It’s not uncommon for me to receive a call from someone who has decided to talk to a psychologist that practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They usually confess that they don’t know what CBT is or that there are different approaches to doing therapy. If this comes as a surprise, you are not alone. Many different theories drive a therapist’s conceptualization and treatment during psychotherapy. CBT is a type of talk therapy that has become popular in recent years because of the amount of research that supports its effectiveness for many common problems.
In the 1960s, Dr. Aaron T. Beck developed CBT after noticing that his depressed patients often had negative spontaneous or automatic thoughts about themselves, the world, or the future. He found that the way people think about a situation directly impacts the way they feel. And that by recognizing and changing patterns of dysfunctional thinking, people often feel better. This is the cognitive part of CBT. The behavioral part looks to change unhealthy patterns of behavior into healthier ones.
Let’s use an example to understand further how CBT may be applied to an everyday situation. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see an acquaintance. You wave hello, but the person continues walking without responding. You will likely interpret the event, and an automatic thought will come to mind. You might think:
- People just don’t seem to like me
- Maybe she’s mad at me
- She’s not friendly at all!
Each thought will lead to a different emotion like sadness, worry, or being irritated. The truth is, you don’t know what she was thinking, but because the situation was ambiguous, you just drew your conclusion.
With practice, your therapist will help you recognize dysfunctional patterns in your thinking. Specific patterns of thinking are often associated with certain problems. For example, an anxious person may catastrophize the situation with their mind going in the direction of the worst possible outcome. Whereas a depressed person may engage in overly negative thinking. By recognizing their dysfunctional thoughts, individuals can change them and ultimately feel better.
In addition to focusing on one’s thoughts, a CBT therapist may also examine people’s behaviors. Some examples of common behavioral interventions are:
- Engaging in pleasurable activities
- Dietary or sleep changes
- Exposures to feared situations
CBT is a valuable technique for many different problem areas but not all. When calling a therapist, it is ok to ask if CBT is right for you. If you are interested in finding a therapist who uses CBT, consult with your physician or visit online resources such as the New Jersey Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists or the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists.
Francine Rosenberg, PsyD., practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, specializing in the treatment of adults and children with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other anxiety disorders.