Photo: Luke Carter
Photo: Luke Carter

By Sean Vickers

Winter is a pretty glum time of the year, especially if you are a student. Exams, essay deadlines, and freezing cold weather can be quite discouraging, not to mention the student loan debts that are piling up.It’s therefore no wonder that UWE have named the second month of the year, ‘Feel Good February’, in an effort to get us to be more active and to cheer us all up.

The third Monday of January has now even been named Blue Monday, “the most depressing day of the year”, a term coined by student Cliff Arnall. And whether people like to admit it or not, Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is thought to affect around two million people in the UK every year.

But for many of us myself included mental health problems are an ongoing battle, all year round. In fact, one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, a figure that is perhaps surprising for some, and possibly a comfort for others.

So, for this reason, and also as a part of the ‘Feel Good February’ event at UWE, I decided to write an article on a book that I read some while back, called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by Dr David Burns. The book was the first to describe ‘cognitive therapy’ in familiar terms for the general public.

Tracing its origins to the innovative work of American psychiatrist Dr Aaron T. Beck in the 1960’s, cognitive therapy is a major development in modern psychiatric research and practice, and although Feeling Good is a self help book, it stands apart from the genre in that its methods are scientifically tried and tested, and approved by Academic Institutions.

In the book, Dr Burns describes a cognition, or a thought, as “the way you are thinking about things at any moment, including this very moment.”

So, for example, right now you are probably having some thoughts and feelings about this article. If you are feeling a little down at the moment about yourself, you may be reading it whilst thinking in a negative, self critical way. Or, if you are feeling good, you may read it in a positive, reaffirming way.In either case, your thoughts create your feelings.

This example illustrates the principle of cognitive therapy – that your feelings result from the messages that you give yourself. In fact, your thoughts often have much more influence over the way you feel than the things that are actually happening in your life.

This isn’t a new idea. Nearly two thousand years ago the Greek Philosopher, Epictetus, said that people are disturbed, “not by things, but by the views we take of them.” Although the idea has been around for a while, most people will not comprehend it. If you feel down, you may think it is because of bad things that have happened to you. You may think that you are inferior and destined to be miserable because you failed an exam or were rejected by someone that you liked. You may think your negative feelings are the result of an unloving childhood, or bad genes that you inherited.

Certainly all these things do have an effect on people – bad things do happen, and people can be pretty obnoxious to one another. Many people do experience tragic losses and confront devastating personal problems. Our genes, hormones, and childhood experiences probably do have an impact on how we think and feel. But all of these theories about the causes of our bad moods have the tendency to make us victims, because we think they are caused by something beyond our control.

Dr Burns’ book sets out to demonstrate that you can be in control, and that you can learn to change the way you think about things, and therefore change the way you feel. That, in sum, is what cognitive therapy is all about.

In easily applicable terms, Dr Burns shows that in order to change your negative thought patterns which he calls ‘automatic thoughts’ because they run through your mind automatically without the slightest effort on your part – you must first identify them.

After years of research at the University of Pennsylvania, working closely with Dr Aaron Beck, Dr Burns has determined ten cognitive distortions that form the basis of all anxiety and depression. The idea is to familiarize yourself with the ten distorted thinking patterns, and then to recognize which of them apply to your own thinking. They include ideas such as, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, and ‘mind reading’.

Once you have realised these distortions in your thinking patterns, you are able to look at the situation more realistically. When this happens you should be able to build a more accurate description of the situation. Most of the time, you will find that the initial feelings you had about the event were caused by at least one of the above cognitive distortions.

This brief description of cognitive therapy by no means does it much justice, and I recommend that you read the book if the contents of this article resonate with you in any way.

Although self help books often get a bad rap and perhaps this is not always a completely unjustified sentiment – Feeling Good outlines techniques that can have the immediate effect of lifting your mood and helping you to develop a more positive outlook on life. It is also a great introduction to cognitive therapy, which, as demonstrated in the book, can help with a wide range of issues, such as procrastination, eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, among many others.

It’s also extremely therapeutic to talk to someone if you are suffering from mental health issues. I would strongly recommend that you contact the UWE Wellbeing service if these issues are getting in the way of your personal life and studies.