What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and How Does It Help People?

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Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychological treatment that helps people learn to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors. Like other types of behavioral therapy, CBT doesn’t spend much time addressing past events. Instead, your therapist will address existing symptoms so you can improve your outlook on life and your self-perception. 

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In most cases, you’ll attend a set number of sessions and track your progress in a journal. This practice will reinforce what you learned in therapy and help you apply new coping mechanisms in real life situations. Upon finishing treatment, you’ll have the tools to become your own therapist, assessing situations accurately and responding appropriately. 

CBT is highly effective at treating a wide range of mental and physical conditions and can help people deal with a wide variety of personal issues. 

Here are just a few of the many ways CBT can help you. 

1. Anxiety 

CBT first became popular in the 1980s and 90s for treating anxiety disorders — including panic and phobia — and it remains an effective treatment method to this day. As part of the therapy process, you’ll learn how to be more assertive, self-confident and realistic. You’ll also learn to overcome guilt, embarrassment and anger over past situations. 

How is all this possible? Well, CBT targets and identifies automatic negative thoughts to show you just how misaligned they are with reality. Once you’re aware of these thoughts and the anxious feelings that come with them, you can make them rationally neutral and, eventually, realistically positive. 

2. Personality Disorders 

In much the same way, CBT can effectively treat a number of personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. However, some experts have noted that these conditions might require two different types of therapy, the first of which is dialectical behavior therapy. DBT focuses on helping you learn and apply skills that decrease emotion dysregulation so you can cope with strong emotions in healthy ways. 

The second approach is called schema-focused therapy. This variation of CBT identifies schemas or deeply held patterns that directly relate to and affect our worldview and sense of self. Clients can then draw connections between past events and current symptoms to break unhealthy behavior patterns and ways of thinking. 

3. Depression and Grief 

Many people also look to CBT to better handle symptoms of depression and grief. Instead of taking medications, they engage in talk therapy to identify past and current life situations and thinking patterns that may be causing their condition. In some cases, the client isn’t even aware of these patterns because they’ve been repeating them for so long. People with mental filters and automatic negative reactions often struggle with this exact problem. 

If your therapist determines that negative thought patterns or perceptions are causing your depression or exacerbating your grief, they may use a series of techniques to replace those thoughts. Together, you’ll learn how to self-evaluate, practice accurate and balanced self-talk, modify distorted thoughts and comprehensively assess external situations. Eventually, these techniques will help you respond without letting your feelings overwhelm you. 

4. Substance Abuse and Addiction 

Mood disorders often co-occur with substance abuse. Luckily, CBT can treat both disorders simultaneously — or separately, if need be — and therapists around the world use it to treat nearly every type of addiction. This treatment method is highly effective because it teaches clients to recognize triggers and find healthy ways to deal with their emotions. 

Sessions often include exploring behavior patterns that led to and perpetuate addictive action. Once you identify these triggers, you can develop practical strategies for redirecting thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. You’ll also learn how to avoid situations that might trigger your desire for drugs and alcohol. Regardless of what prompted your dependence, you can learn to cope and embrace a life that’s free of addiction. 

5. Chronic Pain 

According to CBT theory, individuals create their own experiences and suffering. However, people can learn to manage their pain and minimize discomfort by changing their awareness and developing better coping skills. Therefore, it’s no surprise that CBT is the most common psychological intervention for people with chronic pain. If the perception of pain is in your brain, therapy can help you address the thoughts and behaviors that fuel it.

To treat chronic pain, most therapists pair CBT with other methods of pain management, including medications, weight loss, physical therapy and even surgery. Yet, therapy remains one of the most effective. Plus, it has far fewer risks and side effects than any other method. However, clients must truly believe CBT will work and keep an open mind during each session to maximize the pain control power of this therapy. 

Are You Willing to Change?

As effective as CBT can be, it doesn’t work for everyone. In some cases, clients do need medication or an alternative treatment. However, those that shoot down therapy before trying it are doing themselves a disservice. Of course, if you don’t believe CBT will work and are unwilling to change your thoughts and behaviors, then it won’t help you. So, before you consider talking to a doctor or therapist, ask yourself one simple question. Are you willing to change?