Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Performance, Productivity and Accessing Flow States – Better Than Nootropics?

By on November 26, 2014

CBT stands for ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ and is a ‘pscyhotherapeutic’ method for dealing with various mental health issues. Essentially, if you suffer with anxiety, phobias, insomnia or a range of other issues, you may be referred to a cognitive behavioral therapist who will then talk at you for a while and give you some exercises to do. Unlike some other forms of therapy though, cognitive behavioural therapy appears to work very well (1). Better yet, it’s also particularly quick and cheap to the point where patients can actually practice it at home on their own if they are so inclined rather than having to sit through lengthy therapy sessions that plumb the depths of their psyche.

What I’m interested in then, is whether cognitive behavioural therapy could be used by those without mental health issues as a tool to improve mental and physical performance… even access flow states at will. The central concept of CBT essentially revolves around ‘reprogramming’ your brain, so the question is: can it help you to enhance your performance and to become ‘better than well’?

cognitive behavioral therapy

How CBT Works

Essentially, CBT revolves around the idea that your thoughts impact on your behavior and your mental health. The main cause of a phobia from a CBT perspective then, is that you have developed maladaptive beliefs regarding whatever it is you’re afraid of and are then ‘ruminating’ on the subject. For instance you might be afraid of heights and find that you’re constantly repeating to yourself things like ‘I’m going to fall!’ or ‘what if I jump?’. Likewise an anxiety of speaking in front of a crowd might be caused by you thinking things like ‘everyone will laugh at me’, while insomnia could be the result of thoughts like ‘I have so much to do! I must get to sleep now‘. You might be depressed with low confidence because you keep thinking things like ‘nobody likes me’ or ‘I always mess up’.

This is the ‘cognitive’ aspect that looks at the content of your thoughts almost as programming which dictates behavior. Meanwhile, the ‘behavioral’ borrows from behavioral psychology and talks about how we create associations and reaffirm beliefs. When you tell yourself that you’re scared of spiders, this raises your heartrate and it reinforces that belief. A combination of your experience and interpretation of events leads to your beliefs which then dictates your behavior.

So then how does CBT address these issues? There are a few techniques, which essentially include the following:

Mindfulness: This is a form of meditation wherein your aim is not to empty your mind of thoughts but rather to simply observe your own thoughts and to reflect on them, giving yourself an idea of the kinds of thoughts that are potentially causing problems. You might also be encouraged to keep a journal of your thoughts and your resulting mental states.

Cognitive Restructuring: Once you have identified your negative thought patterns, your aim will now be to try and change those thought patterns. For instance, if you find yourself constantly thinking ‘I’m going to fall’ when you’re in high places, you would now replace this with more logical thoughts like ‘I’m completely in control’ and ‘this place has been constructed with safety in mind’. These thoughts can calm your nerves and eventually over time you will come to believe them.

Biofeedback: If you struggle with anxiety, then using cognitive restructuring and breathing techniques, it’s actually possible to reduce your heartrate. Biofeedback means using a heartrate monitor or even an EEG and then testing how you are changing your own physiology. This means that you can learn your own body and mind better and thus learn how to control your heartrate and mental state more effectively.

Hypothesis Testing: If you can’t convince yourself to believe your own more positive thoughts, then you can use hypothesis testing to encourage yourself to. This means testing your negative beliefs in order to prove to yourself that they’re inaccurate. Afraid everyone will laugh at you when you stutter during a presentation? Try stuttering and prove to yourself that that isn’t the case. Combined with your cognitive restructuring, this will help a great deal.

CBT for Performance

CBT can be used in order to improve your mental health and this can indirectly improve your performance in a work setting and your productivity (2). But what if you could use CBT to become super-humanly good at sleeping? Amazing at focusing on any given task? To give yourself the ability to completely switch off after a hard day at work? Or even to enter a flow state at will?

Just because you don’t have insomnia, that doesn’t mean you can’t still use CBT, mindfulness, biofeedback and cognitive restructuring to sleep even better. And it doesn’t mean that this can’t help you to enjoy an even better quality of life – not to mention more energy, focus and creativity. Next time you’re about to go to bed, try using cognitive restructuring in order to remind yourself that nothing matters until morning, and that sleep is the most important thing right now.

I actually had insomnia when I was about 9 and I managed to cure it unintentionally by using CBT. How? I changed my thought patterns from ‘I must get to sleep’ (a sure way to raise your heartrate) to ‘I love just lying here and resting’. My Mum told me that just resting was still good for you and once I decided I enjoyed lying down without sleeping, you couldn’t stop me from nodding off.

CBT is commonly used to tackle obesity and to help people lose weight, but again you don’t have to be fat to benefit from this. I managed to get myself to stop ordering deserts in restaurants by just focusing on how they made me feel after I ate them (sick). Now I stick to a coffee with a biscuit. Likewise you can restructure your thinking to give yourself more energy for a workout.

Likewise, can you use CBT to force yourself to put all distractions out of your mind before sitting down to do a day’s work? I believe that an understanding of CBT is what has helped me to write 10-20,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

CBT vs Nootropics

Many people who want to improve their mental performance will try experimenting with nootropics. These raise or lower particular neurotransmitters in most cases. For instance, they might increase modafinil in order to enhance focus and learning capabilities. As I’ve talked about before though, using nootropics like this is actually a mistake because it can lead to tolerance and dependence as your brain adapts to these changes in neurochemistry and alters the amount of neurotransmitters and receptors to account for that. As a result, you start taking bigger and bigger doses to get the same effect.

It’s also worth noting that increasing one neurotransmitter often leads to increases or decreases in others and that most of them have positive and negative effects. If you use dopamine for instance, you will increase focus but you will lose creativity.

Even the much loved ‘flow state’ involves the shutting down of many brain areas (thus removing distraction) resulting in ‘hypofrontality’, and I’m not sure this is what you would want if you were trying to be creative.

The real skill then, is to be able to naturally switch your attention to different tasks and to turn focus on and off at will. One way to increase this ability is to increase your brain’s energy via exercise and cognitive metabolic enhancers (my favorite type of nootriopic). The other? That’s to practice mental discipline. And how do you do that? With CBT, duh!

CBT for Hacking Your Neurotransmitters

The way your neurotransmitters are meant to work, is that they are released in response to your mental experience. This is why novelty and ‘rich’ environments trigger neurotransmitters that are associated with flow and that get us to pay more attention to what’s going on. And it’s why seeing a lion will cause your brain to flood with norepinephrine. Meanwhile, doing something boring and repetitive will get your default mode network (your ‘daydreaming’ brain regions) to start-up.

But it’s not the lion that makes you produce norepinephrine for that fight or flight response – it’s your reaction to that lion. In other words, if you could just imagine a lion or if you could convince yourself that what you were doing really was important then you would have the same neurochemical response. If you could learn to find what you were doing genuinely interesting then you would be able to trigger the same neurochemistry triggered by seeking new and novel experiences.

flow state

This is a slightly new spin on CBT, just as CBT is a slightly new spin on meditation. Ultimately though, the point is that it’s really good for your productivity and performance to practice exercising your mental discipline and changing your brain state at will. You don’t have to hurtle down the side of a mountain to experience flow and you should be able to access your default mode network on a crowded train.

You can use CBT to improve your ability to get to sleep, to stick to a diet, to overcome anxiety and to generally go beyond ‘normal’ to ‘optimal’. Moreover though, you can take it further and learn to use cognitive restructuring and an understanding of your thought processes in order to hack your neurochemistry for real performance enhancement.

Anyway… It’s just a thought! (Irony)

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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