What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Why CBT is simpler than it sounds (and who should try it)

Virtual psychotherapy cognitive behavioral therapy session

Most articles about mental health mention cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It’s a term that sounds intimidating. But, CBT is a simple, effective treatment for everything from anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to Dominique Winters, a utilization manager at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee who specializes in getting members help for substance use or mental health, CBT says two things:

  1. How you think affects how you feel; and
  2. How you feel affects how you behave.

“So if you wake up and say, ‘Today is going to be a great day,’ you feel like it will be a great day, and your behavior reflects that belief,” says Winters. “But, if you wake up late and things start going wrong, you may say, ‘Today is going to be a terrible day,’ and your behavior reflects that.”

CBT focuses on how our thoughts, feelings and behavior are connected. It also explores how we can use that knowledge to break unhealthy patterns and build good ones.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy?

CBT is a type of talk therapy. It suggests your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected.

CBT core principles

CBT says that psychological problems are based, in part, on:

  • Faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking
  • Learned patterns of unhelpful behavior

CBT asserts that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in an unproductive cycle. By breaking down problems into small parts and learning better ways to cope, you can deal with any challenge in a positive way.

How does CBT work?

CBT focuses on changing thinking patterns using strategies such as:

  • Learning to recognize distortions in your thinking
  • Reevaluating those thoughts rationally
  • Better understanding other people’s behavior and motivation
  • Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations
  • Developing a greater sense of confidence in your own abilities

To change behavior, CBT might include:

  • Facing your fears instead of avoiding them
  • Role playing to prepare for potentially stressful situations
  • Learning to calm your mind and relax your body

“People with anxiety, for example, tend to function with a worst-case-scenario mindset,” says Winters. “They think, ‘If I walk into a room and people don’t say ‘hi’, is everyone mad at me?’ CBT teaches them to consider more rational alternatives. Maybe no one saw you, or maybe everyone was busy. Making those simple but critical changes to how you think helps change the way you feel and react.”

What kinds of conditions can CBT treat?

CBT has been successful in treating:

What are the benefits of CBT?

The benefits of CBT include a decrease in:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fixating or overthinking
  • Negative thought patterns

Are there any drawbacks of CBT?

Not really, says Winters. Anyone can try CBT, including young children and adolescents.

Is there anything people don’t know about CBT that they should?

“CBT is goal-directed,” says Winters. “It starts with talk therapy. But it often includes journaling, homework assignments and tracking behaviors to identify the areas you want to change.”

Winters recommends telling your primary care provider (PCP) any time you’re having a pattern of negative thinking or anxiety. They can refer you to a therapist, at which point you should focus on building a trusting, working relationship. Depending on the issue, you may start medication to get to a functioning baseline before starting CBT. Or you might embark on them at the same time, which is highly effective.

“Most of all, the success of CBT depends on building a good rapport with your provider,” says Winters. “CBT requires us to confront ideas and try exercises that may initially cause anxiety. So you want to find someone you can trust. Taking the time to find someone who understands you will make all the difference.”

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).