About the cover:
In the background is an equilateral triangle. The capital Greek letter Delta Δ (which has the convenient form of an equilateral triangle) is commonly used in subjects of science, mathematics, and medicine as an abbreviation for “change”. This is because delta is the initial letter of the Greek word διαφορά or diaphorá, which means "difference". It is a meaningful symbol to me because my passion is Δ (change). The way I see it, either we can Δ or we can’t – right? Since I believe with all of my heart that each and every one of us truly can Δ, my goal is to present the very best way to make that Δ happen.
Super-imposed over the equilateral triangle is an image of the human brain. The brain is incredibly capable of change, far more capable than most can imagine. Through the wonders of modern technology and scientific research, we now know that the human brain is constantly changing. The problem is that most folks simply don’t know how to harness this awesome power of the human brain and make it work for them, rather than against.
Cognitive Strategy is by far the most powerful strategy for creating changes in thinking. On the pages of this handbook are the keys to unleashing the power of these cognitive strategies and making them work to your advantage. Cognitive strategies are not new, they have been around since the 1960’s, but they have recently jumped to the forefront in psychological strategies to create change. The reason for this is that cognitive strategies have been proven to be effective in over 500 clinical studies (and counting) for creating change. That is pretty impressive. In a world that is now demanding ‘evidence-based’ treatment protocols, cognitive strategies have catapulted to the front.
Δ2 is my own invention and literally means ‘change squared’. What this means to me is that using cognitive strategies increases the power to change exponentially. There are many ways to attempt change, but cognitive strategies literally leave every other method ‘in the dust’. Cognitive strategies, when performed properly, are extremely efficient and powerful.
The inset at the bottom of the cover is an artist’s rendition of neurons firing in the brain. In order to increase the probability of change, one must have knowledge of how change really happens deep within the brain. This handbook includes neuro-biological information that explains the nature of change at the cellular level. A key to changing thought patterns is to understand how they are formed in the first place. The human brain runs on electro-chemical reactions and thus must follow the laws of physics. A basic understanding of such goes a long way to explain why change can seem so elusive and why conventional strategies often fail.
Taken together, the images on the cover represent a powerful, integrative, scientific approach to making Δ happen. It is an understatement to say that change is difficult. Difficult endeavors require powerful, integrated approaches and cognitive strategies fit the bill.
Prepare to get your Δ on!
My story begins on a dusty, dirt road on the outskirts of Fort Wayne, IN. I was recently divorced, living alone, trying to make ends meet. I had to give up my business in the divorce and was working a part time job, trying to make it into a full time job. I was stressed, depressed, angry, resentful, bitter, lonely, tired, over-weight and out of shape. I was out on my bike, trying to get some exercise (my therapist had suggested it) and trying to think about something in my life that just might be a little bit positive. I was coming up empty.
I had gotten into therapy, somewhat reluctantly – after all, therapy was for people who were weak, and just couldn’t get things together on their own. Yet I was desperate, so I had given it a try. My therapist wanted me to journal, I hated writing. Not only was I not good at it, but it made no sense to me. She had suggested that instead of writing down what I was feeling I should imagine what I wanted to be feeling, that I should imagine how I wanted my life to be and write about that. Are you kidding me? What kind of nonsense is that? My life is a mess. It just seemed ridiculous.
Besides, it really didn’t seem to be helping at all. By this time I had filled a dozen spiral-bound notebooks with my musings about life. Often I would start off writing about how crappy I felt, but then I would remember what I was supposed to be doing and switch over to how I wanted to be feeling. I would feel better for a bit, but then as soon as I was done, my brain would run back to all of the crap that my life really was. It all seemed so futile; I was ready to give up.
But then something strange happened. As I was riding my bike down that lonely country road I began to notice a few things. It was a rather nice day, actually a gorgeous day. It was early summer, the flowers were beginning to bloom, the sun was shining and my brain started to take an inventory of all that was still good. I was healthy (except for being over-weight), no cancer, no mental illness. My kids were healthy. I had a home, a job, food on the table. I began to think a bit about all of those things that I still had. Then my brain began to think about all of the possibilities I had ahead of me, the things I wanted to do, the way I wanted my life to be. It was as if all of those things I had been forcing myself to write about were suddenly trickling into my thoughts. It was just a trickle at first, but soon it turned into a stream of thoughts. It was surreal.
I remembered my childhood days when I was sitting in church with my family and the pastor would pray for a ‘peace that passed all understanding’. For the first time in my life I was experiencing this peace that passed all understanding. I began to cry, not out of sadness, but out of joy. It was a strange but lovely feeling. I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but I liked it. The longer I rode, the better I felt. I am not sure how far I rode that day, but it was a long way. I didn’t want that feeling to end. It did, of course, and when it did I was worried that I wouldn’t get it back again. Yet, somehow, deep down, I knew that if I could tap into it once, I could tap it again. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I understood that this was the result of what I had been writing, day after day, week after week.
