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How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Reshape the Way You Think

Are you having negative thoughts? Cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

Woman with an open mind that she is pulling a string from
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Negative thinking can distort your perception of reality and cause emotional difficulties. Cognitive behavioral therapy is built on the concept that what you think, feel and your behavior are all dependent on each other. If one is disordered, then it will influence the others. CBT aims to help you recognize negative thinking and change it before it affects your well-being. 

If you are struggling with unhealthy thoughts or behaviors, CBT can help. Improved functioning and quality of life are seen after completing CBT. Here's what to know about cognitive behavioral therapy and how it can help treat symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. 

How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that operates on the belief that unhealthy thinking and negative behaviors are learned -- and can be changed. By identifying how you interpret situations can be damaging, you can relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder by adapting how you think.  

With CBT, you're not replacing automatic negative thinking with forced positivity; it's about being realistic. People who complete CBT accept they can't control every situation. However, they can control how they perceive and interpret them. 

Unlike other psychotherapy methods, CBT sessions address in-the-moment feelings. It doesn't focus solely on past experiences like other talk therapy options. While your therapist may ask about your past, CBT is an active therapy practice that helps you build the tools to recognize negative thinking and behavioral patterns so you can adapt accordingly. Common cognitive behavioral therapy techniques include relaxation practices, stress-relieving exercises and problem-solving strategies. 

Mental health disorders that can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy:

  • Anxiety
  • Addictions
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias
  • Personality disorders
  • Low-self esteem
  • Insomnia 
  • Grief or loss
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

What are the benefits of Cognitive behavioral therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most well-studied and effective treatments for various mental health disorders. A 2018 meta-analysis of 41 studies found that CBT improved anxiety disorders, OCD, and PTSD symptoms. Some research suggests that CBT can be used to cope with physical conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain

Benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy:

  • Compared to other types of therapies, you'll be in CBT for a shorter time.
  • Despite the shorter duration, with the structured sessions of CBT, you develop long-term coping skills that help you adapt your thinking and behavior in everyday situations.
  • Most people have between five and 20 CBT sessions. Because of its short duration, it is more affordable over time than other types of therapies. 
  • CBT is suitable for all ages and the format is flexible. In-person and virtual options are available. 
  • You are an active participant in your wellness journey. 
Female psychologist taking notes and speaking with a patient
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Related cognitive behavioral therapy techniques

There are various techniques related to cognitive behavioral therapy that can be used. Think of CBT as a big umbrella that has precursors and offshoots related to it. They all relate to the core theory of CBT. However, the focus of each will vary and they are used to target different disorders.

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT helps you accept uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, commit to positive behavioral changes, and develop psychological flexibility. ACT is helpful for conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT helps people who have difficulty regulating emotions or engage in self-destructive behaviors. It is often used to treat disorders with extreme emotions or behaviors such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders or substance abuse.
  • Exposure therapy: With exposure therapy, you are slowly introduced to situations and things that cause anxiety or fear and work to reduce the feelings and decrease avoidance. This is particularly helpful for people with phobias or OCD.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): MBCT uses mindfulness and meditations with cognitive therapy to help identify patterns in your thinking and behaviors. It helps you identify patterns in your thinking and behaviors that are negative and break free from them.
  • Rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT): REBT is action-oriented. You learn to challenge and question negative thinking and understand how it influences your behavior and emotions. REBT is used for issues such as depression, anxiety, anger, and addiction.

How to get the most out of cognitive behavioral therapy

Be honest and put in the work

You get out of therapy what you put in it. The success of your sessions will depend on how open and honest you are about your experiences. Change can be difficult, but avoiding certain topics will only slow the process down. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and other conditions is an active investment in your wellness. You cannot passively benefit from CBT sessions. You should expect "homework" from your therapist between sessions -- like monitoring automatic thoughts you have and evaluating what they mean. A common CBT technique that your therapist may suggest you do is journaling and keeping thought records. 

Be realistic about results 

Cognitive behavioral therapy sessions go by quicker than other types of therapy. But changes still don't happen overnight. There is no magic number of sessions when things click. You may need more or fewer sessions than average, and that's okay. 

To get the most out of your sessions, you should stick to the treatment plan you and your therapist created. It's tempting to skip sessions, especially when things get hard. However, that will hinder the process you make in the long run. Progress takes time. 

Female psychologist and patient speaking during a therapy session
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Remember: Therapy is a partnership

The patient-therapist relationship is unique in cognitive behavioral therapy. They may be the expert, but it's your mental health. It's best to view things as a partnership, where you make decisions and contribute thoughts to your journey and treatment plan. Together you can set goals and measure them as you continue with therapy. 

Too long; didn't read?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective and well-studied form of talk therapy that has been around for over 50 years. It's considered the gold standard of psychotherapy that's used to treat several disorders, including anxiety, phobias and depression. Unhelpful thinking can be damaging, but it can be changed. CBT not only helps you identify unhelpful thoughts but gives you the coping skills to deal with future situations. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.