14 Best Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises [CBT Tutorial]

Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises (Mindful CBT exercises) can help with anxiety, depression and for getting rid of negative thinking.

As a meditation teacher, I am always on the lookout for alternative, complimentary ways to train the mind. And mindfulness CBT techniques are a great way to do that.

However, if you think that CBT exercises are just about “Therapy” you are dead wrong.  Yes, there are cogntive behavioral exercises for anxiety and depression and other problems, but you can also use those same CBT exercises for just general mental fitness. 

In fact, CBT and mindfuless are two of my absolute favorite ways to be mentally strong.

I believe the mind is the most important tool we have. I believe a healthy, happy mind will produce a positive lifestyle, and a negative, unhappy mind will produce the opposite.

That’s why I train my mind like an athlete trains their body, spending hours every day doing exercises to keep my mind in top condition. And that is why I do daily CBT exercises. 

CBT and meditation can work hand in hand to achieve excellent mental health.  

In this guide I will share a list of CBT techniques to beat negative thinking. And you might like to try my list of positive thinking techniques,

What Are Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises [ MBCBT ]?

CBT stands for “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. Exercises in this traditional are based on changing negative thinking and replacing problematic thoughts with healthier ones.  

Put simply, CBT techniques are a series of cognitive therapy exercises you can use to correct unhealthy thinking. And honestly, it is one of the best mind training techniques.

Mindfulness refers to the meditation practice of mindfulness, which is essentially focusing on the present moment. 

Combine mindfulness and CBT and you get “Mindful CBT”  or “MBCBT”, a powerful technique with many benefits.  

Benefits of MBCBT 

  • Reduce mood swings
  • Stop painful thoughts
  • Reduce depression [READ: Meditation For Depression] or see the cognitive behavioral therapy exercises for depression below. 
  • Stop Stress
  • One of the best ways to be both mentally strong and happy.

Mind.org says:

“CBT is a type of talking treatment that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behavior, and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems.”

A personal example

When I was a kid I was out of shape and was bullied badly for it, called fatso and lazy. I heard those words so much I began to think them. And the thoughts soon became a belief.

It has been proven that our beliefs affect our perception of reality.

Believing I was fat and lazy mad me live the life of a fat and lazy person— never exercising, eating unhealthily, and wasting time playing games and watching TV.

This continued until I went to university.

At uni, I started to challenge my thoughts. I read through a lot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy workbooks and learned to change my thinking. Every time I thought I was fat and lazy I would immediately tell myself otherwise, and I would hit the gym to prove that those negative, harmful thoughts were wrong. That’s one way CBT meditation have changed me.

So, let’s now take a look at my list of CBT techniques and exercises.


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15 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises You Should Try Today


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises are all about stopping harmful thoughts and beliefs. 

CBT exercises are ways of changing unhealthy and harmful thoughts. It usually (and preferably) involves a professional therapist. But you can definitely do CBT techniques at home too.

Here are 15 simple CBT techniques to try.

1. CBT Journaling Exercise

One of the most easy CBT exercises is to write a journal of moods and thoughts. When we do this, we are looking for patterns in our moods and thoughts. Once we notice a pattern we can take steps to change it. This will help to train you to overcome your negative thoughts, which will ended up helping you to stay positive during harder times.

2. Challenge Thoughts [of of the best CBT exercises for anxiety and depression]

One of the main benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy is changing negative and unwanted thoughts.

In particular, we look for automatic thoughts (thoughts that occur without intention) and repetitive thoughts.

When we find these, we challenge them. The poor kid who thinks he is stupid just because he isn’t getting straight A’s, for instance, can find the counterargument, find ways he actually is intelligent, and start to erase the negative thoughts. 

3. Changing behavior:

This is one of the best CBT exercises for anxiety, although it does take a little courage to start. 

For this exercise, we intentionally expose ourselves to situations in which we respond in negative or repetitive ways. We then intentionally recreate the event and try to act in a different way.

4. Introspective exposure

This is a CBT exercise for anxiety and panix attacks [READ: Best Meditation For Anxiety / Panic Attacks].

For this exercise, we intentionally recreate bodily sensations that we normally respond badly to. We then deliberately react in new, different, and healthier ways. This trains the mind to stop reacting to the sensation with panic and anxiety.

5. Try This CBT Exercise For Anxiety

Most of the time when we feel fear we immediately stop the thoughts.

