The fatal flaw in CBT

If you’re suffering from anxiety, panic, PTSD, depression, or any other psychological state, chances are you’ve either been prescribed medication or recommended to take a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at a ‘Wellbeing’ clinic.  

In this article I want to explore what I think is a fatal flaw in CBT, which might well explain why the outcomes of this type of therapy so often disappoint.

But not only that…

I’ll draw upon latest advances in psychotherapy and neuro-psychology and what we know about the link between thoughts and emotions – and what leads to real and lasting change.

Let’s get started…

Patterns in the brain – why we can’t just ‘think’ ourselves better

I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve turned to my help after CBT failed to resolve their problems.

Hopefully, by reading this you’ll know that making changes in your life and getting better involves much more than just trying to change the way you think.

In a seminal book I read in 2004, ‘The Human Givens – a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking I was asked these questions…

  • How do we recognise an old friend we haven’t seen for twenty years?
  • How do we pick up what someone else is feeling?
  • What happens in our minds when we start to laugh before something funny happens?
  • Why do we sometimes feel anxious, angry or depressed without a conscious reason for it?

The answer to all these questions is a process that the brain carries out automatically, a process called ‘pattern-matching’.

Nature, nurture and the REM state

The authors of the book, Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell – who became my trainers and, I would say, mentors for several years – tell us that by the time we are born, nature has already provided us with templates or patterns for certain instinctive behaviours, programmed into us during REM sleep in the womb.

These inner templates, which are necessarily incomplete, seek a match in the environment. In effect, the incomplete templates tell the baby to, “Look in your environment for something like this to complete the pattern.”

The key word here is ‘like’. The pattern doesn’t have to be an exact match but something similar enough. This is why a baby can happily suckle on any shape or size of nipple, a rubber teat or even a finger for a while.

As we grow up, especially in the first few years, new templates are added through our experiences of life and from what we observe in other people and our environment. These become ‘reference points’ or ‘internal maps’ from which we negotiate the territory of the real world around us.

Emotional distortions and faulty perception

The trouble is, many of these templates or reference points are faulty; it is so easy when young to misconstrue what we see or hear. In doing so, a fake message, story, or belief-structure becomes embedded in the neuronal circuit of the brain.

Let me give you an example of a client I worked with recently. I’ll call her Eileen…

Eileen had spent her whole adult life haunted by the words her mother inadvertently wounded her with; “You’re not pretty; you’re just different.”

Those words, along with several other negative comments, formed a pattern or belief structure in Eileen’s brain…

Even though in reality she is extremely attractive, the inner pattern laid down over fifty years ago didn’t allow Eileen to see this. Her opinion of herself (and consequently her self-esteem) was still being distorted by the wounding from the past.

The fact is that most of the emotions you’ll ever feel in life have a long history to them. Happiness, joy, anger, sadness, boredom, disappointment etc. are nothing new.

There is nothing novel about such emotions when you experience them as an adult. You’ve experienced them many times before, going way, way back.

The important point to understand here is this: a current event can trigger an emotional reaction in you because the brain is pattern-matching back to an earlier similar event (the pattern of which is somehow still active within the brain, even though it might be decades old).

This is also what can happen with panic attacks and PTSD.

Panic in the supermarket

Just imagine this for a moment…

John is at the checkout in the supermarket and for some unknown reason he begins to have a terrifying panic attack..

He’s sweating, his heart is racing, he can’t get his breath and feels he may be suffocating or is about to have a heart attack. He thinks he might even be going mad, or, even worse, that he’s about to die.

Unconsciously, his brain scans the environment to see what could be causing this, noting all kinds of associating details: queues of people, aisles, items on shelves, trolleys, bright lights etc.

John’s brain will store these environmental details for future reference (in other words, a pattern gets laid down).

Thankfully, John survives but guess what happens a week later…

He’s in a large post office; there are queues of people, aisles, things on shelves, bright lights and…bam! The brain pattern-matches to the previous panic attack (because of the same environmental triggers) and sets off the alarm response again, causing another panic attack.

Of course, if this continues it might well lead to agoraphobia in time as John’s brain pattern-matches to more and more similar-enough stimuli.

He’ll avoid all supermarkets, all post offices, all shops with aisles, all department stores with queues etc. The anxiety ends up ‘rippling’ into other places, based on close-enough patterns.

