How to Be Your Own Therapist. Yes, It's Possible
Everybody needs therapy, whether you have mental health issues or not. A lot of people have a misconception that therapy is only for people with issues—just like how people who are sick need to see a doctor. Preventive medicine is the least popular branch of medicine, after all.
For most of our lives, we’ve been equipped with the basic knowledge about taking care of our physical health. Quite astoundingly, very few know how to take care of our mental health.
Therapy is for everyone.
Guess what? Anyone who’s got a brain needs to take care of their mental health. Taking care of our mental health is equivalent to taking care of our brain: the one organ that controls every other organ in our body. Just like with your physical health, prevention is better than a cure. Don’t wait until you become dysfunctional before you get therapy.
If you are already dysfunctional, getting therapy can feel like a lifeline. For people suffering with depression or anxiety, therapy is something you can do to help yourself. When you’re depressed and feel like you’re not in control, directionless, and lost, therapy can help you steady yourself. It can stop you from thoroughly spiraling as you’re able to say to yourself that you just don’t want to get better, but you’re also doing something about it.
Getting therapy has many hurdles.
Let’s cut the crap: You hear so many people telling those suffering with mental illness to go see a therapist, but the truth is, therapy is expensive, especially if you need it often. It is no joke. On top of that, there’s the stigma of going to therapy, which we should be fighting.
There’s a way around these two things. You can get linked with Supportal, which can connect you with affordable therapists, support groups, and workshops. Another thing you can do is look at therapy as an investment and become your own therapist eventually.
After reading this article, you can get started straight away and almost immediately you’ll see results. Obviously, you won’t be a top-tier, grade A, salaried therapist, but you’ll be able to help yourself. What you’re about to learn is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—which isn’t just mumbo-jumbo positivity spiels, but an actual form of science-backed psychotherapy.
How effective is cognitive behavioral therapy?
If you’re getting treated for depression or anxiety with medication alone, it’s 50 to 75 percent effective but if you’re only getting treated with CBT, it’s also 50 to 75 percent effective with eight to 15 sessions with a therapist. Combine the two kinds of treatment, and it’s 75 to 90 percent effective.
So what is CBT? How does it work? Here’s a crash course on CBT that you can start practicing. For best results though, get those eight to 15 sessions! You won’t be an expert from the get go, but just like therapy you pay for, results take time. The point is that the earlier you start, the earlier you get your results. With CBT, you learn to identify, understand, and change thinking and behavior patterns that help change the way you feel. It’s an evidence-based approach that enables you to manage stress in a healthy way.
An important disclaimer before becoming your own therapist
This is but a brief introduction to CBT and how you can do it yourself for yourself. This cannot replace mental health professional services. It’s a good life skill to learn, but there is added value in having a professional come in with their personalized expertise. If you need immediate support, call the National Crisis Hotline at 0917-989-8727. You may also get in touch with the people who held the CBT crash course, Supportal. Message the group and it will, in turn, connect you to a psychologist for mental health services.
Having CBT skills is good mental health first aid. For a more thorough session on CBT, be sure to follow Supportal. It will hold a more thorough workshop in January 2020.
How to be your own therapist
Lauren Consul, co-founder of Supportal and therapist for over a decade, gets her clients to practice CBT on a piece of paper for at least a week or two. This turns it into a habit and eventually, lets them do it in real-time, at a much quicker pace, in their head.
Step 1: Identify the trigger situation.
What event stressed you out or caused a spike in your emotions? It could be your boss scheduling a meeting with you. Or it could even be something good like getting a promotion. Any of these events are “neutral” but it’s the thoughts you generate about them that determine how you will feel and behave. Once you’ve identified the event…
Step 2: Know your automatic thoughts about triggers.
Did the scheduled meeting make you feel anxious or afraid you’ll get fired? Did your promotion make you nervous or fearful that they’d discover that you’re a phony? Write each thought down. Such negative thoughts are called Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). The more of them in your mind, the more troublesome it gets.
When they take over, it can be so overwhelming you’ll either make bad decisions or fall into dysfunction. In these cases, you might end up self-sabotaging yourself. Just waiting for the meeting might have sent you down an emotional rabbit hole that ruined your day. You might even end up turning down a well-deserved promotion.
Step 3: Rank the emotions you felt.
When you’ve written down those thoughts, the next thing to do is rank how strong you felt, from one to 100. High-ranking emotions will usually affect your decision-making process and behavior. The goal now is to lower those numbers through the next steps.
Step 4: Challenge your thoughts through evidence.
This step forces you to look at your situation with an objective lens. To do it, you need to step back and assess the situation. Let’s take, for example, that scheduled meeting. Per thought, write down pieces of evidence or facts—not simply opinions—that support or disprove your thoughts.
