What Does CBT Stand For And What Can It Help?

By Nadia Khan

Updated January 10, 2019

Reviewer Kristen Hardin

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often referred to by its acronym, CBT. It is a therapy used by a variety of different mental health professionals to deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. If you have had a friend or therapist suggest it, learning what CBT stands for is not hard, but trying to understand exactly what it is and how it helps maybe. There are many CBT tools that therapists use, and is a very common form of therapy as well as one of the most researched. It has high levels of efficacy.

It is also a term that gets used often and is a part of popular culture which is not a bad thing, but it means that people may think they know what it is, or that it would work for them, and they could end up learning they did not understand CBT as well as they perhaps thought. It is also not a "one size fits all" approach. So, while it may have worked really well for your friend, it might not give you the same results. This is why it is really important to work with your therapist to ensure you are getting the right form of treatment. Similar to how you would probably be unlikely to tell your doctor which medical diagnosis you have and which mediation you need to treat it, it's important to trust your therapist. After all, this is the expert you are going to for help. You should definitely express you are interested in CBT, but it is important to also be open to other forms of therapy if your therapist does not believe CBT is right for you.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy?

At a basic level, the belief behind CBT is that our thoughts affect our feelings which affect our behaviors. For example, you think that if you go to a party, everyone will ignore you (thought), so you feel anxious and defeated (feelings) and decide that you will not go to the party (behavior). This formula is important because some therapies start by focusing on feelings rather than thoughts and might work to help a client feel less anxious first. Proponents of CBT, therefore, believe that CBT is more effective because it is straightforward and can be taught easily to most clients. It is easier to state thought and examine it than it is to try to examine a feeling and think "why do I feel this way?" Furthermore, with chronic depression, it is imperative to identify and examine all the thoughts that are part of the depression as there is not going to be just one.

CBT aims to break the link between cognition (the thinking processes) and behavior (action following thoughts and feelings) when under mental stress. CBT is a type of psychotherapy which focuses the patient on the connection of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT works to help patients monitor and understand the thoughts they have, which then create the emotions and behaviors that they find uncomfortable or problematic.

What Does it Treat?

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Cognitive behavior therapy has been used successfully to treat 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 these cases, CBT helps clients change irrational or unhealthy thoughts to rational, healthy ones which therefore reduces negative feelings and increases positive behaviors. Continuing with the example above, the client is able to say, "There is no reason to believe that everyone will ignore me. 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." At that point, the client is going to feel less anxious and defeated and is more likely to attend the event. In other words, CBT helps people change patterns of thought to produce new emotions and different behaviors.

Is It Effective?

The simple answer is yes; it is effective. Many people choose between CBT, medication or a combination of the two. This is something that 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.

The more complicated answer to CBT's effectiveness depends on a variety of factors. The client has to work on the skills her therapist teaches her all week, not just in session. This requires commitment from the client to continuously examine and challenge thoughts. The client has to believe that it can work for her 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. Finding out if CBT will work for you involves talking with someone trained in CBT for an evaluation and then getting started with the work.

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What Does It Involve?

Different therapists may proceed differently using CBT and often depending on the needs of the patient. CBT is typically introduced with an explanation of the process, 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 the use of homework to record feelings and thoughts, journaling, relaxation techniques, learned coping skills, and in some cases, mindfulness. The basis of CBT is that there are common cognitive distortions (the negative thoughts) that lead to negative feelings and behaviors, and these distortions must be challenged. A common one is called magnification, where the individual has a negative event occur and it feels insurmountable instead of a single event and a solvable problem.

There are many different exercises that your therapist will teach you how to use to challenge these thoughts. Some are simply writing down the thought and looking at the evidence. Is there any information that supports this negative thought? Is there evidence that disproves the negative thought? CBT also focuses on even IF the worst thing happens…. then what? The purpose of that is to take the power of these overwhelming feelings and learn to view problems as solvable. There are many other exercises that your therapist can share 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 choosing a CBT provider, you should look for a licensed therapist that has practical experience with CBT techniques as well as training. It is also a good idea to find a therapist who has experience using CBT with your specific problem or issue, such as anxiety or depression. You can ask potential therapists about their experience with CBT and what issues they work with most successfully. If you're unable to locate a therapist who offers CBT in your area, BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that hosts thousands of therapists who utilize CBT in the video, phone, and chat sessions.

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