CBT and Your Faith
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
What is CBT?
CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive might seem like a big word, but it's just another word for thought. The theory behind CBT is if you change your thoughts, your behaviors will change, and therefore your outcomes will change. Simple right?
Even though the concept behind CBT isn't rocket science it changed my life in a big way when I was introduced to it in my very first psychology class (circa 2005-06). In that class, we had an assignment to keep a CBT journal for a week. I remember dutifully carrying my journal around and using the system to work through any frustrations or problems I encountered. At the end of the week, I was a CBT convert (not that I had a previous system). I liked how CBT challenged me to be more open minded about how I experienced and dealt with negativity in my life.
Limitations of CBT
CBT works by challenging unhealthy "irrational" thoughts with healthy "rational" thoughts.
Irrational Thought: I failed to meet a work deadline; therefore, I have let the company down and I will most likely be let go from the company.
Rational Thought: I failed to meet this deadline due to circumstances that were beyond my control, but I have met every other deadline and will, most likely, not be let go from the company.
The concept is easy, anyone can look at a negative thought and put a positive spin on it. The problem lies in making yourself believe the positive when your brain is stuck in the negative. Let's get real here, the anxiety brain isn't rational. It goes from zero to sixty down a rabbit hole. Anyone who has ever experienced anxiety knows this (even psychologists).
The reason CBT falls short for many people is that they can change the thoughts in their head, but the replacement thoughts don't feel real. When your body is responding physically to tragedy and you are telling yourself that things are okay, there is a disconnect between the mind and body.
To use a caveman example:
The caveman is out making fire for the first time and he looks up and sees a lion, his body's sympathetic nervous system engages (blood rushes to his muscles, his heart rate increases, etc.) and he is ready to fight. Just as the lion is getting close, the caveman's wife steps out of the cave and says, "that's our neighbor's lion, he has raised him from a kitten and he's tame."
Our CBT replacement thoughts are much like the caveman's wife's comments in this scenario. She might not be wrong, its reasonable that a lion raised from a kitten around humans might be less likely to harm a man. Hearing his wife's reassurance might have made the caveman feel a little better for a minute, but he is likely going to continue to experience stress until the lion is gone.
Adding Faith Based Principals to CBT
CBT works best when the replacement thoughts are paired with something concrete, that's where faith comes in. We can only gain freedom from negative, fearful, thoughts by replacing them with something positive we believe in.
Let's go back to prehistoric times:
The caveman is out creating fire and sees a lion, his sympathetic nervous system kicks in and he is ready to fight. His wife pops out of the cave and says, "thank goodness those men over there are armed and ready to intervene if necessary."
What is the difference between the first and second scenario? In the first, the caveman's wife simply makes a statement about the lethality of the lion that may or may not be true. In the second statement, the caveman's wife tells him essentially that he need not worry because he has formidable protection from the lion.
If I'm the caveman, I'm feeling much more comforted by the statement of protection.
Let's bring this discussion to the present:
Scenario: You have a major presentation coming up at work that could mean the difference in getting or losing the promotion you have been working for.
Irrational Thought: I am going to fail at this presentation because I don't have what it takes to nail the delivery.
CBT/Faith Based Rational Thought: I have exactly what it takes because I have used my God given talents to get where I am. I don't have to fear because I put my trust in Jesus and his will will be done.
The Bible says some version of do not fear 365 times- the same number as the days in a year. I don't believe this is a coincidence. I believe God intended us to put our faith in his son and not to ever fear. This is not to say experiencing anxiety makes you a bad Christian, it doesn't. We are simply blessed as Christians to have Jesus to go back to with our problems and concerns. We don't ever have to walk our path alone.
When the lions of life come after you, know that Jesus has your back. This week, every time you start to feel anxious, take a moment to challenge your anxious thoughts with this verse from Philippians.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:6-7