So I kept right on writing (and riding). I wrote about that day, I wrote about wanting to feel that way every day. I wrote about every possible thing I could think of that was good. And low and behold, it happened again. The more I wrote, the more frequently I felt those periods of peace. Again; and again; and again! I was hooked. Nearly 2 decades later I am still writing and feeling better and better as I go. I should mention too, that, among other things I have been at my goal weight for 15 years, have quit smoking and I work out every single day. Still writing, still riding! As a matter of fact I have written the majority of this book while riding. (More on that later.)
Go figure? Who would have thought?? Such a simple exercise…such a profound outcome. Back then I had no idea what was happening to me, I just knew it worked and I wasn’t about to stop. Today I am a licensed therapist, trained in the very methods I was being introduced to way back when. I own a thriving private practice and make a living teaching people the art of cognitive therapy, the most powerful therapeutic strategy known to mankind.
The difference now is that I know exactly what was happening that day and why. I have spent over a decade researching the neuroscience behind what happened to me on that lonely, dusty road decades ago. This book is the culmination of many years of personal experience, education, research and clinical experience, perfecting the art of bringing about this experience in the lives of others.
This manual is the incarnation of that experience, brought to life in words that can be understood and put into practice immediately. My aim is to bring together research, neuroscience and modern technology to create a strategy that can be readily employed by anyone, anytime, anywhere. On the pages that follow are strategies to live a full and happy life along with personal experiences and vignettes to illustrate the process.
The manual is divided into 3 main parts. The first part covers the process of change from the cognitive-behavioral perspective and the neurobiological perspective. Knowledge is power! The more one knows about how the brain actually works, the closer one is to making that powerful organ work for him rather than against.
The second part is a series of practical applications of the process to actual issues; from managing stress to learning how to think like one who exercises. No matter what the issue might be, making changes begins with changing the thought process. Once the process itself is learned it can be used to change literally anything one desires to change about self. All change begins deep within the brain.
The third part is a collection of ideas having to do with the process, essentially a glossary of useful ideas that explain concepts and facets of the process. The purpose of this section is to expand knowledge and understanding. There are an infinite number of ways to look at, or perceive, virtually any situation or concept. For any thought or set of thoughts one has about something, there are plenty of alternative ways of thinking about it. The more one has of those alternative options, the easier this process becomes. My goal is to establish a robust ‘database’ of alternative thoughts that just keeps on growing. No matter how many positive ways of looking at life one can commandeer, there is always room for more – plenty more.
With that I commence to offer you the keys to living your life exactly how you want to. I invite you to read on and step into the world of cognitive strategy - it will change your life forever.
See you on the other side!
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a strategy based on a simple, yet profound, premise - thought produces emotions and behaviors. The root cause of most mental and behavioral problems is thought. CBT posits that in order to remedy anything from stress and depression to addiction and weight problems the underlying thought processes need to be changed. Getting at these thought processes and making changes to them, though, is an involved and difficult process. It can take a considerable amount of focus, attention, discipline and repetition to get the job done. In addition to tenacious effort one also has to be familiar with a process that takes a bit to get the hang of. The process involves skills and methods that must be learned and practiced on a daily basis. The purpose of this handbook is to outline those steps from start to finish.
We begin with the central premise that all emotion and behavior is driven by thought. Many folks don't want to believe this to be true, especially those folks in the pharmaceutical industry. They would like for people to believe that emotion is driven by brain chemistry and that emotion can thus be changed with drugs. No doubt that drugs can alter mood, but drugs don't directly alter the thought process. Thus they don't correct the problem but only serve to mask or ease the symptoms. Underlying thought processes remain firmly intact and continue to cause problems.
The first step in the process is to identify the thoughts that are causing the problems. This is a tricky part of the process. Most folks are not used to attempting to identify specific thoughts. We are actually quite unaware of most of the thoughts that run through our heads on a daily basis. It has been estimated that the average person thinks about 50,000 thoughts per day. Not sure who did the counting but I agree it is thousands. Of these, the average person is aware of a mere 10%. In order to change thoughts we have to be very good at identifying what is already happening. This takes a bit of practice. The process is formally known as Meta-cognition which literally means "thinking about thinking".
We must get good at paying attention to all of the thoughts we are thinking but it is especially important at first to think about the thoughts that are of the negative variety.
Negative thoughts are defined as those thoughts that keep change from occurring. Negative thoughts keep us from feeling the way we want to feel or keep us from getting where we want to go. Positive thoughts, by way of contrast, are those thoughts that create positive emotion or move us in the direction we want to go. The negative vs. positive dichotomy is not a good vs. bad one. A good way to keep this distinction in mind is to think of how we speak of the results of a pregnancy test. A negative result means 'no change'. A positive result means ‘we have a change’. Like a pregnancy test whether or not a positive result is 'good' depends on perspective.
For example let's suppose that I want to begin an exercise program. I decide that tomorrow I am going to stop at the gym on my way home from work. But when the time comes for me to leave work I think that I have to get that 'last one thing done' before tomorrow. Thus I decide I don't have time to work out today. The thought itself is not negative - thinking I need to get that last one thing done and making it a priority over working out - yet by definition it is a thought that keeps me stuck in my habit of not working out. By contrast a thought such as - 'I am going to work out, I don't care if I get that last thing done' - is a positive thought because it moves one in the direction of becoming an exerciser. However, one might argue it is a negative thought because it makes me less productive or less reliable at work. So keeping the definition clear is vital to the process.
