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In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel. It is used to help treat a wide range of issues in a person’s life, from sleeping difficulties or relationship problems, to drug and alcohol abuse or anxiety and depression. CBT works by changing people’s attitudes and their behavior by focusing on the thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes that are held (a person’s cognitive processes) and how these processes relate to the way a person behaves, as a way of dealing with emotional problems.

An important advantage of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it tends to be short, taking five to ten months for most emotional problems. Clients attend one session per week, each session lasting approximately 50 minutes. During this time, the client and therapist are work together to understand what the problems are and develop new strategies for tackling them. CBT introduces patients to a set of principles that they can apply whenever they need to, and that’ll last them a lifetime.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be thought of as a combination of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of the personal meaning we place on things and how thinking patterns begin in childhood. Behavioral therapy pays close attention to the relationship between our problems, our behavior and our thoughts. Most psychotherapists who practice CBT personalize and customize the therapy to the specific needs and personality of each patient.

The History of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy was invented by a psychiatrist, Aaron Beck, in the 1960s. He was doing psychoanalysis at the time and observed that during his analytical sessions, his patients tended to have an internal dialogue going on in their minds — almost as if they were talking to themselves. But they would only report a fraction of this kind of thinking to him.

For example, in a therapy session the client might be thinking to herself: “He (the therapist) hasn’t said much today. I wonder if he’s annoyed with me?” These thoughts might make the client feel slightly anxious or perhaps annoyed. He or she could then respond to this thought with a further thought: “He’s probably tired, or perhaps I haven’t been talking about the most important things.” The second thought might change how the client was feeling.

Beck realized that the link between thoughts and feelings was very important. He invented the term automatic thoughts to describe emotion-filled thoughts that might pop up in the mind. Beck found that people weren’t always fully aware of such thoughts, but could learn to identify and report them. If a person was feeling upset in some way, the thoughts were usually negative and neither realistic nor helpful. Beck found that identifying these thoughts was the key to the client understanding and overcoming his or her difficulties.

Beck called it cognitive therapy because of the importance it places on thinking. It’s now known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) because the therapy employs behavioral techniques as well. The balance between the cognitive and the behavioral elements varies among the different therapies of this type, but all come under the umbrella term cognitive behavior therapy. CBT has since undergone successful scientific trials in many places by different teams, and has been applied to a wide variety of problems.

The Importance of Negative Thoughts

CBT is based on a model or theory that it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. If our thoughts are too negative, it can block us seeing things or doing things that don’t fit – that disconfirm – what we believe is true. In other words, we continue to hold on to the same old thoughts and fail to learn anything new.

For example, a depressed woman may think, “I can’t face going into work today: I can’t do it. Nothing will go right. I’ll feel awful.” As a result of having these thoughts – and of believing them – she may well ring in sick. By behaving like this, she won’t have the chance to find out that her prediction was wrong. She might have found some things she could do, and at least some things that were okay. But, instead, she stays at home, brooding about her failure to go in and ends up thinking: “I’ve let everyone down. They will be angry with me. Why can’t I do what everyone else does? I’m so weak and useless.” That woman probably ends up feeling worse, and has even more difficulty going in to work the next day. Thinking, behaving and feeling like this may start a downward spiral. This vicious circle can apply to many different kinds of problems.

Where Do These Negative Thoughts Come From?

Beck suggested that these thinking patterns are set up in childhood, and become automatic and relatively fixed. So, a child who didn’t get much open affection from their parents but was praised for school work, might come to think, “I have to do well all the time. If I don’t, people will reject me.” Such a rule for living (known as a dysfunctional assumption) may do well for the person a lot of the time and help them to work hard.

But if something happens that’s beyond their control and they experience failure, then the dysfunctional thought pattern may be triggered. The person may then begin to have automatic thoughts like, “I’ve completely failed. No one will like me. I can’t face them.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy acts to help the person understand that this is what’s going on. It helps him or her to step outside their automatic thoughts and test them out. CBT would encourage the depressed woman mentioned earlier to examine real-life experiences to see what happens to her, or to others, in similar situations. Then, in the light of a more realistic perspective, she may be able to take the chance of testing out what other people think, by revealing something of her difficulties to friends.

