Cognitive Behavioural Theory

by Arni Thoroddur Gudmundsson, january 2013​​​

In Cognitive Behavioural Theory the person is viewed as a survivor. In order to survive the person finds him/herself methods that best fit for his survival, and these methods, if successful, will be strengthened and thereby will be used more often.

The current problems a person finds himself in, is thus due to his survival methods not being optimal or the survival methods give immediate relief from the problem but in the long run they tend to maintain or increase the problems. Common survival methods that have immediate but not longer lasting positive results are, avoiding, being aggressive, drinking alcohol, or making a superhuman effort to either escape from the situation or overcome it.

From birth we learn by experience. Through relations with our parents in the start, and later in life, siblings and friends, peers and colleagues, as well as all the situations we experience and build on our experiences. All these experiences help us formulate basic thoughts about ourselves (if we are good enough or not), the world (if we can count on other people or if they are mean and untrustworthy), and the future (if the future will be bright or that nothing can change in the future). These thoughts will then later become an underlying and influential part of the way we interpret future experiences.

All these basic thoughts will be accompanied by feelings, bodily reactions, and behavior in accordance with the experience, to survive the situation (from now on these will be referred to collectively as reactions). These reactions will then either diminish the thoughts or strengthen the thoughts that will again either diminish or increase the strength of the reactions. With time the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and our behavioural reactions will be interlinked so that if one of them is activated all the other interlinked reactions will be activated.


To give an example: a young boy is constantly criticized by his parents all through his upbringing. This constant criticism makes him think that he is no good at anything (basic thoughts about self). He will expect people to be mean and critical and therefore he will not trust people (basic thoughts about the world). He expects himself to not succeed in future endeavors and cannot imagine the future to become more enjoyable (basic thoughts about the future). In his upbringing he will experience a lot of anger and sadness over all the criticism and lack of warmth from his parents (feelings). He often experiences a chronic sensation of discomfort in his stomach and is unable to relax in his body (bodily sensations). He develops a method of shouting out in anger and leaving the room every time his parents start criticizing him (behavior). The result of his response being that he escapes from the criticism. Later in life, when the boy has become a grown man he still is affected by his past experiences. Every time he, in his job, is asked to do an assignment he will feel uneasy and lack faith in himself. He will try to avoid the assignment and suggest that other people would be better suited to do the assignment. When he is not successful in that he will try to do the assignment but he is constantly worried about not doing good enough job. When the deadline of the assignment is upon him he is not ready. His boss will ask for explanations but the man will react in anger, shout and leave the premises. He will, as a result of this, lose his job for improper conduct.

This example shows how the basic thoughts learned from childhood influence the current/future situations, how they are interpreted and reacted to in those situations. The boy/man in the example learns that he is no good at anything and will therefore not feel that he is able to do the things he is asked to do. When he gets pressed or even asked about the progress or why there is lack of progress he will immediately associate that with past experiences of criticism from his parents. He learned as a boy that the best way to avoid the criticism was to make a scene (shout and leave the room). This reaction is still the most logical reaction for him because it gives him immediate relief from his discomfort (thoughts and feelings of being a failure). However, this reaction is now a problem because the immediate relief is followed by lost job, thoughts of failure and feelings of anger and disappointment. These function to strengthen his basic belief that he is no good, that other people are mean and not to be trusted, and that in the future he will just experience more of the same. These reactions are so strongly interlinked that it is automatic reaction pattern that gets activated every time he experiences situations that remind him of these past experiences. Thus he is not able to change his reaction pattern even though he knows that it will only make his problem worse.

In Cognitive Behavioural Theory the person is taught to identify these patterns and work with them so that a change in the pattern will be planned and tried and trained until it takes over from the old, unhelpful pattern. The work can be focused on the behavior by planning alternative behaviors in the problem situations. In working with thoughts the person is taught to identify the automatic thoughts that come up in problem situations. When these thoughts are identified the work is focused on finding alternative, more realistic thoughts that can be used to interpret the situation. These alternative thoughts are then trained and tested to increase their believability. Bodily sensations can be identified and worked with by learning to control your bodily sensations through training or by monitoring the bodily sensations and learning to experience them without interpreting them as negative or a precursor to something bad. The feelings are identified and changed by working with the other reactions (see above).

In essence the person is taught to become aware of his patterns so that they will not be allowed to take place automatically. When the automatic reactions have been identified the person is taught to become his own trainer in planning his own change and finding his own more helpful patterns. This will lead to more permanent solution that can help in future problem situations.