Tag: CBT Therapy

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 6 – Using Negations

Using Negations

The way we use our internal language can have a profound effect on how we are able to overcome a challenge, for example anxiety. Let’s do a quick experiment.

  • Don’t think of a tree



  • Don’t think of a sunny beach


When you read the above statements, did you think of either a tree, a sunny beach, or both? Research shows that over 80% of people will have thought of at least one of them.

If you did think of one (or both) then it’s not a bad thing. In fact you have just revealed a mechanism that keeps anxiety, and many other mental health concerns lingering.

When you saw the instruction: Don’t think of a tree, your brain actually processed the message as: think of a blue tree, don’t.

There is a difference between how our brain processes the explicit order of writing and speech, and what how it interprets the meaning behind it, which in turn generates our behaviours. This is especially true when we are responding to instructions.

When following instructions our brain has a habit of deferring negation based words, such as don’t, to the end of the message or even ignoring it all together.

This is not something that is a 100% rule, there are a few exceptions, however this rather annoying function does occur consistently during times of high stress, tension and even excitement.

This is especially obvious when we see how children behave. You may have noticed that when you ask them the following

  • Don’t run up the stairs is processed as: run up the stairs, don’t – often followed by running up the stairs
  • Don’t slam the door is processed as: slam the door, don’t – often followed by the thud of a slammed door
  • Don’t spill your drink is processed as: spill your drink, don’t – often followed by a wet carpet

Have you ever seen a do not touch sign, or a do not enter sign and then feel a sense of curiosity to do the deed? Yep, me too!

And many athletes have successfully unsettled their rivals by uttering the phrase: don’t mess up within earshot of their rivals.

So we now know we need to clean up our language and make it more precise – the more precise your mindset, the easier it is to achieve your desired results.

Let’s start with the previous examples regarding children. How could we change the instructions to get a more desired result?

Easy – we remove any mention of don’t, can’t, shouldn’t, not and other negations, and tell them exactly what we do want them to do.

  • Don’t run up the stairs can be changed to: walk slowly up the stairs
  • Don’t slam the door can be changed to: close the door gently
  • Don’t spill your drink can be changed to: hold your drink carefully

See how that works? Simple changes can make a big difference to the meaning.

So let’s focus on you and your challenges. My suggestion to you is to spend a few days observing your self talk, that voice in your head which is narrating your experience of anxiety and write down how often you are instructing yourself not to do something.

Then once you have a list, write down a list of clear alternatives.

Some examples of shifting the self talk around could be:

  • I don’t want to feel anxious becomes: I can notice calmness around me
  • What if I mess up becomes: I’m able to do this properly
  • What if things go wrong becomes: I can notice things working well


Remember that change is a multi step process, not an instant shift from one way of being to another. Give yourself time, and accept that even the best of us have a bad day, experience failure and generally have challenges.

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 5 – Goal Setting

Goal Setting

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of different clients, and one of the most profound changes to their mindset which can point them on the road to recovery is to help them focus their goals on what they want.

Most clients I meet for the first time are primarily focused on what they don’t want.

Perhaps this has also been your experience? For example if you struggle with anxiety, are you more often than not telling yourself not to be anxious? Are you entering certain situations hoping that you won’t feel anxious? At the beginning of the day are you hoping the anxiety won’t be too bad today?

The more attention we give a personal challenge and fight against it, the stronger and more worthy an opponent we make it.

When setting goals it’s normal practice to focus your mind on developing yourself from your present circumstances, to a different set of more beneficial circumstances.

For example many of us seek to increase our skills by becoming better at something, not less worse. Let’s say you are fond of playing tennis, and you attend classes once a week. Do you attend these classes primarily to become someone who is a better player, or less worse?

Would you attend spelling classes to become better at spelling, or less illiterate?

The answers are obvious, yet when we struggle with a stressful concern like anxiety, we often mess up our targeting.

If you’re stressed with life, you feel cornered and just want some relief from anxiety then it’s not unreasonable to want to experience less of the misery.

To progress beyond this vicious feedback loop, what you will need to do is counter your old goals of aiming for less anxiety with additional ones which address what you would like to experience instead. Focusing on solutions will naturally allow your mind to come up with ways to achieve it.

Obviously I’m not familiar with your circumstances and your life journey so far, so these recommendations are deliberately vague.

Using anxiety again as an example. In general terms though the opposite of anxiety is comfort and relaxation.

So rather than have a goal of experiencing less anxiety, you can shift towards the goal of experiencing more comfort and relaxation.

To begin with I would suggest you approach this exercise with a sense of curiosity.  This is an exercise in progression, not perfection. You do not need to banish the your old goals or old way of thinking straight away.

Think along the lines of blending these new goals into your life and allow them to become more dominant, whilst allowing the old way of thinking to naturally dissolve.

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 4 – Metaphors

Working With Metaphors

Related to my recent blog about working on your self talk, another way of helping yourself is to notice what metaphors you are using to think about and describe your concern.

Metaphors can give you an idea how to you relate to the problem, and noticing, then changing these metaphors can help.

