Christian Cognitive Therapy

Some time ago, I received Cognitive Therapy for my long-term neurotic depression. Although this was a purely secular medical treatment, I quickly picked up some psychospiritual aspects of it, particularly in conjunction with reading the Book of Proverbs in the Bible.

I am still working on these ideas, and adding to them from time to time. Often, I will have had more ideas than I've yet had a chance to type in, so do Contact me if you have further questions (or suggestions) and I'll be happy to try to help. The mark [] after a clause indicates that I have a Scripture reference in mind at this point, but haven't yet looked it up; [x] indicates a Scripture which I am reminded of by the word x.

The cognitive approach to psychiatric problems

Cognitive therapy is built on the view that psychiatric problems are concerned with states of mind, rather than the biological state of the brain or other parts of the body. It must be acknowledged that brain/body and mind do affect each other, but that is not the same thing as saying that depression, for example, has largely physical origins.

Against biopsychiatry

Many people suffering from depression, anxiety and other psychiatric problems are quick and adamant in making statements such as ``I have a chemical imbalance in my brain;'' I know, from first-hand experience, that such a view is easy to take when you're in the midst of such problems. Now that I can look back on the problems that I had, I disagree strongly with such a view, and would discourage people from taking it. It is not the explanation which best fits the information available; it is, however something which people are both drawn and pushed into. It expresses several of the cries of people in these forms of distress.

The traps of biopsychiatry

Since the biopsychiatric approach traps many people in their problems, it's important to look at at least the most obvious traps, and annul the forces that hold people in them with corresponding forces to help them to get out.

``I'm stuck in this illness''
The cognitive approach does not deny this, but people may feel that it's telling them ``just pull yourself together'', which is very frustrating.
``My illness is a real one''
The cognitive approach does not deny this one, either. It does, however, say that's it's not one of physical origins. Those who can't understand that something with non-physical origins may still be an illness, will, of course confuse these two statements. The solution to this, however, is to re-educate them, or, with those who will not learn, to insulate yourself from their ignorance and unlearningness.
``My illness isn't my fault''
The cognitive approach does not deny this, either. However, this is where we get very close to some dangerous falsehoods, and and we must be careful to deny them while accepting the truth of not being to blame. Some of these further falsehoods appear in the following entries in this list.
``I can't do anything about this illness''
If you've accepted that your illness isn't your fault, it's easy to be drawn on into the argument that it your decisions weren't involved in its creation, and that therefore you can't do anything about it. In fact, such illnesses result from the combination of the events which have happened to you, and what you understood those events to mean. This understanding was not your fault, but is something that you can change.
``This illness wasn't anyone's fault''
This is one that's pushed onto sufferers by those whose sense of comfort with themselves depends on refuting their part in causing the illness. In fact, various people who have been close to sufferers in their past are often the major contributors to suffering. It is noticeable that parents of psychiatric patients are eager to fund research to prove the biological (chemical, or genetic) origins of mental illness; not to find the origins of a mental illness, whatsoever those origins may be, without bias, but just to prove one particular conclusion -- the one which will exonerate them. In fact, we have major responsibilities[decalogue] to our neighbours[good samaritan], including, but not limited to, our immediate families.[]

Note that the cognitive approach offers a way out of each of these traps, whereas biopsychiatry leaves people in them although it may offer to ``treat'' them there, often with tablets.

A note on tablets

As I know from my own experience, anti-depressant tablets can work (although they don't for everyone). However, the fact that a chemical treatment can improve things doesn't mean that the problem was a chemical one. The fact the improvement doesn't necessarily continue after the drugs are stopped, along with the fact that the improvements typically resulting from cognitive approaches usually last for life, rather suggests (although does not prove) that the problem was not a chemical one!

So what's the alternative?

Having argued against one common understanding of mental state (and, by the way, when did you last hear someone you thought of as well-balanced ever dismiss their happiness as being just a chemical state?) I should state what model of it I have... which is more complex since it is from a world-view which has an idea of spirituality, and thus regards each person as having a soul as well as a mind and a body. However, I won't try drawing any boundaries between soul and mind, or between mind and body (nor, for that matter, between soul and body, although those who question this are probably interested in answering for themselves).

I have already written on this, in an essay I wrote a couple of years ago, and I will include just a couple of paragraphs from the essay here, and a pointer to the whole text.

In this model, I see the subjective mindscape (of thought and mood, combined -- I would find it hard to separate them; there are always links, often cycles of causal links) as being like a hilly countryside with places on it and roads between them. At each place where roads join, you can take a choice of which road you leave the junction on. Roads that lead down a slope are easier choices than the uphill ones, but depending on how energetic you feel, you may take a road that leads uphill.

