and manage such thoughts in a constructive way via CBT. Automatic thoughts often trigger stress or anxiety due to the meaning we add to these thoughts that we assume are true. But a thought is not necessarily true just because we entertain it in our mind. CBT tries to give a person a reality check by introducing other ways to think about the automatic thoughts.
CBT theorizes that it is not events or situations per se that creates stress or trigger anxiety, but what kind of meaning we add to our life events. If our thoughts are too negative, they preclude us from thinking constructively and flexibly about situations and problems. Then we become stuck in a downward spiral since we lack the ability to manage situations and challenges in a constructive fashion.
Our thought patterns are formed in childhood and unless we learn how to observe and challenge them, they become relatively fixed at an early age. For example, if a child is raised to receive conditional love, that is, parental love based on what we do and achieve rather than based on who we are, he will often develop dysfunctional assumptions about himself and his value as a human being. When praise only comes when actions that parents approve of is performed, it is easy to conclude that one must perform and do something constructive in order to be good enough (for others).
Through CBT a person learns to identify and challenge such dysfunctional assumptions and learns to think more constructive and realistic about himself. By understanding how interpretations, projections, negative conclusions, and attempts at mind-reading and predicting the future are made, it results in a greater sense of security, self-esteem, and ease of mind, because no longer is anxiety and nervousness triggered by the way one thinks.
Exercises and homework.
A huge portion of the effectiveness of CBT is based on the willingness to test and try out concepts, techniques, and methods in between sessions. The goal of therapy is not only increased insight and understanding, but that this newly acquired insight will lead to positive behavioral change and new habits.
An example of such an exercise is to write a daily diary in order to become aware of when and how anxiety is triggered so that different patterns, both cognitive, emotional, and behavioral are made aware. Another type of exercise is to approach social situations previously avoided in order to practice new concepts, techniques, or behavior discussed in therapy.
Those that benefit the most from CBT are those that are willing to step out of their comfort zone and try out new behavior and ways of thinking. However, to do that demands a good deal of self-discipline, something that is lacking with many that struggle psychologically.
CBT is an effective treatment method against many psychological struggles and disorders, and part of what makes it so effective is that it focuses on learning coping strategies, changing dysfunctional behavioral patterns, thoughts, and beliefs, and that it teaches the individual to relate to himself and others in a more constructive way. Lastly, CBT encourages the individual to take an active part in his own change process, and it teaches how to solve and manage practical life-challenges in a new and more constructive way.