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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping you understand the thoughts and feelings that influence your behaviors.
“CBT is a type of therapy that can help you identify automatic negative thoughts and allows you the insight to challenge and replace these thoughts with ones that are more accurate and helpful,” says Bridget Russell, LCSW. “This strategy can be very useful in increasing well-being and ultimately gives a person the ability to learn how to reframe their thoughts in a more positive way in real-time.”
CBT is one of the most common forms of psychotherapy and is used to treat a wide range of disorders. People may be treated using CBT to address depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, addictions, eating disorders, phobias, and various other issues.
Treatment is generally short-term and targets a specific problem. CBT helps you identify and change destructive beliefs and thought patterns that are negatively impacting your behaviors. It provides you with the tools to solve your psychological problems by focusing on the present experience rather than the past.
What you should know about cognitive behavioral therapy:
CBT is an evidenced-based, problem-oriented strategy that focuses on a problem and finds a solution for it. People may seek CBT for life stressors, such as marital distress, the death of a loved one, or job loss. Research shows that CBT has been very effective for psychological problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, addictions, eating disorders, and phobias, among others.
Feeling angry or hopeless all the time, becoming socially withdrawn, experiencing overwhelming fatigue without a medical cause are all reasons to try CBT. Any emotional concern or mental health issue affecting your daily life and function may indicate it’s time for cognitive behavioral therapy.
Before you decide CBT is the right type of mental health therapy for you, consider that it’s best suited for those who are comfortable with examining their own thinking. You must be willing to analyze your thoughts and feelings around an experience for CBT to be effective.
CBT combines cognitive and behavioral therapies and helps you learn the skills to address specific problems. It’s different from other talk therapies because your CBT therapist won’t just discuss your issue and offer advice. They help you learn better ways to manage the mental health problem you’re having now and better equip you to handle future problems. Getting CBT therapy can also reduce symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, and low self-esteem to improve your quality of life and functioning over the long term.
Medications are sometimes used first to relieve the worst of your symptoms before you start your therapy. A variety of therapies may be combined for your CBT treatment. CBT may also utilize problem-solving strategies, relaxation exercises, pain relief methods, and stress reduction techniques. The exact treatments used largely depend on the specific type, duration, and severity of your problem.
Finding a cognitive behavioral therapist near you who’s a good fit is vital for feeling comfortable working with your CBT therapist in a collaborative relationship.
The best therapist helps you learn new strategies, such as calming your mind and relaxing your body, facing your fears instead of avoiding them, and preparing for potentially uncomfortable interactions with others through role-playing.
When choosing a mental health professional, consider everything that might make you more comfortable working with them. The best therapist for you may be the same or opposite gender, or they may be your age or younger or older. You may feel more comfortable having a therapist with similar religious beliefs or one sensitive to gender diversity and various sexual orientations. These and other demographics can impact your comfort level.
Cognitive behavioral therapists are mental health professionals, so they must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Licensure usually requires a doctoral or master’s degree, numerous hours of supervised counseling experience, and passing a licensing exam. Explore a therapist’s qualifications specifically in CBT, especially whether they’ve earned any certifications in the field. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) can help you find qualified cognitive behavioral therapists near you in the United States, as can the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists (NACBT).
Although CBT is considered a short-term treatment, there isn’t a standard length of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapists usually charge per session, with sessions scheduled once per week. You may feel better after just a few sessions, or it may take several months, which often hinges on the type and severity of the problem you’re having. While cost shouldn’t be the sole factor when choosing a CBT therapist, be sure you budget for an undetermined number of sessions. If you have health insurance and your therapist accepts insurance, it may cover part of your mental health costs. Some mental health professionals offer a sliding fee scale with charges based on your income.
CBT emphasizes cognitive techniques but also incorporates behavioral strategies, such as scheduling activities to help overcome depression or exposing yourself to your fears to help conquer feelings of anxiousness. CBT has been proven effective in treating a broad array of mental health disorders and emotional concerns, including:
To prepare for your initial CBT session, set goals by thinking specifically about the changes you want to make in your relationships and/or at home, work, or school. Consider the symptoms that have been bothering you and how long they’ve been a problem. Document behaviors you’d like to change or symptoms you’d like to eliminate. Share all this information with your mental health professional. They will help you evaluate and refine your goals while helping you determine which goals you might be able to reach on your own and which ones will benefit from CBT.
Several basic techniques are used in traditional CBT, but there are also numerous other therapies used as treatments that fall under the CBT umbrella. These therapies use elements of CBT or build on CBT techniques to treat specific problems. Techniques and therapies can include:
|Exposure-based techniques||Exposure-based techniques are some of the most common methods used in CBT to treat anxiety disorders like PTSD, OCD, phobias, panic, GAD, and others. These techniques strive to modify your fear or anxiety by exposing you to whatever causes your fear, confronting the feared stimulus, and providing new information that proves your fear is unrealistic to effectively decrease the fear.|
|Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)||Cognitive processing therapy is a specific type of CBT that helps reduce the symptoms of PTSD caused by traumatic events, such as combat, natural disasters, car accidents, rape, or physical abuse. CPT helps you identify, challenge, and modify disturbing thoughts, emotions, and beliefs related to your trauma that are negatively affecting your life.|
|Problem-solving therapy||Problem-solving therapy is a CBT intervention that helps you learn and/or reactivate problem-solving skills, which you can then apply to specific problems. PST has been highly effective in treating depression, often without the use of antidepressants. It also has been helpful for common mental health conditions and managing stressful events.|
|Medication||In some situations, CBT is more effective when combined with certain medications. For example, dealing with depression or anxiety may be easier when combining antidepressants or tranquilizers with CBT. Your therapist will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of adding medications to your treatment. The decision often depends on your desires and medical history and the exact problem being treated.|
CBT can only be successful if you actively take part in treatment and work on your problems between sessions.
You may be asked to record your thoughts in a journal, then your mental health professional helps you determine whether you perceived things appropriately and realistically or if you behave differently in certain situations. Your therapist may supplement CBT with readings or workbooks. It also might help you to jot down what you’d like to discuss in your next session or what you learned in a session that you’d like to use in your everyday life.