What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

couple having a conversation with a therapist

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach to psychotherapy that has proven successful at treating depression, anxiety disorders and physical ailments such as tinnitus and fibromyalgia. CBT tends to be short-term therapy sessions rather than lengthy analytic psychotherapy treatments such as psychoanalysis.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapists will assist patients in recognizing unfavorable thoughts, emotions and behaviors by leading interactive question-and-answer sessions and teaching coping skills that will allow them to manage difficult situations more effectively.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy graphic

Identifying Problematic Thoughts and Beliefs

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on learning to recognize negative or harmful thoughts and beliefs. Therapy will assist patients in understanding their role in shaping behavior, including how these can influence feelings and responses to situations. Therapists also show patients they are in charge of their emotions and that these can be changed at will.

At first, a therapist will assist their patient in becoming aware of their automatic thoughts, perhaps by encouraging them to keep a thought record and tracking these. This allows the therapist to observe patterns of negative or inaccurate thinking that contribute to problems and change them as needed.

For instance, if a person with depression is experiencing suicidal thoughts and tendencies, a therapist will work to reduce them by teaching coping skills and helping set realistic goals that provide hope for their future. They will learn to avoid triggers like social situations that tempt them towards drugs or alcohol use and employ effective coping strategies in such instances.

Learning New Coping Skills

Cognitive behavioral therapy can assist you in learning to recognize unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Your therapist will work closely with you to identify problem patterns related to anxiety or depression; together you’ll identify effective methods to change these unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.

Cognitive therapy specializes in present-day issues, as opposed to psychoanalysis or other forms of psychotherapy that focus on past traumas. The goal is to break free of distressing thought and behavior patterns as quickly as possible.

For instance, if your low test mark creates an irrational belief that it indicates your worthlessness, the therapist can challenge this belief using evidence from both life experience and research studies.

At CBT sessions, you’ll learn to replace irrational beliefs with more reasonable ones and develop healthy coping strategies. Your therapist will give you specific tools you can use in everyday life; sometimes statutory health insurance even covers its costs – be sure to inquire!

Setting Goals

Setting goals is an integral component of CBT therapy as it gives clients direction, motivation, and a sense of purpose throughout the therapeutic process. Setting tangible goals also allows clients to experience tangible progress and increase self-efficacy.

Therapists use the SMART framework to set effective goals. This involves making sure a goal is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound; for instance a client might aim to practice deep breathing five minutes each day; these goals allow clients to track their progress as they relate directly to their needs and can easily be monitored.

Therapists also often teach clients strategies such as guided discovery and questioning to assist in setting realistic goals, such as asking ‘What assumptions do you hold about this situation?’ or ‘Are there alternative ways of looking at this?’ in order to replace negative thoughts and beliefs with more beneficial ones.


Self-monitoring is an essential tool used during cognitive behavioral therapy assessment sessions to help identify negative automatic thoughts, unhelpful beliefs and behaviors as part of formulating an appropriate treatment plan. Therapists utilize this tool with their clients as part of cognitive behavioral therapy treatment plans.

Individuals engaging in self-monitoring document occurrences (thoughts, feelings and body sensations). Records can then be compared with past ones to identify patterns and triggers as well as to show progress made towards altering behaviors. People usually work on one target at a time until they feel comfortable completing it without assistance (Korotitsch & Nelson-Gray 1999).

Common targets for self-monitoring include events, thoughts, emotions, memories, physical sensations and behaviors (e.g. calorie counting/eating behaviors). A variety of worksheets exist to assist clients in this process and make recording thoughts, feelings or behaviors close to when they occur so that you can analyze how you are responding and make changes accordingly.