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What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Mental Health

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

In the end, you get out of therapy what you put in.

More than ever, going to therapy is becoming part of a typical self-care routine. While older generations may have scoffed at the idea of telling a stranger the details of their lives (not to mention their deepest, darkest secrets), younger people these days often swap details from their latest therapy sessions over brunch. Therapy is no longer taboo, it’s the norm. 

One of the most impactful—and universal—types of talk therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy. Beneficial for just about anyone, this type of therapy can help you break bad habits, dig into limiting beliefs and generally help you find the best life path to take. 

Here, we’ll answer some key questions about cognitive behavioral therapy so you can discover if it might be a good option for you. 

What Exactly Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (also known as CBT) is a type of talk therapy that’s very popular because it’s completely tailored to your needs and what you want to work on. After choosing a therapist who you feel comfortable with, you’ll work with this mental health practitioner to tackle a specific goal or issue that you’re having. 

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Typically, you’ll have a set number of sessions or a timeline for doing “the work” of therapy and you’ll have homework in between sessions—journaling, exercises and even books to read to help you along the way.  

Who Can Benefit From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Anyone who’s ever dealt with a stressful situation or been through a tough time in their lives can benefit from CBT. (So, basically everyone.) Here’s a list of the types of issues you might tackle with cognitive behavioral therapy:

  • Anxiety
  • Low self esteem
  • Depression (including postpartum depression)
  • Phobias
  • Relationship issues (like a break up, divorce or difficulties with family members)
  • Harmful habits (including substance abuse and disordered eating)
  • Stress (including post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • A major life change or challenging decision on the horizon
  • Grief
  • Health issues (including dealing with a troubling diagnosis, injury or chronic pain)

Even if you don’t have one of the issues specified above, you may just feel stuck or lost amid the flow of life. CBT can help you get to the root of why you might not feel like you’re behaving as your best self or living your best life and help you harness the tools to help you thrive. 

What Can You Expect to Do in Therapy?

If you’ve never been to cognitive behavioral therapy before, you may want to get familiar with some of the tools, strategies and techniques your therapist may use to assist you. Knowing what to expect can not only make your appointments more productive but it can help you determine if this type of therapy is really for you.

In addition to talking about your feelings, past and future aspirations, your therapist may guide you in some of the following ways during CBT:

Help you come up with a SMART goal 

At the start of working together, your therapist may encourage you to devise what’s called a SMART goal for what you want to get out of therapy. SMART goals have the following five elements: They are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. If you're looking to break a bad habit or begin a healthy one, SMART goals are a great way to get you on the right track. 

Encourage you to start journaling 

man journal

In addition to taking notes during therapy—which can be useful for remembering poignant moments or insight—your therapist may encourage you to write down limiting or negative beliefs you have in between sessions so that you can work together on replacing these thoughts with more positive ones. You might also use a journal to chronicle any new practices you’ve put in place, to record moments of gratitude or simply to write down your thoughts and ideas as you continue on your therapy journey. 

Work on cognitive reframing

Cognitive reframing is a technique that helps you break negative thought patterns. As you talk through different circumstances and situations in your life, your therapist may ask you questions about your thought process—how you arrived at certain conclusions or why you interpreted something a certain way. This can help you identify negative patterns or cognitive distortions in your thoughts. (The more common ones are jumping to conclusions and looking at situations through a black-and-white lens.) As you identify these patterns, you can start learning how to reframe them in a more positive way. 

Use exposure therapy

Those who are interested in working through phobias or fears with cognitive behavioral therapy will likely experience exposure therapy as part of their treatment. Exposure therapy is the practice of slowly exposing yourself to the things that scare you (or that cause you anxiety or stress) while a therapist guides you with coping strategies. As time goes on, your response to these phobias will be less distressing as you create better coping tools. You might also work with your therapist on calming techniques to help you out in the real world.

Lead you through guided discovery 

Guided discovery is the practice of a therapist leading you to answer questions or reflect on your thought process to better understand your current world view. This process enables you to understand what assumptions you carry and what limitations are currently governing your thoughts and behavior. By questioning these assumptions and limitations, you can start to see different points of view and consider new options that you may have never conceived of otherwise. This practice is designed to help broaden your thinking and expand what’s possible in your life so you can stop holding yourself back. 

Do some role playing

role playing

While it may feel a little strange at first, role playing can be a valuable tool for working through how you would react in certain situations. It can give you a chance to improve your communication skills, practice social skills, learn how to be more confident or assertive and help you set boundaries. When you role play with a therapist, you can talk through (and practice) potential outcomes of a certain conversation or situation, which can lessen the stress or anxiety of the actual event in real life. 

Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Right for You?

Now that you know more about it, think about if this kind of therapy may be helpful for you and the current goals or challenges you face in your life. If you’re interested in making positive changes or having trouble coping with your current circumstances, it may be worth a try.

In the end, you get out of therapy what you put in. If you’re feeling ready to dive head first into more self-awareness and discovery, you’ll likely come out the other side a more enlightened, positive version of yourself.

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