Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy used to treat multiple mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques help people change how they think about problems and learn new behaviors.

Last Modified: December 21, 2022
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What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of mental health therapy that aims to replace negative feelings with hope by focusing on positive experiences. It involves talking with a therapist to identify negative thinking patterns and then reframing them into more positive ones, which is one of the therapy’s five components. The other components involve teaching new behaviors, emotional regulation, relapse prevention and exposure therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you manage emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It treats multiple mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and addiction disorders (alcohol, drugs, food, etc.). By changing unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors, you can learn to address your problems and improve your quality of life.

Why Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Used?

CBT therapists believe negative thoughts cause negative emotions and reactions, leading people to behave in ways that worsen their problems. Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to address this.

For example, if you fear public speaking, you might worry about getting a bad reaction from the people watching your presentation. These thoughts could lead to feelings of anxiety or embarrassment that impair your ability to speak in public.

CBT is used to treat:
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sexual disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse

Doctors sometimes turn to talk therapy to treat physical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. They find that cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, exercises and problem-solving processes improve chronic disease management. While CBT is helpful as a part of treatment, it is not a cure for these conditions.

How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy works as you and your therapist discuss specific personal issues during your sessions, which usually last 60 or 90 minutes. CBT therapists use several techniques. They ask you to think back and reflect on how you felt when doing, saying, or reacting to certain situations.

The effectiveness of therapy relies on an individualized treatment plan and engaging tactics such as relaxation training, breathing exercises, self-monitoring and “thought stopping” to reduce stress.

CBT aims to identify specific problems and set goals. Your therapist doesn’t direct you on what to do. Instead, they work with you to come up with solutions.

Types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common types of therapy. It is an umbrella term for different but related therapeutic techniques that all have the same goal. For example, some types of CBT emphasize self-talk and thinking more positively. Others focus on recognizing negative thought patterns and replacing them with healthier ones.

Different therapies fall under CBT, including:
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT focuses on the relationship between behaviors and thoughts and aims to teach people new skills and strategies to manage problems and reduce suffering.
  • Motivational Interviewing: This involves asking questions in a nonjudgmental way to help patients move toward change. Therapists often rely on this therapy for clients with substance use disorders, depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Problem-Solving Therapy: This therapy teaches people how to solve problems independently by identifying the steps needed for problem resolution. Therapists ask questions about what has happened and what needs to happen next, which can help those who have trouble making decisions or want additional support in solving daily problems at home or work.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Prolonged exposure therapy involves increasing exposure to the feared object or situation until it becomes less distressing. For example, someone afraid of flying might start by reading about flying and then watching videos before eventually taking a flight. In CBT, this step-by-step approach is called systematic desensitization.

CBT emphasizes concrete solutions over unconscious thoughts or feelings (such as those related to early childhood experiences).

Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Mental health therapy benefits include improving problem-solving skills and finding new ways to cope with difficult emotions or stressful situations. This mental health therapy can help improve your problem-solving skills and teach you new ways to cope with difficult emotions or stressful situations.

Although cognitive behavioral therapy is proven effective in treating milder forms of depression, general anxiety disorders and OCD, its ability to treat more serious conditions with a well-documented biological etiology, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, remains uncertain. Some studies show that up to 40% of patients don’t respond to CBT treatment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, like many other forms of therapy, can require a significant financial investment, as it may require multiple sessions over an extended period of time that might not be covered by insurance.

What to Expect from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a structured learning process that helps change your thinking and behavior patterns. You identify, understand and challenge the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that cause difficulty.
CBT is collaborative. You work with a therapist who teaches you how to develop more helpful ways of thinking about yourself, others and the world around you.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.