Praxis Blog

Taking the Next Step with CBT—An Interview with David Burns, MD

The following are excerpts from Mark Gilson’s interview with David Burns, MD for his radio show, “What the Folk?!” on WRFG Atlanta.

Dr. Mark:

Hello Dr. David Burns, thank you for being on WRFG Atlanta. Sure is good to talk to you again.

Dr. David Burns:

Hello Dr. Mark Gilson, thank you for having me on your awesome show; it’s a real honor. I appreciate it

Dr. Mark:

For me, as well.

Dr. Mark:

Tonight’s show, David, is on “Out of your mind.” Which could mean a lot of different things, I suppose, but in particular I’m interested in, you know, what you’ve been doing.  Of course Feeling Good is maybe the bestselling self-help book of all time that you wrote. And also I know you’re coming to Atlanta. When are you coming to Atlanta? It’s in November, is that right?

Dr. David Burns:

Yeah, I don’t even have the dates in front of me, but it’s a four day intensive.

Editor’s note: This workshop is will be held November 4–7, 2019 in Atlanta, GA. Full workshop information can be found here:
High-Speed Treatment for Depression and Anxiety Disorders: A Four-Day TEAM-CBT Intensive

Dr. Mark:

And we’ll say it more than once, but what is your website?

Dr. Burns:

It’s feelinggood.com, and there are tons of free resources for people there.

Dr. Mark:

Free is good. Anyways, so you know you are one of the prime developers of something called cognitive behavior therapy. And maybe you can tell us how the therapy that you helped develop, or like I said one of the main people that developed it, is different than other forms of therapy.

Dr. Burns:

Right and then at some point we might want to talk about the new TEAM-CBT that we’ve developed since I’ve been at Stanford, which you know if a lot more powerful than cognitive therapy. But as you know, cognitive therapy is just based on the ideas of Epictetus 2000 years ago that our thoughts create all of our moods, and when people are depressed you’re giving yourself negative messages, like, “I’m a loser, I’m not as good as I should be, I shouldn’t have screwed up,” and a lot of self-blame and should statements. And the idea is that those thoughts, rather than what is happening to you, actually create all of your negative feelings like depression and anxiety, guilt, shame, and anger, and whatever and that when you change the way you think you can change the way you feel. It’s a simple theory, but a very sophisticated form of therapy.

Dr. Mark:

Would that apply to anxiety and depression and maybe some other types of emotional problems?

Dr. Burns:

Yes, all feelings results from thoughts, so whether you’re feeling depressed or angry or anxious or whatever, it’s because of the messages you’re giving yourself. But some negative feelings are easier to change than others. Depression and anxiety now have become incredibly easy to change. Often when I work with people now I often see recovery in just a single two-hour therapy session. Feelings like anger and relationship problems and habits and addictions are still much more challenging and take more time to treat because of the resistance to change is so intense.

Dr. Mark:

And what about the use of drugs for emotions? What do you think of that?

Dr. Burns:

Well I started out as you know as a full time psychopharmacologist doing brain research at Penn in the medical school, but I left because I wasn’t that impressed with the effects of antidepressants and anti-anxiety agents, and now the latest research is showing that the chemicals called anti depressants probably have no or very few antidepressant effects above and beyond their placebo effects. So I think that for some people psychiatric medicines can be helpful, even lifesaving, but I think they’ve been way oversold in terms of safety and effectiveness. I think some of the new forms of psychotherapy or some of the new self-help techniques are far more powerful and helpful for most people.

Dr. Mark:

Yeah, and the research supports that, doesn’t it?

Dr. Burns:

It does. Although the research on psychotherapy, like the research on anti depressants, has really been disappointing. My reading of the world literature is that there is no form of psychotherapy that can out perform placebo in the treatment of depression and of course no medications have either. And that’s why we’re developed this new TEAM-CBT at Stanford because it’s much more fast-acting than conventional cognitive therapy because it has a massively important new dimension in it.

Dr. Mark:

Okay well it sounds like that’s the important thing to tell us about now

Dr. Burns:

Well, you know when cognitive therapy came out I was, and still am still extraordinarily excited because the techniques can be so powerful and amazing, but I can remember even way back when we were at Penn I heard someone in the department of psychology say, “Well how about motivation, isn’t motivation important? Maybe some people who are depressed resist change.” And I laughed at him at the time and I was thinking everything was cognition, but my research and clinical experience has shown that motivation is as important as cognition and how we think and feel. And so we’ve developed about 20 really powerful new motivational techniques that can reduce the resistance to change in depressed and anxious patients. It generally only takes, maybe, 20 to 25 minutes to do that with the vast majority of patients and once the resistance is gone you come in with the cognitive techniques, and you can often see a complete elimination of symptoms in 10-15 minutes. It’s just been a massive transformation in psychotherapy. I think the change is a big and as powerful as cognitive therapy was way back in the 1970s.

Dr. Mark:

Well that sounds incredible.

