All About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Why do people keep talking about CBT? We explore how cognitive behavioral therapy works and who it might help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based and widely used form of therapy that’s helped many people around the world. Therapists use CBT to help people with all kinds of mental and physical health conditions, just a few of which include:

Using various CBT techniques, mental health professionals look at the way people think and how that impacts how they behave.The goal is to adapt your mindset and behaviors by adjusting distorted thought patterns. Whether you’re living with a mental health condition or just keep finding yourself worrying about the little things, CBT could be a helpful tool if you’re looking for an evidence-backed therapy to relieve persistent symptoms.

What’s the principle behind CBT?

In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck realized that the people he helped with depression often showed specific thinking patterns that didn’t serve them. He explained emotional conditions using a cognitive model Trusted Source: Thought processing controls how people view themselves, others, and their environment, which impacts their emotions and behavior. In other words, if you perceive everything around you to be bad, you’ll likely feel pretty bad, too. The basic principle behind CBT is that most emotional and behavioral reactions are learned — and so they can be unlearned or changed. Unlike many other forms of psychotherapy, CBT is mostly concerned with present feelings and events, not past trauma or life history. That’s not to say those topics won’t come up in therapy, but they’re not the central focus of this treatment.

How does CBT work?

In mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, substance use, phobias, and many others, negative thinking takes many forms, like:

In CBT, you’ll work with your therapist to identify the thinking patterns that cause your distress. This is an important step in managing overwhelming emotions and unhelpful behaviors. Though many people think therapy is just chatting with a doctor, CBT is actually very structured and tailored to each person. Over time, you’ll learn techniques to acknowledge and challenge thoughts that get in your way and soothe symptoms. Strategies might include:

  • keeping track of your thoughts and reviewing them later
  • confronting situations that create anxiety to learn coping mechanisms
  • practicing problem-solving with your therapist
  • role-playing interactions with others

By practicing strategies like these with your therapist — and at home by yourself — you’ll develop useful skills like:

  • gaining awareness of unhelpful thoughts and how they impact your emotional state
  • getting a more logical understanding of other people’s actions
  • challenging automatic assumptions
  • accurately assessing reality
  • coping with triggering or upsetting situations
  • learning positive self-talk and how to boost confidence
  • relaxation techniques

Basically, CBT works by identifying, tackling, and changing unhelpful thinking so that your mindset, behaviors, and overall well-being improve with practice. When you change the way you feel about specific situations, for example, it will likely be easier to adapt your behaviors in the future. The idea is to apply the skills you learn in therapy to your daily life. It’s like exercising any muscle to make it stronger, except this time that muscle is your brain.


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