I’ve always been fascinated with psychology and the human mind, especially since I consider mental health just as important as physical health. Within psychology, I remember reading something in college about a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, and being curious about it. After all, if it can help us be better, it’s worth a closer look.
Today, I want to return to this topic, and delve deep into what it can do for us. Here goes.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or therapist. This is not medical advice, but rather reflects our writing team’s informed understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy. You can find sources and research links at the bottom of this post; please consult those for authoritative information.
10 Ways Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Make You Better
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT or cognitive therapy) is one of the most common forms of talk therapy, or psychotherapy, in the world. Before you protest that you don’t have a mental illness and therefore don’t need therapy, give me a chance. I think about mental health very holistically, and find cognitive therapy to be potentially more useful than many other psychotherapy methods.
I view mental health as I view physical health. Both are on a continuum. For physical health, if you are eating clean, exercising and getting enough sleep, then you’re on the healthier end of the scale. If you’re battling an illness or injury, then you’re on the less well end. You go for periodic check-ups and take measures to take care of yourself physically, to keep you on or get back to the healthier end of things.
The same is true for mental health. If you are managing your stress levels well, building strong relationships, and feeling relatively confident, then you’re on the healthier end of the mental health continuum. If you’re struggling with a mental illness like depression or treating yourself badly, then you’re on the less well end of things. No matter where you fall on the scale, you can take steps to get healthier. Engaging in CBT is one of those steps.
Who Developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Modern cognitive behavioral therapy traces its roots to the work of psychologists David Clark and David Barlow, who developed successful treatments for panic disorder some decades ago. While doing so, they helped merge cognitive and behavioral therapeutic techniques into cognitive behavioral therapy.
Where and How Do You Receive Cognitive Therapy?
In CBT, you usually work with a qualified mental health professional to identify negative or faulty thought patterns and learn to replace them with healthier thoughts. Faulty thoughts include things like blaming, filtering, black and white thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, personalization, believing you can control everything, “shoulds”, labeling and mislabeling or always being right.
It sounds easy enough, but many negative or harmful thoughts can be deeply ingrained, and it takes a conscious and persistent effort to re-wire your brain to think in healthier ways.
Cognitive behavioral therapy often breaks problems into five categories – situations, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and actions – and acknowledges that these groups are frequently interconnected. Addressing how one area affects the other can help stop the pattern of negative thoughts. The main steps in CBT include:
- Bringing awareness to problems.
- Identifying how these problems affect other areas of your life.
- Making your problems more manageable.
- Giving you healthier ways of thinking about your problems.
The more you repeat this process with your counselor and on your own, the healthier and more positive your thought patterns can become. The sessions can be carried out one-on-one or in a group setting.
During each session, you’ll likely perform various exercises with your therapist. Once you leave you will probably be asked to repeat the exercise on your own and/or keep a journal of your experiences, insights, and progress.
It’s a pragmatic and highly structured approach to addressing whatever issues are arising for you. CBT differs from other forms of therapy in that it focuses on your current problems and does not dig in to the past. Here’s a short video with more information:
Will Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work, Is It Effective?
Absolutely! According to the Mayo Clinic, “CBT can be a very helpful tool in treating mental health disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an eating disorder. But not everyone who benefits from CBT has a mental health condition. It can be an effective tool to help anyone learn how to better manage stressful life situations”.
When It Doesn’t Work
The success of cognitive therapy can depend highly on the patient. These are behaviors that could contribute to reduced success:
- Not being an active participant in therapy.
- Refusing to be open and honest with your therapist.
- Not sticking to your treatment plan.
- Expecting instant results.
- Not doing your homework between sessions.
What Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Do For You
No matter your current life situation, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you become your best self. Here are some of the key benefits of engaging in a CBT with a knowledgeable and experienced counselor, who will be able to determine if CBT is right for you.
1. Treat Mental Health Disorders
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the US experiences a mental illness in a given year. Depression and anxiety are among the leading mental health disorders, although there are a wide range of illnesses the deserve attention and care. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate – any race, culture, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation can be affected.
If you have mental illness or suspect you might, it’s always important to seek the appropriate mental health care. Depending on your situation, CBT may be able to help you reduce your suffering and the likelihood of relapse.
It’s one of the best-proven methods of talk therapy. If you are currently on an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication and don’t feel like you’re seeing the desired results, CBT can potentially complement these medications.
2. Manage Stress
Life can be stressful. Between work, school, family, finances, relationships, and general societal and environmental issues, there’s a lot that can weigh on your mind.
Everyone responds to stress differently and may find certain situations harder to handle than others. Regardless of what you’re struggling with, CBT may be right for you. With CBT, your therapist can help you uncover what is really going on and how much of your suffering is from the difficult circumstances in your life and how much stems from your negative thought patterns about your situation.
Transforming negative thought patterns is the core of CBT. This may be why CBT has been shown to be more effective in helping alleviate stress than other forms of intervention. It may also address wide-ranging sources of stress including high-performing athletes facing stress within their sports as well parents of children with disabilities who are stressed by their caregiver roles.
Stressful situations are a fact of life. But with CBT, you’ll probably learn methods for coping with these triggers.
3. Cope with Chronic Illness or Pain
Millions of people suffer from chronic pain. Not only is chronic pain physically painful, but it can have serious psychological effects. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that your state of mind can affect your physical well-being.
