Do you feel like your anxiety is controlling your life? Or are you overwhelmed by your growing to-do list, world events or the various situations happening in your life? Whatever is causing your anxiety, you’re not alone. Around 3.8 percent, or about 284 million individuals worldwide, have an anxiety disorder. Thankfully, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the gold-standard therapy for anxiety, is a well-established approach at discovering the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Learn what CBT is, how it works, and 10 cognitive behavioral therapy activities for anxiety that will help you manage your stress and regain control.
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
First introduced by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to change/improve our thought patterns, conscious and unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. By developing these patterns between our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, we can overcome stressful life events, discover coping mechanisms and achieve our goals. It is the gold-standard therapy for several mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.
Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?
CBT is a short-term form of psychotherapy, usually lasting between a few weeks to ten months to see results. It’s a hands-on approach that requires a trusting and open relationship between the therapist and the client. Both parties need to be invested, willing to participate, and dedicated to completing the activities, tasks, and treatment. Several studies indicate CBT is the most effective treatment for depression and anxiety with a success rate of 50-75%. As long as the therapist and client work together to identify the problems, find strategies, and create solutions, CBT can significantly improve someone’s life.
10 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Activities for Anxiety
1. Active problem solving
When you’re anxious, you may experience decision fatigue and struggle to find a solution to a problem. Yet, learning to engage in active problem solving can eliminate some of your anxiety and help you feel more in control. For example, use a journal and write out a challenge you’re struggling to overcome. Define the problem in detail and begin brainstorming solutions to tackle it. Once you have a list, start exploring each one slowly and take action. Over time, you’ll find the process less intimidating.
2. Practice mindful meditation and breathing
Increased stress leads to overpowering thoughts and anxiety. Therefore, relaxation techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and controlled breathing can do wonders for your overanxious mind. An example is color breathing which involves naming a color for your anxiety (perhaps red) and color for relaxation (blue). Next, while laying down, begin exhaling and visualizing red as you work from the bottom of your body to the top. Then, in reverse, visualize your inhaling blue in the same process.
3. Self-reflection journaling
Self-reflection journaling increases self-awareness and allows you to release anything building inside. To practice, grab a journal and write down an anxious situation, include the time it happened, why it happened (the source), how horrible it made you feel, how you reacted, and any other detail. This technique will help you identify the connection between your thoughts and emotions and how to change and cope with them. The more you know your triggers, the easier it will be to manage your anxious thoughts.
4. Progressive muscle relaxation
Like mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation involves shifting your attention to an external source and relaxing one muscle group at a time. The constant focus on the present moment creates an ultimate state of relaxation – say goodbye to unwanted thoughts.
5. Cognitive restructuring
The primary goal of CBT is to understand and unravel negative thought patterns. While journaling and mindful exercises help you identify them, the next step is to challenge them. For example, if you’re upset about a relationship ending, you may blame yourself and use every painful situation as evidence to paint yourself as the villain. Yet, instead of believing this faulty thinking, challenge it by reviewing the relationship. Perhaps the person wasn’t right for you, or maybe they made you feel worse about yourself. Questioning your beliefs will help you decrease the power they have over you.
6. Break tasks into smaller steps
When you’re anxious, it can feel overwhelming to tackle anything, much less an upcoming deadline or project. Therefore, breaking down goals into smaller steps will help you much more rather than trying to manage one large chore. And once you’ve begun, time will pass, and before you know it, you’ll be shocked by how much progress you’ve made.
7. Activity scheduling
Is your growing to-do list causing more anxiety, or is there an activity you keep putting off? If so, schedule one overwhelming task a week and along with tip #6, break it down into smaller steps. Once the burden of worrying about the task is gone, you’ll feel more relaxed and ready to tackle other activities.
8. Feelings will change
While it’s difficult to remember when you’re anxious, it’s important to know feelings always shift. So, when you feel an anxious thought coming, try to envision how you’ll feel when it passes. For example, if you have social anxiety about an upcoming work presentation, say, “I’m anxious about work which is natural, but I expect I’ll feel relaxed when the feeling passes.” Even knowing that feelings are temporary can provide relief.
9. Challenge the anxious response
Anxiety isn’t always bad; it can also be good. It’s a survival mechanism that helps us stay safe, perform better, and protect our loved ones. But it’s also a response that can go wrong, even when a threat isn’t present. Thankfully, you can train it by giving your brain feedback. For example, if you’re anxious about a meeting with your boss, tell yourself, “Thank you anxiety, but you’re not needed right now”. This feedback tricks your brain into staying calm and is one of the best cognitive behavioral therapy activities for anxiety. Also, breathing deeply, smiling, and talking to yourself calmly, are a few ways that challenge the anxious response and give it the space to fade.
10. Evaluate the consequences
If you’re anxious about something, it’s because you’re worried or fearful about a potential consequence. But what are you afraid of? For example, if you lose your job, what will happen? Perhaps you’ll lose your salary, you won’t see your work friends as often, and you will need to find another job. Evaluating all the potential consequences helps you decrease catastrophic thinking (all or nothing) and helps you discover that even if one of the consequences occurred, you still have the resources to overcome it. When you learn you can survive a stressful situation, your fear for the anxiously perceived outcome lessens.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective therapy, particularly for anxiety. It helps you discover the connections between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how they impact one another.
There are quite a few cognitive behavioral activities for anxiety. Depending on the situation you need support in, meeting with a therapist can help you create a tailored treatment plan for your individual needs.
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