Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is goal-oriented therapy that focuses on changing negative thinking patterns. This form of psychotherapy is founded on the idea that our thoughts and beliefs strongly influence how we feel and behave.
What Does Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Involve?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy to help people manage their problems by changing negative thinking patterns and unproductive behavior.
While cognitive CBT methods focus on thinking patterns and emotional distress, the behavioral aspect focuses on a person’s behavior.
Throughout Cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions, a client learns to:
- Identify dysfunctional thinking patterns
- Analyze their thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors
- Practice new, positive ways of thinking
- Learn strategies to replace negative thinking patterns with more constructive ones
- Apply these strategies to their day-to-day life
The main goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to help rewire the brain permanently so that a client naturally applies the new coping skills into their daily life.
Throughout your CBT sessions, you will understand how your thoughts affect your emotional life, relationships, and behavior. Finally, you will learn how to replace dysfunctional thinking patterns with more positive ones.
CBT is the most successful in treating anxiety disorders and depression but it can also help with phobias, panic attacks, PTSD, and other mental health disorders.
However, you don’t need to have a mental disorder diagnosis to benefit from CBT. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you:
- Improve communication skills
- Learn to manage strong emotions
- Deal with grief
- Manage physical health problems
- Constructively resolve conflicts
- Become more assertive
- Manage sleep problems
One of the basic CBT ideas is that our negative self-talk affects our feelings and actions. CBT strategies can increase your mindfulness, helping you recognize and interrupt automatic negative thoughts that cause emotional distress. Some of the CBT methods you can use daily to reframe your thoughts more positively include:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Reframing cognitive restructuring
- Exposure therapy
- Relaxation and stress-relieving strategies
- Positive affirmations
Many cognitive techniques focus on automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and their modification.
Automatic negative thoughts are random thoughts that come up to our minds spontaneously. Research shows that people spend more than fifty percent of their waking hours mind-wandering. Many of these thoughts that randomly appear in our minds are negative thoughts.
These thoughts create cognitive distortions (negative thinking patterns) that lead to selective attention, contributing to negative emotions and beliefs. In other words, your mind uses selective attention to convince you of something that is not true, increasing feelings of discomfort.
Selective attention stems from our biases in thinking that we often cannot control. That is, distorted thinking patterns such as focusing on the negative, all-or-nothing thinking or labeling distort the perception of ourselves and the world, contributing to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
One of the goals of CBT is to help you change negative thinking patterns and rewire the brain to think positive thoughts.
Changing negative thinking patterns requires time and practice. Eventually, CBT can change the brain’s neural pathways until you learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones automatically.
Behavioral strategies of CBT aim to help clients change dysfunctional or potentially dangerous behaviors and regain control of their lives. The most widespread behavioral techniques include exposure therapy, systematic desensitization, and flooding.
These forms of behavioral therapy successfully address phobias and common feelings of anxiety and panic. For example, systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing a client to phobia-provoking situations (whether in reality or imagination) until they cause less fear and anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses today, affecting around forty million Americans each year.
The term anxiety disorders covers a spectrum of mental health disorders. However, all these disorders have one thing in common: a feeling of generalized uneasiness or discomfort. This excessive worry or fear that interferes with a person’s everyday life is often the reason to seek cognitive-behavioral therapy.
While various external factors can trigger anxiety disorders, sometimes anxiety may develop without our self-critical thoughts and negative thinking patterns.
Anxiety manifests itself through a range of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms, such as sleep troubles, aches and pains, increased heart rate, fatigue, irritability, and problems concentrating, to name a few.
Untreated anxiety disorders can trigger further health problems such as depression or eating disorders. It can also cause relationship challenges and behavioral issues. Most common complications linked to anxiety include:
- Decreased energy and low mood
- Relationship problems
- Low self-esteem
- School and work-related problems
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Weakened immune system
- Substance misuse
What is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety can successfully address the following anxiety disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
In Cognitive-behavioral therapy, the focus is on learning. In other words, if you struggle with anxiety, you need to learn new ways of thinking and replace unhealthy beliefs and behaviors with more constructive ones. Throughout the cognitive-behavioral therapy treatment for anxiety, a CBT therapist takes the teacher’s role, guiding you on your way to healing and growth.