The process of hunting down and capturing negative thoughts begins with identifying unwanted emotions or behaviors. In the previous example the unwanted behavior is skipping the workout. Backing up from the unwanted behavior we can spot the errant thought process. In this case identifying the thought(s) that ultimately reached the conclusion that finishing something at work took precedence over working out. Often times the indicator is a negative emotion. Say for example it is Sunday evening, I glance at my calendar for Monday and notice that I have a 12hour day scheduled and I get that little 'icky' feeling in the pit of my stomach, that 'little cloud of dread'. If I listen carefully I might 'hear' some thoughts such as: 'It is going to be such a long day. I am going to be so tired.' Again, one might not define these as particularly negative thoughts, but they really are as they produce the unwanted emotion of dread. If you are like most people you will begin to notice that you have many of these thoughts that lead to undesirable emotions and behaviors from skipping workouts & overeating to feeling dread, stressed or depressed. Lurking behind every unwanted emotion and behavior is a thought driving such. Usually the thought is not in isolation but a member of a set of thoughts or 'thought process' that we use over and over again to arrive at the unwanted behavior or emotion.
The trick to the first task is to work hard at developing an awareness of these thought processes. As soon as you become aware of an unwanted emotion or behavior you have to force yourself to stop, mid-thought, and capture the thought. Write down this thought right then and there if you can. If you prefer you can text or type the thought. Texting has actually become my favorite way of capturing my own unwanted thoughts. I always have my phone on my hip so it is quite handy to reach for my phone and text the thought. The key is to capture as many of these errant thoughts as humanly possible. What we are looking for initially is the quantity, frequency, duration and intensity of these thoughts. What will emerge in this first exercise is a pattern of thought(s) that represent the 'usual' ways in which we keep ourselves stuck in unwanted emotional and behavioral states.
Most folks have no idea how many thoughts are running through their heads on a daily basis. One of the most common acknowledgements I get from my clients is how surprised they are at how often they are thinking certain thoughts about themselves, especially those that are of the negative variety. It is quite enlightening to most. Developing this awareness is critical to the process. We have to become very good at ‘listening in’ on our own internal dialogue. These existing thought processes provide the raw materials for building the preferred thought process. We call the existing thought processes the ‘default’ thought processes and they are the ones that are causing the problems.
In summary the first step in the process is to practice identifying errant, default thought processes that are creating negative emotions and behaviors. It is imperative that we become very good at capturing these negative thoughts in writing. This means literally writing/texting/typing every thought we become aware of. While this may seem cumbersome at first, it is vital to becoming very familiar with the kind of thoughts that are causing the problems. Keep a notepad (or your phone) handy and pause to jot/text these thoughts as they are occurring. If you are driving, become familiar with the voice memo feature on your phone. I seem to capture many errant thoughts when I am driving. These thoughts are then compiled in a document that becomes the reservoir or collection of thoughts that will be used as the building blocks for cognitive restructuring – the next step of the process.
3. Cognitive Restructuring
The process of identifying errant thought(s) is one that, once initiated, continues forever. It is a constant process of discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how many errant thoughts one can detect. Just when you thought you have heard them all, another one pops up that has never been detected. I have been at this for 15+ years and still find new errant thoughts on a fairly regular basis.
The next step in the process is to restructure the errant thoughts. This is literally the process of developing a new thought that directly neutralizes the errant thought. While this may sound easy initially, it can be a bit tricky. Many of my clients have a bit of difficulty with this step. I will often hear the comment: I know what I am thinking, and I know it is not good, but I don’t know what I should be thinking.
This is really not surprising. We have not been trained in this process and it seems a bit peculiar at first to answer the question: What should I be thinking? Many clients, once they have discovered the errant thought, want to answer the question: Why am I thinking that way? It seems, I suppose, that if one had the answer to ‘Why do I think that way?’ one might be closer to ‘not’ thinking that way, but actually they are not. The vital question to be answered is: What should I be thinking instead?
To illustrate this concept, allow me to paint a real scenario from my own life. My wife and I built our home 10 years ago. At the time we were considering whether we wanted to save some money for a lake cottage or spend the money in our mortgage to put an in-ground pool and create an ‘oasis’ of sorts in our own back yard. With our busy lives, and having 6 kids between us, we opted for the pool in the yard. It has been a great investment. We have gotten tons of use out of the pool and we have had many pool parties. Over the years our home has become the ‘gathering spot’ if you will for our rather large extended family. It seems now that most birthday parties, mother/father’s day celebrations, etc. happen at our home. I really am quite happy about our home being a comfortable place to celebrate, but I am not going to lie – sometimes the resentment starts to creep in.
Not long ago we were hosting a birthday party for my father-in-law’s 85th birthday. Per usual, my wife and I bought all of the burgers, food, beer, etc. which can get a bit expensive. We do the grocery shopping before-hand, get the home and yard ready for company, entertain all day and then clean up after everyone has gone home. My nieces and nephews (and their spouses) are in their mid-20’s, they have kids of their own kids as well. So the pool is usually filled with kids on one end, young adults on the other, having a blast. My father/mother in law thoroughly enjoy themselves, sitting on the deck watching their, kids, grandkids and great grandkids frolic in the pool.