This is because the ‘survival brain’ always errs on the side of caution.

Understanding pattern-matching and why CBT is simply wrong

So, let’s try to understand this by delving into the Human Givens book a little more deeply and, in particular, looking at a model of brain functioning the authors call the APET model…

The A in APET stands for activating stimulus (the trigger from the environment).

Information about that stimulus is processed subconsciously through the pattern-matching part of the brain, hence the P, and compared to patterns already existing in the brain derived from previous experiences.

This then gives rise to emotions, E, such as anger, fear, panic, jealousy etc.

These emotions may then inspire certain thoughts, T. (Alternatively it may not, because a lot of pattern-matching is unconscious and doesn’t result in conscious thoughts. This is why we can have certain feelings and not know the reason.)

This is the remarkable thing about the APET model of mind/body functioning which goes against the very premise of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Proponents of CBT assert that in order to feel better you have to change your thinking.

Much of the therapy on offer today is based on changing your thinking styles. Sure, there is a link between what we think and how we feel, but we now know that the brain processes emotions before thoughts.

Emotions have to come before thinking because they are linked to our very survival.

The CBT model is back to front!

This is the point I’m trying to make against CBT. You should not be focusing on changing your thinking if you want to feel better.

Instead, we have to work with the very processes that happen before conscious thinking, namely the instinctive, survival brain processes and all the emotions that go with it.

This is what I focus on with hypnotherapy, which is all about using the REM state to change instinctive or learnt patterns in the subconscious mind. I say more about this in my free ebook.

You can’t change instinctive patterns merely by thinking differently. This is the fatal flaw in CBT that I’m talking about. It goes against nature.

So, Let’s spend a moment trying to understand this survival brain…

The survival mechanism gone awry

Emotions originate in the limbic system and it is this system of the brain that is always on the lookout for potential danger, monitoring information coming in through our senses from the environment.

The emotional brain can respond instantly to threat by firing the fight or flight response and this happens before the conscious brain knows anything about it.

We unconsciously interpret each stimulus in terms of, “Does it represent a danger or is it safe? Is this something I can eat or is it something that can eat me? Is this something I can approach or something I should get away from?”

The brain instantly pattern-matches to previous similar experiences and decides whether what is happening now is a threat or not. Only after this process do we have thoughts about it.

In other words, if a situation is deemed threatening, the fight or flight response is triggered before the thinking part of the brain becomes involved.

This is what happens when we see a shape in a dark alley and instinctively run away from a possible attacker, only to notice a few seconds later it was just a bin bag blowing about in the wind!

It is also what happens in non-emergency situations (like’s John’s second panic attack in the post office, a week after the one in the supermarket). The brain is still reacting as if the situation was an emergency because the pattern of the previous experience is still alive and active.

Panic attacks are deep trance phenomena!

A panic attack is one of the most frightening experiences you can ever have. It really feels as if you’re going crazy, suffocating, having a heart attack, or are about to die. It is also a deep trance state: your attention mechanism is ‘locked in’.

Panic attacks feel life-threatening and this is why the brain stores the experience and the environmental details for future reference. Until the memory pattern is switched off (which is what hypnotherapy aims to do) the brain will keep pattern-matching to it.

This is why people can suffer for years with anxiety disorders like PTSD, panic attacks, phobias, flashbacks, negative memories etc. The survival brain (the part that fires the fight/flight response) is continually on the look-out for possible threats. And when it sees one, off goes the alarm again.

But, you might ask, what caused John’s first panic attack in the supermarket? He’d never had a panic attack before so there can’t have been a reference point?

Good question…

The truth is that most panic attacks are initially caused by raised levels of background stress. We feel overwhelmed, there’s too much we have to do, our minds are racing etc. And then one more thing, one more tiny stressor, becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

And when it happens – when we go into survival-mode-trance – the brain will always note the details of the immediate surroundings. And it is this that forms the pattern that the brain will later match to. “Watch out for queues/aisles/trolleys/bright lights etc. These could be dangerous,” is the message coming from the survival brain.

Calming the ‘Monkey Mind’ and freeing yourself from old emotions

In Eckhart Tolle’s latest book, ‘Oneness With All Life’ he says, “Be aware of your breathing. Notice how this takes your attention away from your thinking and creates space.”

