What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one type of psychotherapy that can treat a range of mental health disorders. Over several appointments, therapists help patients identify negative thinking patterns and the actions that follow these thoughts. Armed with that knowledge, patients learn to turn these patterns around.

History and Foundations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Dr. Aaron T. Beck developed this therapeutic method during the 1960s. During that time, the psychiatrist practiced and researched psychoanalysis at the University of Pennsylvania. He found that while psychoanalysis helped some patients with depression, it just wasn’t enough for many.

Dr. Beck realized that patients with depression had automatic thoughts that were negative about themselves, but not necessarily true. Over several years, he developed techniques to help patients stop these automatic thoughts right as they begin, then turn them into automatic positive thinking.

In the decades since, mental health professionals of all kinds have studied and used cognitive behavioral therapy. It is now one of the most common types of psychotherapy for many different types of disorders. Most importantly, cognitive behavioral therapy has effectively helped patients put their mood disorders into remission and live full lives.

Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help Me?

Patients may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy if they have consistent negative thoughts about themselves or their surroundings. If these thoughts creep into everyday life, keep patients from enjoying or completing daily activities, or make them consider self-harm, cognitive behavioral therapy may be part of an effective treatment plan.

Negative thoughts can be extreme or subtle. Some examples include:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I don’t deserve to live.
  • Everything is going to fall apart.
  • Everyone around me hates me.
  • I hate my (insert body part here.)
  • Everyone knows I’m a fraud.
  • If I don’t complete this task, something terrible will happen.

It’s essential for patients to know that these thoughts are the result of a mental health issue, not the truth. LifeStance Health counselors can help with cognitive behavioral therapy.

What Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treat?

Although Dr. Beck developed cognitive behavioral therapy with depression in mind, it can help patients with all kinds of mood disorders. The specific techniques may change depending on the type of problems a patient has. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety may involve stopping anxious thoughts with deep breathing techniques.

Below are just some of the many conditions that cognitive behavioral therapy can treat. Patients should consult their mental health professionals to see if this is the right path for them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression

The first patients to receive cognitive behavioral therapy suffered from depression. Decades later, patients with this mood disorder continue to benefit from the technique. One meta-analysis of many studies found that cognitive behavioral therapy for depression:

  • Is as effective as antidepressant medication
  • Helps as much as medication in patients with severe cases of depression
  • Prevents relapses in some patients

This analysis included patients with bipolar disorder, which some people categorize as a type of depression. Another recent study found that cognitive behavioral therapy can particularly help patients who have both depression and cardiovascular disease.

ADHD and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

It’s easy to understand why a parent whose child has ADHD would be hesitant to try medication. Although the research is still new, cognitive behavioral therapy shows some promise for treating adolescents with ADHD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety

Anxiety can come in many forms, including phobias, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the treatments that can help patients with one or many of these disorders. Not only does cognitive behavioral therapy work for these patients, but one meta-analysis of research called the therapy “the gold standard” for the treatment of anxiety.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Patients who have PTSD, mood disorders or grief after a traumatic event may find help in cognitive behavioral therapy. They learn to change the way they think about the trauma and change their reactions to certain stimuli. This type of treatment can treat victims of emotional, physical, sexual, and childhood traumas. Early research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy may be more effective in treating trauma than most remedies.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for OCD

Many of the symptoms of OCD come from obsessive or automatic thoughts. So, it makes sense that a type of therapy that targets these thoughts directly is one of the most effective ways to treat OCD. Cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD typically also involves exposure response therapy as well.

Sleep and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When racing thoughts and worries keep patients awake when they want to sleep, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help. Patients learn to quiet those thoughts, though it can take time to learn to do this.

That’s why research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy may not be the best short-term solution for insomnia, it is an excellent long-term treatment. Some patients may take sleeping aids while they learn to use cognitive behavioral therapy.

Common Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every mental health problem. Instead, it’s a compilation of techniques that focus on a person’s automatic thoughts. Patients learn several methods of dealing with negative thoughts while they are in counseling sessions. They then apply these ideas to real-life scenarios, keep the ones that work, and ditch those that don’t quite do the trick.

Any particular technique may work wonders for one patient and not help another, even when the patients face similar struggles. Finding the right methods for each person is important. If you try cognitive behavioral therapy, your counselor may recommend some of the following popular techniques:

Identify Distortions

Many of the negative thoughts that fuel mood disorders are out-of-proportion with reality. For example, someone with an eating disorder might eat dessert one day and think, “I’ll never be the size I want to be. I’ll always be fat.” This thought is an outsized response to eating a cookie. Recognizing the distortions can take the power away.

Treat Yourself Like a Friend

For this technique, you must first know how to recognize negative self-talk. Then, when you notice yourself doing it, ask if you would say the same thing to a friend in the same situation. The chances are that you wouldn’t.

Write Down Positive Thoughts

Sometimes you need to drown out the negative thoughts with positive ones that are direct opposites. Writing down these thoughts can give them even more power, helping you overcome negative self-talk.

Exposure Therapy

This technique is especially helpful for people with anxiety, OCD, or specific phobias. With exposure therapy, patients gradually expose themselves to their irrational fears. The fact that everything turns out fine disproves the negative thoughts and diminishes their power. (Do not try this method without the guidance of a counselor.)

Start a Gratitude Habit

This method is another way of drowning out negative thoughts with positive counterparts. Make a habit of noticing five or even ten things to be thankful for at specified times during the day. A gratitude habit might mean keeping a gratitude journal that you complete at the end of each day or naming five good things every time you walk into a new room.

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