There are many different styles of cognitive behavioral therapy, and a wide variety of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. The approach we’ve found to be most helpful is the one that was developed by psychiatrist David Burns.
The basic tool of Burns’ approach is what he calls the “Daily Mood Log” (DML for short). Its purpose is to help you identify the distorted thoughts that trigger your negative emotional reactions.
We’re going to teach you how to use the DML, and we’ll show you how it relates to Dan Siegel’s “Interpersonal Neurobiology” (basic principles of how the brain functions which we lay out in the Brain Pages of this site).
The Daily Mood Log, as developed by David Burns, has five parts:
Much of the work of dismantling your distorting thinking involves promoting greater integration between your “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain - that is, establishing the right balance between the two. The Daily Mood Log is an effective way of accomplishing that because it gets your upstairs brain to “listen to” the concerns of your downstairs brain, and your downstairs brain to "listen to" the greater clarity of your upstairs brain. It gets the two working together to give you a clearer understanding of what's happened, and to prepare you to respond more constructively in the future.
To the extent you “remember to breathe,” as you work through the DML,
you’ll be strengthening your MPFC and your heart brain, which can then
do their job of integrating all the parts of your brain and helping you
to live a life more centered in the “core.”
Keeping in mind what’s happening in your brain, let’s look a little more closely at the different steps of the Mood Log, and then go on to work each step in detail.
This is the situation that you’re reacting to. So, for example, imagine someone tells you right to your face, “You’re an idiot.” Most likely you’ll have some kind of negative emotional reaction.
In terms of your wheel of awareness, even if you were calmly resting in the “hub” before this happened, your attention would probably be torn away from the hub and fixated on your emotional reaction out on the rim.
This is where you name the negative emotion that came up in response to the event. When someone insults you, as in the above example, you may feel
surprised, confused, sad, or angry.
Here’s where you identify the thoughts that are rapidly arising in your mind.
In response to being called an idiot, your thought might be, “Look who’s calling me an idiot! She’s the idiot” – in which case your emotional reaction would tend to be anger.
Or your thought might be, “Everyone always thinks I’m an idiot” – in which case your emotional reaction would more likely be hurt, embarrassment, or humiliation.
According to CBT, automatic thoughts that lead to negative emotional reactions always contain some kind of distortion. This is the step where you identify what those distortions are.
The first thought we identified above in response to being called an idiot (“Look who’s calling me an idiot! She’s the idiot”) is an example of the distortion known as, “labeling.” The second thought, “Everyone always thinks I’m an idiot” is an example of “overgeneralization.”
In terms of what we’ve been saying about the brain, it might help to think of a “constructive response” as the natural expression of a well-balanced, integrated brain. A constructive response guided by the MPFC would exhibit qualities of self-awareness, self-regulation, response flexibility, and empathy.
So a constructive response to being called an idiot could be something like “I wonder if she’s feeling bad?” Or “I wonder whether I said or did something that offended her and didn't realize it. Let me think about our recent interactions and see if I can figure out what it might have been.”
Does it sound too easy, or totally absurd to think that a negative emotional reaction can be turned around in five steps?
Or, are you inclined to believe that negative emotions are caused by brain chemistry, and that if you want to change your brain chemistry you need to take a pill?
Actually, scientists don’t know for sure what happens in the brain to cause negative emotions. However, they do know it’s possible for some people to dramatically change their negative emotions without pills.
But it isn’t quick or easy. It takes practice.
In the pages listed below, we’ll show you in detail how to work with each of the five steps of the Daily Mood Log. We’ll also show you how to use some of the other techniques on this site – like breathing, mindfulness, and heart-centering – to help make the DML more effective.