If your energy is low, you will find yourself taking successive downhill choices, and at best going on level ground or gentle upgrades. Doing so, you naturally stumble into a valley (or pit), and then keep going round and round the sides of it, never getting back up onto the ridges.

For the rest of this text, see my essay The mental terrain.

One specific combination of science and religion

In my notes here, I draw on psychological ideas, some logic, and scripture. I'm not a trained psychologist, and have very little formal theological training (limited to having done part of the Anglican Lay Reader training, and novice formation in the Third Order Franciscans). However, I'm quite experienced at logical problem solving (I'm a software professional) and that is where these ideas are centred, drawing from[treasures-old-and-new] and building on[house-on-rock] scriptural thought but not starting from it. Some may find this approach ``not Christian enough''; they're welcome to read their own emphases into the text (but I am not a deconstructionist, and wrote the text with specific and deliberate meanings). Others may have found this page while looking for Cognitive Therapy without a religious involvement; I hope they will still find the non-religious aspects of these notes useful.

I find it quite appropriate for a software developer to be writing notes on cognitive therapy, since (as explained above), the problems addressed, are, in computing terms, software problems! (I also have some university-level education in biology, since when I did my degree the university did not offer computer science in the first year of the degree, and I took biological sciences for that year. But, as I say, I don't think the problems addressed are primarily biological.)

A balanced approach to spirituality and wholeness

Although I present this mostly as a construction of reasoning on a foundation of scripture, I would like to point out that there's more to spiritual growth than Bible-reading. In particular, prayer is important, but since that varies so much between people, it's harder for me to write it into these notes than it is for me to include specific Bible references. Also, it's possible for prayer to become infringed upon by psychological conditions, which may push a superstitious edge into it, in which actual prayer may be displaced by rituals, or affected by a ritual approach to prayer, and this must be handled with care (I'll make some more notes on that eventually).

Also, prayer is not an activity to be undertaken in isolation, but as an integrated part of one's life; what sense is there in giving thanks for something (as an isolated idea) without living gratefully?

How cognitive therapies work

A central idea behind this kind of therapy is that our feeling are influenced by our thoughts. If we are having troublesome feeling (for example, depression or anxiety) we can tackle them by finding the distorted thoughts leading up to those feelings, and undermining their convincingness, having first found more realistic views on the same things. The more realistic views then gradually take over, pushing aside the ideas that were causing the problems.

On the whole, the better ideas about the complexities of our lives and this world have take into account a large number of things, sorting out which ones are actually relevant to the aspect of life and reality that we are considering, and which are irrelevant.

Scripture in the process of cognitive change

There are two way in which we can use Scripture to help with this process:

  1. Many Bible passages are helpful in finding new ideas to replace troublesome ones;
  2. and some parts of the Bible (particularly the Proverbs) reflect on thoughts and the ability to change them (that is, to learn).

Some passages from the Bible about taking control of how you think

The tongue within

Although in these passages ``the tongue'' refers to what we say to others, the same ideas can apply to what our inner tongue (thoughts) says to ourselves (spirits).

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.[James 3:3-5]
Be careful of how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. [Proverbs 4:23]
Worry can rob you of happiness, but kind words will cheer you up.[Proverbs 12:25]
Being cheerful keeps you healthy. It is slow death to be gloomy all the time.[Proverbs 17:22]

Let's look at how the things we tell ourselves have so much control over the way we are (the effect they have on others is a further effect, deserving separate attention).


The importance of learning

Never correct a conceited man; he will hate you for it. But if you correct a wise man, he will respect you. [Proverbs 9:8]
People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. [Proverbs 10:17]
Stupid people always think they are right. Wise people listen to advice. [Proverbs 12:15]
A warning given by an experienced person to someone willing to listen is more valuable than gold rings or jewellery made of the finest gold. [Proverbs 25:12]
People learn from one another, just as iron sharpens iron. [Proverbs 27:17]
Even if you beat a fool until he's half dead, you still can't beat his foolishness out of him. [Proverbs 27:22]

One conclusion we can reasonably draw from this collection of proverbs is that the first thing we must learn is to learn. To start with, we are often full of pride, which draws us to thinking that we are right, our views are right, and other views are wrong and so we should not change our views when we encounter more realistic ones (because that would devalue the views we previously held).

Addressing some particular problems

(Just a framework so far -- sorry! But at least it's a framework.)


This may well be the root of other problems such as depression and anxiety.





Things to include

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John C. G. Sturdy

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