For instance, if we fear the dentist the moment we think of the dentist we force the thought aside.

In this Cognitive Behavioral technique, we actually allow the fear to continue to the end. We see ourselves going to the dentist, getting that painful work done, and then carrying on with life. This trains us to realise that even if the worst happens things will probably not end up that bad.

6. Experiment

This is a great CBT exercise for negative thinking. It is a way to test how different thoughts and beliefs lead to different actions.

For instance, if we believe that being hard on ourselves makes us work harder we experiment with the opposite. We try being nice to ourselves and see whether it creates a better result. This is an opportunity to change our behavior and see the results.

  

7.  Change Your Perspective

This is a basic CBT technique ithat gets us thinking in different ways. 

For an example, let’s go back to our unfortunate kid at school who’s being bullied and flunking exams.

He starts to think he’s a failure.

What can he do?

He can write all the evidence that he is a failure. And then he can write all the evidence that he is a success. This gives our kid a better perspective. He now is aware of his shortcomings, but he’s also aware of his strengths too.

8.Try This CBT Technique To Beat Negative Thoughts

Scientists have proven that positivity makes you healthier. But how can you train your mind to think more positively? You can use positive CBT exercises.

To do this positive CBT technique:

  1. intentionally schedule positive events in the future to look forward to.
  2. look at the positives from the past.
  3. look for positives in the present moment, focusing on all the good things happening right now.

In fact, we should probably do all three of those things. This is a simple way to start thinking positively.

9. Fear exposure

Try this Cognitive Behavior Therapy exercise at home and you will quickly overcome any fears that are holdint you back. 

  1. write a list of our fears or of negative things we are worried about.
  2. list those events from best to worst.
  3. go through each event, starting with the easiest and working towards the hardest. And actually face those fears.

This builds our tolerance for unpleasant experiences and trains the mind to overcome fear. It is a powerful CBT technique.

10. Turning negative to positive 

For this CBT exercise we simply write a positive version of every negative thought. “I’m ugly” we think, so we write “I’m beautiful”.

11. Oh, I forgot about that…

In this technique, we simply remember all the positive things that happened in the past day.

12. I hate that, but I love that

This is the last one in this intial list of CBT techniques. It is all about turning negatives to positives.

When we think about a negative situation, or when we are actually in a negative situation, we immediately find things about the situation that we like.

This trains the mind to stop dwelling on the negative and to see the positives instead.

So that’s CBT exercises. How about MBCBT exercises (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises)?

 MINDFUL Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercices (MCBT)

Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises take things further by combining CBT and mindfulness.

We’ve looked at 12 great cognitive behavioral therapy exercises. Now let’s take things further by introducing mindfulness.

Mindfulness based CBT exercises are powerful. Combining cognitive thinking exercises with meditation gives you a very powerful method for improving mental health and removing negative thoughts. 

Mindfulness slows the mind so we can see what is happening in our thoughts. And we then use CBT exercises to change those thoughts. 

Mindfulness VS CBT

CBT and mindfulness are two of the most powerful tools for mental health. And things only get better when you combine the two.  

 Dr. Zindel Segal is the author of the cognitive behavioral therapy workbook The Mindful Way. He tells us “[Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] combines the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditative practices… The heart of this work lies in becoming acquainted with the modes of mind that often characterize mood disorders while simultaneously learning to develop a new relationship to them”.

As Dr. Segal states, Mindfulness CBT activities are about studying the mind so we can take control of it. 

The mindfulness aspect is based on Jon Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness based stress reduction (Source: GoodTherapy.org).

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction uses:

  • Mindfulness
  • Body scan meditations
  • And yoga

Let’s take a look at how to use mindfulness in CBT, with a list of CBT techniques that utilise the old Buddhist tradition of mindfulness. 

Try These Mindfulness CBT Exercises

One way to take CBT further is to combine it with mindfulness. Try these exercises.

13. Quick Breath-Based CBT Meditation

One of the main Mindfulness therapy exercises is “Three Minute Breathing Space”. It’s basically a quick mindfulness-of-breath exercise.

Zindel Segal calls the Three Minute Breathing a “a practice for approaching experience from two attentional lenses, both narrow and wide”.

