As a companion piece to my post on Richard Carlson's work, here's an old post from October 11, 2008, covering a related approach pioneered by David Burns. Incidentally, there's now an app for this — in fact, there's more than one. For iOS, the iCouch CBT app works pretty well. For Android, the Cognitive Diary CBT app looks good, though I haven't tried it.
Carlson's method involves not taking your thoughts too seriously. Burns's method involves subjecting your thoughts to a reality check. The common denominator of both approaches is to distance yourself from your thoughts — to look at a thought from a detached perspective, rather than letting it control you.
Neither method is a cure-all, but both can be helpful in preventing a "thought attack" — a cascade of negative thinking that often has little basis in reality.
In these stressful days, you may find it useful to study the ten cognitive distortions identified by Dr. David Burns. I first came across these in Burns' self-help book Feeling Good many years ago.
The basic technique is to write down a thought that's troubling you, and see which of the cognitive distortions may apply to it. Then reword the thought in more objective terms. It can also be helpful to rate your belief in the original thought and, later, in the revised thought.
For instance, suppose you are thinking, "I'll never get that promotion." Your belief in this is, say, 80% - you're almost certain of it.
Then consider if one or more of the distorted thought processes is at work here. You might decide that #7 applies - emotional reasoning. And maybe # 5(b) - fortune telling.
Something may feel true without necessarily being true. And predicting the future is dicey business. How many times have you made a false prediction or had a feeling of doom that turned out to be unjustified?
Next, ask yourself if you can replace the thought with one that is not affected by these distortions. You might say, "It seems as if getting that promotion will be harder than I hoped." Rate your belief in this new thought - maybe you believe it 60% or so.
Now go on to the next step: why will getting the promotion be harder than you hoped? "Because the boss hates me." Write this down. You believe it 100%.
But are there distortions in this thought, too? Maybe # 5(a) - mind reading. Perhaps also # 3 - mental filter.
Have you focused only on those times when your boss has been hostile, and suppressed your memory of those times when he has been pleasant? Have you assumed he has a negative attitude toward you personally, when you actually don't know what he's thinking?
Revise your thought. Now it might be something like: "My boss can be hard to get along with sometimes." Rate your belief in this, and then ask why you feel this way. You'll come up with another thought to analyze.
Continue in this way, digging deeper into your thoughts in a step-by-step fashion, until you have arrived at a clearer perspective, one that is not clouded by distorted thinking.
This deceptively simple technique can be amazingly powerful. Give it a try.