Dr. Burns:

It is. My clinical experiences have been just really transformed. It almost seems too good to be true, and it probably is, but I just see people popping like popcorn. I treat everyone for free, I don’t actually have a formal practice, but I treat people in my training groups, I treat people on Sunday hikes, and I rarely have someone that requires more than one session to recover completely. Since I’m never being paid, my only joy is seeing people recover completely and there’s no conflict of interest, having long term patients doesn’t help me whatsoever, so if I can get them better in a single session it makes me kind of euphoric as well as the patient, and that’s the new thing. I’m very excited about it. I’ve helped a lot of really talented colleagues in my weekly training group at Stanford.

At the intensive that I’m going to be doing in Atlanta in November, on the evening of day one I will be treating a volunteer from the audience. I generally stick with the mental health professionals who are struggling with depression or anxiety. But at my recent intensives, like the one at San Francisco, about a few weeks ago, I would say about 50 people in the audience got personal healing. It became almost like a huge healing kind of ceremony. I mean, it’s training for mental health professionals, but part of training is doing your own personal work. So there will be a lot of that happening at the Atlanta intensive.

I hope some people can come because the new techniques are very, very exciting to learn. They’re not easy, the new TEAM-CBT is pretty changeling, but it’s very powerful if you’re willing to put in the effort to learn how to do it.

Dr. Mark:

Well, speaking of someone who’s known you for many years and has sponsored workshops for you here in Atlanta, I don’t know that anyone gets better ratings for stating how much they learned and how much they felt involved with your presentations. You are quite the teacher, and it’s really made a difference in many people’s lives. How many books has Feeling Good, your first self help book, how many books has that sold?

Dr. Burns:

Well, between Feeling Good and the sequel Feeling Good Handbook, I think there’s a good more than 6 million of them out there now. And then I think tomorrow I’m going to be signing a contract for the first true sequel to Feeling Good called Feeling Great. And it’s going to have all these new techniques, and ideas in it as well as the cognitive stuff that’s still tremendously helpful.

Dr. Mark:

I have a question veering a little bit away from your work, and more about how you view the mental problems in our leadership. If you’re willing to say anything. And it’s also really about all of us. How do we survive in a world with so many crazy leaders? And angry uncivil people?

Dr. Burns:

Well, it’s frightening. Both my wife, Melanie, who you know is the brains in our family, and I who are pretty profoundly disturbed by some of the directions our country is taking. We hope there will be movement in a more loving direction. It’s frightening. I think change starts at home so rather than attacking someone else’s narcissism, which is disturbing to observe and equally disturbing that so many people can’t seem to see it, I’ve been kind of trying to work on my own narcissism. When I do a workshop I put two words at the beginning of my handout before I start speaking. I put “nice,” which means to be warm and caring to all the people that come, and “humble” to try to come across in a human and vulnerable way. I can tell you that’s been so helpful to me. The reception of audiences has been even more powerful. If you can get a crowd feeling that sense of joy and vulnerability and willing to cry and willing to laugh, it just makes the teaching so much more powerful.

Dr. Mark:

Well it’s certainly not the zeitgeist these days; it’s not what’s in the air. You’re right, I think it begins amongst ourselves and the people we’re closest to. Who helps you when you’re down?

Dr. Burns:

Well I use my tools myself. My wife, Melanie, you know she is a tremendous source of support to me, and we both use both the 5 Secrets of Effective Communication, as well as the cognitive techniques in our own lives and with our kids as well. I have all the people in the training groups, see my teaching at Stanford is free, anyone in the Bay area can come for free and attend this two and a half hour free training and I get a lot of support from them because the people are grateful because they get unlimited free therapy and unlimited free training for the rest of their life if they want. Then they also come for Sunday hikes and they meet at my front door at 8:30 and we go out and hike for 3 and a half hours and do personal work on the hikes, it has just been a fantastic experience.

David, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I want to thank you again for being on What the Folk?! here on WRFG Atlanta.

Dr. Burns:

One more quick thing.

Dr. Mark:

Oh yeah, one more thing, go ahead.

Dr. Burns:

My Feeling Good podcast, which is absolutely free. If you can’t come to the workshop or if you want to learn more about some of these new psychotherapy techniques, or just self-help, the Feeling Food podcast you can find them on my site feelinggood.com. There’s a tab for them. You can link to any of them, and a lot of people listen to those and then email me that they’ve recovered from years of anxiety or depression just by listening to the podcast, so that’s another totally free resource for folks.

Dr. Mark:

Indeed. You are a generous human being. The fact is that there are a lot of people making a living using those methods too. And as a result of your teaching, I think a lot of people are feeling good, maybe even great. And we’re looking forward to the next book coming out. I hope we get some time with you in November and I hope other people find out some information and maybe find out where you’re going to be presenting and what have you, at feelinggood.com. Thank you again David and I look forward to November.

Dr. Burns:

I’m looking forward to it too, and it’s been an honor to be on your show. Thanks so much.

Dr. Mark:

I appreciate it.

Listen to the full interview here.

Join David Burns in Atlanta for his upcoming intensive in November and learn first-hand how TEAM-CBT can change your practice… and your life!

Mark Gilson, PhD is the director of Atlanta Center for Cognitive Therapy (www.cognitiveatlanta.com) and host of WRFG-FM and WRFG.org program, What the Folk”– WRFG 89.3 FM Atlanta.