The world of mental health is complex enough, but when you throw in the word “therapy”, it can get downright overwhelming. Where do you begin? What should therapy even look like? What do you need to know?
If you’re wondering what cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is, I’ll make it easy: it is a form of psychotherapy that involves working with a therapist to identify problematic behaviors and thought patterns and then replacing them with healthier ones.
There are many types of therapies out there (and a lot of them are great!). But for me personally, CBT was the one that really clicked. It helped me gain the tools I needed to really make the changes I desired in my life.
Today I want to give you a rundown on what CBT looks like from start to finish so that if you decide to take the plunge and make an appointment with a therapist, you will have a general idea of what might happen.
The term “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT) is used to describe a range of therapies that share some common elements, but CBT itself is not a specific therapy. Rather, it’s an umbrella term that refers to a group of therapies that are all based on the idea that our thoughts are connected to our behaviors and moods. The basic idea is straightforward enough: We feel and act based on what we think. Therefore, if we change how we think, then our feelings and behaviors will also change.
For example, say you see someone walking down the street, and you make an assumption about who they are or what they’re like. If you believe this person is mean or dangerous, then you’ll probably feel afraid around them—and you might even avoid them altogether. But if instead you assume they’re friendly and harmless, then you may feel curious about them and approach them to find out more about them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps you recognize and change harmful thoughts and behaviors. It’s one of the most commonly used types of therapy in the United States, practiced by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be an effective treatment for mental health conditions like anxiety disorder and depression.
The core idea behind CBT is that our thoughts influence our feelings and behavior. When we are able to identify unhealthy or dysfunctional thought patterns, we can learn how to replace those thoughts with more realistic or positive ones. With time, we can develop new habits—and ultimately a new way of thinking—to help us respond better to stressors and difficult situations in our lives.
A typical cognitive behavioral therapy session usually lasts around 45 minutes to an hour, but times vary depending on your individual needs. Sessions may be longer or shorter than this time frame if needed. In some cases, CBT may be provided in an intensive format over a shorter period of time (as few as three days).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a type of talk therapy. It’s based on the idea that your thoughts and beliefs influence how you act and feel. CBT helps you change unhealthy thinking patterns called cognitive distortions, which then affect your behavior and feelings.
In CBT, you work with a therapist in an active way to identify situations that cause negative emotions like stress or anxiety. Together, you figure out what factors may be causing these emotions and work on ways to react differently in the future. If you have depression, for example, your therapist might help you figure out what triggers your symptoms or offer suggestions for coping when they occur.
Sometimes CBT can be combined with medication to treat depression and other mental illnesses. If you’re already taking medication, you can use CBT as a complementary treatment to help manage your symptoms.
Although it started with depression, CBT is now used to help people with anxiety, phobias, psychosis, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, personality disorders, and more. It’s effective both in individual therapy sessions and in group settings. In fact, cognitive behavioral therapy is the most researched form of therapy in the world.
In CBT sessions with your therapist, you’ll practice identifying the thoughts that contribute to your distress (like “I’m not smart enough” or “I’m going to fail”), and challenging them. For example, if you have a test coming up tomorrow, you might feel very anxious about it—but if every morning at work you get praise for how well you’ve done so far and how much progress you’re making in your job training program, maybe it’s just a little bit unlikely that tomorrow’s test will be so difficult that you’ll fail utterly.
In CBT it is believed that some people have a tendency to blame themselves for things that happen to them (even if it isn’t their fault). For example, if someone experiences a trauma such as an accident or assault, they may think “I must have been stupid not to see that coming.” This could lead them to avoid driving cars or walking alone at night in case they are attacked again.