What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and How Can It Help?

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a goal-based psychological treatment designed to analyze and change how patients view challenging situations. The basic principle of CBT is that the way a person views a situation affects how they react to it, and how they feel and behave. Having negative thoughts about a situation can lead to unpleasant emotions and unhelpful behavior. Challenging those thoughts—and in turn changing the responses—can promote positive behavior.

For example, everyone has had a friend cancel plans at the last minute. A person with positive self-image might react to the cancelation by believing the friend had something come up last minute or had accidentally double-booked herself. A person with a negative self-image might take the cancelation as an indication that they are unlikeable and undeserving of friendship.

The goal of CBT is to adjust that way of thinking, so the person with the negative self-image—who believes they are unworthy of friendship—no longer associates cancelled plans with a lack of personal value.

Using Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Control What You Can

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Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to adjust thinking and reactions for a wide range of issues, including depression, chronic pain, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, addiction, grief, communication problems and relationship conflicts. A CBT session—which can be done one-on-one or in group settings—typically involves the patient identifying a troubling situation or fear with a counselor, becoming aware of negative thinking, and then challenging it.

Patients in CBT can deal with situational challenges—events that occur in specific contexts, such as anxiety about a test—or more destructive behaviors, such as addictions. CBT can help a patient to understand how addiction works, what situations are more likely to trigger their addictive behavior and what responses will decrease the chances of relapse.

Essentially, patients in cognitive behavioral therapy learn that while they cannot control every aspect of the environment around them, they can control how they think about and respond to their situation. As such, they can learn more positive ways of dealing with their challenges.

The Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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Cognitive behavioral therapy is non-invasive—there are no medical procedures to undergo, or expensive medications with risky side effects to take. Although the patient may be required to discuss uncomfortable emotions or face situations that cause some anxiety, there is no risk of harm to the patient simply from analyzing their behaviors.

Because CBT is goal-oriented, it is a short-term treatment and does not require a long-term commitment from patients. Although patients may return to the practice to maintain positive effects, they can do so as challenging or stressful situations arise, and can stop the sessions once they have reached their goal.

Through CBT, patients may learn more about the issues they face to help them overcome obstacles. For example, patients with anxiety may learn more about panic attacks, to reduce their fear of having them. They may also learn positive techniques for dealing with panic attacks, such as calming breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help them prevent panic attacks from occurring.

Cognitive behavior therapy is also transferable so that a patient who learns ways of dealing with one challenging situation can apply that knowledge to other stressful situations.

Perhaps the biggest benefit, however, is learning to overcome inaccurate thinking and replacing it with more realistic thinking. Patients with negative self-image or associations often find themselves making destructive decisions to avoid what they feel are potentially harmful situations. An individual who feels that no one likes them will avoid social situations and become more and more isolated. This then further limits their social circle, reinforcing their belief that they do not have friends and is unlikeable.

Overall, cognitive behavior therapy challenges patients to pay attention to how they think, by acknowledging negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive, realistic thoughts. It empowers patients to change how they respond to stressful situations and encourages them to face their fears and overcome phobias.

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