What do I do? I sweat my butt off, cooking burgers, keeping beer cold, entertaining – making sure everyone else is having a great time. This is where the resentment can start to creep in. On this particular day I was flipping burgers, watching a pool-full of people have a great time, and thinking to myself – Why the heck do I always have to be the one working my butt off while everyone else gets to play and enjoy? The more I thought about it the more resentment I felt: They (the 20somethings) hardly ever say thank you to me. They never say: Hey, thanks for opening your home, buying all the food and beer, keeping us fed, hydrated and entertained, doing all the shopping before-hand, cooking during, clean up afterward. We come, play, eat, drink and go home. We so appreciate all that you do!! Nope, haven’t heard that one yet.
So there I was, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, in my backyard, entertaining family and I was beginning to feel resentment. This is where I have to stop and ask myself: Miles, what do you want to be feeling instead? Of course I would much rather be feeling happy, content, at peace, excited about my day. So what do I need to be thinking if I want to feel those things?
At this point I had options. I could have just let it build, all afternoon and all evening, until everybody has gone home and I am pissed off, picking up empty beer cans and paper plates. I could just ‘try not to think about’ resentment (yeah we all know how well that works – not very). Or I could take a moment to restructure my thoughts, right in the moment, and really make something happen.
Option 3 is what I chose to do. Right then and there, sitting by the pool in a lounger, I took out my cell phone and began texting some ‘restructured’ messages to self. Keeping in mind that I wanted to feel peace, contentment and excitement, I thought about thoughts that would need to be in my brain to feel that way:
Š Miles, this is about a birthday party for your father in law – this is not about you.
Š Look at how happy he is watching is kids, grandkids and great grandkids swim in the pool.
Š Everyone is thankful for what you are doing, even if they don’t say a thing.
Š Stay in the moment.
Š Stop counting, start enjoying.
Š Look at the beautiful day, the kids frolicking in the pool, the sunshine.
Š It doesn’t get any better than this.
Š Be thankful for all you do have – that you can enjoy this afternoon with your family.
Š Think of all the people in this world who are not having the privilege of doing what you are privileged to be doing right now.
o Those who have no home.
o Those who have no job.
o Those who are sick and lying in hospital beds.
o Those who are depressed.
o Those who are mentally ill.
Š Be thankful you have the money, the home, the time, the good health (both physical and mental), to be able to do the things you are doing right now.
Š Giving of yourself to others is a source of great joy and peace.
Š Someday you will be 85, on the side of the pool and they will be cooking for you.
I probably could have gone on texting to myself for a good long while, but this only took me about 10 minutes, tops. During the time that I was texting these messages an amazing thing was happening deep inside of my brain. The thoughts themselves were producing large amounts of serotonin and dopamine in my brain. The cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine that were being produced as the ‘resentment’ was building, began to dissipate. I started to ‘feel’ the way I wanted to feel. The thoughts I was creating and texting to myself were literally changing my brain chemistry to a positive profile. The more I texted, the better I felt – immediately.
But that wasn’t all. Even when I was done texting these positive messages to myself, my brain continued to maintain the positive chemical profile that I had created. Now, incoming thoughts were being channeled down the brain circuitry I had just been firing to continue creating more positive chemistry. It was as if my brain had gotten its ‘fix’ of positive chemistry and I was ‘high’ on positive thoughts. In reality, this is exactly what was happening.
There are only a limited number of ways to change brain chemistry. I can change chemistry by adding certain chemicals to the mix that are known to cause the brain to release larger amounts of serotonin and/or dopamine. The most popular of these chemicals are alcohol and marijuana. Less popular are cocaine, meth-amphetamines and opiates. Some activities can change this chemistry: sex and eating are popular. And then there is thought itself. Thought is by far the most efficient and convenient. It has been scientifically proven, over and over, that thought itself changes brain chemistry, swiftly and efficiently. By using my phone to text these thoughts, I was taking thought itself and amplifying it by at least a factor of 10.
It would have been good to simply think my preferred thoughts, but it is literally 10 times better to write these preferred thoughts. The reason for such is simple, the act of making a thought into a sentence of some kind (written/typed/texted) requires that the brain engage all 4 lobes of the cerebral cortex; the frontal lobe for motor processing, parietal lobe for sensory processing, occipital lobe for visual processing and temporal lobe for language processing.
When I texted those thoughts into my phone, I lit up an area in my brain like a Christmas Tree that houses circuits that support my positive thoughts about things. Of course the fact that I have done this many times before, thus building much of this circuitry in my brain, helps me to ‘light up’ this area rather easily and keep it ‘lit’ for a long period of time. I literally ‘shifted gears’ in my brain from resentment to contentment.
