Cognitive Behavioral Theory Approaches And Methods

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 16, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Often, when people think of talk therapy, they think of the same thing: a therapist sitting and listening to a patient talk about their past. But many people don't realize that there is a wide variety of available therapy treatments. One of the most popular and effective forms of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy. 

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

CBT Can Help You Feel Better And Find Lasting Solutions

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy used to treat patients that need help with their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

While many people think of therapy as diving into deep childhood issues and repressed memory, Cognitive behavioral therapy definition focuses on finding solutions today instead of processing the root cause of where the problems are coming from. This link between negative thoughts and negative behaviors is known as successive approximation, and it's why difficult situations can cause people to react in organic and sometimes explosive ways. 

CBT targets that link and tries to build positive thoughts to encourage realistic responses and improved problem-solving skills. This form of therapy has been developed over the course of several decades, with input from behavioral experiments and countless scientific studies.

The Mayo Clinic describes CBT as “a common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy) (the patient) works with a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist) in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so that you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them more effectively."

The CBT strategy works by helping patients to understand how their negative thoughts and negative emotions impact their behavior. While our thoughts may be based on our experiences and past (such as our childhood), CBT strategies work to find a solution for the here and now rather than focusing on the negative feelings of the past. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy can treat a vast number of mental health challenges and mental illnesses. Some of these mental health conditions include anxiety disorders, panic disorders, depression, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders. Other negative patterns in thought and behavior can also be treated with CBT. 

Examples Of CBT Techniques

While the process of cognitive behavioral therapy examples will vary based on your needs and the mental health professional, there is a similar outline involved with each patient. Overall, CBT is a short-term therapy, which means that the number of sessions is already pre-determined based on the patient’s course of treatment. Within CBT, other therapies (such as cognitive processing therapy) are also an option. 

The first step in CBT is to identify the negative thought patterns and mental illness symptoms that you want to address. This could be dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one, anger after a divorce, anxiety, depression, or even symptoms from other diagnosed mental health disorders. CBT strategies such as role-playing, guided discovery, and talking through specific problems of daily life are often employed to help the therapist understand the exact symptoms and issues that the therapy will target.

After that, the therapist will ask questions about these areas and emotions that you have. The questions will help to get you talking and processing what your thoughts are about the topic. This is effective in helping you to identify any negative thoughts that you have in your head. This could include talking about your own experiences, relationships that you have with people, or events that you have experienced in your life. Your therapist may also give you homework assignments, such as journaling each day about your thoughts. Journaling is a great way to keep thought records that you can reference in future therapy sessions.

According to CBT Psychology, therapists often use worksheets during CBT to help a person develop positive feelings and coping mechanisms. These worksheets can serve as the therapist’s guide for the patient, even when the patient isn’t talking with the therapist at that moment. Exercises such as mindfulness meditation and writing exercises, like journaling, can help foster helpful behaviors to recover and ease past emotional trauma, medical illness, and other mental illnesses. Essentially, CBT is meant to encourage behaviors that modify core beliefs about one’s self and one’s own life.

Once you've been able to identify negative thought patterns, you will start to see how those thoughts are impacting your emotions and your behavior. This will teach you how to reshape and reprogram those thoughts into ones that will be more helpful for your situation and in your life.

What To Expect From Your First Session

When you meet with your therapist for the first time, they will need to take some time to get to know you and your situation. They may ask about your physical health and if you have any past experiences or challenges with mental health or mental illness symptoms. These questions help identify what form of treatment will be the best for you or if you’ll need a combination of treatments and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. 

This might not all happen in one therapy session, as cognitive reframing takes time. The more open you are with your therapist from the start, the easier it will be to get the needed information to start moving forward with your treatment plan. 

How To Get The Most Out Of CBT

CBT, like all forms of therapy, can be difficult and emotional to work through. By working with your therapist, you are learning how to think differently about situations that may have been very hurtful in your life. But, if you stick with the plan that your therapist provides you, you can find the relief that you are looking for and experience long-lasting changes. To get the most out of your CBT sessions, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • You must be willing to be honest. If you can't be honest during your sessions, then cognitive behavioral therapy is not likely to work for you. 

  • Follow through on the work that is given to you. If you want to see results from your cognitive behavioral therapy session, then you’ll need to do the things that your therapist is telling you to do. This step is called behavior activation, and it is critical to your treatment success. For instance, if your therapist wants you to keep a journal until your next session, it’s probably part of their treatment strategy, and it’s in your best interest to do it. 

  • Be willing to stick with it. Even though some forms of therapy may help you achieve results faster than others, there is no such thing as instant results. Make your treatment a priority, and make sure to stick with the program to the very end of the course of treatment!

  • Don't be afraid to ask questions. To get the most out of cognitive therapy, you must be involved in the process throughout. If you have questions about why your therapist wants you to do something or why you aren't seeing the results that you were expecting, it's okay to talk to your therapist about it. There may be some changes that the therapist can make to your treatment plan to help you better achieve the goals that you're working towards.

How To Find A CBT Provider 

There are many ways to find a CBT therapist. When you begin therapy, whether it's CBT or another form, it's important that you feel comfortable with the therapist that you're working with. If you are uncomfortable, then you are likely to have a difficult time opening up about personal things. This can cause a delay in your results, or you may see no improvement at all in your thought patterns or negative thoughts. 

If it seems that your therapist isn’t engaged or actively listening to you, don’t be afraid to find a new one- especially if you’ve been seeing them for a while without results. The whole purpose of your therapy session is to improve your mental health. 

If you don’t know where to begin, you can ask for a referral from your doctor or your insurance company. You can also ask friends and family for a personal recommendation for a therapist. You'll be surprised at how many of the people you know have been to therapy before. It can be helpful to have a personal recommendation but remember that this is not a 100% guarantee that their therapist is going to be a good fit for you as well.

You can also try finding a therapist by doing a simple online search. Make sure that you check the online reviews from past clients, and don't be afraid to call and schedule an appointment to speak with them about your treatment.

When you’ve narrowed your list or found a therapist you want to work with, make sure you check their credentials. You also want to look for a therapist that is experienced with CBT treatment plans. While all licensed therapists should be familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, not all therapists will be experienced in using them.


Cognitive behavioral therapy has helped many people cope with mental illness and live healthy, balanced lives. With a little work and a great therapist, you may find success with the CBT process, too. 

When looking for a CBT provider, you’ll likely have contact to therapists in your area, but more and more people are turning to online therapy for the convenience and comfort of meeting remotely. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that matches individuals with licensed, accredited therapists experienced in several treatment methods like CBT. You can speak to a BetterHelp counselor through email, phone, video calls, or online chat.

It's important to note that you can find effective help online. Research suggests that patients who seek online therapy see similar levels of results as those who seek traditional in-person therapy, and find the same level of support and positive change as their peers. 

Regardless of the route that you choose to go, it's important that you make sure your therapist is licensed and experienced. After that, you can choose the person that you're most comfortable with. Remember your therapy sessions are about you and your mental health and should work for you and your situation.

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