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CBT encourages you to focus on the process of thinking.


Humans and non-human animals have survived by avoiding potentially harmful stimuli.  For example if a cat has learned that dogs are aggressive and will chase it, the cat will avoid dogs.  Dogs have become an aversive stimuli to the cat. 


Humans also seek to avoid unpleasant thoughts and emotions, in the same way as the cat avoids dogs.  When we avoid certain thoughts, we may feel better in the short term, however, this approach does not work well in the long run.  Research suggests that if we suppress a thought, over time that thought becomes more invasive and destructive.  In fact trying to suppress our mood can increase the intensity of that mood.  Doing so can also affect our sleep. alcohol intake, tendency to worry and anxiety levels.    


Depression is characterised by a change in thinking style.   CBT helps you distinguish between thoughts that grab you emotionally and can dictate how you behave in some situations.  Everyone gets hooked by certain thoughts but just because you think something and are hooked by it, doesn’t make it true.  


Here are some common hooks:


  • I must be extremely good at what I do or people will not respect me

  • If I fail at something, I am a failure

  • I must be the best at whatever I do

  • If I ask for help I am weak


Imagine your next Sim check is looming.  


Now many pilots may have feelings of dread regarding the Sim, and many have fleeting doubts about their performance on the day.  However, someone who is depressed will likely doubt their overall performance as a pilot, seriously predict failure, under estimate their performance last time and extend this thinking to themselves as a person, their future and their world in general.  They will believe these things.


”Its going to be a disaster.  I barely scraped through last time.  Now they will see me for the failure I really am”.


Rather than trying to suppress thoughts and feelings, CBT will encourage you to notice the thoughts you are having.  Put simply, the pilot is seeing the whole world through “I’m bad” glasses.  


In contrast if you notice that you are having the thought “I’m bad” you’re in a better position to decide to believe it (give up) or not believe it (challenge your thinking, prepare and work for the Sim). CBT offers space to look at the negative evaluation you are placing on yourself and recognise that there are choices.  

Exercise 1.   Evaluation or description?

A description (D) is a thought that refers to objective things you can see, smell, taste or touch.

An evaluation (E) is a thought that refers to the importance of something.

This is our pilot approaching the next Sim test:

  1. I have a Sim test in 2 weeks.  (D or E?)

  2. I am not sleeping well (D or E?)

  3. I slept for 3 hours last night (D or E?)

  4. I barely got through last time (D or E?)

  5. There were cross winds on my last landing (D or E?)

  6. I’m lucky to have got this far in my flying career (D or E?)

  7. I should be coming up for promotion in the next few years (D or E?) 

  8. I didn't feel sharp enough, last time I was in bad weather (D or E?)


Exercise 2.  Your own thinking.

Now identify the descriptions and evaluations in your own thinking.  Think of a situation you are struggling with currently.  Write about it for ten minutes (set the timer on your phone).  If you run out of things to say, repeat what you have just written.


Go through everything you have written and notice where you have written a description and where you see an evaluation.   


One you start to notice your thoughts, you will be in a better position to choose what to do, rather than letting your thoughts decide on your actions.  

Exercise 3. Writing a record.

A common exercise in CBT is to keep records of events which trigger negative thoughts and feelings and monitor how you deal with these.  These are adapted real examples.  Notice the power of evaluation in them. 




Without wanting to generalise too much, our experience of working with pilots suggests that the logic and problem solving approaches used in CBT can make it especially appropriate and attractive. 


Monday 1st February

Situation - who are you with, where, what are you doing?    

With my wife and child, who have come out with me. Sightseeing in Madrid. 

Emotions:  Rate their strength (0-10)
Disappointed (9)  Frustrated with myself (10)

Thoughts:  How far do you believe them? 
I should be enjoying this, Madrid is a beautiful city and we are lucky to be here. Its a great perk of the job I should be grateful.  I can’t get the energy to do this anymore.  I wont bring them with me, this isn’t working.   (90%)

Behaviour: What did you do?
Continued sightseeing. I was irritable and critical of my daughter who wasn’t behaving. We went back to hotel for a rest.  My mood improved - talked with my wife, helped me recognised that Ellie is only 5 and coped well with a busy city, We had a good dinner later.


Monday 1st February

Situation - who are you with, where, what are you doing? 
6.50 am Driving to LHR - traffic delay

Emotions:  Rate their strength (0-10)    
Frustrated (10) Worried about the future (8)

Thoughts:  How far do you believe them?    
Idiots driving on M4, I’m going to be held up. (100%) 

This isn’t working, I’m not going to be able to continue with this job. (100%)

Behaviour: What did you do?

Practiced controlled breathing.  Pulled into services for a coffee.  I have plenty of time, I left early.  Yes the M4 is busy but I can manage this.  Arrived in good time.  Reasonable flight despite ATC delay. I love where we live. I will make it work..

As part of their treatment, or as a daily practice, many people find writing things down preferable to talking them out loud. Once again it's a very simple idea and as such worth a try.


We know from pilots who've contacted us about depression that they greatly benefited from a process that helped them to make sense of their experience. Writing for some people provides an effective means of separating thought from emotion - opening things up to inspection and challenge where necessary.  

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