What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Published on: 10 Aug 2019
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Updated on 9/22/2021

No matter how big or small the challenge, condition, phobia, disorder, or addiction may be, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based psychotherapy treatment method that can help you change negative responses to uncomfortable situations. Chances are, you have already seen this treatment method mentioned in a self-help article or know someone who has benefited from it. It’s a popular treatment method due to its affordability, short-term treatment horizon, and its empirically supported effectiveness. Before diving head first into this form of therapy, consider the information below about its intended uses and key benefits.

The Practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Serving as a common type of psychotherapy, a person works with a licensed and trusted therapist in a highly structured way to help better manage stressful life situations. The focus is placed on treating a person’s problems and boosting their happiness through better managing dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thought patterns. It is solution-oriented, with many therapists encouraging their patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive behaviors throughout the process.
This form of treatment can be experienced on its own or in combination with other types of therapy, serving as an effective means to treat a broad spectrum of mental health issues. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the emotional challenges this therapy best addresses includes:

  • Managing symptoms of mental illness
  • Preventing a relapse of mental illness symptoms
  • Treating a mental illness when medications are not a preferred option
  • Learning techniques for coping with stressful life situations
  • Identifying ways to manage uncomfortable emotions
  • Resolving relationship conflicts and improving communication skills
  • Coping with grief or loss
  • Overcoming emotional trauma related to abuse or violence
  • Coping with a physical illness
  • Managing chronic pain or other medical symptoms

Additionally, this type of therapy can benefit certain types of mental health disorders, including:

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  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Sleep disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Substance abuse
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sexual disorders

Is CBT Right for You?

As is the case for any type of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective for some individuals and may not be quite as successful for others. Broadly speaking, CBT works best in instances where medication alone is not completely effective in treating certain responses. Additionally, since it can be completed in a relatively short period of time, it works well in anticipation of time-sensitive events or experiences, as well as in different therapy settings including online therapy and group therapy. Having motivation to learn practical strategies and implement them in everyday life can also contribute to its success.
On the other hand, if you are unable to commit to the process, CBT is less likely to be effective. It requires full cooperation in attending regular therapy sessions, as well as the ability to carry out additional work in between meetings — including confronting possibly difficult emotions and anxieties. Because the focus is on changing your capacity to help yourself, it is not able to address wider problems negatively impacting you. Additionally, the structure of these sessions may not be suitable for people with more complex mental health needs or learning challenges.

What to Expect in a Typical CBT Session

The treatment itself takes shape as a set number of therapy sessions where the goal is for a person to become more aware of inaccurate and/or negative thinking patterns. Since it is a form of psychotherapy, you can expect the early sessions to mirror a typical initial therapy session — the therapist will likely ask about your goals for treatment, your medical history and a review of the problems for which you aim to get support. The intent of disclosing this information up front is to better formulate an effective response to challenging situations through each session.
Seen in action, a client would bring specific problems to the table for the therapist to help them overcome. Working together, the therapist and client create an action plan to help identify unwanted thoughts or behaviors while working through a means to change them. There are instances where a patient is assigned “homework” to help implement certain strategies and techniques in a set amount of time in between sessions. The therapist then debriefs with the patient during the next session, evaluating what worked, what didn’t work, and areas to tweak the process going forward.

Taking the First Step

While the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy can vary depending on the person and their needs — it remains a proven treatment choice for a broad set of psychological issues. Consider the type of support you are looking for before diving into this form of therapy and consult with your potential therapist to discuss their approach to treatment. You can also leverage the directory of certified therapists through the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists to locate a professional and start your mental health journey today.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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