Therapists use a variety of approaches to the therapy process. One of the most common is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a general term referring to a type of therapy grounded in the idea that a person’s perception of life influences their quality of life – and that perception can be changed positively, which in turn leads to positive changes in feelings and behavior.
CBT takes a practical, structured approach to helping a person achieve a healthier, happier state of mind. It’s a combination of psychotherapy, which emphasizes thinking patterns that begin in childhood, and behavioral therapy, which focuses on our behavior and thoughts. The focus is on how a person’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings influence each other, and making positive changes.
What can CBT be used to treat?
CBT is a versatile approach that can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health problems, including mood disorders like anxiety or depression, sleep or eating disorders, phobias and more. It can also be helpful for people who don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition but are coping with a specific challenge in their lives, such as chronic physical illness.
CBT can be used in combination with other forms of therapy, or even antidepressants or other medications.
In CBT, you don’t focus too much on the past – instead, the focus is firmly on the present. So CBT on its own may not be as helpful for people who want to understand the underlying causes of their emotional problems. For that, a more traditional form of psychotherapy is indicated.
How does CBT work?
When people are struggling, their perspective can become distorted in a way that leads to negative, self-perpetuating patterns of thought and behavior. CBT seeks to help them think more realistically, and focus on finding ways to solve problems.
For example, a person who is anxious may expect that everything will go wrong – which is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, setting the stage for things to go badly. In that state of mind, the person is likely to focus only on things that do in fact go wrong, downplaying or even ignoring those things that go well. This overemphasis on the negative causes even more anxiety, perpetuating and strengthening the cycle. CBT helps the person adjust their expectations so that they’re not anticipating the worst possible outcome, and instead have more realistic and positive expectations. The person’s mood and behavior will improve as a result.
For another example, imagine that a person believes themselves to be unattractive and unlovable. These beliefs can cause the person to isolate themselves, causing feelings of loneliness. They could also engage in unhealthy behaviors like overeating, drinking too much or other substance use, getting too much or not enough sleep, or spending too much time watching television. These negative behaviors might in turn make the person feel angry and guilty, thus reinforcing their negative self-beliefs and feelings. In CBT, the person learns to break that negative spiral by re-examining the beliefs about being unattractive and unlovable, replacing those with more accurate and positive beliefs, and changing their feelings and behavior accordingly.
What can I expect from CBT?
CBT is a form of talk therapy. In your first session, you and your therapist will identify what it is you’d like to work on, and if CBT should be part of the treatment plan. As with any form of therapy, CBT is most likely to succeed when people are completely engaged and cooperative, and willing to do the hard work involved.
As CBT continues, your therapist will help you find ways to solve problems. It’s an active, collaborative form of therapy, focused on goals, and you should expect to be an active participant in the process.
Many times, therapists will give clients “homework” to complete in between sessions, such as journaling, or reading and writing assignments. Homework might involve tracking your moods and behaviors, and practicing identifying problematic thinking and behavior patterns and correcting them. This encourages you to continue working on developing new, positive beliefs and behaviors on your own.
How long a person is in therapy depends a great deal on the individual and the severity of the problem, but one advantage of CBT is that it is relatively short-term. This is because the goal of CBT is to teach people to recognize problematic beliefs, feelings and behaviors, and to actively change them. Before long, you’ll be able to do this without a therapist’s help, so you’re able to rely on this skill when confronted with new life challenges.
At Westmont Family Counseling Ministries, many of our professional counselors have special training in CBT, and can help you determine if this form of therapy is right for you as part of your personalized treatment plan.