Unraveling CBT: What Does It Stand For, And How Can It Help Enhance Behavior And Mental Well-Being?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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CBT is an excellent form of therapy that treats depression and anxiety

If you have looked into therapy at all, you may have come across the acronym “CBT” and wondered what it stood for? CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a form of talk therapy with a focus on helping clients gain a deeper understanding of how their thinking patterns impact their behaviors, emotions, and experiences in everyday life. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy, helpful for treating numerous mental health issues. It's an evidence-based treatment, meaning plenty of psychological research has supported its success. 

The term “therapy” can be used a lot, but many people don't fully understand its scope. Therapy is not a "one size fits all" approach. So, while CBT may have worked well for your friend, it might not give you the same results. It’s always important to work with a licensed therapist to ensure you are getting the right form of treatment for you, and that you are not biased towards treatment plans that you may have heard a lot about but may not be effective for your specific situation.

Just as you should trust your doctor to properly diagnose and treat a physical condition, it's important to allow your therapist to recommend the best therapy. After all, this is the expert you are going to for help. You can express your interest in CBT, but be open to other forms of therapy and other treatments if your therapist does not believe CBT is right for you.

How CBT works

The core principles of CBT are based on the premise that our cognitive thought affects our feelings, which affect our behaviors. For example, you may think if you go to a party, everyone will ignore you, so you feel anxious and defeated, and thus decide you will not go to the party. Establishing the link between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is an essential component of CBT. Other therapies may start by focusing on emotions rather than thoughts, which may and might work to help a client feel less anxious at first. However, helping a client to adjust their thought patterns may be more useful in the long run.

Proponents of CBT, argue that not only is CBT more effective, it is a straightforward therapeutic method that most clients can easily understand. It may be easier for clients to clearly state and examine their thoughts than to try to explore a feeling. With conditions such as chronic depression, it's imperative to identify and examine all the thoughts that are part of the condition, as there is likely not going to be just one.

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CBT is based on breaking the link between unhealthy cognition (the thinking processes) and maladaptive behavior (the action following thoughts and feelings) when under mental stress.

It is a type of psychotherapy that helps the client focus on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT works to aid clients in monitoring and understanding their thoughts and understanding the ways in which their thoughts may create the feelings and behaviors they find uncomfortable or problematic. CBT therapists teach their clients new skills for identifying negative thinking and shifting their automatic thoughts to more helpful thoughts.

What does CBT treat?

Cognitive behavior therapy has been used successfully to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), various phobias, eating disorders, sleep problems, and substance abuse. CBT has also been shown to help people with medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain conditions. In treating all of these conditions, CBT helps clients change irrational or unhealthy thoughts to rational, healthy ones, which then reduces negative feelings and increases positive behaviors.

Continuing with the party example described above, the client could say to themselves, "There is no reason to believe that everyone will ignore me at the party. If for some reason I feel like I am being left out, I can talk to my friend Rachel since I know she will be there. I can do this." Rationalizing through their thoughts may help the client to feel less anxious and defeated and make them more likely to attend the event. In other words, CBT helps people change patterns of thought to produce new emotions and different behaviors.

You do not have to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from CBT. Skills that are taught in CBT include stress management, increased self-awareness, challenging unhelpful thinking patterns, and learning how to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns to improve overall well being in daily life. 

Some people start therapy sessions to learn how to better respond to challenging situations or emotional experiences, such as a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or an accident. Feeling anxious can be a natural response to life changes, and CBT can be an effective short term therapy to help individuals through stressful times and improve overall quality of life.

Is CBT effective?

The more complicated answer to CBT's effectiveness depends on a variety of factors. The client has to commit to working on the skills their therapist teaches them in their day-to-day life, all week, not just in session. This commitment requires the client to examine and challenge thoughts continuously. The client has to believe therapy can work for them and be willing to explore changes. The client also must have some patience. It takes time to change thought patterns. If you go into CBT expecting significant success after one or two sessions, you are likely to be frustrated. Learning if CBT is right for you, as opposed to other forms of therapy, involves talking with someone with proper training in CBT for an evaluation and then beginning the work.

Many people choose between CBT, medication, or a combination of the two. This choice can depends on your unique situation and the advice of your doctor and therapist. CBT has been shown to be an effective treatment with and without medication. 