But first I had to actually create the ‘gear’ of contentment to shift into. Had I not spent the time to create the circuitry that houses my contentment thoughts, I would not have been able to shift it quite so easily into ‘contentment’ and keep it there for the whole afternoon. The building of the circuit in my brain that houses the thinking that leads to contentment has literally been built one text at a time and I have been building it for years. Each time I stop to type/write/text out my preferred thoughts, I make this circuit stronger. This is the art of cognitive restructuring.
My brain stayed ‘lit’ with positive, contentment-bearing thoughts for the duration of the afternoon and throughout the evening. When my company left (most of whom, by the way, said nothing to me about being thankful for everything I had provided - per usual) I cheerfully went about the business of picking up the backyard and basking in the contentment of my own thinking - all from a 10 minute ‘text-to-self’. And if you don’t believe me, you are going to just have to try it for yourself.
So how do we put this process together? It begins with integrating step one, meta-cognition, with step two, restructuring. For me it usually begins with the recognition of a negative feeling. In the example here it started for me in the form of recognizing a feeling of resentment building in my system. At the point of recognition I had to stop and actually ‘do’ something. I sat down, pulled out my phone, and began texting all of the neutralizing thoughts I could come up with.
Now granted, I have had a lot of practice doing this. It isn’t always so easy to come up with neutralizing thoughts immediately. But, following my example, we can begin to practice formulating positive thoughts. This is where the coaching comes in. It is not something that can be learned by simply reading a book. Sure, you could learn the basics from reading some material, but the result would be akin to how good you might get at baseball from just reading a book and not having a coach. A coach’s function is to help a player do it correctly and consistently correctly.
Furthermore, by texting/typing these thoughts over the years I have been able to keep them and use them again and again. I have built a virtual ‘library’ of positive thoughts that I keep right in my phone. Ah, the wonders of technology. With my smart phone I can store hundreds of positive thoughts that are always at my finger tips. I can email thoughts, organize them, and keep them in a database for easy retrieval. I am no computer genius by any means. A simple Word Document can be used as a database. I text them to my email account, clip them out and paste them into a Word Document. Each thought, or set of thoughts, gets a label. For example, the above mentioned thoughts I would label ‘resentment’. When I am looking for thoughts that I need to neutralize resentment I simply open the Word Document, click on the find function (the binoculars icon on the ‘home’ tool bar in Microsoft Word) and I can type in the word resentment. It will take me to each recording of the word resentment in the entire document as I toggle through by hitting ‘enter’ or the ‘find next’ box. This is a simple but effective way for even the most computer illiterate folks to create a database of ‘preferred thoughts’.
Every human being is unique. We may have some negative ‘types’ of thoughts in common, for example a universal fear of failure, but each person has a unique configuration of negative thoughts. Thus each person requires a unique, custom-built library of ‘replacement’ thoughts or ‘preferred’ thoughts.
I often have people say to me things like: “Oh, I get it, you are trying to teach me to think positive thoughts.” Yes, essentially, but it is so incredibly more complex than just assembling some random list of positive thoughts. I recently spoke with a client who was discussing some of his previous experiences with therapy. He was one who initially had the: “I have already tried that … and it doesn’t work” attitude. When I pressed him for details, his former therapist had taught him to think about something positive when he started to feel anxious – ‘being on a boat, out on the ocean, or a beach, basking in the sunshine’. Good advice?? Maybe so, but not really anything close to what I am talking about here. Random ‘happy’ thoughts are better than nothing, for sure, but relatively weak compared to the construction of preferred thoughts that are custom-designed to directly neutralize and replace the actual existing errant thoughts – BIG DIFFERENCE!
Nor is this some form of ‘The Secret’, a popular, bastardized version of the Law of Attraction that posits the notion that ‘We can think into being anything we want.’ So if I want a ‘million dollar house’ if I think about it enough I will eventually get it. Again, is it better to think I will get a million dollar house than to think I won’t? Of course, I can’t argue with that. Thinking I will get a million dollar house certainly increases the probability of such over thinking it cannot ever happen. But let me be clear, ‘the secret’ is not even close to the art of cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive restructuring deals with the fine art of identifying specific, personal, unique thought processes that produce specific emotions and editing them to create specific, personal, unique thought processes that produces preferred emotions. It is a process and an art. Though it may sound simple it really isn’t, it is every bit as difficult as learning to speak a new language and speak it fluently.
I have grown to despise the word ‘journaling’. At first, I liked the word, but over the years I have discovered that the word itself sends many people in the wrong direction – especially those who have ‘journaled’ before. I prefer to use the phrase cognitive-restructuring or cognitive editing. For many, journaling was taught the ‘cathartic’ way. Catharsis was the idea that unwanted thoughts could be purged from the system by writing them down to ‘get them out’. Thus, folks were encouraged to journal their thoughts as they appeared in the mind. Turns out, this is dead wrong. Writing only reinforces, thus I should avoid writing the thoughts that I don’t want to be having. I have had clients literally burst into tears when they realize that for years they have been writing down all of the negative crap in their heads, desperately trying to purge it from the system, only to feel worse in the end. Cathartic journaling is particularly diabolical due to the fact that it ‘appears’ to create a good feeling initially. This is really only due to the ‘placebo effect’ produced by believing it is going to help. Neuro-biologically, it cannot help to purge only to reinforce. Thus, the initial ‘good feeling’ eventually gives way to feeling ‘even worse’ once the effect has worn off.
