CBT techniques can help you manage your anxiety by teaching you how to restructure thoughts, schedule worry time, and much more.
If you live with an anxiety disorder, anxious feelings can be challenging to manage and affect your ability to function every day. But you’re not alone.
There are many effective treatment options that can help you manage anxiety — however, with so many options to choose from, it can feel overwhelming to find treatments that best fit you.
If you’re looking into treatments for anxiety, you’ll likely hear about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But what exactly is it about this therapy option that helps you manage anxiety?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of evidence-based psychotherapy used to help treat a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.
CBT is one important tool that mental health professionals use to help someone improve distorted thought and behavioral patterns associated with conditions, like:
How it works
In CBT, a therapist helps you identify negative thought patterns and implement techniques to help these thoughts affect you less. You may also learn how to regulate your responses to anxiety-producing situations and develop coping strategies when they occur.
You’ll also work with a therapist to identify attainable mental health goals. After figuring out what areas you want to work on, your therapist typically helps you learn ways to reframe your thinking and behaviors to achieve your goals.
In addition, researchers note that the anxiety-reducing benefits of CBT seem to last at least 12 months. Still, more research is needed to determine longer-term outcomes.
A hallmark of anxiety disorders is persistent fears, negative thoughts, or worries that are wide-ranging. As time goes on, worries can lead to a pattern of thoughts and behaviors that may negatively affect your daily life.
CBT techniques can help you identify those patterns and actively work toward changing them.
According to a 2019 research article, cognitive processes most often seen in people with anxiety disorders include:
- Interpretation bias. You often interpret situations as threatening or harmful, even when they’re not.
- Attention bias. Your focus and attention are commonly placed on threatening or negative information first — versus less threatening or reassuring stimuli.
- Pervasive negative thoughts and images. You experience unwanted negative or disturbing thoughts or images that repeatedly pop up.
- Attentional control deficiencies. It’s challenging for you to shift your mind away from negative thoughts and worry.
These processes, along with other anxiety symptoms, can often be addressed with specific CBT techniques.
Several CBT tools are used to help manage anxiety, but some techniques might be more effective than others.
Below are just a few examples of CBT techniques for anxiety. When first starting CBT, a therapist will likely work with you to develop a personalized plan that best suits your needs.
1. Cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is all about changing negative thinking patterns. Restructuring your thoughts involves digging deep into what triggers your anxiety, then identifying the negative thoughts that follow.
Having a clear picture of how your thought patterns flow can help you and a therapist develop a plan to redirect negative thoughts into more balanced ones when anxiety occurs.
2. Worry history outcome
Persistent worrying is often the result of a skewed assessment of actual situation outcomes. For example, you may have anxiety every day because you’re worried about getting all the tasks on your to-do list done on time. But history shows that you do accomplish your tasks most of the time.
This technique usually involves logging your worries and tracking the actual outcomes. This can help you understand that your fears may not be likely to manifest as often as you think they will.
3. Mental spotlight
Mental spotlight involves purposely redirecting your attention onto a task and away from the primary source of anxiety.
Shifting your worries can be difficult because the brain is wired to remain focused on perceived threats. However, practicing this technique can help you manage where your attention goes.
Mastering your “mental spotlight” can lead to less time spent feeling worried or anxious.
4. Worry-free zone
A person’s worry-free zone doesn’t necessarily need to be a place — it can also be a task or time slot, such as:
- 10 minutes of worry-free time spent having coffee in the morning
- worry-free time spent at the gym
- a designated area you can go to meditate in your home
Like the mental spotlight technique, the worry-free zone method is designed to help you learn ways to shift your attention from anxiety-producing thoughts.
5. Worry timetabling
Building off the worry-free zone, worry timetabling involves setting aside a specific time to worry, postponing any concerns you have until your scheduled worry time.
Again, this technique can help improve your ability to focus on non-worrisome thoughts.
6. Positive data log
Maintaining a positive data log is essentially a type of journaling, where you log positive thoughts about your day.
By logging positive outcomes, you build evidence that shows you are doing well on most days. It may also lead to more time searching for positivity in daily life, which can help reframe your thinking.
7. Positive outcome imagery
Many people with anxiety envision their worst-cases scenarios and remain focused on those scenarios as the likely outcome.
Positive outcome imagery can interrupt catastrophic thinking by taking the worrisome thought and playing it out in your mind with a more hopeful ending.
One part of CBT may involve identifying the causes of your anxiety and keeping track of triggers and symptoms.
Mental health professionals often use therapy worksheets to assist with this process. Worksheets can also help create a visual map of symptoms and track your progress throughout therapy sessions.
During CBT sessions, you may encounter several worksheets. Here are some worksheet examples from Therapist Aid:
Therapists often use one or more treatments, along with CBT, to help you achieve your mental health goals.
Besides CBT techniques, other treatment plans for anxiety commonly include:
- Medications. These include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and more.
- Psychotherapy. Other types of therapy may be used alongside CBT, like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Mindfulness. You may benefit from meditation practices, learning breathing techniques, and grounding exercises.
- Lifestyle changes. Certain changes — like exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating more nutritious foods — may help manage anxiety symptoms.
- Alternative therapies. Some options include CBD, animal therapy, and art therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown as an effective therapy for managing anxiety disorders.
CBT offers therapists many techniques to work with, so it can take time to figure out which ones work best for you. Although CBT can be used alone to treat anxiety, it’s often used with other strategies in a treatment plan.
Once you’ve started your treatment plan, you might see improvements after just a few CBT sessions, or it could take more time. If you’re an active participant in creating your CBT plan and working with your therapist, you may find more benefit.
If you need help finding a health professional that practices CBT, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has an online therapist directory or you can call the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists (NACBT) at 800-253-0167.
There are also online therapy options available that may offer CBT.