It’s broken into three minutes:

  1. For the first minute we observe how we are feeling, and describe those feelings in words.
  2. For the second minute we practice awareness of breath.
  3. For the third minute we continue focusing on the breath but extend awareness to the whole body.

14. Body Scan mindfulness 

Body scan meditations are a very popular technique. You’ve probably seen these types of meditation on Youtube and on meditation apps like Insight Timer. 

To do this CBT meditation technique we lie down, close our eyes, and then gradually focus on different parts of the body from head to toe, asking each of those parts to relax. 

 

15. Stretching as a cognitive behavioral therapy activity

Mindful stretching is precisely as it sounds: stretching while focusing on the body.

The different types of mindful stretching include:

  • Pandiculation: Refers to the type of stretches we do when we yawn (palms on shoulders, elbows raised, mouth open).
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation: This is the type of stretch given to a football player who has cramp in their legs.
  • Gomukhasana (cow-face pose): In cow-face pose we sit with crossed legs and interlock the hands behind the back in a way that expands the chest. 
  • Side-to-side neck stretch: This is a very simple pose in which we use one hand to pull the head to the side.
  • Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose): In this position, we have the hips to the mat with one leg in front, perpendicular to the mat, and the other legs stretched out straight behind us. This is a more complex pose that beginners may struggle with.  
  • The Scorpion: This is a modified version of Vrischikasana (Scorpion Pose). To do the pose we lie flat on the front with the arms out to the side. We then lift the right foot high up and press the right hip out. Next, we stretch the right foot to the outside of the left leg. It’s important to keep the chest and the arms on the flow while doing this.

BONUS: Thought Stopping Technique

The Thought Stopping technique is a CBT exericise in which we stop negative thinking as it is happening. 

In CBT  stop technique, we intercept bad thoughts and immediately change them.

Here’s how to do the CBT thought stopping technique:

  1. Notice when you have a negative thought
  2. Stop. Take a mindful breath
  3. Mindfully observe the thoughts going through your mind
  4. Notice what you’re focusing on
  5. Notice sensations in the body
  6. Pull back and examine the thoughts
  7. What’s the big picture of the thought?
  8. What’s an alternative way to look at the situation
  9. How important is the thought?
  10. What would you say to a friend who had this thought?
  11. What is the number one thing you could do right now to help yourself? Do it.

BONUS 2: Downard Arrod CBT  Technique For Anxiety And Depression

The CBT downward arrow technique is one of the best cognitive behavioral therapy exercises for anxiety. Here is how to do it. 

  1. The CBT Downward Arrow technique is usually done with a licensed therapist.
  2. Here’s how the CBT Downward Arrow Technique works:
  3. The therapist chooses one negative thought from the patient’s journal. For instance, let’s say you have a negative thought that an upcoming work meeting will go badly.
  4. The therapist asks “Why would it upset you if this happened?”.
  5. The patient answers the question. “If my meeting goes badly the boss will be angry.”
  6. The therapist then asks why that would matter, “If the boss is angry it will affect my work”.
  7. This keeps going until we hit upon the core self defeating belief: “Because if I lose my job I won’t be able to support my family.”
  8. The purpose of the CBT Downward Arrow Technique is to discover the self defeating belief that is causing negative thoughts, and not necessarily to change it.

Bonus 3: Mental Contrasting

We all know positivity doesn’t actually work. But there is an alternative: mental contrasting.

Positive thinking essentially does not work for a few reasons:

  • When we think positive the mind thinks we have already achieved our goal
  • Too much positive thinking will make our goal look easier than it is
  • When we force ourselves to think positively we refuse to see the more “negative” or more challenging aspects of reality, and so we do nothing to change those things.

A better idea is the CBT technique of Mental Contrasting.

Mental contrasting is a technique in which we contrast positive thoughts about the future with acknowledgment of the obstacles in our way. And vice-versa, we can balance out anxieties about the future by thinking about the positives preventing those negative situations from happening.

Gabriele Oettingen of New York University recently published research into this techniques. She tells THE DAILY MEDITATION:

“When you mentally contrast the thoughts and fantasies about a desired future with the main inner obstacle of reality standing in the way, [you]l find clarity about what you want and can achieve, and you invest the effort to fulfill your wishes and attain your goals.”

Oettingen researched the effects of mental contrasting on fears and anxieties.

The research shows that we can reduce anxiety in this way: When we think negatively about the future we think about the present reality and everything that is standing in the way of that future coming true.