Cognitive Restructuring is the lynch-pin of Cognitive Strategy. It takes quite a bit of training, practice and discipline to master, but it is well worth the effort. It is not something that can be learned in a day. In most cases, 8-10 sessions is the minimum I would recommend to fully engage the process. From there, the practice can take months to perfect. Like a beginning artist, there is a certain amount to time and effort required to get to the level of making a painting look like something recognizable to someone else. The more one paints, the better one gets at the technique and over the months and years the quality of painting just keeps getting better. Cognitive restructuring is really no different, we are using the same brain, the same neuro-circuitry, to construct skill, style and technique – similar among artists, but unique to the individual - that continues to get better with training and practice.
4. The Neurobiology of Δ (Change)
The capital Greek letter Delta Δ (which has the convenient form of an equilateral triangle) is commonly used in subjects of science, mathematics, and the medicine as an abbreviation for “change”. This is because delta is the initial letter of the Greek word διαφορά or diaphorá, which means "difference". It is a meaningful symbol to me because my passion is Δ(change). The way I see it, either we can Δ or we can’t – right? Since I believe with all of my heart that each and every one of us truly can Δ, then I am going to find the very best way to make that Δ happen. Δ2 is my own invention and literally means ‘change squared’. What this means to me is that using cognitive strategies increases the power to change exponentially.
When I was just finishing up my master’s program at Indiana University in Fort Wayne in 2002 I experienced a ‘game changing’ event in my life, and like so many others, it was rather unexpected. I was utterly fascinated with the Cognitive-Behavioral (CBT) approach to therapy and was busy learning everything I could about it. One of my assignments in the program was to write a paper on ‘which theory I had learned the fit the closest with my own personal paradigm’. I, of course, picked CBT, it was by far the winner in that category.
I researched the heck out of CBT and wrote an awesome paper, probably one of my best. The way my brain works, when I get in research mode I read anything I can possibly get my hands on regarding the topic and so I definitely had CBT on the brain. As well as I was becoming acquainted with the approach I was also pondering how the approach had impacted my own life. What I hadn’t yet done too much research into was the neurobiological aspect of how change occurs in the brain.
I knew much of what there was to know about how to practically apply the theory, but I hadn’t considered researching any further into what was actually happening at the cellular level in my brain. Of course I knew about neurons and synapses and how anti-depressants worked, but beyond that, the neurobiology had not been a particular focus of my attention. One day I was reading an article in Reader’s Digest about the brain. In the article a book by Joseph LeDoux entitled “Synaptic Self” was referenced. The article spoke briefly about something called ‘neuroplasticity’, a term I had never heard of before. The article itself was not particularly moving, and had I not been in that place mentally, would have never caught my attention. But needless to say, it did.
I had never heard this term before, but all of sudden I realized this as the explanation of how change occurred in the brain – I had to know more. In 2002 I was not yet as computer savvy as I am today. I had never purchased a book from Amazon, and yet there I was, on the internet, searching for Synaptic Self. I ordered the book, sight unseen. That book was a game-changer for me. Most people would probably find such a book to be extremely dry (unless one was a neuroscientist), but I just couldn’t put it down. Leaping off the pages at me was a way of looking at change that made all the sense in the world. Here I had been working diligently with my own thoughts for years and had nearly completed a masters in counseling, a profession that deals almost exclusively in working with ‘thought’ and I realized I knew relatively little about how thoughts formed in the brain.
The more I read the more things began to make sense. I was hooked. Since that day I have read everything I can get my hands on that has to do with neuroscience. I am convinced that a solid understanding of how the brain really works is vital to making Δ happen. Of course I discovered plenty of things that I didn’t know, the knowledge of which has completely changed the way I understand my work and how I instruct my clients. Knowledge is power.
It never ceases to amaze me how beliefs form in the mind and are simply not questioned. I had never questioned the way I ‘thought’ my brain worked I just never really thought about it. I assumed that thoughts were this mystical entity that nobody could really pin down, a spiritual sort of entity that formulated, well … somehow.
What a learned by reading Synaptic Self is that thoughts really consist of hundreds of thousands of synapses, connected in complex ways in the brain. The human brain houses approximately 30-50 billion neurons, each of which is capable of thousands of synaptic connections that occur at the juncture between two adjacent neurons. As the inset picture below illustrates, neurotransmitter molecules are secreted from the dendrite protrusions and form thought by connecting to an adjacent neuron’s receptor site. These neurotransmitters form a ‘synaptic connection’. These synapses are created each and every time a thought occurs in the human brain. It takes thousands of these tiny connections to complete a thought. Over the course of a lifetime, one can create a whopping 500 trillion of these connections. That is a lot of cognitive horsepower. Sadly, most folks are doing very little to control how these synapses are being formed.