Research has suggested that CBT can be used to alleviate the symptoms and co-occurring disorders or emotions that often accompany chronic illness. If you suffer from chronic pain, then you may be able to relate to those who catastrophize (or imagine that life will always be this way or will even get worse), fall into depressive states, and withdraw from everyday activities.
With cognitive behavioral therapy, therapists will help you work with the psychological side of chronic illnesses. You’ll follow the usual goal setting and behavioral modification steps of CBT, but it will be geared towards the thoughts you have around pain. Your therapist may also include relaxation exercises to help manage the pain.
4. Improve Relaxation
We could all benefit from being a little more relaxed, right?
One of the coping mechanisms that you’re likely to develop through CBT is better relaxation skills. (Yes, our society is really so stressed out that we need to learn how to relax.) As you work with your therapist on challenging thoughts and situations, he or she is likely to guide you through relaxation exercises to help you maintain a calm state of mind in triggering situations.
Here are a few techniques therapists might use:
- Progressive relaxation: This method involves scanning through your body, from head to toe, and relaxing major muscle groups.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: There are many different breathing techniques you can use, but this one focuses on slowing down and elongating the out-breath.
5. Develop Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EQ) has become a bit of a buzzword in business circles in recent years, with many leaders and managers claiming it is key to top performance. If you can sort through the noise, however, emotional intelligence is an important and relatively simple concept. While IQ may suggest “book smarts”, high EQ can lead to well-developed:
- Social awareness.
- Relationship management.
Clearly, these are all skills that can assist you in any profession or relationship.
Cognitive therapy can help improve your EQ. Working with a psychologist and uncover your patterns of negative thinking, you can become more self-aware. As you learn how to reframe these thoughts, you can learn self-management and avoid being hijacked by your emotions. As you develop healthier patterns of thinking, your social awareness and relationship management can improve.
6. Develop Confidence and Improve Self-Esteem
A lack of confidence and low self-esteem often stem from the beliefs we hold about ourselves based on how others have treated us or talked to us. These beliefs may be so deeply ingrained that you don’t even realize they are not true.
If you have ever had thoughts like, “I don’t matter” or “I’m stupid/ugly/worthless,” this is your inner critic speaking up (or even screaming for attention). It can be hard to break through this noise to live life to its fullest.
Working with a counselor will help you look at these thoughts in a different way and develop tools for changing these voices. Thoughtful cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t aim to squash the thoughts, but rather acknowledges them while teaching you how to identify reality.
When the “I’m stupid” critic rages, you’ll learn to handle it deftly. When the “I’m ugly” voice cuts you down, you’ll learn to remember all the ways you are an awesome person. Over time, these strategies can help you boost your confidence and self-esteem.
7. Develop Problem-Solving Skills
Problem-solving is another important component of the cognitive therapy process. Solving any sort of problem, whether personal or professional, can involve:
- Identifying the problem.
- Listing options for resolving the problem.
- Evaluating these choices.
- Deciding on a course of action.
- Breaking the plan down into small, actionable steps.
- Evaluating progress over time and making modifications as necessary.
This is essentially how cognitive behavioral therapy works. As you go through this process in your personal life and see tangible results, it could become second nature to apply the steps for any challenge you encounter in your life.
8. Become Less Fearful
Fear has many sources. Post-traumatic stress, abuse and trauma, anxiety disorders, scary encounters in the past.
No matter the source, cognitive therapy may be able to help. When you’re fearful, the threat can seem very real. However, CBT can help you get a better understanding of reality. Specifically, when dealing with fear, CBT can utilize exposure therapies to overcome fears. While most people’s understanding of exposure therapy is dramatic, your therapist won’t force you into an enclosed space with live spiders during your first session.
Instead, the process will be gradual. As you are exposed to images or reminders of the source of fear, your therapist will guide you through progressive relaxation exercises. In time, as you learn to face your fears, the overwhelming feelings are likely to subside.
9. Achieve Your Goals
Due to CBT’s pragmatic approach to overcoming obstacles, it can be highly effective in setting and achieving goals.
An integral part of CBT is goal setting. When starting to work with a counselor or therapist, you would collaboratively decide on the broad goals you want to address during treatment. These goals should be observable, measurable and achievable. You would then work with your therapist to discover the reasons why you haven’t been able to achieve these goals. Once these issues are identified, your therapist will help you recognize and work towards the cognitive or behavioral changes that need to be made in order to achieve your goals.
Some of the biggest obstacles to achieving goals are fear, procrastination, lack of confidence and not having a clear plan. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you address the behaviors and thought patterns that are holding you back from success. As your sessions progress, your therapist will adjust your exercises to reflect your progress.
10. Resolve Conflicts
A perhaps unexpected benefit of cognitive therapy is learning how to better resolve conflicts.
Even if conflict resolution wasn’t your primary aim in seeking therapy, the sessions are likely to help you become a better communicator. As you learn more about your core beliefs and negative thought patterns and how to work with and change them, you’ll become more emotionally mature. You’re likely to put more thought into your words and actions, pausing to evaluate if your thoughts are long-held beliefs or actually true.
CBT not only opens your eyes to your inner world of emotions and behaviors, but it gives a glimpse at how complicated everyone else is, too. As you heal yourself, you’re likely to have more understanding and compassion for other’s struggles. This level of empathy is also helpful in resolving conflicts with others.
Summing It Up
As one of the main methods of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy can go a long way towards helping you become your best self. Don’t be afraid to talk to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist to see if it might be right for you.
Would you try CBT?
Sources and Research links: