The History Of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) And How It’s Used Today

Updated February 8, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you seek treatment from a therapist, it’s likely that you’ll receive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) from them. It’s a specific type of talk therapy that has been around since the 1960s and is still widely used today to help people with their mental health.

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The History Of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Aaron Beck is considered to be “the father of cognitive behavioral therapy.” As an article from the National Library of Medicine (NIL) describes, it all began when Beck started to notice that his patients with depression frequently verbalized thoughts that were objectively untrue. He was able to pinpoint a set of characteristic “cognitive distortions” in their thinking patterns, leading him to start viewing depression as a cognitive disorder rather than a mood disorder. He published Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery, 1979) after conducting a study that demonstrated the effectiveness of CBT. 

Today, CBT is the most widely researched method of psychotherapy and includes several evidence-based treatment protocols.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

The NIL paper referenced above explains that CBT is all about the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It centers on three aspects of the way people think:

1. Automatic Thoughts

Automatic thoughts refer to the way we interpret events immediately, without or before objective analysis of the situation. According to the model, these thoughts can shape both a person’s emotions and behaviors as a result. When automatic thoughts are categorized as dysfunctional, they may be exaggerated, distorted, or incorrect or unhelpful in some other way. For instance, someone whose boss shows up to work in an angry, irritated mood might have an automatic thought that they’re about to be fired, rather than considering the possibility that their boss had a fight with their partner that morning or got a speeding ticket on the way into work.

2. Underlying Beliefs

Underlying beliefs refer to the core underpinnings of how someone sees themselves and the world. These are often shaped by childhood or other past experiences, and they can have the power to color a person’s interpretation of events in their life, both large and small. So when they’re considered to be dysfunctional, they can negatively impact a person’s life. For example, it’s easy to see how someone’s flawed but fundamental belief that they are unlovable could create challenges in their interpersonal relationships. Another thing is the negative impact of the Just World Hypothesis, believing that the world is fair ignoring life's complexities.

3. Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are errors in logic that can lead to false or incorrect conclusions. There are around a dozen commonly recognized cognitive distortions, or flawed patterns of thinking. Some cognitive distortions include:

  • Negative filtering, which is when a person places an outsize focus on the negative, or filters most or all situations through a negative lens. (“Everyone said I nailed that work presentation, but I know I failed because of those technical difficulties I had at the beginning.”)
  • Polarized thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking, is when a person can only see two potential outcomes of a situation—incredible or terrible—rather than acknowledging the true, broad range. (“Either I pass the exam, or I’m a complete failure.”)
  • Overgeneralization, which is when a person applies the context of one outcome to all future, similar situations. (“I’ve had my heart broken; I’m done dating for good.”)
  • Mind reading, which is when a person guesses what someone else might be thinking and acts accordingly, as if it were the confirmed truth. (“My partner seems distracted; they must be getting tired of me and wanting to break up.”)
  • Catastrophizing, which is when a person focuses on the worst-case-scenario. (“My friend was supposed to meet me at noon, and it’s already ten minutes after. She’s probably been in a terrible accident!”)
  • Personalization, which is when a person interprets all kinds of events as relating to them, even when this is not the case. (“No one is talking to me at this party because everyone thinks my outfit is a disaster.”)

How Effective Is CBT?

A review and analysis of research on the topic highlights the effectiveness of CBT for a variety of conditions. Various studies cited in the review have shown cognitive behavioral therapy to be an effective treatment for conditions and disorders such as:

  • Substance abuse. One study found that CBT was highly effective in reducing relapse in a sample of people who had quit nicotine.
  • Schizophrenia. Evidence has revealed that CBT can have a beneficial effect on symptoms of schizophrenia, especially for patients who suffer from acute episodes.
  • Depression. CBT has been shown to be more effective for depression than no treatment and some other treatments such as relaxation techniques or psychodynamic therapy.
  • Bipolar disorder. While not typically pursued as a standalone therapy for this disorder, CBT has been shown to be somewhat effective in preventing relapse in bipolar patients.
  • Anxiety disorders. The review states that, “In general, CBT is a reliable first-line approach for treatment of this class of disorders.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy has also been studied as an effective or potentially effective treatment for a range of other conditions, disorders, and situations. Many people in many different circumstances can benefit from this method.

Looking To Connect With A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist?

How To Find A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist

Most therapists today practice cognitive behavioral therapy, so a CBT provider will likely be available wherever you prefer to seek mental health treatment. If you’re seeking in-person therapy, you can search for cognitive behavioral therapists in your area. If you prefer virtual therapy, a platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a cognitive behavioral therapist who is right for you. Since research shows that online therapy offers similar benefits to the in-person variety, some people choose this method for comfort, convenience, and accessibility reasons.

Through CBT, a therapist can assist you in handling the challenges you may be facing in your life. They can help you identify cognitive distortions that may be negatively coloring your experiences, or develop skills for becoming aware of and adjusting unhelpful automatic thoughts. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or something else, they may also be able to use CBT to help you manage these. 


Cognitive behavioral therapy is a discipline that has been well-studied and found to be an effective treatment for people in a variety of different situations. If you’re interested in trying CBT for mental health concerns or challenges you may be facing, there are many therapists available who practice it.

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