What is important to note here is that each and every time a thought is formed, a brand new set of synapses is built containing thousands of brand new connections. It may be the very same thought I have thought thousands of times, but each thought is distinct and the volume of thoughts is cumulative. Neurons are fired again and again, but new connections are being made each time a neuron or set of neurons is fired. Each time a neuron is fired, chemical messengers released in the brain encourage the growth of new dendrites, creating more opportunity to form thousands of additional connections with each progressive thought. This is how a thought process grows in strength. Each and every thought counts: thoughts have physical properties and mass, they get bigger and stronger with each passing thought.
How do we know this? With the advent of modern technology, we can now see things we couldn’t even 10 years ago. CAT Scans, PET Scans, fMRI’s all add to the knowledge we now have about the brain. Neuroscientists historically have thought that the brain was more fixed in nature, we now know that this is not true. They are actually far more malleable and moldable than anyone could have ever imagined – thus the term ‘neuro-plasticity’ which literally means that our brains are rather like plastic in the way they can be molded. The tool the does the molding is thought itself. Below is an actual picture of neurons and dendrites showing actual synaptic connections.
So each and every time a thought is thought, it gains strength and grows new dendrites, poised and ready to create new connections. By the time a person becomes an adult, thoughts can have been used so many times that they are so strong they almost seem permanent. The good news is that they are not. Keep in mind that the brain must obey the laws of physics. Thus, the strongest pathway is going to be the path of least resistance. Our brains will tend to use the path of least resistance every time. Of course we can temporarily force our thoughts down a path of greater resistance (a smaller, weaker pathway), but eventually the brain will default back to the path that has the least resistance.
For the sake of demonstration let’s isolate and consider one single thought. Since I get many clients who, when it comes right down to it, have come to view themselves as a failure I will use this thought: “I am a failure.”
The above illustration represents one thought: “I am a failure.” For simplicities sake this will be our working illustration. In reality, one thought creates thousands of connections, but I didn’t care to really try and draw thousands of connection. So by definition, the above illustration signifies ‘one thought’: “I am a failure.”
As this thought begins to be a repeated thought, this particular thought is growing into a belief about one’s self:
The red arrow indicates this repeated thought that is now starting to gain strength and size as the neurons involving such are repeatedly being fired, new dendrites are sprouting and thousands of connections are being formed with each passing thought. What is forming inside this individual is the ‘belief’ that he in fact is a failure. A belief is simply the largest collection of thoughts a person has about something. Essentially, a belief is comprised of the thought(s) we have thought the very most.
At some point along the way, this thought becomes ‘the belief’ or in more clinical terms ‘the default pathway’. At this point, any suggestions this person makes to himself come from the strong belief that he is in fact ‘a failure’. When other people try to assure him he is successful, he discounts this as ‘they are just saying that’, when successful things happen ‘they are just flukes or accidents’ because he believes that he is a failure. So no matter what the experience, or situation, his thoughts about it have only one direction to go – down the “I am a failure” pathway.
At this point this person is pretty down and depressed. He may get on medications, which will only serve to slow down the speed with which the synapses can be created and alter the feelings evoked, but a medication will never cause someone to develop a new thought process. There is only one way to do this, thought by thought (the same way the original default was constructed).
What this person is lacking is any meaningful pathway that houses the thought: “I am successful.” When I make this suggestion to a person with this kind of thought configuration in the head, the response is always the same: “I just simply don’t believe that about myself.” And there is little likelihood they ever will until they make some changes to the pathways in the brain.
Now the thing one has to remember is that these pathways are not permanent. This is the beauty of neuro-plasticity. These pathways are only ‘plastic’ and can be molded differently. Again the tool that does this molding is thought itself. The pathways are, however, quite robust in nature. They don’t just simply go away without a fight.
At the point of CBT commencing the above is a simple example of what is happening. Again, for the sake of keeping things simple, this illustration represents one thought (in red): “I am successful.” So I suggest to my client to ‘think’ the thought – “I am successful.”
I suppose you can imagine the reaction I get. That is just crazy. I don’t believe I am successful and yet you want me to think that I am? Actually, yes, I want you to think it, say it, write it and read it as often as humanly possible. At this stage of the game, the preferred thought (in red), stands no chance against the literally thousands (perhaps much more) of times the default thought has been thought. When this person, with this brain configuration, tries to think the thought: “I am successful”, his brain just kicks the thought out as wrong, useless, worthless, etc. Of course it does. That is exactly how the brain is designed to work – to follow the path of least resistance (remember, it is electricity and chemistry). It seems useless and worthless because it really doesn’t change anything, right? Well, take a closer look. We do have one red line, don’t we?
At this point in the process, this person feels like he has done nothing by thinking this new thought. It is literally drowned out by the resounding, powerful, default thought: “I am a failure.” It doesn’t seem to do any good to try and combat this, it is what it is. What this person is experiencing is what all will at first – those first couple of thoughts (actually in most cases the first couple hundred, or couple thousand) don’t seem to do a thing.
And why would they? Compared to the default pathway, one’s new thoughts don’t seem to be doing a thing.
Knowledge of this piece of information is critical. The above drawing illustrates the initial process of ‘loading’ this new way of thinking into the system. If this person simply attempts to ‘think’: “I am successful.” They are not going to make up a whole lot of ground. The configuration in the brain is likely to continue to be quite lopsided, as it looks above, with the old default continuing to win at commandeering thoughts of self.
