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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts by interrogating and uprooting negative or irrational beliefs. Considered a "solutions-oriented" form of talk therapy, CBT rests on the idea that thoughts and perceptions influence behavior.

Feeling distressed, in some cases, may distort one’s perception of reality. CBT aims to identify harmful thoughts, assess whether they are an accurate depiction of reality, and, if they are not, employ strategies to challenge and overcome them.

CBT is appropriate for people of all ages, including children, adolescents, and adults. Evidence has mounted that CBT can address numerous conditions, such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and many others.

CBT is a preferred modality of therapy among practitioners and insurance companies alike as it can be effective in a brief period of time, generally 5 to 20 sessions, though there is no set time frame. Research indicates that CBT can be delivered effectively online, in addition to face-to-face therapy sessions.

CBT in Practice

CBT focuses on present circumstances and emotions in real time, as opposed to childhood events. A clinician who practices CBT will likely ask about family history to get a better sense of the entire person, but will not spend inordinate time on past events. The emphasis is on what a person is telling themselves that might result in anxiety or disturbance. A person is then encouraged to address rational concerns practically, and to challenge irrational beliefs, rumination or catastrophizing.

For example, a person who is upset about being single will be encouraged to take concrete measures but also question any undue negativity or unwarranted premise ("I will be alone forever") that they attach to this present-day fact.

For more on psychotherapy in practice, visit the Therapy Center.

What Conditions Can CBT Treat?

CBT originally evolved to treat depression, but research now shows that it can address a wide array of conditions, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, and phobias. Versions have also been created to treat insomnia and eating disorders. But beyond treating clinical challenges, CBT can also provide the skills people need to improve their relationships, happiness, and overall fulfillment in life.

The Origins of CBT

CBT was founded by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s, following his disillusionment with Freudian psychoanalysis and a desire to explore more empirical forms of therapy. CBT also has roots in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), the brainchild of psychologist Albert Ellis. The two were pioneers in changing the therapeutic landscape to offer patients a new treatment option—one that is short-term, goal-oriented, and scientifically validated.

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