cbt exercises

In this guide, we’ll look at Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises (Mindful CBT exercises) that combine CBT and meditation to alleviate anxiety and depression and remove negative thoughts.

As a meditation teacher, I am always on the lookout for alternative, complementary 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 cognitive behavioural therapy exercises for anxiety, depression and other problems, but you can also use those same CBT exercises for just general mental fitness.

CBT and mindfulness are two of my absolute favourite ways of boosting mental health.

I believe the mind is the most essential 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 the best CBT exercises 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 tradition are based on changing negative thinking and replacing problematic thoughts with healthier ones.

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

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental fashion; it’s a meditative technique with its origins in Buddhism.

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

Benefits of MBCBT

Mind.org says:

“CBT is a type of talking treatment that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour 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 made 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 its helped me to change.

CBT and meditation helped me overcome negative thoughts and get back in shape. And they can help with myriad other psychological issues too.

Let’s take a look at the best CBT exercises.

15 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises You Should Try Today

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises are all about stopping harmful thoughts and beliefs. They usually (and preferably) involve a professional therapist. But you can do them at home too.

Here are 15 simple CBT exercises to try.

1. Journaling

One of the easiest CBT exercises is to write a journal of moods and thoughts. When we do this, we are looking for patterns in our feelings and thoughts. Once we notice a trend, we can take steps to change it. This will help to train you to overcome your negative thoughts.

2. Challenge Thoughts  

One of the main benefits of cognitive-behavioural therapy exercises is that they can change negative and unwanted thoughts.

Therapy tends to focus on automatic thoughts (thoughts that occur without intention) and repetitive thoughts.

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

3. Changing behaviour:

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 differently.

4. Introspective exposure

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

For this exercise, we intentionally recreate bodily sensations that we usually respond to poorly. 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. For Anxiety

Most of the time, when we feel fear, we attempt to stop our thoughts.

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

In this Cognitive Behavioral exercise, we 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, life will carry on regardless.

6. Experiment

This is an excellent 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 kind to ourselves and see whether it creates a better result. This is an opportunity to change our behaviour and see the results.

7.  Change Your Perspective

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

For example, let’s go back to our unfortunate kid at school who’s bullied at school 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.  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.

We should probably do all three of those things because they are simple ways to start thinking positively.

9. Fear exposure

This Cognitive Behavior Therapy exercise at home can hep us to overcome fears.

  1. write a list of worries and fears.
  2. list those events from best to worst.
  3. go through each event, starting with the easiest and working towards the hardest. And face those fears.

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

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 initial list of CBT activities. 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 meditation.

We’ve looked at 12 great cognitive behavioural 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 potent method for improving mental health and removing negative thoughts.

Mindfulness meditation slows the mind so we can see what is happening in our thoughts. And CBT exercises let us change those thoughts. These two, separately, 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 behavioural 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 characterise 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:

Let’s take a look at how to use mindfulness in CBT, with a list of MCBT exercises.

Try These Mindfulness CBT Exercises

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

13. Quick Breath-Based Meditation

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

Zindel Segal calls the Three Minute Breathing “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 meditation

Body scan meditations are a prevalent 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. This systematically relaxes the entire body.

15. Stretching  

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

The different types of mindful stretching include:

BONUS: Thought Stopping Technique

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

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

Here’s how to do the 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 critical 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: Downward Arrow

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

  1. The Downward Arrow technique is usually done with a licensed therapist.
  2. 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.
  3. The therapist asks “Why would it upset you if this happened?”.
  4. The patient answers the question. “If my meeting goes badly, the boss will be angry.”
  5. The therapist then asks why that would matter, “If the boss is angry, it will affect my work”.
  6. 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.”
  7. The purpose of the 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 work. But there is an alternative: mental contrasting.

Positive thinking mostly does not work for a few reasons:

A better idea is Mental Contrasting.

Mental contrasting is a technique in which we compare positive thoughts about the future with acknowledgement 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 technique. 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’ll] find clarity about what you want and can achieve, and you invest the effort to fulfil 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 that you will become unhealthy, consider the present reality: you are healthy now, you exercise, you eat healthily, 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.

405 participants were asked to think of either an e-Coli outbreak or to think about an e-Coli outbreak and also think about the present realities that were preventing that outbreak from happening

The results revealed that people who used the mental contrasting technique had significantly lower levels 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 help us to be successful and can also stop anxiety.

How To Do Mental Contrasting

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. Visualise a wish coming true, or a goal achieved. 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 for anxiety

We can also use mental contrasting to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

  1. Visualise something terrible 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 mindfully doing everyday activities.

For instance:

Combine CBT And Meditation For  Best Results

We can combine CBT and meditation for some genuinely effective cognitive 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-behavioural 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-behavioural therapist.

So when you look at CBT and meditation, you can see that they are fundamentally 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 more manageable because it helps you to see what is happening in your mind.

Combining Cognitive Behavioural Therapy And Meditation 

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

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

If you think meditation is good, meditation and CBT is ten times better

Here’s why:

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 methods, 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 change those thoughts.

So that’s the link between CBT and meditation.

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 behaviour therapy exercises for negative thoughts, such as by changing your thoughts about yourself from negative to positive. Simple right? Just one problem. 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 incredibly difficult.

Traditional CBT makes up for this by using a counsellor. You talk about 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 thoughts.

There are a few problems with this:

Practising cognitive behavioural 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 practise on your own?

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 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 able to spot the thoughts that need to change as they occur.

Quick recap

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 private meditation practice, and is not scientifically proven. And while what follows is excellent 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. 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 many more ways to practice CBT.

I’ve discussed all my favourite 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 are some tips on how to get even more from CBT and meditation.

Stop overthinking:

We use CBT activities to change thoughts. However, if you have too many ideas 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 behavioural therapy, you need to be aware of what’s happening in your mind. That can be a challenge. And it’s another reason why meditation and CBT work 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, but they will also help you to control your subconscious.

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

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

Together?

When done together, CBT and meditation are ten times more powerful.

If you have a serious health concern, both meditation and CBT should be done 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 me.

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

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Sources:

Cognitive behavioral therapy – Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) | CAMH https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/cognitive-behavioural-therapy

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About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.


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