If, however, one begins to write down these new ways of thinking, something remarkable begins to happen:
In the drawing above, this person has made up quite a bit of ground by writing. The thicker red lines indicate thoughts that have been written. The act of writing down a preferred thought is nearly 10X more powerful than trying to think that thought alone. The reason for this is simple: it takes exponentially more neural horsepower to create a sentence on paper (or computer or cell phone) than it does to think that thought alone. Writing requires the engagement of the entire cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex is the power house of the human brain and is divided into 4 sections, which are known as lobes: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe and temporal lobe.
The frontal lobe is associated with reasoning, motor skills, higher level cognition and expressive language. The parietal lobe is associated with processing tactile sensory information such as pressure, touch and pain. It is essential to the processing of the body’s senses. The temporal lobe is important for processing memory and language skills. The occipital lobe is associated with interpreting visual stimuli. The implications for such are obvious.
Stated quite simply, writing unleashes the most neural activity associated with a thought that can possibly be mustered. By making use of the act of writing, typing or texting preferred thoughts, one can literally ‘catch up’ at ten times the pace of simply trying to catch up by thinking alone.
The above illustration shows the brain at equilibrium between the old default thought: “I am a failure” and the new preferred thought: “I am successful.” It is extremely important to note that this can take a long time and much effort. Depending on how long and how often one has literally ‘thought’ the old default, this can take years in some cases. Now granted, one will experience the benefits of doing the exercises in a relatively short period of time, but it would be a big mistake to give up on the writing process before one has successfully built the preferred thought process up to the point that it can actually rival the old default. Many times people give up way too soon, long before the preferred pathway is actually robust enough to take over. This is the very reason that many folks lose weight and keep it off for several years, only to revert back to their previous weight – and then some in many cases. It is because they gave up on the process long before the preferred path was the new default.
This is the reason that weight loss is not even considered to be permanent until such person has kept the weight off for at least 5 years. In the world of weight loss, it may take 5 years just to reach the point of equilibrium.
The person in the above illustration is equally likely to think “I am a failure” as to think “I am successful.” Even after thousands of sentences one might still be equally likely to think of himself as a failure than as a success. Keep in mind that the process also has take into account that one is still thinking plenty of negative thoughts, so the only way to catch up and make the turn is to accelerate the positive thoughts – in writing.
Study the above illustration carefully and you will notice something strange and wonderful about the default pathway – it has begun to atrophy. Just like muscle does, with non-use, the circuits in the brain tend to atrophy as well. This is because the brain is a very efficient organ. It subscribes to a ‘use it or lose it’ strategy. Once one has successfully channeled more thought down the preferred pathway than the original default, the brain begins to take it apart, slowly but surely.
Proof of this is in the common experience of getting a new phone number. I am 51 at the time of this writing. I was of the age that ushered in the cell phone. My first cell phone was a ‘bag phone’, as big and clunky as a regular house phone. As technology progressed, so did philosophy. Somewhere along the line, someone decided it was a good idea to ‘port’ phone numbers to a new carrier or company. Thus, we now can keep our phone number – theoretically for life. Prior to that, I had probably 8 different numbers along the way. At the time that I used each of those numbers, I knew them very well (of course). Now, after more than 7 years of having the same number, I can’t even tell you what any of those previous numbers were. The circuits dedicated to ‘remembering my phone number’ have been officially switched to the new ‘preferred’ number and the old default has atrophied due to non-use to the point that I cannot even tell you what it was.
This is exactly what we want to happen with the thought “I am a failure” and it has to happen in exactly the same way.
Prior to having this information I clearly did not understand how my thinking changed at the cellular level. Now I am awed and inspired by the process. I have seen it work over and over in my life. It takes tenacity and perseverance to make it happen, but on the other hand it is a relatively simple process.
Even after showing this to folks I sometimes get the rebuttal that they just cannot write down the sentence, “I am successful” if they don’t believe it to be true. They are caught in that ‘show me the evidence, then I will believe it’ mentality. Essentially, they are telling me I have to believe it before I can write it. Actually the exact opposite is true, they have to write it (over and over) before they can believe it.
If that isn’t enough to convince one, I simply site the advertising world. Advertisers spend millions of dollars to have as many shots as possible to ‘write’ the preferred message in our brains. They understand that we don’t have to believe something first in order to believe it – that is ridiculous. They work from the platform that we don’t yet believe it to be true, and they work hard at expose us to their carefully crafted commercials which are meant to mold our beliefs through the process of (yep, you guessed it) neuro-plasticity. We don’t believe that Budweiser is the King of Beers before repeated exposure to the information, belief comes after the repeated exposure.
Turns out that advertisers have understood the biology for many years. They get it, and they take it all the way to the bank.
So I invite you to get busy and craft your own commercials (preferred thoughts) and watch (write them) as many times as you can. This is how change really happens. It is a slow process, but it is the only way. You cannot skip steps. The human brain is governed by math and physics – period. There is no getting around it. The best one can do is to accelerate the process to maximum speed and this is accomplished by writing.