Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term therapy technique that can help people find new ways to behave by changing their thought patterns.

CBT rests on the assumption that the way people think and interpret life’s events affects how they behave and feel.

Therapy sessions focus on exploring and developing methods to deal with challenges and behaviors that arise day to day. This type of therapy can be effective in treating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and various other mental health conditions.

CBT often consists of 5–20 one-on-one sessions, though some people may have more. It can also take the form of group sessions.

Read on to learn more about what CBT involves and how it can help.

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CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on how thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect feelings and behaviors.

The American Psychological Association explains that CBT relies several beliefs, such as that:

  • Unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving can lead to psychological distress.
  • People can learn more beneficial ways of thinking and behaving.
  • New habits can relieve symptoms of mental and physical conditions and allow people to act in more beneficial ways.

The central theory is that problems arise from events and the meanings that people assign to them. Unhelpful thoughts can make it difficult for a person to function confidently in various situations.

CBT can help a person make positive changes to how they feel and act. It can also equip people with coping strategies that help them deal with challenges.

Research shows that CBT can support people with depression, panic disorder, and various other health conditions. There is also growing evidence that it can help relieve chronic pain.

A course of CBT consists of a series of sessions in which a counselor and an individual or group meet regularly and collaborate. Counselors typically hold these meetings weekly.

Some forms of psychotherapy focus on looking into the past to understand current feelings. Instead, CBT focuses on present thoughts and beliefs. It emphasizes the need to identify, challenge, and change how a person views a situation.

Changing distortions and perceptions

CBT aims to transform any ways of thinking and behaving that stand in the way of how a person would like to live their life. This involves identifying negative perceptions or distortions that are affecting behavior.

A distorted view can make a person more susceptible to:

  • an unhelpful mindset
  • jumping to conclusions
  • mistakenly seeing situations as catastrophic
  • seeing things as either good or bad, with nothing in between

If people learn fearful or unhelpful ways of thinking, they can start to think in this way automatically. CBT focuses on challenging these automatic thoughts and comparing them with reality.

When a person comes to view a particular situation in a more helpful way, their distress often decreases, and they can then take actions or make decisions that are more likely to serve them in the long term.

An example: Dental phobia

A person with dental phobia fears going to the dentist because they believe that they will experience severe pain or even death by having a dental procedure. This fear may stem from a negative experience, perhaps in childhood.

A CBT therapist can work with the person to address this thinking, which says, “Because I had pain with a filling, all dental visits will be painful.”

Together, the client and therapist develop a plan to see future dental treatments in a new way. They also come up with a way to approach dental visits in small, manageable steps to overcome the fear.

During a course of CBT, a person can learn to:

  • develop an awareness of automatic, unhelpful thoughts
  • challenge underlying assumptions that may be unhelpful
  • distinguish between facts and unhelpful thoughts
  • develop a more helpful way of thinking and seeing situations

The exact course of a person’s CBT varies, depending on their symptoms and circumstances. During a typical course, a person:

  • has regular one-on-one or group sessions, or a combination of both
  • gets frequent feedback
  • does role-playing activities
  • learns ways to calm the mind and body
  • has gradually increased exposure to the things they fear
  • does homework assignments
  • keeps a cognitive behavioral diary
  • practices skills to promote positive behavioral change and growth

Psychologists created the first CBT models more than 50 years ago to treat depression. There are now models for a wide range of conditions, including:

CBT is a form of psychotherapy. A person learns to change their perceptions in a way that has a helpful effect on their behavior and mood.

CBT can help with many mental health conditions, ranging from depression to chronic pain.

A counselor and client work together to identify goals and expected outcomes. The individual must be an active participant in the therapy to benefit from it.

Anyone considering CBT should find a qualified professional. A doctor may be able to recommend local CBT specialists.