What is CBT and How Does it Work?

Are you curious about what CBT is or how it works? Are you wondering if CBT might be helpful for you? In this article, I will tell you a bit about this powerful treatment and break down how works so you can decide for yourself if you’d like to give it a try.

What is CBT and why is it so popular?

CBT, short for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is a well-researched, evidence-based treatment that is highly effective for most mental health concerns. It was developed in the 1960s by Aaron Beck and revolutionized the way therapy is done. There are countless studies that have proven just how effective CBT can be; If you want to get a sense of how much research is out there, have a look at this list of Dr. Beck’s professional publications…and this is JUST Dr. Beck’s contributions! CBT is often referred to as the “gold standard” of therapy and is the “first line treatment” for most mental health conditions. This means that, based on research, CBT has been identified as the most effective option for a given diagnosis and is therefore the best choice for where to start with treatment. You can see why CBT is so popular!

So, what exactly is CBT? The “magic” of this treatment all boils down to one thing: a triangle. Yes, a triangle. Let me explain: Imagine that you have a huge presentation coming up. You sit down to work on it and start thinking, “This is too much, I’ll never finish it” or “It doesn’t matter how much time I put into this, it will never be good enough.” You start feeling anxious, maybe your heart is racing, you’re breathing faster and you feel lightheaded. The feeling is so uncomfortable that you walk away from the computer and find something else to do (“There’s still time, I’ll do it later. Right now I really need to reorganize my closet!”). The whole process looks like this:

As you can see, your thoughts and feelings worked together to influence how you responded. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of CBT. In any given situation, our thoughts, feelings (including physiological sensations) and behaviors interact “bi-directionally” to create our emotional response. This response leads to a set of outcomes (some good and some not so good) which can then influence future emotional responses.

The magic of the triangle: How treatment works.

Now that you know how thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact to create our emotional experience, let’s look at how CBT can help you to have a different, more adaptive, experience. Let’s go back to when you were sitting down to start your presentation. Just as before, you notice that you are feeling anxious and doubting your ability to do the presentation. Remembering your CBT skills, you check to see if you are using any “thinking traps” (unhelpful thinking patterns ) and realize you are predicting the future and assuming the worst. Using your cognitive skills, you remove the thinking traps, check out what evidence you have for how the presentation prep will go, and come up with different, more accurate thoughts based only on the facts (e.g., “There is a lot to do. I should write out a game plan for how I will get it done” or “I will put as much effort into this as I can.”). You then think about what you want to do in this situation (procrastinate!) and consider what might happen if you act in that way (immediate reduction of anxiety but making no progress on the presentation). You decide this is not an outcome you want so you come up with other options (e.g., develop a game plan for getting the work done) and pick the one with the best possible outcome for you. The process would look something like this:

These are exactly the type of skills you can learn in CBT. Practicing these skills and realizing the power you have to change your emotional experiences is incredibly motivating. The more you practice them, the more confident you will become in your ability to handle challenging situations. Over time, this practice can lead to real and lasting changes in your emotional health. And before you know it, this new style can become YOUR style!

How do I know if CBT will work for me?

Now that you have learned a bit about CBT, you may be wondering if CBT could work for you. To be totally honest with you, there’s no way to know for sure (stay with me here!). While the outcomes of CBT treatment are overwhelmingly positive, there are some folks that CBT does not work out for. Here are some factors that can influence the outcome of treatment:

  • Readiness for change/motivation
  • Regular attendance
  • Commitment to practice/homework
  • A good therapeutic relationship
  • Inclusion of the right supplementary treatments (e.g., medication)

If you are interested in finding out if CBT can work for you and you are ready to take steps to improve your mental health, now may be good time to speak with a CBT therapist. After all, you never know if CBT can work for you unless you try it!

How to find a CBT therapist.

CBT providers can be found across the country and around the world. There are great resources that can help you find a trained CBT therapist:

CBT Carolina offers comprehensive cognitive and behavioral therapies implemented by a Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. I welcome you to contact me to find out more about CBT, how it works and if it could be right for you.

Photo by Scott Kirwan on Unsplash