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Data Gathering

Gathering accurate data about problems is an essential step in overcoming them. This self-help guide will teach you about data gathering in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Why do I need to gather data?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment. This means that:

  • therapists’ practice is guided by what scientific research says is most effective, and
  • the course of each person’s therapy is guided by what works for them.

Effective treatment means focusing on what matters

Cognitive behavioural therapists often begin by helping their clients to focus on specific events that happened relatively recently. This means that they attempt to identify problems like “Yesterday when I saw someone who looked like my attacker I was frozen to the spot with terror” rather than “I’m just always feeling so low that I’m not sure it’s worth it anymore”.

The reason that CBT focuses on specific events is because our lives are made up of specific moments all chained together. We live our lives moment by moment, and we feel our feelings that way too. The reason that CBT focuses on things that are problems now is because problems that happened in the past may no longer bother you. Even if terrible things did happen in the past our suffering – what we want to relieve – happens in the present.

What types of data can I gather?

Common data that clients and therapists gather in therapy includes information about symptoms or problems that are causing difficulty. For instance:

Data about a symptom or problem

Symptoms or problems that psychologists and their clients are often interested in include:

  • Thoughts
  • Emotions
  • Body sensations
  • Behaviors
  • Memories
  • Urges
  • Voices
  • Doubts
  • Compulsions

Data about the strength or frequency of the symptom

You can record how often the symptom happened or how strong it was.

Data about the effect of the symptom

You can record how much the symptom interfered with what you were doing, or were trying to do. It might be important to collect information about what the symptoms stopped you from doing.

Data about the context in which the symptom occurred

Symptoms rarely occur for no reason, although they might sometimes feel as though they happen unexpectedly. We might not know their triggers so it is helpful to know about the context in which they occur. The mnemonic “Who? What? When? Where?” is very helpful.

  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where were you?

Data about your activity

Cognitive behavioral therapists pay attention to your activity. Some common problems like depression are known to be associated with low levels of activity, and one effective treatment for depression aims to increase levels of meaningful activity [1].

One school of thought in psychology says that a problem in only a problem if it has a clinically significant effect upon functioning. In order for us to know whether this is the case for you we need to know about your functioning (your activity).

Psychology Tools for data gathering

Therapists may suggest a wide range of tools for data gathering. Which one they choose will depend upon what they want to explore. Tools include:

  • Diaries / symptom records
  • Thought records
  • Memory records
  • Specific exercises – e.g. behavioral experiments, surveys – other tasks that take place during therapy which are intended to allow you to gather new data.

References

[1] Kanter, J. W., Manos, R. C., Bowe, W. M., Baruch, D. E., Busch, A. M., & Rusch, L. C. (2010). What is behavioral activation?: A review of the empirical literature. Clinical psychology review, 30(6), 608-620.