Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot when discussing mental health treatments, but a lot of people aren’t sure what it really means. In this article, we’re going to answer that question once and for all: What is cognitive behavioral therapy?
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that aims to address and treat the underlying issues that lead to substance use disorders and mental illnesses. In CBT, you will meet one-on-one with a mental health professional to discuss your history, goals, and outlook on life. If this sounds like conventional talk therapy, that’s because they’re very similar. The key difference, however, is how CBT solves problems.
CBT operates under the assumption that “cognitive distortions” cause your daily problems. Cognitive distortions are misconceptions you have about the world, your life, and/or yourself. An example of this would be a person with depression whose running mental narrative includes statements like, “I’m never going to be good enough,” or, “I don’t deserve good things.” CBT works to problem solve these underlying perceptions and habitual actions that manifest as real-world problems.
Of course, that begs the question: How does CBT fix problems?
What Do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Sessions Look Like?
In your first session, your cognitive behavioral therapist will conduct an assessment to pinpoint your specific problems. Here, you and your clinician will discuss your history and current mental state. They will ask you questions about all areas of your life to get a clear image of your psychological profile. Based on this assessment, your mental healthcare provider will tell you if this course of action is right for you.
After your assessment is complete and you both feel comfortable moving forward, your treatment will begin.
As you enter treatment, you and your provider will start working on improving your outlook and teaching you positive emotional and behavioral responses. Whereas talk therapy focuses on discussing problems, CBT is goal-oriented and emphasizes solving problems.
Each CBT session will make the most efficient use of time possible. You and your clinician will have a brief check-in, then discuss the work you did since your last session and the new issues that need to be addressed in this session. You will then follow this agenda to make sure that your most pressing needs are addressed.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and “Homework”
After each session, your doctor will give you “homework assignments”. These aren’t essays or worksheets, but actionable ways to make changes in your life.
For example, in conventional talk therapy, you might spend an entire session talking about your anxiety and depression, how it manifests, and how that makes you feel. These are all important things to talk about, but they don’t necessarily help you stop feeling anxious or depressed. In CBT, however, you are guided to take tangible action that will make a difference in your mental health and your life.
Homework will obviously vary depending on the issues you’re facing and your goals. However, people generally start with assignments that are designed to improve their moods. You may be asked to change your internal voice when you get too hard on yourself or to make sure that you respond positively when receiving less-than-great news. These small, incremental changes make up the basis for CBT.
Your homework will become more challenging as time goes on, until eventually, you are able to cope with your underlying mental health issues. Each session, you will review your homework with your doctor and receive feedback on how to use coping mechanisms and track your progress.
CBT can be a lot of work. But you are encouraged to move at your own pace in a way that supports your mental wellbeing. And when you look at the benefits of this treatment, it’s hard to deny that it’s worth the effort.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Benefits
Because of its unique treatment approach, CBT benefits are often stronger than what people see with other types of therapy. In general, CBT is used to treat the following mental health issues:
- Affective Disorders
- Psychiatric Disturbances
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Bipolar Disorder
- Panic Attacks
- Grief and Loss
- Mood Disorders
- Substance Use Disorder
The benefits of CBT vary depending on the issue being treated. Read on for some of the most common benefits of CBT.
It Minimizes Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
When you learn to have a positive, healthy outlook, symptoms of issues like depression and anxiety often fall away. This is because people often reinforce these issues with their own internal thinking. When CBT helps them fix that and find new coping mechanisms, their symptoms suddenly lessen. That’s why this treatment is so popular for depression recovery centers.
It Restores Rationality
With both mental health illnesses and substance use disorders, there is an issue with people behaving irrationally. Someone with anxiety may logically know that calling their dentist is not a scary thing, but they may still be terrified of doing so. CBT helps them think about the issue rationally and stop their repeated behaviors that worsen their symptoms. After finishing CBT treatment, a patient who has an anxiety disorder may still feel a slight impulse to act unreasonably, but they have the coping skills and knowledge to stay in control.
It Boosts Confidence
As part of your weekly homework assignments, you will get real-world experience using your new coping skills. As you begin to see that you can handle stressors without succumbing to your mental illness, you’ll gain confidence. After all, it’s easy to feel defeated when your mental health or addiction stops you from completing daily tasks. But as time goes on and you overcome these hurdles, you will rebuild your confidence and are better prepared to succeed.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Criticisms
Naturally, not everybody sees the value of CBT. Some people take issue with this specific form of therapy, and we’d like to address some of the common issues that people have with this treatment.
