‘It gave me an ability to enjoy life’: readers on cognitive behavioural therapy

The psychotherapist Aaron Beck, known as the father of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), died on Tuesday aged 100 at his Philadelphia home. CBT is a form of treatment that helps patients to analyse and manage negative thinking patterns rather than focusing on past conflicts. Here, two people tell us about their experiences with CBT and how it changed their lives.

I suffer from trichotillomania, a compulsive hair-pulling disorder. Specifically, I pull out hair on my legs and hands, leaving me with lots of little scabs. I’ve done it every day since I was around 13. It can seem like a trivial issue, but it has impacted almost every facet of my life. I lose track of time once I’ve started a pulling episode; my sense of self and body image is completely scuppered. I’ve lost sleep and skipped meals because of it. Being locked down during the pandemic was particularly detrimental to my ability to manage it.

I sought help when I was 16. My counsellor told me to spend six weeks logging when I pull, how I feel when I pull, and trying to think of creative distractive techniques to dissuade me from resorting to it. But the techniques only worked temporarily, and left me feeling like I might be doomed to live like this forever. A couple of years passed and I went to university, where I struggled to cope as my pulling episodes disrupted my work. I reached out to the university counselling service in my second year, which is when I started CBT. It was by no means a miracle cure, and I still pull out hair every day. But it has reframed my relationship with trichotillomania.

What seemed gross to talk about before – such as painstaking details about why I choose specific hairs to pull out – could be explored openly. I was breaking down my behavioural cycles in incremental steps, rather than attributing the whole condition to phases of anxiety or adrenaline. The pulling can be triggered by anything, such as having a task to do that day. If before I was aiming for a pull-free day, and I ended up pulling, I’d give up and see the day as a failure and carry on as usual. But I’ve now recognised that as a cycle and redefined my goals. If I pull a little bit during the day nowadays, I won’t give up. More recently, I have also been on antidepressants for the last few months while working on my university exams. The combination has helped during this stressful time.

My trichotillomania might take years to dissipate – if at all – but my ability to cope with it has dramatically improved. The iceberg is big but, thanks to CBT, it finally seems surmountable. Jasmine, 21, graduate, Bracknell

My insecurity, anxiety, anger and excessive need to be appreciated all contributed to the failure of my first two marriages. I was diagnosed with depression at around 45, after my second divorce. I sought help from a clinical psychologist, who told me I had described 75% of the most common symptoms of depression in the first five minutes of talking to him. He agreed to let his colleague deliver one-to-one CBT sessions with me.

It was like having the scales drop from my eyes as I engaged with the therapy by reading about living with depression. CBT helped me identify my negative thoughts, and guided me through the choices I’d make in response. It was possible to understand why I was like I was and that I could do something about it.

I’m not saying CBT was a one-time, fix-all experience, and I have also taken antidepressants in the past. Memories can fade and old thought patterns creep back up on you without you realising. But a recent refresher course has put me back on track and helped to avert a third divorce. Being locked down together for a long time during the pandemic put pressures on our relationship, and I slid backwards into controlling and dominating, anxiety-based behaviour. We stayed together on the condition that I’d continue with an online course of treatment under the IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) programme and keep doing CBT exercises. For me, CBT gave me an ability to enjoy life and manage myself in ways that would not otherwise have been possible. Peter Corker, 67, higher education marketing manager, Kettering

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