It’s important to understand why you’re thinking this way. Perhaps trauma from your childhood, from your parents, your teachers, or your former job causes you to think this way. These thought patterns that we learned due to past experiences are now causing us to lie to ourselves.
Your brain can lie to you. Sometimes, you might think that your boss is out to fire you, or your friend is out to betray you when in reality, your boss is just trying to set up a meeting and your friend just wants to hang out. It’s what’s called cognitive distortions.
There are many types of cognitive distortions, and one very common one is catastrophizing. When you’re quick to fall into catastrophizing, even promotions can look like the start of a tragedy to you.
There are many different kinds of cognitive distortions, and every one of us has a favorite or two that we usually fall back on. Once we identify our “favorites," then it becomes easier to spot it happening. Soon enough, you’ll even be able to stop yourself as it happens and you won’t have to go down the whole process just to correct yourself.
You can check this list for the 15 common kinds of cognitive distortions.
Step 5: Shift your thoughts or problem solve.
Once you’re able to disprove your negative thoughts, it’s time to change how you think. Think of other ways to think about the situation. Perhaps your boss simply scheduled a meeting to check up on you or discuss a new project? Perhaps you got this promotion because of your sheer hard work? Rank the believability of each alternative thought you can generate and choose one that you can most believe in.
You don’t have to go 100 percent positive. You don’t spot lies to replace them with another set of lies. You just need to shift your thoughts a little bit. Change your perspective with a tilt of your head or one step to the right.
What if, however, you were able to prove the validity of your negative thoughts? Then it’s time to go to structured problem-solving.
First, identify the problem: for example, you didn’t meet your deadlines. Second, brainstorm solutions: You can find new ways your boss can help you meet your deadlines. Think of why you weren’t able to finish your deadlines. Once you find a solution, then you can go to the next step and turn your solution into an action plan. When you choose to go into problem-solving instead of just feeding your ANTs, you will at least alleviate the emotional turmoil caused by feeling out of control.
Step 6: Re-rank your emotions.
Once you’ve changed how you think either by choosing an alternative thought or through structured problem solving, it’s time to reassess how you feel again. Take a look at the emotions you felt the first time. Do you still feel them at the same levels? Have new emotions sprang, such as hope? Again, the goal is not to get rid of your emotions, to stop feeling, nor to stop stress altogether, but simply to get them down to manageable levels. By this time, your emotions should drop to 50 or less.
Step 7: Keep practicing.
At the workshop, I asked the questions you might be wondering right now: How do you make a whole diagram or tabulate your thoughts, feelings, action plans, and everything, while life is happening?
Life doesn’t just pause; life happens fast. Especially if you have anxiety or depression, you might be having a hard time imagining doing all this while you’re just fighting to keep calm. For one thing, at the start, it won’t be easy. Putting it on paper simply helps you form the habit. Once you’ve mastered CBT in a week or two and it becomes second nature to you, you can start practicing it without pen and paper. You’ll see yourself practicing it faster and faster. It can happen in minutes or seconds. Soon enough, you start applying the skill in real-life situations as they happen.
Another important trick is to STOPP.
Spiraling into darker and darker thoughts can also be keeping you from performing CBT. What you need to do is STOPP: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Pull back, and Practice what works.
After an event or trigger happens, pay attention to your thoughts. You can actually stop your brain from overthinking by simply distracting it. For some, it could be simply breathing—inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for four seconds. For some, it’s praying the rosary. For some, it’s counting, singing a song, counting five green things in the room, or simply feeling your toes and the soles of your feet. Whatever practice you find yourself will help ground you back into reality before you lose yourself into high-speed overthinking.
A few warnings when using CBT.
Don’t CBT your friends. In the words of Consul, “People seldom want advice, even when they’re asking for it.” Perhaps you can be clever about it and ask questions to help them look at a situation differently? Still, it’s not advisable to be in-your-face about it. Just be a good friend and listen.
Be careful if you’re prone to delusions. For people like me though, who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and who, in really bad situations, can experience delusion, or perhaps if you suffer from “filtering”—a cognitive distortion that only makes you see arguments that support your case—then you might want to use CBT with a friend’s help every now and then. Better yet, go to a professional therapist! An outsider’s point of view will help keep yourself in check. You can also go to listenhere.app, where there are trained volunteers who can talk to you via chat.
As much as CBT is a great way to be self-sufficient and ease the burden on your friends and family when you get those emotions late at night, it’s still just one way you can take care of your mental health. It’s just as important to form connections and communities with the people around you to help keep yourself mentally healthy.
Are you or someone you know having thoughts of suicide? For free and anonymous phone counseling, call Crisis Line By In Touch at +632 893 7603, +63 917 800 1123, or +63 922 893 8944 or the National Center for Mental Health’s Crisis Hotline at +63 917 899 8727 or +632 989 8727. If you feel as though you may harm yourself, call 0917-558-HOPE (4673).