A 2012 systematic review of five studies on CBT treatment for people with chronic insomnia reported that there was moderate evidence that CBT could have better long-term results than pharmaceuticals. According to the review, medications may be more effective for helping people with insomnia fall asleep on a short-term basis, while CBT can help them make changes to their daily routine and behavioral patterns for the long-term improvement of their symptoms. 

What does CBT involve?

Different therapists may proceed differently using CBT, often depending on the needs of the patient. CBT is typically introduced with an explanation of the process, the length of time that may be necessary for treatment, and a full exploration of underlying thoughts that may be causing the presenting problem. CBT incorporates journaling, relaxation techniques, learned coping skills, the use of homework to record feelings and thoughts, journaling, relaxation techniques, learned coping skills, and in some cases, mindfulness. 

Examples of healthy coping skills taught in CBT therapy include:

  • Taking deep breaths
  • Self-monitoring 
  • Behavioral activation
  • Journaling 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation  

The basic premise of CBT is that cognitive distortions lead to negative feelings and behaviors, and these distortions must be challenged. Magnification is a common example of one such distortion. If a person experiences a negative event, they may magnify the event in their head until it seems insurmountable instead of what it truly is: a single event and a solvable problem. 

Emotional reasoning is another example of cognitive distortion is called emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning is the cognitive belief that an emotional reaction proves something is true, creating an “emotional truth”. CBT can help people learn that their emotions are not facts. Exposure therapy and other behavioral experiments may be used in therapy to help challenge these types of cognitive distortions and replace them with more realistic thoughts.

There are many different exercises your therapist may teach you many different exercises to help you challenge these thoughts. One possible exercise involves writing down the thought and then looking at the evidence. Is there any information that supports this negative thought? Is there evidence that disproves the negative thought? If the worst thing happens, then what? The purpose of the exercise is to take the power of these overwhelming feelings and learn to view problems as solvable. There are many other exercises your therapist can do with you. As mentioned before, CBT as a whole is not a one size fits all, and neither are the various techniques and exercises that are part of CBT.

Choosing a CBT therapist

When selecting a CBT provider, you should look for a licensed therapist who has practical experience and training with CBT techniques. It's also a good idea to find a therapist who has experience using CBT with your specific mental health concern, such as anxiety or depression. You can ask potential therapists about their training and experience with CBT and what issues they work with most successfully.

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CBT is an excellent form of therapy that treats depression and anxiety

If you're unable to locate a therapist who offers CBT in your area, BetterHelp is an online therapy platform may be a solution. BetterHelp hosts thousands of therapists who utilize CBT in video, phone, and chat sessions. The user-friendly platform makes it easy to browse therapists and find a good match for your needs. 

Online cognitive behavioral therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy according to recent studies. In fact, a University of Zurich study found it to be more effective in the medium and long-term than in-person therapy, with just no more depression able to be detected in 57% of clients at 3 months post-treatment, compared to just 42% of in-person therapy users. Another study, which actually reviewed 373 studies of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT), found it to be particularly effective in treating mental health conditions like depression, general or severe anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, mood disorders, and other conditions that can make it difficult to get to in-person sessions.

What’s more, BetterHelp tends to be cheaper than traditional in-person therapy. This is because you don’t have to commute or pay for transportation to get to and from sessions, and our therapists don’t have to pay to rent out office space. Additionally, sessions can be conducted anytime, anywhere, via a variety of mediums – phone call, video chat, instant messaging/texting, or live voice recording can all be used. Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our licensed mental health professionals, from people benefitting from online cognitive behavioral therapy.

Counselor reviews

"Dr. Kapil has been marvelous in helping me organize my thoughts for better outcomes and growth through CBT. She is great with her follow-up (even when I'm not so great at replying). Highly recommend!"

"I chose Douglas because he counsels using cognitive behavioral therapy and anger management - which is the kind of therapy I need. Douglas comes up with clear solutions and I appreciate that. I didn't want a therapist to tell me to talk about my day and how does that make me feel and that it's normal to have these feelings. I know it is normal to feel angry sometimes, but I wanted to understand how to recognize it and address it. So if you need constructive conversation with fast results for everyday annoyances and (especially effective child rearing advice!) I think Douglas is your therapist."

Takeaway

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many conditions as it focuses on improving your living conditions in the moment to facilitate long-term change. By finding a therapist, you can change your negative thought patterns into positive ones, and start having a happier and healthier mindset and lifestyle. Take the first step today.

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