Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a type of treatment that allows a person to become more in touch with his or her own thoughts and feelings. This is a departure from other types of therapy or treatment where people may use external sources for relief from stress and anxiety. It also puts the locus of control directly on you, rather than your environment. Anyone who’s tried to relax knows that it’s rarely easy to control every part of the world around you. It’s often impossible. CBT brings the focus inward, so you’re working to identify and change what you can control.
Fortunately, we’re always breathing. We don’t have to think about it – in and out all day long. It speeds up on its own when we’re engaged in vigorous activity. It slows down when we lie down at night to sleep. We also tend to breathe faster and sometimes more shallowly when we are feeling anxious. This is when using a CBT technique known as Calm Breathing can help. When you sense that your mind and body are becoming anxious, take a moment to do this. Force yourself to acknowledge your breathing. It might be strange to do this the first time. But it is through this awareness of our breath that we can slow it down and calm ourselves. Begin to take slow, methodical breaths. Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pause for several seconds between each breath.
2. Relax your muscles
This is more than just having a seat for a few minutes to rest your body. Like Calm Breathing, relaxing your muscles is a conscious step you’re taking to:
- becoming aware that your muscles are tense
- relieve some of that tension
This happens through the systematic tightening and relaxing of various muscles. Not only does it bring to your consciousness the physical tension in your body and a method for relieving it, it can also help with the mental stress that you’re experiencing.
3. Think better thoughts
Admittedly, this sounds simple. However, consider something you fear. Is it something you think about before you feel the fear? Do you look out the window of a tall building and decide to fear heights? No, this is a very reactive process – similar to breathing and muscle tension. However, CBT techniques can help not only help allay actual fears like heights, but also help you to control your anxiety and stress levels when in any situation. A fundamental concept in CBT is that people are not afraid or anxious about things themselves, but the way they perceive them. That is to say when you can control your perception about events and situations; you will automatically control your reaction to them and will be in better control. Once you identify the irrational thought you’re having – whether it’s public speaking, scaling a rock wall, or just encountering a person who makes you feel stressed out – you can challenge that irrational feeling and change it.
4. Write it down
When you consider your stress triggers or try to recall when you felt stressed, you can probably do so with some degree of accuracy. But think about how effectively you could help yourself by identifying exactly when these types of feelings emerge. Rather than trying to recall what happened at a later time, take note of the feeling(s) when it happens. Write what you’re feeling and the degree to which you feel it. Maybe you have a big presentation to make. Before walking in, take a moment to write how you feel – anxious, uncomfortable. Revisit your note later that day or the next day when you no longer feel this way. Were your thoughts rational?
5. Face it head on
Now that you have some techniques to combat the stressful situations you face, you have more control. It’s now up to you to exercise this control. You can even practice with less stressful conditions. Take them one by one. Apply the techniques you learned and see how you feel. This may not be something you master immediately, but as with all things, practice makes perfect!