What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a popular form of talk therapy performed by a mental health counselor or therapist. CBT is a highly structured, goal oriented approach to psychotherapy, meant to help patients problem-solve and work through specific target issues. The goal of CBT is to help patients understand how their thoughts, perceptions and feelings directly impact their responses and behavior in challenging situations.
CBT is based on the principle that our thought patterns shape how we see the world, and when our thought patterns are negative or incorrect, this can lead to unhelpful behaviors and emotional or psychological distress. Through CBT, patients are made aware of inaccurate and harmful ways of thinking so that they can view challenges more clearly and react to them more effectively.
What Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treat?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be a helpful tool for anyone. Not everyone who benefits from CBT has a mental health condition, but it can be used to treat mental health conditions. These can include:
- Anger management Issues
- Eating disorders
- Mood issues
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Panic attacks
- Sleeping disorders
- Trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
CBT can also help people address emotional challenges, such as:
- Coping with medical illness
- Coping with stress
- Grief or loss
- Managing symptoms of mental illness
- Relationship issues
How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is grounded in the idea that perception is, or at least strongly impacts, reality, and that a person’s beliefs surrounding a challenging situation or experience determine their emotional and behavioral response to that situation or experience. A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist’s goal is to help patients pinpoint inaccurate or dysfunctional thought cycles that may be causing or adding to a distressing challenge that they’re facing, and then encourage them to adjust those thoughts. This can be difficult, as thinking patterns are often deeply ingrained in us and established in childhood. Through CBT, patients are assisted in gradually recognizing and changing harmful cognitive distortions, allowing them to perceive distressing situations more clearly and handle them more confidently in the real world.
Common Cognitive Distortions Addressed in CBT
Cognitive errors, or disruptive, inaccurate thought cycles are often pinpointed and worked through during CBT. Common cognitive distortions that are addressed in therapy include:
- Viewing the world in extremes – believing that things are black or white with nothing in between.
- Excessive self-blame – believing that when bad things happen, it must be your fault.
- Overgeneralizing – believing that if something is true in one setting or one experience, then it must always be true.
- Taking details out of context – forming conclusions based on isolated (usually negative) details of events or experiences while ignoring the rest of the context and positive aspects.
- Personalization – believing that the things that other people do and say are always somehow related to you, causing you to take everything personally.
- Jumping to conclusions – assuming that you already know the thoughts, feelings and motivations of others without asking them directly, or automatically predicting the worst outcome of a situation or event.
- Mistakenly seeing situations as catastrophic – expecting disaster or tragedy to strike at any moment and giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome of a given situation.
Changing Automatic Negative Thoughts
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works by helping patients recognize and change automatic negative thoughts. If people learn negative or destructive ways of thinking at an early age and repeat these thought patterns throughout their lives, they can begin to think this way automatically, regardless of situation or context. When these negative thoughts surface impulsively and are accepted as true, they can have a tremendous impact on a person’s mood, despite not being based in reality.
In CBT, therapists work with patients to identify any automatic negative thoughts that may be contributing to or exacerbating emotional distress. Patients are encouraged to examine these thoughts compared with evidence from the real-life situations and events that surround them. Then, they must confront whether or not reality supports or refutes their way of thinking, allowing them to take a more objective look at the thoughts that contribute to their negative emotions.
Becoming aware of automatic negative thoughts that are unrealistic and impact your mood is the first step in engaging in healthier thinking patterns. Through goal-setting and practice, CBT therapists aim to gradually adjust how patients think, feel and react in challenging situations, transforming any thought patterns that stand in the way of productive or positive outcomes. By changing automatic negative thought patterns that cause patients distress, that distress decreases and patients can begin to feel better.
What Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Look Like?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy typically begins with your therapist or counselor learning more about you. This period of gaining background knowledge is less structured, and usually consists of a few sessions in which you’re asked questions about your goals, challenges, present situation and past experiences. Because CBT is goal oriented, it’s important for your therapist to have a deep understanding of you and your concerns in order to determine the best plan of action to make the most out of your sessions.
Steps in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy consists of four core steps.
- Identifying challenges in your life. These can vary widely. Some examples could be, divorce, grief, a medical condition, or a mental health disorder. Your mental health counselor might spend some time with you prioritizing these challenges and helping you decide what goals you want to work on.
- Becoming aware of how you think and feel about these challenges. Your therapist will encourage you to reflect on and share your beliefs, self-talk, interpretations and perceptions regarding the issues you’ve identified.
- Recognizing negative thought patterns and behavior. You will be asked to pay attention to your emotional, physical and behavioral reactions in challenging situations, and reflect on if and how they may be contributing to your distress.
- Reshaping inaccurate and harmful thinking. Your therapist will help you confront whether or not your perceptions and thought patterns regarding certain events or situations are accurate and realistic. Established ways of thinking about yourself, your life, and others can be difficult to examine objectively, but a trained mental health professional can help you see things more clearly. Eventually, new, healthier habits and responses can be formed, and with practice, become second nature and replace the old ones.
CBT Learning Tools
There are a variety of tools and techniques implemented by therapists in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help teach patients how to identify and adjust harmful negative thinking. These include:
- Social, physical, and emotional thinking exercises
- Regular discussion
- Role-playing activities
- Gradual exposure to things that cause fear
- Homework assignments
It may sound odd, but homework is a crucial part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Since CBT is a short-term therapeutic approach with a limited number of sessions, homework assignments help reinforce what was learned in therapy. It’s one thing to identify and understand negative thought cycles, but it’s much harder to adjust those cycles and implement new thinking and behavior in the real world. Homework also gives patients the tools to continue bettering themselves and strengthening their positive thinking after they’ve completed their sessions and CBT has come to an end.
Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might not cure a mental health condition or make a distressing situation go away, but it does help people cope with challenges in a healthy and constructive way, as well as help improve their confidence and self-esteem. A growing number of mental health professionals are using CBT on a regular basis or have begun incorporating it into their practices alongside other therapeutic approaches.
There is much to learn from CBT, and even if it can’t fix life’s issues, there are many benefits of going through the process. The following are some common positive takeaways for patients after completing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
CBT can help patients through…
- Establishing and meeting attainable goals
- Letting go of self-blame
- Facing fears
- Seeing problems more clearly
- Challenging assumptions
- Distinguishing between facts and irrational thoughts
- Understanding how past experiences shape present beliefs
- No longer fearing the worst
- Seeing things from a new perspective
- Becoming more aware of their moods
- Avoiding generalizations
- Focusing on the present
- Better understanding the motivations and behaviors of other people
How Identity Can Help
Identity Counseling Psychology is a counseling and psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan made up of a group of passionate, licensed therapists that specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Identity helps adults and adolescents cope with and manage mental health issues like anxiety, depression, stress, and relationship issues. If you live in the Ann Arbor area and are interested in, or have questions about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, please contact us today.