For instance, if you are worried you will become unhealthy, consider the present reality: you are healthy now, you exercise, you eat healthy, you make healthy choices etc. This contrast puts things back in perspective.

Research shows that the mental contrasting CBT technique promotes success and reduces anxiety

Frontiers In Psychology recently published research into the effects of mental contrasting.

Here’s how the study worked:

405 participants were used

They were asked to do one of the following:

Think about an e-Coli outbreak

Think about e-Coli outbreak and also think about the present realities that were preventing that outbreak from happening

This test showed that results showed that people who used the mental contrasting technique has significantly lower levesl of anxiety.

After this, participants were asked to think about an actual event that would soon happen in their lives, an event they felt negatively about.

Half the group were asked to also think about the present reality that prevented that negative situation from happening.

The group that used mental contrasting once again had much lower levels of anxiety.

Oettingen states that mental contrasting in this way can both help us to be successful and can also stop anxiety.

How To Do Mental Contrasting CBT Technique

We can use mental contrasting to stop anxiety and to develop self motivation.

Let’s take a look at how to do both of these things.

Example of mental contrasting for success

  1. Visualize a wish coming true, or a goal being met. Imagine that your ideal reality is coming true right now.
  2. Imagine all the good things that would come from this wish coming true, and how you would feel.
  3. Identify the obstacles and problems that could prevent you from being successful. These could be inner or outer obstacles. E.g.: You want to lose weight but you lack motivation. Acknowledge it. Or you want to lose weight but you can’t afford the gym. Again, acknowledge it.
  4. Make a specific plan to overcome the negatives that are stopping you from being successful.

Example of using mental contrasting CBT technique for anxiety

We can also use mental contrasting to get a grip on anxiety.

  1. Visualize something bad happening. Imagine that your fear has become a reality.
  2. Imagine the negatives that would come from that. (Stop if you feel too much anxiety or fear)
  3. Think about all the present positives that are stopping the negative situation from happening.
  4. Make a specific plan to make use of the present positives to stop the thing you are anxious about.

 

  

 

More Mindful Activities

As well as the practices above, MBCBT recommends doing everyday activities in a mindful way.

For instance:

  • Mindfully clean the dishes
  • Eat mindfully
  • Mindfully brush your teeth
  • Shower mindfully 

Combine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy And Meditation For  Best Results

CBT and meditation can be combined for some truly effective cnogitive therapy.   

Both CBT and meditation are ways of training the mind. The former helps us to adjust our thinking, and the latter helps us to relax and to be more consciously aware. Both CBT and meditation are excellent ways of achieving (and maintaining) mental health. And yet, in many ways, they are opposite.

CBT VS Meditation

Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind (often by sitting with crossed legs and focusing on the breath). This is done to silence thoughts and to become more conscious of the present moment. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a way of challenging and changing our thoughts. It is a series of thinking exercises. CBT is often done in counselling sessions with a cognitive behavioral therapist.

So when you look at CBT VS meditation, you can see that they are essentially different sides of the same coin.  

While most meditation techniques involved silencing thoughts, CBT involves listening to thoughts and changing them. Meditation makes CBT significantly easier because it helps you to see what is happening in your own mind.

Combining meditation and CBT activities for serious cognitive therapy

I’m totally stunned by the results of doing CBT with meditation.

I’ve been merging CBT and meditation for a few months now in my own practice, and it has made a world of difference.

If you think meditation is good, meditation and CBT is 10x better

Here’s why:

  • CBT solves so many of the problems of meditation.
  • And meditation solves so many of the problems of CBT. 

 The problem with meditation is that most techniques do not actively change your thoughts, they just make your thoughts less impactful, so your negative thoughts have less of an effect. (I say most meditations because, of the more than 700 meditation techniques in existence, some do help with thoughts, but the most popular techniques, such as mindful breathing, are really about silencing thoughts and relaxing the mind).

When you meditate you become more relaxed, but sooner or later your old thoughts will come creeping back up on you unless you change them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises actually changes those thoughts.

So that’s the link between CBT and meditation. 

How the two work together 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a way of recognising and changing negative thoughts.

There are many different CBT exercises. Those exercises are all ways of recognising, challenging, and changing your thoughts. For instance, you can use cognitive behavior therapy exercises for negative thoughts, such as by changing your thoughts about yourself from negative to positive. Simple right? Just one problem. In order for cognitive therapy exercises to work you have to be able to identify your thoughts while they are going through your head.