How Do I Practice CBT for Anxiety?
You can practice some CBT strategies at home to relieve anxiety and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. Here are some tips for practicing CBT for anxiety at home.
Cognitive restructuring is one of the central CBT techniques that can help you overcome cognitive distortions and limiting beliefs. It is based on the idea that our feelings depend on how we think about our experiences, not on experiences themselves.
Reframing can encourage you to examine your thinking and beliefs and notice your distorted thinking patterns. Once you learn to recognize your self-limiting thoughts, you will be able to reframe your ideas and create new beliefs about yourself, other people, and your experiences.
Mindfulness exercise has many benefits for mental health and overall well-being. It can help you relax and stop automatic negative thoughts that cause anxiety and depression. Mindfulness improves self-awareness, encouraging conscious control over your thoughts and actions.
Affirmations or positive statements about ourselves can be an excellent tool to combat self-critical thoughts. Positive statements about yourself can help you overcome and anxious ruminations, improve your mood, and strengthen your relationships.
Relaxation and Stress Relieving Techniques
Progressive relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, muscle relaxation, and visualization can help overcome anxiety and foster a sense of control.
Deep breathing exercises incorporated in various relaxation practices can help you relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress, shifting your focus from distressing thoughts.
Journaling is an excellent way to get in touch with your subconscious mind. It can help observe your thoughts, better understand what triggers your anxiety, clarify your feelings and beliefs, and manage mental health concerns.
Expressive writing can help you recognize and let go of self-critical thoughts. Writing about and painful emotions such as fear, grief, or anger can help release their intensity.
How Effective Is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety?
Research shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy is a highly effective anxiety treatment that has helped millions of people manage anxiety symptoms and improve their mental health. CBT is successful in treating anxiety disorders because it enables you to change the way you think. Such change allows you to identify and avoid triggers that provoke anxiety.
How Long Does It Take for CBT to Work for Anxiety?
Traditional CBT treatment usually involves weekly sessions (30 to 60 minutes) over 6 to 24 weeks. However, the number of sessions needed for effective CBT for anxiety depends on the severity of your symptoms, your personality, and other factors.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression
Depression is a debilitating mental health condition, with symptoms ranging from mild and moderate to severe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects more than 300 million people globally, and it is one of the leading disabilities today. This mental health condition has various emotional, cognitive, physical, and social implications, impeding the sufferer’s day-to-day life.
Individuals with a family history of depression are more likely to develop it at some point in their life. At its most severe, depression can lead to suicide.
The most common type of depression is a major depressive disorder or clinical depression. Other common forms of depression include bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, seasonal depressive disorder, and grief.
Depression can manifest itself through various emotional, cognitive, social, and physical symptoms. Some of the most common signs of depression involve chronic feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, lack of energy, sleep problems, social withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
However, if you address your symptoms on time, you can successfully treat depression.
One of the most common psychotherapy options for depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy.
CBT for depression can help you identify negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself and the world around you that trigger depression. After you identify your depression triggers, you can modify them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can also teach you strategies to cope with this depression.
Research shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy can modify brain structure, alleviating depression symptoms.
Nevertheless, a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression and antidepressant medication gives the best results in depression treatment.
In addition, lifestyle changes such as regular physical exercise, relaxation and mindfulness meditation, healthy diet, good sleep, and avoiding alcohol and drugs can help relieve depression symptoms.
CBT Benefits and Drawbacks
One of the main advantages of cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety and depression is that CBT is an evidence-based and highly structured therapy that you can complete in a relatively short period.
Furthermore, CBT can teach you helpful coping strategies that you can apply in your day-to-day life.
On the other hand, some experts argue that CBT doesn’t always address the underlying causes of mental health conditions, so it may not be suitable for people with complex mental health problems. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, don’t hesitate to seek mental health counseling. For most people, the combination of psychotherapy such as CBT for anxiety and medications gives the best results in managing the illness.