COVID-19: Lessons from CBT on How We Look at the Pandemic
Therapy has come a long way from Sigmund Freud’s “lie on a couch and tell me about your mother”. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an incredibly well researched form of treatment that has replaced most other forms of therapy for individuals with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. It’s based on the premise that we can change our distorted thinking patterns that keep us stuck, into more useful and helpful thoughts. I like to think of it as personal training for your brain in that if you exercise your muscles you will see physical changes. Similarly, if you exercise your thoughts, you will see physical changes in your brain. Several neuroimaging studies back this claim up by showing in as little as 9 weeks, CBT treatment can physically change our brain for the positive.
For people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, it is highly recommended to seek out a professional trained to provide CBT. However, during this crisis we can all take a lesson or two from CBT in changing our thoughts and rewiring our brain to help us through the crisis. The following are some examples of changing our thoughts in regards to work.
- Reframe your unhelpful thoughts. Thoughts like “Oh no I’ve been laid off, I can’t afford my bills, I can’t afford food, I am going to lose my house” can lead us down a very negative spiral based on heightened emotions and speculations and not actual evidence. Our brains work on requiring emotions to help us make quick decisions for our survival. However, we can pause, take a step back, and acknowledge that our first thought was based on our emotion of fear; “It is ok that I am afraid, but I can’t control being laid off. What I can do at this moment is apply for Employment Insurance, re-budget my expenses, or apply for additional assistance through the Federal Government’s COVID-19 assistance package during this time”. Unlike the first, this thought acknowledges the situation, and provides actionable solutions based on existing evidence, not speculation.
- Challenge yourself. Our brain (sometimes to our detriment) is energy efficient. This means it likes to take the easy road in order to conserve energy, which naturally prevents us from change. Changing your brain means it has to rewire things, move stuff around. Think of it like reorganizing your garage. It’s much easier to just throw things in there, rather than exert additional energy and resources in reorganizing things. The only way we can change our brain is by pushing ourselves. For those of us working from home now, this is a big change. Many might be thinking of all the things they can’t do - “I’m stuck at home and so I can’t finish many of my current projects I’ve been working on for months”. Instead let’s reframe this to “I am fortunate to be safe at home and can use this time to work on different projects I didn’t have time to before”. Rather than focusing on the negative, reframe it AND take on a new challenge. For example, I’m used to teaching and being in front of people. Writing like this is not something I’ve ever done before and so it’s requiring a lot more of my brain energy to learn a new skill, stay focused, and not watch that new Tiger Guy documentary on Netflix that has blown up the internet even though my TV is right in front of me as I type this.
- Be kind to yourself. Change doesn’t happen quickly regardless if we are exercising our muscles or our brain. Often times when we don’t see change happening quickly we turn to shaming ourselves with statements such as: “I am a failure.”; “I feel useless”; or “Everyone else is doing better with this than I am”. When you hear your inner monologue spouting similar comments, ask yourself “Would I say these things to a friend who is struggling?”. If your answer is no then we shouldn’t be saying those things to ourselves either.
Ultimately, CBT is about hope. Hope that we can get through this if we make some necessary but difficult changes, in hopes that our future will be brighter.