Recently, I completed 16 weeks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I began therapy physically broken and mentally strained. Today, I continue on this path alone, with a sense of trepidation but renewed reserves of hope. Equipped with the tools to protect my mental health better. Does CBT work? This is my experience.
A common cause
Like many of us, living through 2020 and our first global pandemic has placed significant pressure on my mental health. However, unlike others, it was my physical health that meant I needed the support of Wellbeing Services initially.
My journey into 2020 is a long one and probably best summarised in the article ‘Pain and Parenting‘ when I last asked for help. In short, a ‘cost-saving’ medication change at the start of 2019 triggered a massive flare and setback in the management of my psoriatic-associated juvenile idiopathic arthritis. It unfairly and tragically aligned with the arrival of my son.
Doubting my ability as a parent
A series of infections at the end of the year combined with the start of lockdown and being placed under shielding guidance as a person of high risk from Covid-19 meant that by April, I was back on crutches again, losing mobility and living in fear. I doubted my ability as a parent, I felt like a burden and with all the scaremongering in the news, images of bare supermarket shelves and seeing my wife return home exhausted from 12-hour shifts in a hospital, I felt terrified and hopeless as a man trying to provide for his family.
Around May-time, it became too much. I was barely sleeping; most nights getting my head down around 4am only to wake for my son at 6am. I was crying carrying him up the stairs to bed at night through the pain. I was a zombie.
I work for a mental health NHS Trust and was aware of the inevitable mental health crisis that was to come off the back of the pandemic, whether that be from people losing lost ones or being cooped up indoors for so long shielding. Therefore, reluctantly I must admit, I asked my workplace for help.
Asking for help
Asking for help with your mental health is often the hardest step, especially for men and even though I am all too aware of the value of mental health services through my work, previous bad experiences had left me apprehensive. I kept reminding myself how far I had come compared to previous events given that I actually recognised my need for help on this occasion.
I wasn’t being pushed, I was putting my hand up, and to me, that meant an awful lot in terms of my own development and management of my mental health compared to previous years.
I had a short wait after contacting my local Wellbeing Service, and I must be honest, I am in a priority group being a member of staff for the organisation that provides it, but by early summer, I was assigned a therapist and my course of talking therapy began.
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For World Mental Health Day and World Arthritis Day, I’m talking candidly about my personal battle with mental health and how it’s closely tied to my arthritis and chronic illness.
Primarily due to the skill of the therapist, I quickly realised that I already had some of the answers. My insight, previous experience, and naturally being quite an over-reflective person meant that I could often explain how I should have handled situations differently. How some of my actions and thought processes were not healthy and how my worrying was putting much more strain and torment on myself than the issue warranted.
Insight is a funny thing. It should be a positive trait to have, but I see it as a second layer of self-torture. The over-worrying, excessive reflecting on past situations and poor management of stress already puts you in a place of mental self-flagellation – having the insight also to see how your response was unhelpful or irrational is just another thing to beat yourself up with, in the one place you cannot run away from – your mind.
Never living in the present
I discovered that I was spending all of my time and energy either worrying about the past or dreading the future. Whether that be things out of my control; such as my inability to play rugby anymore or things that haven’t happened yet. Events in which I invented potential scenarios that frankly, I needn’t waste my energy on until it’s taken place. If it ever transpires at all.
I’m never living in the present. Never enjoying the here and now – and the entire time, my life is moving before my unfocused gaze.
My son grows and leaves behind moments that will forever be a memory. I succeed with a piece of writing that I don’t take a minute to enjoy, as I chase the next target. Or, I lose an entire night’s sleep over a trivial conversation as I worry about how I handled it, what I said or how I sounded.
It’s an astounding waste of energy and a fruitless task – and, it has to change. Life is too short to spend it all on things out of your control.
Does CBT work?
Does CBT work? For me, right now, yes. But for you? The answer is perhaps not as satisfying.
You see, you get out of CBT what you put in. No quick wins such as the Google search of ‘does CBT work‘ that may have brought you here. Go into CBT with the right mindset, the willingness to apply the techniques – not just in your weekly session but throughout your week, in all that you do and be prepared to challenge your own default behaviour, thoughts and processes – habits of a lifetime, and you will see benefits.
However, it’s a long game and for me, a constant battle against my hardwired ways. I’m a worrier. Always have been, always will be, and my physical challenges turned that up to 11. CBT won’t change the fact that I am a worrier by nature, but it gives me the tools to control that habitual behaviour. Using what I learned from CBT, I can recognise when the worrying is unhealthy, when I am irrational and when I am becoming stressed over minor things. CBT allows me to find a balance.
I learned that my low mood and depression wasn’t the root cause. The physical pain, broken dreams and worrying about it was. Thankfully, my pain management is improving, and I am accepting that I can’t overcome some of my newfound disabilities any more than an ostrich that wishes to fly. It’s how things are now. But CBT allows me to navigate this new path and appreciate other things, things that perhaps I hadn’t opened my eyes to before. The here and now, my son, my wife – ‘little wins’ such as my writing and advocacy, which this time last year were just a pipe dream.
They say that when you lose one sense, it heightens another. Well, CBT allowed me to shut out the noise of worry and mourning for lost talents so that I could see. Slowly, I’m learning to appreciate what I have over that in which I lost.
Does CBT work? Find out.