Benefits Of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy For Treating Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It’s estimated that approximately 30% of adults in the US will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Though they are common, it is possible to treat anxiety disorders—typically through psychological and pharmacological interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and, in some cases, medication. CBT focuses on helping clients develop a better understanding of the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and to then learn to shift thinking patterns in a healthy direction. Below, we'll cover the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and discuss ways you may be able to use these skills to reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can make anxiety more manageable

What does anxiety look like?

When responding to new challenges, concerns about the future, or the demands of everyday life, many people experience anxious feelings. Anxiety can manifest in different ways for different people, but an individual will usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable worry that causes distress and impacts daily life

  • Inability to let go of worries

  • Persistent negative thoughts

  • Feeling restless or on edge

  • Physical symptoms, including headaches, nausea, or feeling easily fatigued

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Having difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Experiencing muscle tension

Note that although generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder, there are also other types of anxiety disorders a person may experience, including specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. 

There are also illnesses that may manifest as anxiety though they’re not categorized as anxiety disorders in the DSM-5, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other conditions may commonly co-occur with anxiety disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each of these has a unique set of symptoms, though any may also include the symptoms listed above. If you’re experiencing signs of any mental health disorder, the best course of action is typically to be evaluated by a mental health professional.

The CBT approach to treating anxiety disorders

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety is a type of talk therapy that focuses on analyzing the thought processes and internal dialogues behind a person's symptoms as well as the behaviors they exhibit in response to stressful stimuli. Research suggests that CBT can be used to effectively manage symptoms of anxiety disorders.

CBT is considered to be the “gold standard” of talk therapy because of decades of rigorous clinical neuroscience research involving randomized placebo-controlled trials and behavioral experiments. A randomized controlled trial is a method of testing a psychotherapy’s efficacy with parameters around participation that clearly demonstrate the difference a certain treatment has or has not made by controlling for other variables, such as participant characteristics. 

With anxiety disorder cognitive behavioral therapy, a mental health professional can help an individual bring awareness to unhealthy, flawed, or negative thoughts and thought patterns and help them understand how those may provoke their anxiety, a process known as cognitive restructuring. Over time, the individual may be able to change their perception of certain events, which can help them experience fewer symptoms of anxiety. 

A CBT therapist can also address any harmful behaviors that may occur as a result of an anxiety disorder, such as avoidance behaviors, and support the individual in finding healthier coping mechanisms. An individual can participate in CBT one on one, in a group, or with family members. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for anxiety

While some common techniques for cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety can be practiced on your own, seeking treatment from a qualified professional is recommended if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition like an anxiety disorder. 

Regularly practicing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for anxiety, especially with the support of a licensed CBT provider, can help a person rewire negative thought patterns, learn positive coping strategies, and treat anxiety disorders. Here are a few common cognitive behavioral treatments for managing anxiety that a therapist may encourage the practice of during or between sessions in order to address anxiety-related thoughts and behaviors.


If you’re not aware of negative thought patterns, it’s nearly impossible to shift them. That’s why CBT for anxiety typically focuses on awareness of one’s patterns as a key initial component of treatment. Journaling can be one way to help an individual learn to recognize the unhelpful thoughts that may lead to negative emotions. One study found that “journaling and written emotional expression [was] effective on anxiety and stress scores” for participants in a particular trial.

Identifying cognitive distortions

As described by the Royal College of General Practitioners, “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) explores the links between thoughts, emotions and behaviour”. Many people with adult anxiety disorders are prone to cognitive distortions that cause them to feel anxious and engage in maladaptive behaviors. A cognitive distortion is, as the name suggests, a distorted pattern of thinking that tends to fall into one of several identifiable categories. 

Examples of these thinking traps include jumping to conclusions, black-and-white thinking (all good or all bad), believing yourself to be the source of most problems around you, immediately assuming the worst-case scenario in a situation (catastrophic thinking), and always having to be right. 

Learning to identify cognitive distortions as you experience them and then shifting to a healthier, more realistic perspective is another common component of CBT for anxiety, one that can be particularly helpful in reducing social anxiety symptoms. 

For instance, you may frequently tell yourself that social situations will go poorly for you, despite evidence to the contrary. That pattern of negative thinking can trigger anxiety, potentially leading to uncomfortable interactions and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Using CBT strategies, you can instead replace such problematic thoughts with more balanced thinking by reminding yourself that you’ve had many successful interactions in the past. By changing your thought process, you may be able to improve your self-esteem, relax, and avoid feeling anxious for extended periods. 

Practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is another of the CBT skills or techniques a therapist may encourage for an individual experiencing anxiety. Mindfulness is simply the cultivation of a mindset of awareness of your emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Awareness of your thoughts and the feelings and behaviors they trigger is a key component of most cognitive treatments. Mindfulness techniques can also include deep breathing or guided meditations that utilize applied relaxation techniques or progressive muscle relaxation. 

For example, an individual experiencing a panic attack may benefit from grounding techniques that help them focus on the present moment. By bringing their awareness to the environment around them or the physical sensations of their breathing, they may be able to avoid focusing on anxious thoughts. The findings of over 200 studies have suggested a correlation between regular mindfulness practice and decreased symptoms of anxiety. 

Engaging in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)

In certain cases, a therapist may perform EMDR on someone experiencing specific types of anxiety disorders related to trauma, such as chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Note that only a qualified professional should perform this type of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or any other condition. The therapy itself involves inducing rapid, back-and-forth eye movements while guiding a client through a type of exposure therapy that relies on them imagining distressing events or circumstances. 

The goal of EMDR for anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder is to weaken the links between certain negative thought processes and their corresponding symptoms and behaviors. This desensitization can be a key factor in resolving anxiety and panic attacks. 

How to connect with a cognitive behavioral therapist

Again, while some CBT techniques can be practiced on your own, it’s usually best to seek out the support of a trained professional for guidance in navigating a mental health condition. If you’d be more comfortable meeting with a therapist in person or if you’re experiencing severe symptoms, you can search for qualified cognitive behavioral therapy providers in your local area.

That said, some people who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety may find that the prospect of traveling to an office to meet with a provider induces additional anxiety. In this case, virtual therapy is an option to consider. It may also be helpful for those who live in rural areas, have physical disabilities that make it difficult to leave the house, or simply have a busy schedule or prefer to engage in therapy from the comfort of home.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Cognitive behavioral therapy can make anxiety more manageable

With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist in a matter of days. You can then speak with them via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you’ve been facing. Research suggests that online CBT can be effective in the treatment of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and other mental health concerns. For example, one meta-analysis suggests that online CBT was effective for treating anxiety and depression remotely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Anxiety disorders can present significant challenges, but there are effective treatments available, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of therapy can often help people identify negative thoughts and beliefs, which may then lead to the development of more positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s usually most effective when engaged in with a licensed mental health professional. CBT may be used to treat anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a variety of other conditions, which speaks to its efficacy and flexibility as a treatment method.
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