Cognitive therapy envisions a cognitive organization that is hierarchically structured and cognitive mechanisms that selectively take in or screen out relevant information. The most accessible cognitions in this hierarchy are voluntary thoughts which appear in stream-of-consciousness reports. Less accessible, but more stable, are automatic thoughts, which arise without awareness and are difficult to inhibit, especially at times of emotional arousal. At the next level are beliefs and assumptions, including values. At the deepest level, out of the person's awareness, are core beliefs embedded in cognitive structures called schemas. The cognitive model proposes that these schemas are latent until triggered by a personally relevant life event. In depression, for example, a life event might trigger a
Cognitive Therapy schema of loss, deprivation, or defeat. This would be the mechanism that sets in motion the negative cognitive shift. As a consequence of the cognitive shift, much positive information is filtered out by cognitive distortions, and negative self-relevant information is accepted. The person is thus flooded by negative automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are important in cognitive therapy because they are accessible and reflect core beliefs. They are also full of cognitive distortions. Cognitive therapy works directly on correcting biased thinking by challenging the validity of automatic thoughts. It also works at a structural level to modify maladaptive beliefs and assumptions contained in schemas. It is presumed that these schema-level beliefs are a cognitive vulnerability to various psychological disorders and, if not addressed, pose a risk of recurrence for that disorder.
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