This is probably the most common question I am asked when speaking to new clients. CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is not so much one “thing” that psychologists “do”, but rather a group of therapies and techniques that are informed by principles of cognitive and behavioral psychology.
This may be an important distinction for you as a mental health consumer, since two “Cognitive Behavioral Therapists” may utilize entirely different techniques but still provide CBT for the same psychological problems. Further, some therapy techniques are strictly focused on cognitions and pay no mind to behaviors, while others are entirely behavioral and do not address cognitions. So, then…. What the heck is CBT, and why might you want it?
The “Cognitive” part of Cognitive Behavior Therapies, as you may have guessed, focuses on working with thoughts. CBT therapists can assist you in restructuring or changing unhelpful thoughts, can help you challenge or fight your irrational thoughts, or even help you work toward accepting disturbing thoughts as non-harmful stimuli in your mind. These are among the many tools that a CBT therapist may use when working with your thoughts.
The “Behavioral” part of CBT focuses on helping you change your behaviors as an avenue of achieving psychological well-being, emphasizing the connection between our actions and our feelings. For example, a behavioral technique for depression may include helping a client set specific, achievable and measurable goals to become more physically active, which could in turn help produce improved mood. Behavioral techniques are especially popular in the treatment of anxiety disorders, and could include helping the client overcome avoidance of feared stimuli in the environment (from crowded places to spiders, and everything in between!) through imagery or in-person exposures.
Going to 5 different CBT therapists will likely result in 5 very different therapy experiences. In addition to using different combinations of cognitive and behavioral techniques, therapists often differ in style and delivery of approach. In spite of this, there is one thing that most effective CBT therapists have in common. CBT therapists generally apply techniques that have been extensively researched, and continue to be researched to help improve clinical practice. We call these “evidence based techniques”, as research tends to support the use of various CBT techniques in therapy across a wide range of disorders.
Unlike the protocol for some other types of therapies, your CBT therapist probably won’t keep you in therapy for decades waiting for you to reach a big moment of clarity to resolve your discord. Instead, CBT is a problem-focused, active collection of therapies that focus on producing real changes in mood and behaviors and can provide some relief from symptoms within a reasonable period of time. This is not to say that you should expect to be in and out of therapy in a matter of weeks or even months — however, your therapist will likely help you to create specific, measurable, achievable goals so you can move forward both in therapy and in your day-to-day life.
Call me today to find out more about how I "do" CBT!