Colour me kooky, but I have not enjoyed living through a pandemic. For me, it’s basically been a social experiment in what happens when you take an already neurotic person and strip them of all semblance of routine. The results have been roughly as chaotic as Big Brother’s fight night, had the housemates been given hallucinogens.
Initially, I did what I always do in times of crisis and simply became an even bigger Spice Girls fan. Without restaurants, or bars, or clubs, my evenings were spent pillaging eBay of every available piece of officially licensed tat. Several times, I unpacked things I’d apparently ordered in a fugue state, only to realise I already owned duplicates. Nothing screams “cry for help” quite so loudly as four identical Baby Spice mugs.
Alone with my thoughts for the first time in years, I discovered they were a hostile crowd, and became consumed by free-floating dread. Right on time, I learned that my job was at risk. When listening to Spice Up Your Life 20 times a day stopped feeling like a sufficient coping strategy, a friend suggested I try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Developed in the 1960s by the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck, CBT offers a quick fix to psychological distress by aiming to correct unhelpful thought patterns, rather than unpack their underlying causes. It isn’t without its critics – psychologist Jonathan Shedler compares it to a drive-thru – but it felt an attractive proposition compared with 10 years on the couch complaining about my parents (I have siblings for that).
After speaking to my GP, I was offered three sessions over six weeks on the NHS. In my first conversation with the therapist, we spoke about the interplay between thoughts, behaviours, emotions and physical sensations. Because the last two are hardest to challenge, we’d be focusing on the first two. For homework, I was told to keep a thought record, where I would log situations in which “hot” (emotionally charged) moods occurred, rate their intensity from 0-10, and note down any thoughts or images that ran through my mind.
Two weeks later, we reconvened to pick through my most humiliating thoughts and look for evidence that supported or contradicted them. Once we’d assembled proof on both sides (this had to be facts, rather than opinions), we used it to create what she called a balanced thought. For example, Victoria Beckham’s hot thought might be, “I can’t sing.” The evidence for this could include her limited octave range, and the evidence against could include her 85m record sales. A balanced thought might be: “I feel as if I can’t sing because I have a limited vocal range, but I have sold 85m records and Out Of Your Mind is a banger for the ages.”
Once I’d created my own balanced thought, I was told to refer to it at moments when I felt overwhelmed. Hang on, I thought: was that it? The magic solution to my problems was… to balance a negative thought with a slightly more positive one? It felt like the kind of advice that might appear in a fortune cookie, or be dispensed by a wellness influencer between lunges. But the next time I woke in the night, my mind racing with anxiety, I practised the exercise and found it calming. Concentrating on the process acted like a circuit breaker, stopping my negative thoughts before they could spiral into ever more catastrophic scenarios. Having something prescriptive to focus on also gave me a sense of control that had been largely missing during the hellscape of 2020. Miraculously, I managed to fall back to sleep.
I’m not convinced that three hours of CBT holds the solution to my – or anyone’s – problems. But compared with the other therapeutic exercises I’ve explored (joylessly mainlining all 10 seasons of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, eating one full-size bar of Toblerone a day, lying in the bath for upwards of four hours and imagining how different my life would be if only I’d been born Timothée Chalamet), it has proved helpful enough that I would consider a longer course. Will it make a difference long term? You’ll have to come back to me. Better yet, check my eBay history.