What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised that the below article on cognitive behavioral therapy might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
What does CBT stand for? CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is often considered the gold standard of mental health treatment. It is a talk therapy approach that can be used to improve the symptoms of a variety of mental health challenges, and disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective tool for treating anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, phobias, substance use disorders, and more. 

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You can change negative feelings with new thought patterns

This approach typically works by a licensed mental health professional identifying unhelpful or incorrect thought patterns or ways of coping and digging into how they may be affecting a person’s emotions and behaviors before actively replacing them with healthier thought patterns, thus positively impacting the person’s feelings and actions. If you’re interested in trying CBT, you may search online for "cognitive therapy near me" and connect with a licensed therapist in your local area, or through an online therapy platform.

Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, eating disorders, and more

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychological treatment that can be an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health conditions and disorders, including the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder
  • Substance use disorder
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Marital problems
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD
  • Panic attacks
  • Negative thoughts and behaviors
  • Phobias
  • Sleep disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sexual disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Other personality disorders
  • Stress management

CBT can also be effective in treating various mental health needs, behavior patterns, emotional difficulties, and challenging situations that may not come with a particular diagnosis. CBT therapists focus on ways to change patterns of thinking which, in turn, influence behavior.

During CBT therapy sessions, a healthcare provider typically uses a structured process to help clients quickly become aware of negative or inaccurate thinking patterns and unhelpful behavior, so that they can cope better with emotional challenges and respond more effectively. One of the benefits of cognitive therapy is that it can be a short term treatment, as it generally requires fewer sessions than other approaches, and patients usually notice improvement after the first few sessions. The evidence for cognitive behavioral therapy is generally strong. Often considered the "gold standard" of therapy today, CBT can create positive effects through its reframing technique, so the client can continue to benefit from CBT techniques beyond the therapy session. 

Is CBT effective?
Numerous research studies, clinical trials, and peer-reviewed studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can improve people's function, emotional control, and quality of life. In fact, the cognitive behavioral therapy approach is normally as effective as or more effective than other psychological therapy approaches or psychiatric medications. In clinical practice, CBT is typically a prevalent psychological treatment. CBT is an evidence based method used to treat people of all ages develop helpful ways of thinking while managing negative emotions. It's one of the most common forms of psychotherapy and has been used to treat many conditions including depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD, and other psychological issues.

Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) may also improve emotional health by helping to reframe negative thinking and self-talk associated with many mental health disorders. This treatment plan may employ techniques, such as mindfulness and other forms of coping skills, to address various emotional challenges. Whether someone has an eating disorder, a gambling addiction, or faces challenges at work or with family members, one may benefit from therapy sessions with a licensed therapist.

How does CBT work?

Cognitive behavior therapy encompasses several core principles in its clinical psychology approach. Besides having a specific structure, APA lists the core principles that form the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy as follows:

  • Psychological concerns are usually at least partly based on faulty or unhelpful thought patterns
  • Disorders or conditions are normally at least partly based on learned patterns of unhelpful behaviors
  • People who live with psychological problems or conditions can learn better coping strategies that may relieve their symptoms and lead to happier, healthier lives

The premise behind CBT is generally to get people to change their unhelpful ways of thinking and in so doing, change unhelpful behavior responses. During counseling sessions, clinicians using this therapeutic approach frequently work with clients to help them recognize distortions in their thinking that may be causing problems in their lives and perhaps influencing mental illness. Once clients are able to have a better understanding of their thought distortions, they can create more realistic thoughts. Then the cognitive behavioral therapist can help them reevaluate and apply new, healthier thinking patterns to their lives. 

CBT often utilizes problem-solving skills to help clients better understand their behavior, its motivation, and how to implement coping strategies to address difficult situations. The process can allow them to increase their confidence in their responses to others and increase the use of healthy coping mechanisms.

Some therapies may add another component of CBT in treating certain conditions and helping clients change their behavioral patterns. Behavioral therapeutic strategies may assist individuals in facing their fears rather than avoiding them, using role-playing in anticipation a particular situation or interaction, and learning to relax their bodies and calm their minds. Eating disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and mood disorders can all be improved by healthier thinking patterns from cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT therapists may give homework assignments for clients to complete to bolster their treatment outside of therapy sessions.

As a stress-management approach in one's daily life, CBT may be beneficial for addressing unhelpful behaviors or irrational beliefs that prevent altering one's thought patterns. Since chronic stress is linked with various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders, it's advisable to seek help in managing it. 

What are some risks associated with CBT?

There generally aren’t any significant risks associated with CBT and its therapeutic approaches. However, as with most types of therapy, you may want to be aware that certain sessions may make you feel emotional or even uncomfortable. This can be completely normal and expected.

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We encourage you to try not to worry about that too much; it can be part of the process. Cognitive behavioral therapy normally works to help you explore your experiences and emotions, which often include painful feelings. It isn’t necessarily surprising if you cry, get upset, or feel angry during or after a challenging session.

With that said, you should typically not experience psychological distress due to CBT. Sometimes, you may leave a session feeling mentally and emotionally drained. These can be good signs because they may validate that you can start releasing these painful emotions, which is frequently a vital part of the healing process. This can be especially true for a type of CBT called exposure therapy, which is most often used to treat people with fear and anxiety. In general, for this type of treatment, the clinician exposes the client to the things they’re afraid of in small doses. While the exposure therapy approach often causes stress or anxiety initially, over time, these cognitive behavioral interventions usually help people overcome their fears by facing them head-on. However, your therapist may also teach you relaxation techniques that you can use to self-soothe after a session.

How long does CBT take to work?

In most cases, CBT works over the short term. People often feel the benefits of their therapeutic sessions after five to 20 sessions. Your therapist will typically talk with you early on about your therapeutic goals and make sense of what you want to achieve. How many sessions you’ll need usually depends on the reason you reached out initially, the severity of your symptoms, how much stress you’re under, how long you’ve been living with a mental health disorder and other unique factors. You will likely see significant results if you make sure to be an active participant in your treatment. 

Everyone tends to heal within their own timeframe. The length of time for your treatment will depend, in part, on how quickly you make progress, which can depend on your willingness and effort during therapy. Most traditional, in-office therapists charge between $50-$300 per session for CBT.

What you can expect from traditional CBT

The typical expectation of CBT isn’t necessarily to “cure” you. If that’s what you’re expecting, you may be disappointed. It can be essential to understand precisely how cognitive behavioral therapy examples may help you. The thoughts and feelings you are experiencing may or may not go away, but what you can gain from cognitive behavioral therapy may be the power to cope in a healthier manner, which can give you a better outlook on yourself and your life.

The reality is that CBT can work better for some people than others. You are often a central component of the success of your therapy. The psychological treatment of CBT generally works best when you fully engage with your mental health professional. 

That doesn’t always mean you must open up about your every thought, experience, and emotion from the first session. You’re likely bound to uncover fears, painful emotions, or embarrassment during your sessions. When these uncomfortable feelings surface, that can be the right time to communicate to your therapist that you’re struggling with them, so your therapist can help you find a way to express them. Bringing attention to the situation can help immensely.

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You can change negative feelings with new thought patterns

Online cognitive behavioral therapy is available

Fortunately, you don’t necessarily have to decide for yourself whether CBT is right for you.

What you may do to help yourself is to seek professional help by scheduling an appointment with a licensed therapist who can help pinpoint the challenges you’re experiencing and determine the best course of treatment, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy or other treatments entirely.

Online therapy CBT services generally offer you a safe space to speak about your well-being with mental health experts trained to help you through mental health challenges like self-esteem, anger, depression, anxiety, and more, right from the comfort of home. You may not have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list, as you might with traditional in-office treatment. With online treatment through platforms such as BetterHelp, you can typically get started right away. BetterHelp is an affordable subscription program for many people, but health insurance is not accepted. While the site's licensed therapists can diagnose and treat the symptoms of a mental illness, therapists aren't able to diagnose a medical condition or prescribe medications for it. The most benefit may come from addressing and alleviating symptoms through a proven, effective form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Research shows that online CBT can be highly effective, even as a short-term therapy. One study review determined that online CBT typically led to a 50% improvement in symptoms for multiple types of anxiety disorders and depression, and was also found to “significantly decrease the impact of stress and chronic fatigue.” If you want to try CBT or any other type of therapy, be sure to reach out for the professional support you deserve.

Takeaway

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most frequently used therapy approaches, and it can treat a wide variety of mental illnesses and mental health challenges. It generally works by first identifying any negative or unhelpful thought patterns and examining how these thought patterns may be negatively impacting a person’s feelings and actions.  Then, the negative thought patterns are usually replaced with healthier, more positive ones, and the client’s emotions and behaviors typically change for the better as a result. To try cognitive behavioral therapy or other therapies for yourself, we encourage you to seek out a therapist in person or connect with one online.

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