1. Homework Assignments Are Too Hard
Some people report that they didn’t feel prepared to complete regular homework assignments. After all, people are busy, and who has time to add more work on top of their hectic lives?
Unfortunately, however you receive treatment, hard work is necessary to resolve mental health issues. It would be ideal if everyone could develop healthy coping skills and positive self-image just by talking about it, but that is rarely the reality. For most people, they need to put the work into using these skills and attitudes in real life. That’s where the real benefits of CBT come in, even if you have to work for them.
Additionally, your CBT clinician should be giving you the necessary support to complete your assignments. Obviously nobody can make you do them, but they should be encouraging you and explaining the benefits of each assignment. This will help keep you motivated to recover, even on your busiest days.
2. CBT Results Are Too Slow
Understandably, many people want to resolve their mental health issues as quickly as possible. Their criticism, then, is that CBT therapy can last anywhere from 3-5 months.
While it’s true that CBT isn’t an overnight cure, it’s still just as fast as other effective therapy treatments. Mental health medications can take weeks or even months to really start working. And when they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be effective. While the buildup with CBT is perhaps slower, you know that your treatment is going to work for you, and you’re not risking any negative reactions with medications.
As an added bonus, you won’t have to have CBT sessions forever. Conversely, some people find themselves on mental health drugs for years, and sometimes they never stop taking them. There is certainly nothing wrong with taking medication for mental health issues, but many patients prefer to rely on CBT as a healthy, long-term solution.
3. Going Through CBT Is Too Much Pressure
Some people feel that undergoing CBT actually creates stress in their daily lives by putting them under pressure to better themselves. And in fairness to them, it’s true that CBT does put responsibility for success on the patient. However, we disagree with the notion that this is “too much” pressure.
Whether you’re recovering from anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorder, or anything else, it’s going to be scary. People who enter recovery usually do so because they need to get better or risk losing their quality of life. Subsequently, you might feel a lot of pressure to get well. And while it’s true that CBT holds you accountable as the patient, you’re going to be responsible for your success regardless of what form of therapy you use.
Responsibility for recovery always falls to the patient. Clinicians act as a support crew to make sure that you have all of the skills and know-how to improve your life, but nobody can do it for you. While it’s true that CBT is very direct about this reality, it’s at the core of every mental health recovery treatment.
For this reason, we encourage you to not be discouraged by the “pressure” of CBT. You will always be responsible for your own happiness, but wouldn’t it be preferable to have a trained mental health professional supporting you?
Do I Need Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Now that you know what CBT is, you’re prepared to determine if it’s the right treatment for you. While CBT can treat a wide range of issues, that doesn’t necessarily make it right for everyone. You should seriously consider CBT therapy if you identify with any of the following statements:
- I don’t like myself.
- My life will never be good or stable.
- I regularly hear inner, automatic thoughts telling me that I’m doing things wrong.
- I focus on the worst things that have happened in my life.
All of these are examples of negative outlooks and behaviors that can cause problems in your life. Note that each of these issues is related to how you perceive the world and yourself. That’s why these statements are ideal issues for CBT to treat. Of course, you may also want to consider whether or not you have the kind of personality that works best for CBT.
While there is no singular “CBT profile” of people who are best suited for treatment, success stories tend to have some similarities. In general, CBT will work best for people who:
- Are willing to put work into their recovery, even outside of therapy sessions
- Truly want to make a full, long term recovery
- Are more interested in finding real-world solutions rather than focusing on past hardships
Each of these indicates that you could be a good fit for CBT. Ultimately, though, the best way to find out will be to speak to a clinician who provides CBT and complete an evaluation with them.
Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Even if you decide that CBT isn’t for you, you’d be wise to consider how it could help you. Many people have found that it helps them recover from mental health and/or substance use disorders, so it may be worth a try for you too. Use all of this information to help you decide whether or not CBT can help you on your path to recovery.
Get the Help You Need
Many times, facing mental health issues is too much to handle alone. The underlying issues remain, and these are the areas that we help with during treatment. We know that nothing is more disheartening than relapsing after leaving rehab, so we give patients the tools to stay sober. Reach out to Cambridge Behavioral Hospital to learn about available treatment options.