Generally considered to be the gold standard of therapeutic counseling methods, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to help clients cope with many of life’s hurdles in real-time. CBT is particularly well-known for offering clients coping strategies that work well outside of therapy.

CBT works primarily through a comprehensive (yet intuitive) process known as thought replacement. This involves the identification, evaluation, and replacement of negative thoughts—thoughts that produce unpleasant feelings that may have ultimately driven the client to seek counseling in the first place. 

Keep reading to learn more about this clinically proven therapeutic approach and how it can help you. 

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)? How Does It Work?

As stated above, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that looks at ways that your internal thinking patterns impact your beliefs about yourself, others, and the world as well as the ways that these thoughts influence your beliefs and behaviors. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy works by helping bring awareness to one’s internal processes and automatic thought patterns and gives them tools to evaluate the efficacy and validity of these thoughts and the ways that they influence behaviors

Therapists employ CBT to help individuals learn to better manage their experiences, interactions, and inner dialogue as they face personal obstacles outside of therapy. Common challenges that CBT can help to improve include: 

In essence, it allows an individual to gain autonomy over their maladaptive thought patterns and reframe those thoughts into healthier, more realistic ones, therefore having a positive influence on thoughts and behaviors and increasing self-efficacy. 

When discussing the subject of therapy, one may picture an individual talking and a therapist exclusively listening. However that is not the case with CBT; a mutual and equal relationship is established. The individual first explains what kind of problems they are having and what they would like to see improve. 

These then become the outline for discussions during each session. Each week, they will make more and more progress as they collectively work on: 

  • Tackling these issues
  • Exploring possible fixes
  • Identifying effective coping skills
  • Creating healthy thinking/behavioral patterns

The therapeutic process doesn’t stop with these sessions. The client is often assigned homework between sessions, which will aid the two in identifying triggers or negative patterns. It can also help them determine effective ways to handle them. 

This structure is crucial to the success of CBT. The steady progress makes for lasting effects, allowing the individual to continue the efforts alone, outside of therapy.

What Is the Main Goal of CBT? 

The primary goal of CBT is to provide clients with the tools they need to alter their behavior through learning to recognize and replace their harmful thought patterns. Additionally, CBT techniques can help clients learn to remain aware of the detrimental effects caused by negative thoughts. 

Through CBT, clients can learn to: 

  • Identify harmful thoughts and negative emotions when they arise
  • Challenge the accuracy and usefulness of these negative headspaces
  • Replace these negative feelings and thoughts with positive ones 
  • Helps clients practice putting “therapy in motion” 

The foundation of CBT is built on the principle that, while we aren’t always aware of the impact of our thoughts, we can be coached into identifying them and replacing them when they aren’t psychologically beneficial, or negative.

Who Benefits the Most from CBT?

Anyone can benefit from seeking CBT. However, it may be most helpful to those who have specific problems they would like and need to address. Some of the specific issues that CBT can help clients manage include:

  • Depression: Among many other elements, depression is primarily characterized by down moods and negative thought patterns. CBT works by targeting this negativity and introducing new coping strategies that help the individual deal with everyday challenges.
  • Anxiety: There are a variety of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nerves and uneasiness are at the center of each of these disorders. And distorted thoughts—or those cognitive distortions we talked about earlier—can make them even worse. CBT, however, can remedy the effects by targeting negative thoughts and teaching clients new, healthier patterns.
  • Alcohol abuse and addiction: Alcohol abuse and addiction are tricky issues, as sufferers are at great risk of relapsing. CBT focuses on improving the client’s life in many ways in addition to just getting sober. This will further motivate them to stay away from the substance and lead a healthy, happy life.

CBT can significantly reduce the symptoms of emotional disorders, as proven through clinical trials. And it can prove just as effective as medication in individuals struggling with anxiety or depression. Furthermore, its benefits carry on even after the individual finishes therapy.

What Does a CBT Session Look Like? 

In CBT sessions, a therapist will generally work with their client to first help them identify, understand, and change their harmful attitudes and behaviors, which they may not be fully aware of. 

As the therapeutic process progresses, clients will begin to adopt new and more effective ways of coping with situations and relationships outside of sessions. By the end of the therapy process, a client will hopefully have learned the coping skills needed to better manage their mental health conditions or other challenges. 

Sessions often average 50 minutes and may occur weekly, or on a bi-weekly basis. In CBT sessions:

  • The client and their therapist work together to identify the underlying problems and solutions 
  • The therapist creates a comfortable, mutual relationship that’s built on trust and shared understanding 
  • A client and their therapist will set goals to achieve together; these goals may include achieving healthier communication in a relationship

One distinguishing factor of CBT is that it’s typically a short-term commitment in comparison to other methods such as psychodynamic therapy. While everyone’s mental health needs are different, generally CBT may last up to 5 to 10 months, the point at which some clients’ emotional problems may begin to resolve or improve substantially. 

What Are the Mental Health Benefits of CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy has many significant mental health benefits, significantly:

  • Lowering levels of anxiety and depression
  • Increasing self-confidence
  • Increasing self-efficacy
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Increasing overall mood levels
  • Decreasing overall stress levels
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Decreasing anxious thought patterns
  • Increasing overall levels of intrapersonal distress tolerance

CBT has also been shown to help increase your ability to have and maintain positive interpersonal relationships and may improve your marriage, friendships, work life, and other relationships. 

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

CBT is based on the idea that negative thinking, or cognitive distortions, are at the root of our mental health challenges and personal issues. It’s not about the events or thoughts themselves—it’s about how we look at them.

