What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that looks at how behavior, thoughts, and feelings interact. It’s one of the most common psychotherapy treatment modalities used in the U.S. and globally. Because of its widespread popularity, you might see CBT used with other treatments. At its core, CBT is an evidence-based, goal-oriented type of therapy that helps you handle mental health symptoms by changing your thoughts and behavior. 

While CBT is used with many different populations, there are a few common conditions it works exceptionally well with: 

  • Major depressive disorder 
  • Generalized anxiety disorder 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Substance use problems 

However, you do not have to have one of these diagnoses to benefit from CBT. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the basics of CBT, its fundamental principles, and the risks and benefits of using it to treat mental health conditions. But first, let’s start by answering the question: what exactly is cognitive behavioral therapy?  

What are the Principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? 

Since Aaron Beck developed CBT in the late 1960s, it has been the focus of over 2000 clinical trials and experiments evaluating its effectiveness in treating physical and mental health problems. Beck’s philosophy of viewing suffering as a non-permanent component of life, but one that could be changed, revolutionized how clinicians approached conditions like depression and anxiety. Along with this, several other fundamental principles – known as the “three pillars of CBT” make this modality a widespread success.

  • Identification of problem thoughts, behaviors, or emotions. 
  • Recognition of ways to change the behavior in the present moment. 
  • Management of symptoms through consistent reinforcement of coping skills. 

What are some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques?

In CBT, thoughts, emotions, and actions equally contribute to your overall well-being, either positively or negatively. Our thoughts, or perceptions, of things that happen in our life, heavily influence how we respond emotionally or behaviorally. One of the main goals of CBT is to eliminate the behaviors or thoughts or make them less impactful on your life.

During a CBT session, one of the first things a clinician will do is cognitive restructuring. Here, you’ll identify the negative thinking and behavior patterns that are impeding your ability to function. Cognitive distortions, where thought patterns distort your view of reality, are often at the root of these patterns. Jumping to the worst possible conclusion, overgeneralizing, and unnecessarily taking the blame are all examples of when cognitive restructuring might help. To conquer it, a therapist might help you look at the evidence for and against irrational thought, consider alternative possibilities, or reframe how you talk to yourself. 

Some other standard CBT techniques you may do in treatment are:

  • Self-Monitoring: Like cognitive restructuring, self-monitoring involves keeping track of thoughts or behaviors. While continually identifying ones that make your life harder is necessary, so is recognizing healthy patterns. Journaling (either on paper or digitally) is a productive way to self-monitor.  
  • Mindfulness: Learning to be present in the moment is key to reducing anxiety and managing stress. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation are all ways to practice mindfulness as part of CBT treatment. 
  • Interoceptive Exposure: Paying attention to the body helps ground you in states of panic or anxiety. This technique involves identifying different, possibly feared, bodily sensations to figure out how to experience them without using unhealthy coping mechanisms like avoidance. Essentially, this helps you reduce the “panic about panic,” making it more manageable to experience difficult emotions or symptoms. 

What are the benefits and risks of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? 

Seeking treatment when you’re struggling with your mental health isn’t easy, mainly because it involves changing your thoughts or feelings. Opening up to a stranger about the most intimate details of your life is complicated and could push you to a vulnerable place. This, perhaps, is the most considerable risk to CBT. 

Another potential frustration is that this method also takes time. Like anything with health, changing innate negative beliefs and behaviors doesn’t happen overnight. However, motivation and a dedication to change are crucial to see a difference from start to finish. 

With the right mindset and approach to CBT, it has significant benefits as part of substance use disorder treatment and other mental health diagnoses. Here are a few of them:

  1. It’s effective. We know CBT is effective because of the decades of research supporting Beck’s approach to treating depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse issues.
  2. It’s time-limited. CBT is typically a time-limited therapy, with structured sessions focused on very specific goals. It’s a practical choice for people seeking short-term treatment, those who prefer a structured approach or have less severe mental health problems. 
  3. It focuses on empowerment and self-help. CBT teaches individuals practical skills and techniques to apply independently, promoting self-determination. In turn, it fosters a sense of empowerment and self-reliance — helping people continue their progress even after they’ve completed treatment.
  4. It’s versatile. CBT is a versatile treatment method, making it applicable to various age groups and populations and suitable for children, adolescents, adults, and older adults. It can also be integrated into other therapeutic modalities, enhancing treatment outcomes. This makes it a great option for recovery plans

The Gold Standard of Mental Health Treatment 

Because of the effectiveness of CBT, the mental health community collectively agrees that it’s considered the “gold standard” treatment. At American Treatment Network, we incorporate CBT into our outpatient rehabilitation and therapy treatments intending to help people overcome their addictions. All our interventions, treatments, and counseling methods are evidence-based. Visit the rest of our website to learn more about our services at each of our four treatment locations: 

  • Havertown, PA
  • Newark, DE
  • Upland, PA
  • Dover, DE


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