What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

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psychologist speaking to woman during cbt session

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—often known as the "gold standard" psychotherapy—is one of the most common types of therapy that mental health professionals use to treat people with a variety of health conditions.

The concept of CBT is grounded in the theory that your thoughts and behaviors can affect your emotional well-being and physical health. As a result, the goal of CBT is to identify negative or disruptive thinking patterns and replace them with healthier thoughts and emotions.

How Does CBT Work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the premise that your thoughts or perceptions about a situation—rather than just the situation itself—determine the way you feel and behave. These thought or belief patterns are often learned from your past experiences.

Some of the core beliefs and principles of CBT include:

  • Negative or harmful thought patterns can cause changes in your mental health
  • Unhelpful behaviors can contribute to psychological issues
  • Changing disruptive patterns can improve your emotional well-being and relieve symptoms

The purpose of CBT is to help identify thoughts and behaviors that may be negatively affecting your life. However, just recognizing these patterns is not enough. Instead, CBT works to restructure unhelpful thoughts and behaviors into positive and healthier patterns.

For example, this might involve recognizing a thought pattern such as "I can't handle the pain anymore" and changing it to "I've handled pain before and I can handle it again." The purpose of CBT is not to rid or remove problems or worries from your life. Instead, it's to reframe the outlook on how you manage your life's situations and circumstances, which may then help change your behaviors and overall health and well-being.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Your CBT sessions with a mental health professional (e.g., psychologist, social worker, licensed counselor) can vary based on your condition, symptoms, and needs. While everyone's experience with CBT can differ, it's important to note that therapy sessions are typically very structured. You can usually expect to complete an average of 10 to 20 sessions with your therapist.

CBT is considered to be short-term therapy. However, the process is very interactive. During your sessions, your therapist may utilize a variety of CBT techniques that help them learn more about your needs, support you in understanding your current thoughts and behaviors, and try skills or activities that can help you change harmful patterns into healthy ones.

Some CBT strategies that your therapist may use include:

  • Using introspection techniques to help you reflect on your internal thoughts and identify negative patterns
  • Implementing problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations
  • Practicing facing your fears rather than avoiding them
  • Trying role-playing scenarios to walk through real-life situations and creating options that can help you manage triggers or problems
  • Showing you mind-body relaxation techniques that can help you become more in tune with your thinking
  • Teaching you goal-setting techniques that actively help improve your thinking, behavior, and health outcomes
  • Encouraging you to self-monitor yourself by making note of your thoughts throughout the day and tracking your daily behaviors
  • Assigning you minimal homework (e.g., journaling, breathing exercises, etc). to complete outside of your therapy sessions to help you put into practice what you're learning

Who Does CBT Help?

CBT is often the first line of therapy for several health conditions. Research has shown CBT to be effective for children and adults who live with the following conditions:

However, CBT is not just a good treatment for diagnosed health conditions. In fact, CBT can help you with daily stressors, such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Relationship problems or divorce
  • Grief and loss
  • Stress or anger management
  • Abandonment or trust issues
  • Life changes (e.g., going to college, moving out, starting a new job, getting married)
  • Time management and procrastination
  • Low self-esteem

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Benefits

It's worth noting that CBT is one of the most researched forms of psychotherapy, with plenty of scientific evidence backing its effectiveness. That said, the benefits of CBT include:

  • Developing a positive outlook and healthier thought patterns
  • Reminding you that you don't have to control everything around you, just how you react to life's situations
  • Helping you notice improvements in your thinking in a short amount of time
  • Being an effective and affordable treatment option in-person and virtually
  • Improving your relationship with yourself and others
  • Boosting your quality of life

A Quick Review

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that mental health professionals can use to treat a wide range of health conditions including anxiety, depression, and insomnia. CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts can affect emotions and behaviors, which can then alter your mental and physical health outcomes.

CBT is one of the most researched therapies and effective treatments for mental health and physical health conditions. Using techniques such as identifying negative thought patterns, challenging behaviors, and practicing problem-solving skills, CBT can help you reframe unhelpful thoughts and cope with life's stressors.

If you're looking to try CBT, talk to your primary care provider about a referral, contact your health insurance to see if therapy is covered under your plan, or sign up for an online service to get paired with a therapist.

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9 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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