What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Definition

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated November 21, 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 a variety of 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.

Online CBT Is Just As Effective As In Person CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Definition

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 adjust a person’s feelings, behavioral responses, and overall emotional regulation.

CBT may be used to treat mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and more. It can also support people without any diagnosed mental illness who are encountering life difficulties. 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 concern and is often a short-term therapy option. It’s 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 use the coping mechanisms and skills they acquire during 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 is built on the same basic tenets of CBT described above, but may take somewhat different forms depending on the individual's particular needs and emotional health. To determine which type of cognitive counseling might be right for you, it's typically best to consult with a clinician. 

Traditional Cognitive

In traditional cognitive behavioral 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 more general practice is considered the most common version of cognitive counseling, often involving talk and various therapeutic approaches such as exposure.

Rational Emotive Behavior Counseling

Rational emotive behavior 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. Individuals can then learn how to identify and overcome similar thought patterns in the future so that they can live happier and more productive lives. Rational emotive behavior counseling can be particularly effective for treating substance use disorders.

Multimodal Counseling

Multimodal therapy is based on seven modalities that may be addressed when treating behavior and mood disorders. These seven modalities include behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, cognition, interpersonal factors, and drug or biological factors. With multimodal counseling, the goal is to use multiple approaches to therapy in tandem for maximum effectiveness. For instance, a multimodal treatment for depression commonly includes cognitive behavioral therapy alongside medication.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

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 client is taught how to recognize a negative belief and use emotional control and mindfulness to isolate the belief and reduce its impact. DBT is a common treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


What To Expect From CBT

Knowing what to expect from a cognitive behavioral 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, and to describe areas of your life in which 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 intended purpose of your counseling, the work can begin. 

The first step of CBT is learning to recognize flawed or otherwise unhelpful thought patterns. Your therapist may suggest mindfulness practices to identify such patterns, or they may ask you questions about your reactions to past events to guide you towards a more objective, realistic way of thinking. 

The second step involves adjusting feelings and behaviors that may be influenced by your thought patterns. Once your viewpoint has shifted, you may be able to respond to stressful events in a more healthy way. Keep in mind that this process unfolds in the form of small steps over time, rather than all at once.

Common Applications Of CBT

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.

Cognitive therapy is also used as a treatment for substance use disorders. CBT can help people with substance use 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 shifting these 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 with or find it more convenient to connect with a therapist virtually through online counseling. Research suggests that online CBT can be just as effective as in-person CBT in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, phobias, and more.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Online CBT Is Just As Effective As In Person CBT

If you’re interested in pursuing online therapy, you might consider using a platform like BetterHelp. With BetterHelp, you can fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and then be matched with a therapist accordingly. You can meet with your therapist 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 a 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 and life situations.

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