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Cognitive Behaviour Therapy [CBT]: A Modern Neuroscience Approach

Life Sense Counselling

(incorporating mindfulness, cognitive behaviour therapy, self -compassion and neuroplasticity concepts)

Neuro-education and Principles:

  • Whatever we think about grows and thickens neurological pathways.  In simplest terms think of our neuro networks as green trees or black trees. You can grow and thicken the branches on ‘green trees’ (positivity or neutrality) or ‘black trees’ (negativity) by feeding them with brain proteins. This determines our state of mind.
  • We are thinking all the time – we can intentionally choose what to think to change our neurobiology and redirect thoughts to initially more neutral thoughts and then more positive, accepting or meaningful thoughts.
  • Reflecting and examining  (whether with ourselves or with someone else) takes a negative issue out of the negative neurological pathway (or black tree) and brings it into consciousness and creates a state of neuroplasticity where it becomes malleable and able to be restructured.
  • Just ‘naming it and claiming it’ or speaking something out or over ourselves doesn’t work – we need to examine it to understand and start to believe what we’re saying to change thoughts and self-beliefs.  When we tell ourselves or say things we don’t understand or believe it creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ and reinforces negativity or confused rumination. 

Neuroscience Guidelines and CBT

  • It takes around 21 days to start activating brain proteins to thicken pathways (tree branches)  and move thinking from the short-term to self-sustaining (to start creating positive thinking habitually). Just like watering and fertilising a tree from a seedling to a newly planted tree.It takes around63 days before you begin to maintain or continue growing pathways (63 days of positive cellular energy to move it into the conscious mind and stabilise and consolidate thinking more positively).  By the way, the same science works for negative thinking or black trees, so be intentional about what you’re feeding!
  • Our minds need 16 minutes per day to cognitively cleanse.  But you may need to build up to this, so start where you can. This is to reflect/daydream/notice what we’re thinking/communicate with self / spiritually contemplate.This process allows us to NOTICE what we are thinking about and where our mind goes. The below steps can take less than 16 minutes and can take place during these 16 minutes.The point is to be kind to yourself as you develop. You can’t grow positive pathways berating yourself or feeling you are failing. Explore and emerge rather than impose and disappoint! 
  • By day 7 you’re starting to change your Brain neurobiology/structure by reforming and ‘rewiring’ it through your Mind (thoughts, feelings, actions).  This is stopping feeding the black trees and starting to grow and feed feel-good green trees.
  • Don’t give up too early in the process. This is where you become aware of the negativity but have not transformed it yet.  Go beyond feeling and stick with intention and push through to a place of neutral recognition and reflection – labelling.From there you can go further and turn neutral into positive.  This is the art of mindfulness.  Noticing and labelling in the present without judgement.  Add in some understanding and self-compassion and you’re on the way to creating positive thoughts.
  • Growing green trees takes time and as they get bigger and stronger, dopamine will start to be stimulated  (the motivation and feel-good brain chemical/neurotransmitter).  This can start to happen around day 7, BUT DON’T STOP even if you feel you’re on top of it or the green branches won’t be stabilised or strong.  It’s not until around Day 21 that the restructuring of neuro pathways begins.
  • When redirecting thinking, you aim to refocus ideally 7 times a day.
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Modern Neuroscience Approach to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

(Allow at least 90 seconds for each step)


Gather awareness/mindful noticing of the big picture –  What thoughts/things occupy your thought and feeling life?  This is similar to the ‘THINK about your thinking’ step in traditional CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), but add in mindful self-compassion. 

It is about noticing curiously rather than viewing your thinking with self-disgust and condemnation.  For example, what’s this nagging feeling? Am I feeling anxious, on-edge, wired, jumpy, unease or is it sad, listless, unmotivated, frustrated, angry, resentful, hurried, harassed, suspicious….etc Are there any themes?



Ask, Answer, Discuss (similar to Socratic questioning or refuting/challenging step in CBT)

What does this mean for me? Why am I thinking this? What triggers me? Is this true for me?  Is this still true? Do I accept this? Are they wrong? Is this my stuff or theirs? Where do I notice I feel this in my body? 

You do this by talking to yourself out loud or in your head, or with a trusted wise person you can be authentic with (not your most negative friend).  This brings thoughts and beliefs into your conscious mind out of an automated state.



Jot down reflectionsget it onto paper (not type).  There is science behind writing and at a cellular level, you are getting the energy out of your body through releasing thoughts rather than squashing or recirculating them.

It doesn’t matter if it is a jumbled mess, just get it down. Watch it grow and emerge over time as you make sense of things. Review and compare writings from days before.



Keep this process of examining your thoughts and feelings until you reach an “Aha’ moment or a revelation/deeper understanding of the root of deeper belief – where it has come from (Family, friends, society, religion, culture)  how it has developed and been reinforced,  how it is limiting you, how it is making you feel bad. 

It may look like “Hey, maybe there is a reason for this and I need to find it” or “maybe this is a work in progress and I need to keep monitoring” or “Another perspective on this is….” or “Maybe I accept that I can’t change others or the past”, “What’s my part and what’s their’s?” “That’s not ok for me anymore and I don’t agree”.


  • ACT

What can I do today with what I’ve discovered? – sometimes there is a clear action step e.g put boundaries in place with someone who is speaking negatively to you.  At other times (especially in the first few weeks) the action can be as simple as committing to keep reflecting on what you’ve discovered allowing space for different perspectives.

You may decide to integrate some general techniques, for example, if anxious, decide to do 7x 30 seconds of deep focussed breathing a day whilst thinking “Calm” or using a mindfulness app on your phone.  

If a clear direction or answer emerges from your writing and reconceptualising steps, and you understand and reject a negative thought or belief, redirect and reframe it.  For example:

– if you’ve identified anger or resentment and have challenged yourself to see it from other perspectives, you can say 7 times a day “Let it go”; 

– perfectionistic fretting about work or study “Good enough IS enough” or “I can see this through” 

– self-worth issues and seeing that it has come from other people putting you down yet you are still standing  “I am worthy” . 

* remember you can’t overlay something you don’t believe (cognitive dissonance), so start with general redirection rather than tacking specific negative beliefs until you actually believe what you’re feeling is not right. Mindfulness is a great place to stay until you can start to understand and then believe what you want to reconceptualise and re-direct.


In Conclusion

That’s the neuroscience approach to cognitive behaviour therapy’s general guidelines and techniques, but they are not meant to impose a set of negative constraints or create more negative thoughts.  This is where self-compassion and mindfulness come into the process. So be patient, don’t fight it, be invitational, curious and self-examine objectively.  If some steps are uncomfortable or raise awareness of anxiety or negativity, don’t fight it but don’t lose hope – keep on keeping on and continue mindful examination.  

Book a CBT Therapist Appointment Today


Give yourself time to transform your brain.

Based on “Detoxing Your Mind: An Interview with Caroline Leaf” (Steven Furtick Youtube) 


Copyright © 2018 by Sara Martin, Life Sense Counselling.  You are free to print this document for personal use.  For multiple copies, please seek permission from

1 Comment

  • J Stewart

    This is really great stuff, Sara!! (I’m going to also send to some people.) Even when you know some of these things already, I like how you explain it. Any plans to do YouTube videos?

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