What is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is based on the idea that a person's thinking and beliefs directly impact how they behave. If these thoughts are distorted or inappropriate, then the person's behavior will be as well. The goal of CBT is to change these thoughts to more positive ones, with the result being that healthier behaviors and reactions will follow. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help patients recognize unhelpful thought patterns and identify coping mechanisms. For example, in the case of social phobia treatment, CBT may be used to teach the patient to respond to anxiety-provoking social situations with a relaxation exercise.

As its name implies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one part cognitive and one part behavioral. The cognitive portion of CBT is about recognizing, challenging, and changing the ways of thinking that leave you stressed and over analyzing the severity of the stressor. When your mind is awash in irritating thoughts, chances are you’re fueling your own fire with a distorted, stress inducing behavior (and the release of that cortisol won’t help, either). In other words, your worries are minor, but are getting too much attention. If you could counter those negative thoughts with a positive one related to the problem, the worry would disappear.

Transforming negative thoughts takes practice. It’s what CBT therapists are trained to teach. However, you can at least start by keeping a journal that records the good things that happen. It will shift the focus to what you’re doing right, and that can put a brake on the stressful, negative chatter that often goes on in your head.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, MFT
Marriage & Family Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a psychotherapeutic approach, a talking therapy, which aims to solve problems concerning dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and cognitions (thoughts) through a goal-oriented, systematic procedure.

There is empirical evidence that CBT is effective for the treatment of a variety of problems, including mood, anxiety, personality, eating, substance abuse, and psychotic disorders. Treatment is often manualized, with specific technique-driven brief, direct, and time-limited treatments for specific psychological disorders. CBT is used in individual therapy as well as group settings, and the techniques are often adapted for self-help applications. Some clinicians and researchers are more cognitive oriented (e.g. restructuring or reframing negative thoughts), while others are more behaviorally oriented (in vivo exposure therapy). Other interventions combine both (e.g. imaginal, exposure therapy).

CBT was primarily developed through a merging of behavior therapy with cognitive therapy. While rooted in rather different theories, these two traditions found common ground in focusing on the "here and now", and on alleviating symptoms. Many CBT treatment programs for specific disorders have been evaluated for efficacy and effectiveness; the health-care trend of evidence-based treatment, where specific treatments for symptom-based diagnoses are recommended, has favored CBT over other approaches such as psychodynamic treatments.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.