Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Learning Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques commonly used in CBT include progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and the use of imagery. 

Progressive muscle relaxation goes through different muscle groups in your body, consciously tightening and then releasing them. Notice the difference between how it feels when the muscles are tense and when they’re relaxed. You can start at your feet and move one area at a time up to your head, tensing and relaxing each muscle group. 

Anxiety has a progressive muscle relaxation audio exercise here: https:// 

Deep breathing exercises are important as they signal to your brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (which handles activities like resting and digesting) and tone down the sympathetic nervous system (which handles the fight or flight response). Breathing deeply and slowly helps you to achieve this effect. 

Addressing Safety Behaviours 

CBT differentiates between adaptive coping behaviours and safety behaviours. Adaptive coping behaviours are things that would reasonably be expected to decrease potential threats, and as a result, they decrease anxiety. Safety behaviours are things that don’t actually do much of anything to keep us safe, and while they may temporarily give a reprieve from anxiety, overall they end up actually perpetuating the anxiety. 

Distinguishing between the two isn’t just about the behaviour itself. The context, rationale, outcome, and attributed meaning also matter. 

Locking the door to your home is something that’s done by most people to reduce the risk of theft or other threats. You may lock the door behind you when you get home, which sets your mind at ease so you can carry on with your day. Perhaps you were a bit preoccupied when you got home, so you can’t remember if you locked the door when you got home. You check it and see that it is in fact locked, so you feel reassured, and that’s the end of that. This is an example of adaptive coping behaviours. 

Let’s say, though, you have a high level of anxiety, or perhaps obsessions, related to your home not being secure. Maybe you compulsively check the door every 10 minutes to make sure it’s locked. While your mind is telling you that this makes you safer, it doesn’t, and it ends up reinforcing the anxiety. 

In CBT, it’s important to identify safety behaviours and work on finding more adaptive ways of coping that don’t fuel anxiety. 

Behavioural Experiments 

Behaviour experiments are a way to play psychology researcher and test out predictions/ hypotheses in real-life settings. They can be used to test if… then… underlying assumptions, or you can do surveys to check if other people actually are thinking (or noticing) what you expect them to think. 

The first step in devising a behavioural experiment is to identify the belief being tested. Then you come up with an experiment that could test that belief. The next step is to make specific predictions about the absolute worst thing that could happen, the best thing that could happen, and the most likely outcome you expect. Rate the percentage certainty of your belief in the outcome you expect. 

These are the steps in doing a behavioural experiment: 

1. Select a belief that makes predictions about the world to test 

2. Rate the strength of the belief 

3. Decide on a setting/context to test the belief 

4. Decide on a method for the experiment 

5. Conduct the experiment 

6. Evaluate the results, assessing what happened and how much of your initial prediction turned out to be true 

7. Review any changes in the belief and re-rate the strength of it 

The experiment should be set up such that people doing nothing is not treated as evidence for your belief. People are lazy, and doing nothing is usually going to be the default response. People doing nothing may serve as evidence against certain predictions (e.g. if you predict that people will comment on a certain behaviour of yours, but they don’t), but if your prediction is that people will ignore you when you walk into a room, people doing nothing is the default, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with you. 

When doing CBT with a therapist, you have someone to help you devise experiments and evaluate them afterwards. If you’re doing this on your own for the first time and you haven’t done CBT before, ask someone close to you to get creative and help you devise an experiment. Having that objective input is important because you don’t want to inadvertently (or intentionally) set yourself up with an experiment that’s bound to go badly. 

If you’re finding that it’s hard to step back and take the role of curious researcher, but you see the potential value of doing behavioural experiments, working with a therapist will probably help. This is something that’s fairly conducive to online therapy if that’s more accessible for you.


Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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