For example I hear people describe metaphors such as:

  • I feel like there is a brick wall in front of me
  • I think that I’m stuck in a rut
  • It feels like this is too much of a steep hill to climb
  • Trying to progress feels like trying to wade through mud
  • I can’t see where I am going
  • It seems like I’m always living under a cloud


I have found most people have a way of translating their concerns into metaphors. This is very useful because we can use the metaphors to work out how bad the problem is by asking ourselves a few probing questions. For example working with my previous examples you could ask:

  • How big is the brick wall in front of you? How wide is it? How tall is it? How deep is it?
  • How deep is the rut that you are stuck in?
  • How steep is the hill you are trying to climb? How long is it? Where abouts on the hill are you – right at the bottom, halfway? Is there a way of going around the hill, rather than over it?
  • How thick is the mud? How deep is it? How close or far are you from getting out of the mud and back on to solid ground?
  • How sharp is the vision you have of your destination? What does it look like?
  • How big is the cloud? How tall and wide is it? What colour is it? How high above you is it? Can you see any blue sky?


As you may notice, a simple metaphor which at first can just seem like an off the cuff thought or comment, can yield some useful information. With this information we can start to change the metaphor. For example what happens to the way you relate to your problem if:

  • You take bricks out of the wall one at a time until you can see through to the other side?
  • You stepped out of the rut? Or climbed up the side and peeked your head above ground?
  • You halved the steepness of the hill? You halved the length of the imagined climb?
  • You halved the thickness, and the depth of the mud?
  • You instead use a map to get you to where you are going, rather than looking for something that is not in sight yet?
  • You halved the size of the cloud, and doubled the height it is above you?


Notice the metaphors you are using, and start probing them and changing their qualities. This is a way of thinking which can yield long lasting results and really doesn’t require a great deal of “hard work”.

As always, if you have any questions, you are more than welcome to get in touch.

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 3 – Self Talk

Self Talk

Well all have an internal voice which provides us with self dialogue, a running commentary of our experience of life and the world around us.
This little voice in your head is how we know we are thinking, and it also gives us a type of psychological mirror, which we use to reflect on our hour to hour, day to day experiences.

However this voice can be a troublesome little rogue, and lead us into thinking, feeling and believing things which although convincing, is simply not true.

Now I’m not for a moment going to suggest we start ignoring our self talk as that’s unnecessary.
However what I am going to suggest is that you begin to listen to the self talk a little differently.

Most people I meet who are struggling quietly with a problem, often report that there are particular comments and phrases they say to themselves which gets them down and reduces any sense of motivation.

What i would like you to consider doing is treating this kind of self talk as open questions, rather than a kind of truth or commands.
For example, if you were to experience some self talk and the following statement comes up:

“You will always struggle”

If you were to say this out loud in a neutral / natural voice, it would be easy to assume that you were challenging yourself or maybe giving yourself a telling off.

If you were to say this same statement out loud like it was actually a question, then it will give you more time to think about the answer to the question, and be able to dismiss it more easily. The resulting feelings you get from this type of self talk is created by how you interpreted it in the first place.

So my suggestion here is to begin to think of your self talk as being more like questions, not just orders or commands. The same words can give a dramatically different effect.

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 2 – Focusing

Shifting Your Focus

When trying to overcome a personal problem, such as anxiety, a useful way of helping yourself is to change where your focus lies.

Let me explain. In most cases, when you have a problem, a natural tendency is that you are overly fixated on what you do not want. Nearly every client I work with can give me a precise account of what is wrong, how things are bad and what they want to overcome. And that is an excellent starting point.

However this alone is not enough to create lasting change.

What is often missing is focusing on an outcome, what would you rather do instead?
The question, what would be different, what would you rather do instead, is usually answered by things like:
I won’t be doing this, I won’t be feeling that, my feelings about xyz will be gone etc.

As you may have noticed, these typical answers still focus on the absence of the problem. We need to change that.

So my recommendation is to focus on the solution. For example if you have anxiety, focus on being in a situation which at the moment may be challenging, and focus on what happens when you are free of anxiety.
Would you be calm? Confident? Neutral / content? What would be different? What would you be doing? What would you have?

This takes a bit of imagination and creativity. If you feel like you are kidding yourself to begin with, that is ok too. The key here is to persist, have a go and get stuck in.
Also note the imagined outcome doesn’t have to be bliss and utopia – in fact there is a lot of power in neutrality and coming up with an imagined outcome which is unspectacular, but is good enough to build upon.
Put in as much or little details as you want, some people are really motivated by specifics, others work better with things a little more vague and big picture.

So start to become an expert in what you want instead, instead of what you do not want. It’s a subtle change that makes a big difference.

CBT Therapy Techniques Part 1 – Measuring Problem

Measuring The Problem

In this post I will be using anxiety as the “problem” this technique can be used for. However if you are reading this and your concern is not about anxiety, for example depression, keep on reading as this technique will work on pretty much anything.

Many people who come to see me have struggled with their concerns and anxieties for such a long time, it feels normal. It can be difficult to notice if you have ever had good days and made progress.

