In 1976, Philadelphia psychiatrist David Burns, M.D., became the father of a son, David Erik. The birth was normal, but something was clearly wrong with the newborn. His skin looked blue. He had difficulty breathing and he gasped for air. The obstetrician reassured Burns and his wife that David Erik’s condition did not appear serious, but he explained that the infant’s bloodstream wasn’t getting enough oxygen. As a precaution, the obstetrician said he wanted to send David Erik to the intensive care nursery for extra oxygen. Dr. Burns consented—then suddenly became depressed and panicky. Intensive care meant something was terribly wrong. His baby son wasn’t getting enough oxygen. That meant that his brain wasn’t getting enough. He could be brain damaged. Burns flashed on a future ruled by the needs of a severely handicapped child. He wondered if he could love such a child, and imagined that people would think the less of him for having a handicapped son. Feeling himself becoming overwrought, Dr. Burns decided to try the disarmingly simple therapeutic technique his colleague, Aaron Beck, M.D. had pioneered. It involved writing down negative thoughts and then seeing if they were really true or somehow illogical. But the moment the idea occurred to him, Dr. Burns dismissed Beck’s program as absurd: It was fine for his patients. They were imagining their problems. His problem was real. Of course, Dr. Burns’ patients had often made the identical comment to him, so he told himself what he always told them: “Just try it. What do you have to lose?”
It didn’t take the depressed psychiatrist long to identify his negative thoughts: Intensive care meant the worst. His son was brain damaged. His life would be ruined caring for a handicapped child. And his child’s problems would diminish him in others’ eyes.
Next, Dr. Burns looked for fact or fallacy in his stated feelings—and found major distortions. The obstetrician had said intensive care was a precaution, that David Erik’s condition did not look serious. By assuming the worst Dr Burns had “mentally filtered” the information available to him, seeing only the most dire possibility, when his son was probably fine. Thinking that his son was brain damaged, he’d “jumped to a conclusion” that was unjustified. Even if his son were handicapped, he’d “magnified” the problem by assuming it would ruin his life. Plenty of people live full, rich, rewarding lives despite their children’s—or their own—handicaps. Finally, by assuming that others would think the less of him because his son was handicapped, he’d engaged in “over-generalization.” On reflection, he realized that his friends would judge him for himself, just as he judged them, independent of their children. This simple exercise immediately calmed Dr. Burns, and improved his mood. Soon after, he learned that little David Erik was breathing normally and that his skin had turned a healthy pink. Subsequently, he learned that the boy’s brain was fine.
In addition, Dr. Burns, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, learned that the technique he’d used could benefit not just those with major psychiatric problems, but anyone dealing with emotional negativity. He went on to write Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, and The Feeling Good Handbook, pioneering popular guides to cognitive therapy. “Cognitive” refers to thought processes.
Cognitive therapy is a powerful technique for dealing with depression and other negative emotions by consciously changing the way we think.
What Causes Negative Feelings?
The cause of negative emotions—depression, anxiety, anger, impatience, frustration, guilt, irritability—is a matter of opinion.
- To Freudian psychoanalysts, they are the result of repressed feelings that typically date back to childhood relationships with parents. This is sometimes called “standard insight therapy” or “the talking cure.” Best Self USA therapists are eclectic in their approach to problems and use standard insight therapy with those persons who need to “talk it out.”
- To biological psychiatrists, negative feelings stem from chemical imbalances in the brain. Best Self USA uses nutritional solutions for biologically based emotional problems
- To cognitive therapists, they represent distorted thinking. Cognitive therapy is comparatively new to the mental health profession, but its approach was first espoused more than 2,000 years ago by the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who said, “People are not disturbed by events themselves, but rather by the views they take of them.” Shakespeare put it well in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Best Self USA uses Cognitive/Behavioral therapy in most cases.
Some emotional turmoil is clearly the result of problems early in life, for example childhood abuse, and Freudian-style talk therapies can help. “But most people don’t have to spend a great deal of time understanding the past to improve how they react to potentially depressing situations in the present,” says psychologist Mark Sisti, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy in New York City.
Cognitive therapy is sometimes called “short term, solution focused” therapy because it finds direct solutions to problems using more efficient and effective techniques than other forms of therapy. This results in fewer sessions, and less expense, in helping clients achieve their desired results,. Thus they can more quickly return to an enhanced level of enjoyment and productivity in their lives and relationships.