This is not easy.

Some thoughts last only a few tenths of a second.

Being able to recognise those thoughts, identify them, and change them is hard.

Traditional CBT makes up for this by using a counsellor. You talk your problems through with the CBT psychotherapist, they identify the negative thought patterns for you and make notes. In other words, you don’t have to identify your own thoughts.

There are a few problems with this:

  • Not everyone can afford a psychologist (health insurance will sometimes pay but not always)
  • Some people prefer to handle their problems on their own
  • And in my case, I’m actually more interested in training my mind with CBT and meditation and not for a specific health problem. It’s an exercise I do for me to keep my mind fit. No doctors needed.

Practicing cognitive behavioral therapy exercises without a therapist can be a challenge. Sure there are CBT group therapy activities that you can do together even if you don’t have a psychotherapist. But what if you want to go it alone?  

Simply put, the average person does not have the clarity of mind to capture their thoughts as they happen. 

You know the saying, “Blink and you miss it?” That’s definitely true for thoughts. To catch your negative thoughts, you have to be aware.

This is the primary reason for combining CBT and meditation. Meditation boosts our awareness so that we are actually able to spot the thoughts that need to change as they occur

Quick recap

  • Meditation calms and relaxes the mind
  • CBT techniques change our thoughts
  • Doing CBT exercises without a psychotherapist is difficult because thoughts occur so quickly they can be hard to catch. One option is to practice group CBT activities, but not everyone is in a group.
  • When we meditate we slow the mind and boost awareness so we can identify our thoughts (and then change them).
  • When we combine CBT and meditation we slow the mind, become aware of our thoughts, and can then change our thoughts.

 Simply put: Meditation and CBT are the perfect couple. 

How to combine meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises

What I’m about to say is through my own experience in my own meditation practice; and is not scientifically proven. And while what follows is great news for most people, if you have a serious health condition you should seek professional help.

I have personally been combining CBT and meditation for many months now. It’s been fantastic. In fact, it has changed my life in ways I thought would never change.

The list of CBT exercises above will help to reduce stress, anxiety and negative thoughts. However, there are also may more ways to practice CBT.

I’ve discussed all my favorite CBT-style exercises in this Youtube video.

50 CBT Exercises Everybody Needs To Know (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) For Happiness & Success

So that’s the CBT part taken care of. What about the meditation part? Well, that’s easy.

If you already have a meditation practice, it will already be helping you with CBT. If your meditation relaxes you, slows your mind, and raises your consciousness, it will automatically help you to perform cognitive therapy exercises more effectively.

Here’s some tips on how to get even more out of meditation when adding CBT to the mix.

Stop thinking too much:

We use CBT activities to change thoughts. However, if you have too many thoughts in your mind, and they are all happening too quickly, you won’t be able to pinpoint any one specific thought to change.

The solution to this is to start thinking less. That way you will be able to spot individual thoughts and change them accordingly. 

Develop Insight:

To be successful with cognitive behavioral therapy, you need to be aware of what’s happening in your own mind. That can be a challenge. And it’s another reason why meditation and CBT works so well.

By meditating we can increase our insight so we are aware of the workings of the mind. We then see what’s happening within, and once we see our thoughts we can change them.

Conclusion

In my personal experience, when you do CBT and meditation at the same time, you get fantastic results. You get the relaxed and slow mind that meditation gives, plus the healthier thoughts that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises produce. The mindfulness CBT exercises we have looked at in this guide are a great place to start. Not only will they make you think in healthier ways, they will also help you to control your subonscious.

These exercises help you to actually change your thoughts, as opposed to outright stopping them.

I’ve tried both meditation and CBT by themselves. Done individually, both techniques were somewhat helpful.

Together?

Done together, CBT and meditation are 10 times more powerful.

If you have a serious health concern, both meditation and CBT should be one with a professional therapist / meditation teacher.

For many people, however, self help done through a combination of meditation and CBT will yield excellent results. I know it has for more.

CBT exercises and MBCBT exercises are excellent ways of stopping negative, harmful thoughts and boosting positivity. And they’re made even better by introducing meditation.

Which of the  CBT techniques  have you tried, and how did it help you?

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Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a yoga teacher, meditation teacher and writer. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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