What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to and worsen emotional difficulties, depression, and anxiety. These spontaneous negative thoughts have a detrimental influence on mood.

Through CBT, these thoughts are identified, challenged, and replaced with more objective, realistic thoughts.

Types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT encompasses a range of techniques and approaches that address thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. These can range from structured psychotherapies to self-help materials. There are a number of specific types of therapeutic approaches that involve CBT:

  • Cognitive Therapy centers on identifying and changing inaccurate or distorted thinking patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) addresses thoughts and behaviors while incorporating strategies such as emotional regulation and mindfulness.
  • Multimodal Therapy suggests that psychological issues must be treated by addressing seven different but interconnected modalities, which are behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, cognition, interpersonal factors, and drug/biological considerations.4
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) involves identifying irrational beliefs, actively challenging these beliefs, and finally learning to recognize and change these thought patterns.

While each type of cognitive behavioral therapy takes a different approach, all work to address the underlying thought patterns that contribute to psychological distress.

Cognitive-behavior therapy can be effectively used as a short-term treatment centered on helping people with a very specific problem and teaching them to focus on present thoughts and beliefs. CBT is used to treat a wide range of conditions including:

  • Addictions
  • Anger issues
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Personality disorders
  • Phobias
  • Problems with stress

Cognitive behavioral therapy is highly goal-oriented and focused, with the therapist taking a very active role. People work with their therapists toward mutually established goals. The process is explained in detail and people are often given homework to complete between sessions.

Impact

The underlying concept behind CBT is that thoughts and feelings play a fundamental role in behavior. For example, a person who spends a lot of time thinking about plane crashes, runway accidents, and other air disasters may avoid air travel as a result. The goal of cognitive behavior therapy is to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with things in their environment.

CBT Strategies

People often experience thoughts or feelings that reinforce or compound faulty beliefs. Such beliefs can result in problematic behaviors that can affect numerous life areas, including family, romantic relationships, work, and academics.

Identify Negative Thoughts

It is important to learn how thoughts, feelings, and situations can contribute to maladaptive behaviors. The process can be difficult, especially for people who struggle with introspection, but it can ultimately lead to self-discovery and insights that are an essential part of the treatment process.

Practice New Skills

It is important to start practicing new skills that can then be put in to use in real-world situations. For example, a person with a substance use disorder might start practicing new coping skills and rehearsing ways to avoid or deal with social situations that could potentially trigger a relapse.

Set Goals

Goal setting can an important step in recovery from mental illness and helping you make changes to improve your health and life. During CBT, a therapist can help with goal-setting skills by teaching you how to identify your goal, distinguish between short- and long-term goals, set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goals, and focus on the process as much as the end outcome.

Problem Solve

Learning problem solving skills can help you identify and solve problems that arise from life stressors, both big and small, and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness. Problem solving in CBT often involves five steps: identifying a problem, generating a list of possible solutions, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each possible solution, choosing a solution to implement, and implementing the solution.

Self Monitor

Also known as diary work, self-monitoring is an important part of CBT that involves tracking behaviors, symptoms, or experiences over time and sharing them with your therapist. Self-monitoring can help provide your therapist with the information needed to provide the best treatment. For example, for eating disorders, self-monitoring may involve keeping track of eating habits as well as any thoughts or feelings that went along with consuming that meal or snack.

Progress Gradually

In most cases, CBT is a gradual process that helps a person take incremental steps towards a behavior change. For example, someone with social anxiety might start by simply imagining anxiety-provoking social situations. Next, they might start practicing conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances. By progressively working toward a larger goal, the process seems less daunting and the goals easier to achieve.

One of the greatest benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it helps clients develop coping skills that can be useful both now and in the future. CBT is one of the most researched types of therapy, in part because treatment is focused on highly specific goals and results can be measured relatively easily.