The conversations you have with yourself have a direct impact on how you feel and how you behave. If your self-talk is filled with doubt, harsh criticism, and catastrophic predictions, you'll struggle to reach your goals. But you don't have to let a pessimistic outlook or foreboding inner monologue hold you back. You can train your brain to think differently.
What the Research Shows
CBT is a well-studied mental health treatment. Therapists who employ this method help people change the unhelpful thinking and behavior patterns that are keeping them stuck. CBT is no quick, feel-good treatment that temporarily masks underlying issues. Studies consistently show that it creates measurable physical changes in the brain. Neuroimaging reveals that CBT modifies neural circuits involved in the regulation of negative emotions.
Studies consistently show that CBT can change dysfunctions of the nervous system. A study published in Translational Psychiatry used MRIs to examine brain changes in people with schizophrenia. After six months of treatment, there was more neural connectivity between the amygdala (which manages emotion in the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (which governs high-order thinking). The changes were long-lasting.
Another study found that after just nine weeks of online CBT treatment, people with social anxiety disorder experienced decreased brain volume and activity in their amygdalae, which helped them keep anxiety at bay. Researchers have discovered that CBT rewires the brain in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
So what types of CBT skills do therapists teach? Here are three ways to train your brain to think differently:
1. Reframe your unhelpful thoughts.
Thinking things like "This will never work," or "I'm such an idiot. I just ruined everything" isn't helpful, because negative predictions tend to turn into self-fulfilling prophecies and exaggeratedly negative thoughts prevent you from taking positive action.
But the good news is that you can reply to unhelpful thoughts with more realistic statements. When you think, "No one is ever going to hire me," remind yourself, "If I keep working hard to look for jobs, I'll increase my chances of getting hired."
Or when you are thinking, "This is going to be a disaster," look for evidence that your efforts may be a success. Then, create a more balanced statement, such as "There's a chance this won't work out, but there's also a chance I might succeed. All I can do is my best."
2. Prove yourself wrong.
Your brain lies to you sometimes. So when it tells you that you can't possibly get a promotion, or that you'll never be able to lose 10 pounds, look at it as a challenge.
Force yourself to take one more step after you think you're too exhausted to keep going. Or challenge yourself to keep applying for promotions despite your brain's insistence you won't land a new position. Each time you successfully prove your negative predictions wrong, you'll train your brain to see yourself in a different light. Over time, your brain will start to view your limitations, as well as your capabilities, more accurately.
3. Create a personal mantra.
Take stock of your negative thought patterns. Do you call yourself names, or talk yourself out of doing things where you might fail?
Identify these patterns, then develop a personal mantra you can use to talk back to the negative messages. Repeating things like "Make it happen" or "Do your best" tunes out the negativity and, over time, you'll grow to believe those statements more than the unhealthy things you've been telling yourself.
Keep Building Mental Muscle
Like any new skill, training your brain to think differently takes time. But the more you practice thinking realistically, the more mental muscle you'll build. In addition, your brain could undergo physical changes that will permanently help you think differently.
Mansson, K., Salami, A., Frick, A., Andersson, G., Furmack, T., & Boraxbekk, C. (2016.). Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety disorder. Translational Psychiatry.
Mason, L., Peters, E., Williams, S., & Kumari, V. (n.d.). Brain connectivity changes occurring following cognitive behavioural therapy for psychosis predict long-term recovery. Translational Psychiatry.
Shou, H., Yang, Z., Satterthwaite, T. D., Cook, P. A., Bruce, S. E., Shinohara, R. T., … Sheline, Y. I. (2017). Cognitive behavioral therapy increases amygdala connectivity with the cognitive control network in both MDD and PTSD. NeuroImage : Clinical, 14, 464–470.