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Cognitive therapy is based on the assumption that our emotions are very strongly linked to the way we think about situations and life events.  Our schemata include attitudes and assumptions and are used to classify, interpret, evaluate and give meaning to an event.  Events will only have meaning for an individual when they are interpreted using his own schemata.  So an event will be perceived differently by each person due to their differing previous experiences.  We are not passive receptors of stimuli, but we construct our own idiosyncratic perceptions of the world.

When  a person perceives a threat of some kind the normal reaction is anxiety, mobilising the life-saving mechanisms, and producing either the fight or flight reaction.  This is a survival mechanism and has been essential in our development.  The reaction is triggered by the cognitions, so if the cognitive structuring is not accurate, then this reaction can be triggered incorrectly.  In the same way, loss can lead to feelings of sadness and this is a normal reaction.  However, if the feeling of sadness is extended in a global way by thinking, “I can’t cope”, then depression can result.  This global thinking is dysfunctional and would be targeted for cognitive psychotherapy.

There is no need to consider special mechanisms to explain problems such as depression and anxiety.  Depression can be seen as being at the extreme of a continuum from elation through sadness to deep depression.  Anxiety will be along the continuum which would run from relaxation to panic.  How one experiences emotions along each continuum will depend on one’s learning experiences, developmental history and personality which underlie each schema. So what may trigger distress in one person may not do so in another due to their different schemata.  For instance, an independent person is likely to be much less affected by loss than a more dependent person.  If interaction between people is involved, then it can happen that each one brings maladaptive cognitions into play and that produces a strong reinforcement of their dysfunctional thoughts.

Cognitive psychotherapy sees psychological disorders on a continuum with “normal” cognitive-affective-behavioural responses to life situations.  So really they are seen only as extreme versions of normal emotional reactions.  Each of the four basic emotions has cognitive and behavioural correlates.  Sadness is evoked when there is a perception of defeat, loss or deprivation, and the behavioural correlate is to withdraw.  Elation follows when a gain has been perceived and that reinforces activity towards the goal.  Anxiety is triggered by perceived vulnerability and threat, and the behavioural consequence is to freeze, withdraw, or prepare for defence.  Anger derives from a perceived offensive quality in the threat, and the behavioural reaction is to attack.


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