That’s my underlining, by the way. We’re back to the faulty premise/promise of CBT. As Eckhart says, we need to get our attention off our thinking, not try to change it.

The reason is simple enough…

All strong emotions operate from a black and white, good or bad, life or death, all-or-nothing perspective. When the emotional temperature rises the survival brain (something I refer to as the Monkey Mind) hijacks the reasoning abilities of the neo-cortex (the more Human Mind), in effect making us stupid.

Anytime you find yourself thinking or reacting in these terms, from an all-or-nothing perspective, you know that your emotional brain (the Monkey Mind) is in charge.

Of course, this can lead to all sorts of problems because you can’t see the bigger picture when you’re emotionally aroused; you can only see a very narrow view of reality – fight or flight.

In effect, you are in a symptomatic trance state, be it anxiety, anger, depression, addiction, low-self esteem, jealousy or whatever.

It’s only when emotional arousal isn’t so strong that you can retain access to the thinking part of the brain (the neo-cortex) and make a more intelligent assessment of the stimulus by seeing the bigger picture.

Breaking out of your own trance states

The good news is that there is a way to de-hypnotise yourself from these emotions and from the patterns of your past. And if CBT is going to do any good it needs to incorpoarte some of these ideas…

What I call ‘first stage interventions’ include ways to control your breathing to calm both body and mind, as well as developing your observing-self – the part of you that can stand back from the limited perception of emotional trance states and see the bigger picture.

Over the last few years many CBT practitioners have incorporated ‘mindfulness’ techniques to help calm the emotional brain, but even this is not enough to change unconscious patterns.

Remember, you can’t just think your way out of instinctive patterns!

Incorporating hypnosis into CBT sessions seems to make a huge difference. Indeed, research shows a 70% improvement when hypnosis is used alongside CBT.

A powerful hypnotic technique I use regularly is the Rewind Technique – an advanced method that turns off emotional patterns and reactions. To my mind, it is the best way to resolve panic attacks, phobias, PTSD, nightmares, sexual abuse, assaults, and more.

And EFT – emotional freedom technique – is also another method I’ve used successfully with others – and for myself – that also frees you from the limiting patterns of the past.

What all of these methods do is…

#1 Calm the mind and body, especially the emotional brain

#2 Create enough ‘brain-space’ so that there is room for the higher cortex to function properly – free of emotional distortions

#3 And from a more balanced perspective re-assess or ‘reprogramme’ the old memory patterns. In effect, the brain contextualises the memories, learning, “That emotional reaction belongs in the past; it’s not necessary now.”

Once the templates have been adjusted, your brain will see the pattern as irrelevant and no longer life-threatening. At this point the past is finally laid to rest and you feel free – at last.

Real healing and transformation

This is, of course, where real healing and transformation takes place. And it’s at this point where psychotherapy and spirituality converge.

According to Griffin and Tyrrell again, real spirituality is not about reading or listening to scriptures, praying or chanting in a church, mosque, or temple once a week, or going on summer retreats, but is more about refining patterns of perception.  

CBT can never do this because it doesn’t work on this level. It is too conscious-based. And we are far more than just our conscious minds.

In hypnotherapy, by using the REM state, we are more able to refine these unconscious patterns of perception – how we see ourselves and the world around us – and by so doing, become free from old conditioning.

And then who do you become?! It’s time to start wondering…


I’d love to hear what you think of this article so please contact me here. Have you experienced CBT? Did it work for you? Or did it leave you feeling no better – or even worse?

More about my approach to hypnotherapy and what I believe leads to real and lasting change is in my free ebook.

Here is the link to the Human Givens book, and another couple of books that compliment this article and your understanding of trance states…

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2 thoughts on “The fatal flaw in CBT

  1. I have very much enjoyed this read, CBT has and hasn’t worked for me, it was good to read the insight. I look forward to more articles.

    1. Thanks for your comment Natalie. CBT “has and hasn’t worked” for you? I’d be interested to hear more.
      I think on one level – perhaps if we’re not too emotionally aroused – a change of thought or a ‘reframe’ can make a difference. However, most of the people I see are already too emotionally identified with their issues and changing thoughts only scratches the surface.
      I’m glad you found the article interesting and sure, I’ll be adding more.

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