Our thoughts are cognitive products that are shaped by such beliefs, which in more conscious phases take the form of assumptions that explain what happens if certain conditions are met.

However, behind all this are our most basic nuclear beliefs, which are durable and difficult to change. The nuclear beliefs are, as we have said, behind much of our view of reality and ourselves.

In this sense those people with particularly rigid beliefs or who have internalized deep values and beliefs that conflict with how they are or how they live can feel great suffering, and may require psychological help to modify them. In order to do so, the first thing we have to do is to bring out the nuclear beliefs from our thoughts, something for which we can use techniques such as the technique of the descending arrow .

Descending arrow technique

It is called the technique of the descending arrow to a basic technique within the cognitive-behavioral current that is characterized by looking for the location of the subject’s nuclear and deepest beliefs , so that we can make those beliefs conscious and work on them in case they turn out to be maladaptive.

It can be used in any type of problem, although it is especially useful in those in which the subject manifests some type of difficulty for himself or for the existence of some way of acting that is dysfunctional.

The technique in question has an apparently simple basis: it is a matter of starting from the patient’s thoughts to ask for the meaning of those thoughts , what they say about the subject himself or what it would mean for the subject if they were true or not.

From the answer to this question, the question asked is repeated or some other equivalent is used in order to look for thoughts and beliefs on which the thoughts that have arisen after the reflection are based. This process is repeated again and again until the person is unable to give an answer , or does not find it credible.

To give an example, a person may say that he is very perfectionist and needs to do things right, which when asked what this means to him may lead to the idea that when he does things right he is congratulated, which may lead to the idea that he needs to be recognized by others, which in turn may lead to the belief that the person does not see himself as valid.

How is it used in therapy?

The name “descending arrow” comes from the fact that one goes from a concrete thought (which is generally sought to be about a dysfunctional aspect, a self-demanding or a difficulty with oneself) to the beliefs that sustain it, going deeper and deeper into the most nuclear elements and beliefs .

In addition to evaluating beliefs, it can also be used to assess what elements we use to draw conclusions about a particular event, specifically to assess what evidence or elements are used to reach a particular conclusion.

The technique of the descending arrow is a useful technique to identify deep beliefs on the part of a patient. This in itself has a certain therapeutic effect , since it allows to bring to light and express deep beliefs and thoughts in such a way that the subject reflects and processes contents that sometimes he does not recognize himself.

However, this technique is usually only a first step, prior to the performance of other techniques to check or modify these beliefs if the patient is dysfunctional. In this sense , different techniques of cognitive restructuring are usually used , as well as Socratic dialogue or the formulation of behavioural experiments.

However, although the descending arrow is fundamentally cognitive, this does not imply that the techniques that have to follow it have to be as well: it is possible to apply techniques from other psychological currents such as systemic, humanist or even psychodynamic to work on the nuclear beliefs that are discovered.

What problems does it use?

The technique of the descending arrow is a rather basic and very useful technique, which can be used in a great majority of disorders and alterations that are explained by the beliefs of the patient and the possible biases that these generate.

Among the many difficulties to which it can be applied, some examples within the clinical setting may be major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or personality disorders.

In general, it can be used in any problem where there are rigid beliefs or a high level of self-demand. Even if no disorder exists, people who have had a rigid environment or education or have self-esteem problems can benefit from the use of the downward arrow to dive into the beliefs that support them.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bados, A. and García Grau, E.(2010). The technique of cognitive restructuring. University of Barcelona. Faculty of Psychology, Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment.
  • Burns, D.D. (1990). Feeling good. Barcelona: Paidós.