Clearly, negative things can and do happen. But when we are in a disturbed state of mind, we may be basing our predictions and interpretations on a biased view of the situation, making the difficulty that we face seem much worse. CBT helps people to correct these misinterpretations.

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What Does CBT Treatment Look Like?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy differs from many other types of psychotherapies because sessions have a structure, rather than the person talking freely about whatever comes to mind. At the beginning of the therapy, the client meets the therapist to describe specific problems and to set goals they want to work towards. The problems may be troublesome symptoms, such as sleeping badly, not being able to socialize with friends, or difficulty concentrating on reading or work. Or they could be life problems, such as being unhappy at work, having trouble dealing with an adolescent child, or being in an unhappy marriage.

These problems and goals then become the basis for planning the content of sessions and discussing how to deal with them. Typically, at the beginning of a session, the client and therapist will jointly decide on the main topics they want to work on this week. They will also allow time for discussing the conclusions from the previous session. And they will look at the progress made with the homework the client set for him- or herself last time. At the end of the session, they will plan another assignment to do outside the sessions.

Doing Homework

Working on homework assignments between sessions, in this way, is a vital part of the process. What this may involve will vary. For example, at the start of the therapy, the therapist might ask the client to keep a diary of any incidents that provoke feelings of anxiety or depression, so that they can examine thoughts surrounding the incident. Later on in the therapy, another assignment might consist of exercises to cope with problem situations of a particular kind.

The importance of structure

The reason for having this structure is that it helps to use the therapeutic time most efficiently. It also makes sure that important information isn’t missed out (the results of the homework, for instance) and that both therapist and client think about new assignments that naturally follow on from the session.

The therapist takes an active part in structuring the sessions to begin with. As progress is made, and clients grasp the principles they find helpful, they take more and more responsibility for the content of sessions. So by the end, the client feels empowered to continue working independently.

Group sessions

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is usually a one-to-one therapy. But it’s also well suited to working in groups, or families, particularly at the beginning of therapy. Many people find great benefit from sharing their difficulties with others who may have similar problems, even though this may seem daunting at first. The group can also be a source of especially valuable support and advice, because it comes from people with personal experience of a problem. Also, by seeing several people at once, service-providers can offer help to more people at the same time, so people get help sooner.

How else does it differ from other therapies?

Cognitive behavioral therapy also differs from other therapies in the nature of the relationship that the therapist will try to establish. Some therapies encourage the client to be dependent on the therapist, as part of the treatment process. The client can then easily come to see the therapist as all-knowing and all-powerful. The relationship is different with CBT.

CBT favors a more equal relationship that is, perhaps, more business-like, being problem-focused and practical. The therapist will frequently ask the client for feedback and for their views about what is going on in therapy. Beck coined the term ‘collaborative empiricism’, which emphasizes the importance of client and therapist working together to test out how the ideas behind CBT might apply to the client’s individual situation and problems.

Who Benefits from Trying CBT?

People who describe having particular problems are often the most suitable for CBT, because it works through having a specific focus and goals. It may be less suitable for someone who feels vaguely unhappy or unfulfilled, but who doesn’t have troubling symptoms or a particular aspect of their life they want to work on.

It’s likely to be more helpful for anyone who can relate to CBT’s ideas, its problem-solving approach and the need for practical self-assignments. People tend to prefer CBT if they want a more practical treatment, where gaining insight isn’t the main aim.

CBT can be an effective therapy for the following problems:

  • anger management
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • child and adolescent problems
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • chronic pain
  • depression
  • drug or alcohol problems
  • eating problems
  • general health problems
  • habits, such as facial tics
  • mood swings
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • phobias
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • sexual and relationship problems
  • sleep problems

There is a new and rapidly growing interest in using CBT (together with medication) with people who suffer from hallucinations and delusions, and those with long-term problems in relating to others.

It’s less easy to solve problems that are more severely disabling and more long-standing through short-term therapy. But people can often learn principles that improve their quality of life and increase their chances of making further progress. There is also a wide variety of self-help literature. It provides information about treatments for particular problems and ideas about what people can do on their own or with friends and family (see further down).

In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


Ben Martin, Psy.D.

Ben Martin, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He also writes psychoeducational articles about mental disorders and mental illness.

APA Reference
Martin, B. (2019). In-Depth: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/in-depth-cognitive-behavioral-therapy/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Jun 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Jun 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.