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What Does CBT Mean and What Is It Used For?

stress out employee is struggling with mental health and is considering CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy at clear recovery center

What Does CBT Mean and What Is It Used For?

In the treatment of mental health, many evidence-based therapy modalities have been proven to be effective through rigorous testing and research. One of these is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used by therapists to treat many mental health conditions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how they are interconnected.

CBT works to change unhelpful behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. It works to improve emotional regulation and build coping mechanisms for problem-solving in everyday life.

CBT therapy helps individuals with mental disorders discover productive ways to respond to situations by learning about their negative thought patterns and changing them.

How Does CBT Work?

CBT is used to treat depression, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, PTSD, bipolar disorder, amongst other mental illnesses and psychological issues.

Many psychotherapy methods emphasize looking into the past to understand current actions, feelings, and beliefs. CBT, on the other hand, focuses on the feelings a patient experiences in the present.

When we have negative experiences and learn fearful thinking, that thought process can become automatic. CBT therapists challenge unhelpful or fear-based thinking, so patients learn to view situations differently and mitigate their mental illness.

Say a patient developed a crippling fear of driving on the freeway because of a car accident they were in. This negative experience is controlling the actions they take (or don’t take) and prevents them from doing a basic task.

A CBT therapist can work with the patient to develop an action plan to face their fear. This involves creating a strategic approach to getting back on the freeway through small steps over time that will help the patient rework their negative thoughts.

CBT Treatment & Approach

Cognitive therapy involves a few core principles and therapeutic approaches to promote positive change in a patient with mental illness. These are achieved through changing thought patterns and behavior patterns with cognitive and behavioral techniques.

Changing Thought Patterns with CBT

One key intervention used in cognitive behavioral therapy is guided discovery. Guided therapy is a technique CBT therapists use to help patients discover how they process information and reflect on how their thinking process affects perceptions and behaviors.

It helps individuals understand their thought patterns and the underlying assumptions they have in order to alter those perceptions and find new solutions.

Guided discovery teaches people to perceive information in a different way in order to see other possible outcomes and adjust their emotional responses.

Strategies to change thought patterns may include:

  • Learning to recognize distorted thinking, the problems it creates, and how to reevaluate
  • Understanding the behavior of others and how their motivations affect them
  • Developing problem-solving skills and coping strategies to utilize in situations that are challenging and affect your emotional health
  • Developing confidence in yourself and your abilities

Changing Behavior Patterns with CBT

The strategies used to change behavior patterns include:

  • Learning to face fears and adversity
  • Journaling to identify thought patterns
  • Preparing for difficult situations and conversations through role play
  • Relaxation techniques to better cope with difficult situations through mindfulness

By gaining these valuable coping skills in therapy, CBT teaches patients how to be their own therapists and learn to regulate emotions and thoughts on their own.

Mental Health Conditions Treated by CBT

Most patients respond very well to cognitive behavioral therapy and find that their mental illness improves within the time period of treatment. Here are a few of the mental health conditions that respond to cognitive behavioral therapy when working with a licensed mental health professional


For those struggling with depression, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches patients how to become aware of and adjust negative patterns to reframe their thoughts during difficulties stemming from their mental health condition.

CBT encourages meditation practice for calming and mindfulness and journaling for a safe space to process and explore thoughts and emotional difficulties to improve mental health.

Generalized anxiety disorders

CBT is effective at helping people change how they think and behave during times when they are experiencing high anxiety.

Additionally, CBT aims to interrupt and change the negative thoughts that fuel anxiety while also helping to reduce avoidant behaviors.

Interoceptive exposure, or exposure therapy, is often used in CBT to treat panic and anxiety disorders. This technique centers on recreating the physical sensations that people experience during a panic or anxiety attack in a controlled, safe environment. During these cognitive behavioral interventions, individuals learn that the sensations aren’t harmful or dangerous.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

CBT is effective in treating OCD (OCD) because it helps patients develop an effective way of responding to their obsessions and compulsions. CBT breaks the associations made during an episode — the first being the relationship between sensations of distress associated with an object and then carrying out ritualistic behavior to decrease stress.

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a common CBT therapy technique used in patients with OCD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Patients with PTSD often struggle with negative thoughts and emotional challenges associated with their trauma.

Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to teach patients to re-evaluate thinking patterns and assumptions to build more balanced, effective thoughts. PTSD patients often expect catastrophic outcomes and CBT can help identify the cognitive distortions that bring on negative thinking.

Social anxiety

Because social anxiety involves a desire for acceptance and a fear of negative attention and criticism in social settings.

For social anxiety treatment, CBT helps patients identify and adjust the distorted thoughts and behaviors that fuel avoiding situations by reframing them realistically, resulting in positive behaviors and emotional regulation.

Eating disorders

CBT is the leading evidence-based treatment for bulimia and anorexia in particular.

Components of this process involve identifying dietary rules and challenging them behaviorally (like eating a meal late at night), keeping a food journal to identify thoughts and feelings after meals, and developing strategies to prevent binging and triggering behavior.

CBT can help patients improve self-esteem and learn how to deal with setbacks on the way to recovery.

Panic disorder

Through cognitive behavioral therapy, patients will learn breathing and relaxation techniques that can be used in the event of a panic attack. Reducing physical tension through breathing is a common treatment method.

CBT therapists may also use interoceptive therapy, where the patient faces repeated exposure to the physical situations and sensations that typically trigger a panic attack. Over time, continuous exposure to situations and sensations reduces the fear and teaches the patient that the sensations are not dangerous.

Substance use disorders

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people address problematic thoughts and feelings to overcome addiction. CBT helps patients realize their automatic negative thoughts and how they influence self-doubt and fear, which, in turn, influences them to drink alcohol or use drugs.

Addiction recovery is more successful when the addicted person understands how their feelings and actions affect their emotional distress, and how that can lead to substance abuse.

How does CBT Differ from Other Therapies?

CBT is one of the most effective forms of talk therapy, but there are many others in its class that treat mental health conditions in different ways. Here are a few other therapy modalities used:

CBT vs. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on helping people cope with interpersonal issues, specifically for patients struggling with personality and mood disorders. Dialectical behavioral therapy sessions emphasize CBT with meditation and mindfulness techniques that teach individuals how to live with pain and accept things as they are.

Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on reasoning and rationale and helps patients to see their problems from a more logical point of view. It provides skills to understand when their thoughts are troublesome and gives them techniques to redirect those thoughts.

CBT vs. Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy that examines a person’s past experiences to better understand and interpret present behaviors and emotions. Extremely thorough self-reflection is involved in psychodynamic therapy sessions, so it is a much longer process than other therapy methods.

The main differences between CBT and psychodynamic therapy are the different focuses; CBT emphasizes present thoughts and behaviors, while psychodynamic therapy delves into a patient’s past for answers and understanding.

CBT & Psychiatric Medications

Some therapists have patients use cognitive behavioral therapy methods and also prescribe medications as they see fit. This is typically done for more severe mental health conditions.

CBT techniques are proven effective in treating many mental health conditions when used alone or in combination with psychotherapy medications. In mental health illnesses like major depression and severe anxiety, a tailored therapy plan containing a combination of the two modalities is often what works best for patients.

Discover if CBT is the most effective treatment plan for you.

We’re proud to offer a virtual IOP that makes it easy for anyone in California to access high-quality CBT treatment.

Clients attend virtual therapy sessions three hours a day, three days a week. Our Master’s-level therapists take each client’s physical, emotional, and mental health into account when developing a personalized treatment plan. Call us today 866.680.0969 to learn more about our virtual mental health treatment programs.

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