What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used and effective versions of psychotherapy. Patients attend several appointments with therapists to learn how to identify their unhealthy thoughts and how to stop them.

History and Foundations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In the 1960s, Dr. Aaron T. Beck first researched and developed CBT at the University of Pennsylvania. He had been practicing psychoanalysis and noticed that while some patients benefitted greatly, the method simply was not enough.

Some patients with depression and other mental disorders had negative thoughts that seemed automatic. He realized the key to treating clients with such views was finding ways to identify and turn these thoughts around. Eventually, CBT patients learn to think positive thoughts as automatically as they used to think the negative ones.

Since Dr. Becks breakthrough, researchers across the field have developed new ways to use CBT. Now, it is one of the primary psychotherapy techniques. Because CBT is so effective, it now helps patients around the world experience relief from their mental disorders.

Who Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help?

CBT can help any patient who consistently thinks negative or anxious thoughts, almost as if the ideas were automatic. When these thoughts keep clients from enjoying their lives or completing everyday tasks, therapy may be necessary for recovery. Negative thoughts can be extreme or harder to identify, including:

  • I don’t want to live.
  • I am a fraud, and they all know it.
  • I will never be good enough.
  • I hate my body.
  • If I don’t do this, something terrible will happen.
  • The people in my life hate me.
  • Everything is in danger of falling apart right now.

Anyone who thinks things like this regularly should know that there is hope. LifeStance Health therapists can use CBT to help stop these thoughts. Most importantly, patients must understand that these thoughts do not tell the truth; they are symptoms of a disorder.

What Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treat?

When Dr. Beck first developed CBT, he intended to treat depression. In the decades since, researchers have found have adapted CBT to treat several other disorders as well. Therapists can adjust CBT techniques to meet each patients exact needs. Below are just some of the mental disorders that this method can treat.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression

Although it has been decades since the first patients with depression received CBT, the therapeutic technique continues to help people today. A meta-analysis of CBT studies found that when counselors use this technique on patients with depression, the following things happen:

  • CBT helps the patients as much as medication, even in severe cases
  • The technique prevents relapses of depressive episodes
  • It works as well on patients with bipolar disorder, which is a sub-type of depression

ADHD and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Many parents of children with ADHD feel nervous about giving their children medications for the disorder. Breaking research suggests that CBT may offer an effective alternative to prescriptions.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety

Whether patients have generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, or phobias, CBT can help them stop anxious thought patterns. Patients learn to replace those ideas with things like, “I am safe.” One meta-analysis of CBT studies calls this method the “gold-standard” for treating anxiety disorders.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

After traumatic events, patients can experience grief, mood disorders, or PTSD. Trauma-focused CBT can help these patients process what happened and stop the automatic thoughts about the event. Furthermore, patients learn to react to triggering stimuli in healthy ways.

CBT can be effective after all types of trauma, including war, sexual assault, and childhood trauma. Although the research is still fresh, studies show that CBT is more effective than any other type of trauma-focused therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for OCD

Automatic thoughts are the hallmark characteristic of OCD, so it stands to reason that CBT would be an effective treatment for these patients. In therapy, clients learn to identify and stop their obsessive thoughts. Treatment may also include a sub-type of CBT called “exposure therapy.”

Sleep and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When patients have automatic and racing negative thoughts at bedtime, it can be difficult to get adequate sleep. Patients with insomnia can benefit from CBT because they learn how to keep those thoughts at bay and fall asleep to more calming ideas.

However, CBT is not a short-term solution for patients with insomnia. Such clients may require medication management to help get sleep until they know how to use CBT techniques on their own.

Common Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy is not just one technique. Instead, it is an umbrella term for many methods that reverse negative thinking. The exact type of CBT that works for each patient depends on the personalities they have, and which disorders they live with.

That’s why therapists give clients several ways to try to quiet their automatic thoughts. Patients then use these methods in real life and discuss the results with their counselors. Together, they keep anything that works in the proverbial toolbox and ditch whatever doesn’t fit. Below are some common CBT techniques that work for many patients but may not be right for everyone.

Identify Distortions

Patients who have mood disorders often think in ways that are outsized reactions to real-life events. For example, someone may be five minutes late to work one day and think, “Now I’m going to get fired, lose my house, and live in my car.” When such a patient stops and calls out that thought for being out-of-proportion, they take the power from the idea.

Treat Yourself Like a Friend

Once patients know how to recognize negative thoughts, they can begin to question them. One common way to dismiss negative thoughts it to say, “Would I say that to a dear friend in the same situation?” If not, then don’t say it to yourself either.

Write Down Positive Thoughts

Patients can fill their minds with so many positive thoughts that there simply is no room for negativity. Some clients prefer writing down positive ideas to give them more power and space in the mind.

Exposure Therapy

Patients with anxiety, phobias, or OCD respond particularly well to exposure therapy, but only with the help of a trained professional. The negative thoughts in such patients revolve around the idea that if they do a certain thing, something catastrophic will happen. Of course, these assumptions are out-of-proportion with reality.

Exposure therapy helps patients see the distortion. The therapist slowly exposes the patient to the fear. When nothing bad happens, the client starts dismissing the thoughts.

Start a Gratitude Habit

Gratitude is another way of drowning negativity with positive thinking. Patients commit to finding five things each day to feel grateful about. They must write them down at the end of the day and the entries should be specific. In order to fulfill this commitment, clients find themselves looking for the good in life throughout the day, giving negative thoughts less space.