However even in the worst cases, anxiety is not static. It changes hour to hour, day to day.

My first tip is to change your approach to how you measure the problem. You see if you are always asking yourself whether you are feeling anxious or not, that is a black and white question. Even if you are feeling a small amount of anxiety, it’s always there and the answer is inevitably yes.

So instead of looking for a yes or no answer, I want you to think of the in terms of a numerical scale. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being a very low, hardly noticeable level, 10 being the highest and most uncomfortable level of anxiety) how anxious do you feel?

What would need to change to bring it up a notch, for example from a 6 to a 7?

What would need to change to bring it down a notch, for example from a 6 to a 5?

Using the scale we can probe what will work to help you, and what may not. Using this technique can also help you track your progress and notice if there are any patterns that emerge throughout the day / week.

This also helps you set goals. My work is about helping people manage their problems and teach them how to overcome them, rather than try to banish the problem instantly (the magic wand mindset).

If I told someone with social anxiety to go out with the goal of trying not to think about feeling anxious, it wouldn’t work. However if I asked them to go out, notice how high the anxiety is on a scale of 1-10 and then use the other techniques we have discussed to bring it down a notch, for example from an 8/10 down to a 7 or 6, then that’s a goal to work on and one that is achievable.

If they are unable to bring the number down, it’s not in any way a failure as they will be able to give me precise feedback as to what happened, and what self talk and feelings got in the way. And with that feedback we can develop new strategies to try out.

And there is more! We can use this scale technique to measure, and boost good thoughts and feelings. So I would ask you to consider opposite thoughts and feelings.

The opposite of anxiety is generally a mix of comfort, calmness and relaxation (CCR). Let’s say you are measuring anxiety and you feel 8/10. Notice it’s not 10/10, there is a gap we can work with. Let’s say your CCR level is 2/10, what would need to change to bring it up to a 3 or 4?

Turning the anxiety (or any problem) down, and turning the comfort (or any solution), calmness and relaxation up is a method I have found works well. Give it it a try…

A Brief Explanation of CBT

Many people contact me to ask how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is different from other therapies they may have tried before, and how it can be relevant in providing useful change when other approaches such as mainstream counselling or psychotherapy have failed.

The first point I would like to make is that CBT is unique amongst talking therapies because it doesn’t fixate on what label term is given to a problem, nor does it rely on using a pre-determined set techniques to overcome problems. CBTs strength is it’s flexibility and ability to improvise.

The mindset from traditional talking therapies generally goes along the lines of what problem does the person have, and how does it make them feel. The CBT mindset is different – It’s focus is not what problem the person has, it’s what they are experiencing and what is the process behind the problem, and how do you experience the problem?

Let’s take anxiety as an example. According to the CBT philosophy of change, anxiety is a process – a “produced” problem so it is something that you “do” and “experience” rather than you “have”.

Approaches using traditional medicine work by using medication to moderate and suppress your states of mind, which in turn would normally produce a slight reduction in the anxiety and short term relief. These medicines are not designed for long term use, but to give enough of a respite so a psychological therapy can be used to help overcome the problem.

Because anxiety is not a stand alone emotion, rather than one which is produced, there is a driving factor which is creating it in the first place. Only by identifying the likely root cause, and changing our perceptions of it, can the process be stopped anxiety truly be overcome.

The way I work with anxiety using CBT is to address three main areas:

  • Your beliefs & perceptions – what is the problem? what is the worst case scenario? what is the best case scenario? How would you know if you were OK?
  • Your state of mind – finding out how you go into the state of anxiety, and what state would be more resourceful? What is the opposite state of mind to anxiety?
  • Your behaviours – finding what specific behaviours are created by anxiety, and what would you rather do instead

The three areas are listed above are in the order of importance / leverage. Your beliefs & perceptions around a given situation or context will in turn produce a given state of mind, which in turn produces a given range of behaviours.

Providing you with more resourceful beliefs & perceptions around the root cause driving anxiety will ultimately help control and eliminate it.
Because of the underlying mind set of CBT, there is no endless analysing of how you feel about a problem, and no need for intrusive digging for hidden meanings and insight that may lie in the past. Whilst awareness and insight can be useful, they seldom offer enough leverage to produce lasting change.

CBT also differs because it focuses very much on pushing you away from the problem, and pulling you towards the solution. So not only will I be working with changing your thinking patterns to change the problem, I will also dedicate a good deal of time working with your expectations and perceptions of what the solution is. So in the case of anxiety, how will you focus on calmness and relaxation and positive states of mind.

As with all therapies, CBT is a formal and taught model and philosophy of what actions can be beneficial to a clients well being. However it’s important to realise that despite being a popular theoretical approach, it is not complete by any means – I do use other methodologies to cover some of the blind spots that CBT has.

To summarise, CBT is a well structured model of therapy which uses a very different approach to other talking therapies, by focusing principally on the here and now actions and how the problem “works”, rather than focusing mainly how you feel and how you “have” the problem and what it meant in the past.

Please contact me if you have any questions, or to book your appointment today.