CBT 101: What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and How Does it Work?

Caring for mental health has long since been treated with discretion, reclusion, and an overall sense of judgment. For decades, seeking aid for mental disorders and anxiety has been stigmatized, leaving many untreated. In fact, in the US, over 46 million people have experienced mental illness, yet less than 50% sought professional help for their symptoms.

Every patient is unique in their triggers and effective tools. That being said, therapists will create treatment plans that are catered to the individual needs of their patients. For many patients experiencing mental distress, therapists turn to a form of treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Most commonly used for anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and various other behavioral disorders, CBT is shown to be effective both short and long-term.

What is CBT?

CBT is rooted in the correlation between a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. These three aspects of human thoughts and actions are seen as circular, moving in a constant cycle of cause and reaction. In order to combat unhealthy cognitive processes and physical behaviors, therapists narrow down the root of the problem and formulate a treatment plan that can reduce further behaviors and equip their patients with the ability to do so on their own moving forward.

Therapy has vastly evolved into several categories of treatment such as psychoanalysis, humanistic and behavior therapy, and countless others. The benefit of these varying styles is the ability to cater the process of healing to individual needs. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most commonly used forms of treatment in its ability to pinpoint typical triggers and create plans of action to combat them. This equips the patient with the tools necessary to stop their unhealthy thoughts and actions before they fully manifest long after their therapy sessions have ended.

How does it work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy works by identifying individual thoughts and triggers, and their consequent behaviors. Once these have been identified, therapists will work with their patients to set a plan of how to disengage these thoughts, and create healthy reactions and behaviors. This can be done in individual sessions, group therapy, or exposure and response therapy.

An example of CBT might appear in the following manner. A patient who experiences social anxiety will be encouraged to find the source of their fears, such as making small talk with strangers. For some, group CBT therapy is optimal in this instance in that it provides patients the ability to face this fear by introducing themselves to other participants under the guidance and suggestions of the therapist running the session. In future encounters, patients can use the icebreakers and conversational tools learned in therapy, to combat any triggers of their social anxiety.

With exposure and response prevention, patients are taught to disengage their triggers at the moment of their appearance. This particular form of CBT is commonly used in patients with OCD to target triggers and refuse to engage in the usual unhealthy behaviors they would cause. Under the supervision of a therapist, patients are exposed to said triggers and guided through their reactions until they no longer feel the need to perform them.

Individual CBT sessions last from 60 to 90 minutes, are attended weekly for roughly 12 to 16 weeks, and can aid those who prefer individualized attention for their mental healing. Patients are given tools such as journaling, at-home assignments, and daily exercises to implement in order to tackle their unique needs.

Individual needs will vary, meaning there’s not a universal successful treatment in the world of therapy. Every patient will require initial sessions with a professional to find the course that works best for them long-term. At the end of the day, the main goal of therapy is to ease daily stress, and create overall mental well-being, regardless of the form of treatment used.


Image Credits: Priscilla Du Preez

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