What Is Cognitive Therapy? Definition And Applications

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Cognitive therapy, better known as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, is a type of psychotherapy frequently employed by clinical psychology professionals in treating a variety of mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and eating disorders. It can be very helpful for people in numerous situations, with a wealth of research supporting its efficacy. In fact, it's considered the "gold standard” of psychotherapy in the modern age. Typically, it's a short term therapy with the potential to produce long-term effects, which is one reason for its popularity. Let's take a closer look at this therapeutic approach and its applications.

Online CBT Is Just As Effective As In Person CBT

The Definition Of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which practitioners help individuals cultivate a better understanding of negative thought patterns about the self and the world, often referred to as cognitive distortions. These distortions can then be challenged through cognitive restructuring in order to alter feelings, behavioral responses, and overall emotional regulation.

This approach, known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may be used to treat mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and more, or may be employed for those facing life difficulties without the presence of a mental health disorder. In essence, CBT focuses on developing coping skills with the goal of identifying negative beliefs and transforming them into more positive influences on mood and behavioral reactions.

Cognitive psychotherapy is typically employed to address a specific issue and is often a short-term therapy option. This characteristic makes it popular among clinicians and individuals as it tends to be a more affordable treatment that can still yield meaningful results in just a few sessions. Moreover, individuals can utilize the coping mechanisms and skills they acquire during therapy sessions in the future to tackle other challenges that may arise in their lives.

Types Of CBT

There are a few different types of cognitive therapy that therapists may utilize. Each type is built on the same basic tenets of CBT as described above, but may take somewhat different forms depending on the individual's particular needs and emotional health. To determine which type of cognitive therapy might be right for you, it's typically best to consult with a clinician. 

Traditional Cognitive Therapy

In traditional cognitive behavior therapy, individuals learn to identify and change inaccurate thinking or distorted thoughts that may be negatively affecting mood and behavior. In other words, they acquire coping skills to shift emotional responses and behaviors by first addressing thought patterns. This general form is considered the most common version of cognitive therapy today, often involving talk therapy and various therapeutic approaches such as exposure therapy.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

This type of cognitive therapy is also based on discovering and changing irrational beliefs. In a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy session, the individual and the therapist delve in together to discover what false beliefs may be affecting the clients’ behavior and mood, and then work to change those beliefs over time. Then, individuals can learn how to identify similar thought patterns in the future and overcome them so that they can live happier and more productive lives. This is a popular type of therapy for substance use disorders.

Multimodal Therapy

This approach to applying cognitive therapy is based on seven modalities that may be addressed when treating behavior and mood disorders, which are: behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, cognition, interpersonal factors, and drug or biological factors. The idea is to use multiple approaches to therapy in tandem with each other for maximum effectiveness. For instance, a multimodal treatment for depression commonly includes cognitive behavioral therapy in addition to medication.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

DBT is another popular modality used by therapists. In this type of mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), emotional control and mindfulness are used to address negative thoughts and behaviors. The individual is taught how to recognize a negative belief and use emotional control and mindfulness to isolate and eliminate them to reduce their impact. DBT is a common treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What To Expect From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Knowing what to expect from a cognitive behavioral therapy session can help you feel less nervous and more prepared. Your appointment will likely begin with your therapist asking you about why you’re seeking this type of mental health treatment. They may invite you to describe your thoughts, feelings, moods, or behaviors of late, and to describe areas in whichyou feel you may be having trouble along with goals you may have for your work together.

Once the two of you are on the same page about the purpose of you seeking this type of therapy, the work can begin. The first part of CBT is learning to recognize flawed or otherwise unhelpful thought patterns. Your therapist may suggest mindfulness practices to help you learn to do this, or they may ask you questions about your reactions to past events to assist you in seeing them in a more objective, realistic way. The second part involves a shifting of the feelings and behaviors you may have as a result of your thought patterns. Once you can view certain scenarios differently, you may be able to have healthier reactions to them as a result. Remember that this process happens in the form of small steps over time rather than all at once. 

Common Applications Of Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy can be useful in a wide variety of situations. For instance, depression can often be treated with cognitive therapy techniques because depressed moods are generally either caused or exacerbated by unhelpful internal thought patterns. Anxiety is another condition that can be treated with cognitive therapy for much the same reason. Specific phobias may also be treated with this modality, as may certain emotional problems such as low self-esteem.

Another common application of cognitive therapy is as a treatment for substance use disorders. It can help people experiencing this type of disorder to recognize the thought patterns that may lead them to misuse drugs and/or alcohol, and to take gradual steps to eliminate risks of relapse by becoming aware of and then shifting those patterns. 

Finding A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist

If you’re interested in seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy, you have options. Some people prefer the traditional method of meeting in person with a provider in their area. Others feel more comfortable or find it more convenient to speak with someone virtually through online therapy. Research suggests that online CBT can be just as effective as in-person CBT in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, phobias, and more. That means you can generally choose the format that feels best for you. 

If you’re interested in pursuing online therapy, you might consider using a platform like BetterHelp. You can fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and then get matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. You can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the problems you may be facing, whether you suspect you may have a mental health condition or are looking for more general emotional support.


If you decide to seek the support of the therapist, it’s likely that you may end up receiving some form of cognitive therapy. You can feel confident in this treatment method, as it’s backed by extensive clinical research and has been shown to be effective in addressing a variety of conditions.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started