For example: 

  • An anxious client who hasn’t heard from her friend in a week may automatically assume that her friend is angry at her 
  • She might worry nonstop until she hears from them
  • This is an example of overgeneralization, a type of cognitive distortion that can be addressed and resolved through CBT 

In CBT sessions, a therapist can help a client who’s overgeneralizing to recognize her negative thinking and develop a better approach to her problem. For example, she could be proactive and call him at the onset of her worry, instead of waiting anxiously for him to call.

In addition to overgeneralizing and jumping to conclusions, many other forms of cognitive distortion reinforce our negativity. 

These include:

  • Polarized thinking: “black and white thinking,” whereas we think in extremes. A person, event, or situation is either horrible or fantastic — perfect, or entirely worthless.
  • Filtering:  This happens when we place a heavy focus on the negatives and ignore the positives.
  • Blaming: Occurs when we simply place blame on ourselves or others for every bad thing that happens.
  • Catastrophizing: Also known as “magnifying or minimizing,”. This cognitive distortion is summed up as someone expecting the worst.
  • Emotional reasoning: in which we assume our feelings must be true, despite a lack of facts or evidence.
  • Control fallacies: whereas we feel either externally controlled (e.g., by fate or luck) or internally controlled (directly responsible).
  • Fairness fallacy: in which we measure every situation on a scale of fairness, which often leads to disappointment or objection.
  • Personalization: in which individuals take everything personally; they assume that others’ actions are direct reflections of their feelings toward them.

Correcting these cognitive distortions can help with day-to-day problem-solving. It is also an important part of CBT, which — as we said earlier — can effectively treat many conditions including anxiety and depression.

What Are the 7 Steps of CBT?

In cognitive behavioral therapy there are 7 steps: 

  • Identify the problem
  • Set goals
  • Identify obstacles
  • Challenge automatic and intrusive thoughts
  • Identify and challenge core beliefs and assumptions
  • Enact lifestyle and behavioral changes
  • Employ problem-solving skills

These 7 steps are typically linear, but as someone progresses through the steps they can be combined or done slightly out of order. For example, as the individual progresses through making lifestyle changes they can also utilize the problem-solving steps and change behaviors simultaneously.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Some of the most common CBT techniques include:

  1. The three-column technique: The client first folds a piece of paper vertically into three different columns. They’re then instructed to write down their negative thoughts in the first column. For example, one may write “I’m a total failure” after missing a deadline at work.  Second, they must identify their cognitive distortion in the second column, which in this case would be polarized thinking. And in the third column, they are to correct their thinking based on facts, not negativity or pessimism. This client may write something like, “I missed a deadline, but it’s okay. Nobody’s perfect and I will make up the work.”
  2. Journal or diary work: A therapist may assign his or her client the task of keeping a journal. The entries to come may reveal a vital part of the healing process for the client. Then, later in treatment, a therapist may assign other exercises or tasks related to coping and changing behavior based on insights gained from these entries. 
  3. Five-step problem-solving: Clients will encounter real-life scenarios that will test what they’ve learned in CBT. Being able to actively work through obstacles is crucial to long-term success after ending CBT. 

Five-step problem-solving involves the client: 

  1. Recognizing the issue—perhaps an argument, for example. 
  2. Creating a list of possible solutions (Walking away to cool off, withholding inflammatory words, recognizing the other person’s perspective)
  3. Determining which possible remedy fits best
  4. Choosing a solution
  5. Putting that solution into practice

CBT techniques help clients to recognize their irrational thinking and correct it. Over time, these individuals will start to notice a pattern in their negative thinking. They will begin to reframe it to reflect reality instead of their false distortions.

How Can You Manage Anxiety with CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great tool for managing and effectively regulating anxiety by enabling someone’s baseline anxiety levels to be lowered. The 7 steps of CBT increase one’s ability to identify, challenge, and replace anxious thoughts that were previously unrecognizable.

CBT allows a client to be able to remove their personal bias (due to their anxiety) and be able to effectively regulate their response to one that is adaptive and grounded in the true reality of their situation.

How Can You Overcome Depression Through CBT?

Similarly to the above, CBT helps allow an individual to overcome negative core beliefs about self and negative automatic biases by empowering the client to identify and challenge maladaptive and false thoughts and beliefs about self and others. CBT allows a client to overcome depression by sorting through thoughts that are grounded in fact vs. reality rather than thoughts that are rooted in false perceptions and self-deprecating thoughts about self. 

CBT encourages a person to engage with a negative automatic thought about self rather than to believe it firsthand. 

What’s the Difference Between Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and CBT? 

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a separate therapeutic method that employs certain CBT techniques to help clients experience personal growth. DBT is: 

  • The preferred treatment method for those with borderline personality disorder in particular
  • Focused on distress tolerance, building a client’s resiliency to negative situations or difficult people
  • DBT focuses primarily on helping clients to talk through their issues, as opposed to controlling their inner dialogue

DBT can be helpful for those who don’t have borderline personality disorder, and who are experiencing interpersonal problems or more severe behavioral issues in certain environments.

Finding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at Thriveworks

If you’re interested in how CBT sessions at Thriveworks could help you regulate your negative thoughts and emotional patterns, don’t hesitate to start looking for a CBT-trained therapist who’s a great fit for you. You can easily find an experienced, licensed CBT therapist in your area in as little as a few minutes.

Start Your Journey to Well-Being

Begin your journey to improved well-being by scheduling a session at Thriveworks today. Our team of highly skilled and compassionate therapists is here to support you every step of the way. Whether you’re dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, or another mental health challenge, our Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) experts are ready to provide you with the tools and guidance you need to achieve a happier and healthier life. 

Don’t wait any longer; take the first step towards a brighter future. Schedule your CBT session with Thriveworks now.