Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States today. They affect more than 40 million Americans annually. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that’s often used to treat anxiety. CBT uses specific techniques that make it a leading effective treatment option for anxiety disorders. 

Read on to learn how CBT for anxiety can offer significant results, often in as few as eight sessions and sometimes without the need for prescription pharmaceuticals. We’re looking at how CBT works for anxiety, what types of techniques are used, and how you can find a therapist if you’re looking for anxiety treatment. 

How Does CBT Work for Anxiety?

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), most Americans don’t receive treatment for their anxiety disorders. Anxiety is marked by feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, fear, and dread. It’s normal to feel some anxiety about potentially stressful events, like making a public speech, for instance.

However, anxiety symptoms that become chronic can lead to more serious mental health conditions when they’re not addressed. CBT for anxiety has become a first-line treatment for: 

Research shows that cognitive behavior therapy is effective, and that success has even been seen up to a year post-treatment. CBT teaches you to manage your anxiety symptoms and other mental health conditions. CBT is available for many mental health conditions such as CBT for depression, CBT for ADHD, and CBT for insomnia. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy works for anxiety by helping you analyze your thoughts and behaviors so you can assess and discover the root causes. Then, you can modify the ways you think and act, replacing anxious thoughts and behaviors with positive alternatives.

“CBT works by identifying and addressing how a person’s thoughts and behaviors create anxiety. Therapists work with clients so they can recognize their triggers, negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Once the client recognizes the negative thoughts and emotions, CBT will help them reduce their response to the emotions that trigger the behavior.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

CBT Techniques for Anxiety

A therapist might suggest you implement any of the various CBT techniques for anxiety. Which works best will depend on you, your symptoms, your goals, and how severe your anxiety is. Let’s look at some common CBT strategies.


Recording your thoughts and feelings in a daily journal can help you learn how to stay connected to yourself. This is key to defeating your anxiety, fear, or any other emotional condition. Becoming aware of how your mind is functioning and perceiving the world around you at any given moment can be an effective way for you to combat the anxious thoughts that might be causing you distress. 

Spending just five minutes a day writing down how you’re thinking and feeling can be a powerful CBT treatment for anxiety. Try mental health journaling and see how it works out for you.

“Journaling can help the client become more in touch with their true feelings and triggers. Sometimes anxiety is caused by not being aware of the circumstances which cause us to feel out of control.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Also called the Inverted U Model of Arousal, the Yerkes-Dodson Law details the relationship between performance and stress. In general, it asserts that too much, or too little, stress can be harmful. Most people will perform best with moderate levels of stress.

Learning about this relationship between anxiety and performance can help your understanding of the root causes of your anxiety symptoms. You can learn how your symptoms are negatively affecting you and figure out what stress level allows you to function optimally.

Relaxation strategies

Relaxation techniques can be performed anywhere, anytime, quickly, for free, and with positive effects for reducing stress and anxiety. When you’re feeling stressed out, consider:

  • Doing deep breathing exercises (pranayama)
  • Using mindfulness meditation
  • Practicing progressive muscle relaxation

These techniques are powerful and can offer instantaneous effects. You can practice them whenever you need to, even while waiting in line at the grocery store, driving home in your car, or at your work desk.

“Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or muscle relaxation are effective in reducing anxiety.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Progressive muscle relaxation

CBT for anxiety can be even more effective if you use what’s known as progressive muscle relaxation. This form of relaxation technique involves repetitively first tensing, then relaxing, different muscle groups in your body.

It’s typically used while you visualize your stress and bad energy leaving your body as you relax each of the muscle groups. Progressive muscle relaxation is a calming technique that can help you remain in emotional control, even during times of exceptionally heavy stress.

Realistic thinking

Realistic thinking means looking at yourself, others, and the world around you in a healthy, balanced, and fair way, without being overly negative or positive.

One crucial key to overcoming anxiety, depression, and other emotion-based conditions, is to learn to appropriately manage negative feelings.

It’s important to know that your thoughts have a massive impact on your feelings. By replacing negative thoughts with healthier, more productive ones, you can begin to feel much better in just a few seconds.

Positive reframing

Positive reframing or restructuring is another key technique used in cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety. It involves analyzing the way you think so you can take an unbiased, honest look at how your thoughts and feelings tend to develop. You’ll begin questioning them to see if you overgeneralize, assume the worst, or magnify trivial details.

Again, awareness is key. A therapist can teach you techniques for witnessing and recognizing your thoughts as they occur, and then help you learn to proactively take steps to ensure that you’re thinking in a positive, productive manner.

“Positive reframing is a technique in which you reframe the negative thoughts into more positive ones. This can alleviate some of the fears and triggers associated with anxiety.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Thought challenging

People with anxiety often have trouble rationally assessing their problems or issues they face. They might feel anxious and be confused about the origin of their feelings. For example, they might fear something seemingly normal, like public gatherings, yet not understand why.

Thought challenge involves looking at things from multiple angles and then using rational evidence to justify your thoughts and feel confident they’re correct, instead of just assuming they’re factual and avoiding the deep work.

You can work to overcome your anxiety by educating yourself about cognitive distortions and emotional dysregulation that might be resulting in irrational thoughts. The goal is to replace those unhealthy thought patterns with more balanced, realistic thinking. As you begin to master that, you can start to regularly base your actions on your healthier way of thinking.

“Thought challenging is a way for us to challenge our negative thoughts and think rationally through the worst thing that can happen.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Behavioral activation

Activation is one of the most common CBT techniques for anxiety. This modality can be implemented if your anxiety is preventing you from participating in certain activities. It involves making definitive plans to address your avoidance issues head-on. It’s essentially a type of exposure therapy. Behavioral activation can be used with other techniques or on its own. 

“Behavioral activation is a way to get our body moving which can be helpful.”

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Finding a CBT Therapist

Does CBT work for anxiety? Yes. However, it can be challenging to achieve the results that you’re looking for on your own. It often takes guidance to practice and hone your new skills so they continue to serve you well into the future. The goal is to alleviate anxiety completely in your life by learning and implementing new techniques for thinking and acting with intention.

Finding a trained therapist with expertise in using CBT for anxiety treatment is an excellent first step to achieving long-term balance in your life. The skills you learn, either with an in-person or online cognitive behavioral therapy session, will stay with you through your entire life, helping keep you centered and in control of your emotions and thoughts, every day.

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that’s changing the face of therapy. By offering convenient, affordable, easy-to-access sessions, when you want them and from the convenience of your own home, you can get the effective help you need to manage and overcome your anxiety.

Medically reviewed by: Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Reviewed On: May 23, 2022