Coping With Mental Health: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Last updated: September 2021

If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health disorder, you are not alone. Twenty percent of adults in the US experience at least one mental illness each year. Though these conditions are common, they can vary in type and severity.1 Still, regardless of the type of mental health disorder or its severity, symptoms may get worse if left untreated, so it is important to take the necessary steps to get the help that is needed.

What is CBT?

One type of treatment that has been shown to be effective in treating certain mental health disorders is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).2 CBT is a type of psychotherapy, or “talk therapy”, in which a patient works with a therapist in a structured way, for a certain number of scheduled sessions. CBT focuses on awareness of inaccurate, or negative thinking so that patients can become aware of these thoughts and change their behavior in response to those thoughts. During CBT sessions, patients often learn and practice techniques focused on relaxation, coping, resilience, stress management, or assertiveness.3

During CBT, patients are encouraged to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and areas that are causing emotional trouble, similar to standard talk therapy. In CBT, however, the focus tends to be on specific problems, using a goal-oriented approach. Patients may be given activities to practice at home to reinforce what is being learned in therapy sessions.3

How does CBT work?

The CBT model is based on the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behavior. A patient and his or her therapist work together with the goal of modifying patterns of thinking and behavior that are causing emotional upset or mental illness.2 CBT typically includes the following steps:3

  • Identifying what the problem is and what goals need to be focused on
  • Discussing and becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior surrounding this problem
  • Recognizing negative or inaccurate thinking that may be contributing to the problem
  • Reshaping this negative or inaccurate thinking through learned thought and behavior patterns

What does CBT treat?

CBT can be used to treat a wide variety of mental health concerns. Disorders that may be improved through CBT include:2,3

  • Depression and anxiety disorders
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Sleep disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Sexual disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Schizophrenia

CBT not only works to treat mental health disorders, but it can also be effective at addressing temporary or long-term emotional challenges, such as:3

  • Managing symptoms of mental disorders
  • Preventing mental illness relapse
  • Treating mental illness in place of medication
  • Coping with stressful life situations
  • Emotion regulation
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Dealing with grief or loss
  • Coping with emotional trauma
  • Coping with a medical illness
  • Managing chronic pain

Benefits and risk

There are generally no risks associated with CBT. That said, patients may be uncomfortable opening up to their therapist or revising negative emotional thoughts and feelings.3 CBT is a hands-on effective approach, that is individualized based on the needs of the patient. CBT can often be effective in treating certain mental disorders without medication.2 Sometimes, CBT is more effective when combined with medication.3

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