Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your anxieties and mental health problems by changing how you think and act.
CBT encourages you to talk about:
- how you think about yourself, the world and other people
- how what you do affects your thoughts and feelings
By talking about these things, CBT can help you to change how you think (‘cognitive’) and what you do (‘behaviour’), which can help you feel better about life.
Who can use it
CBT is particularly helpful in tacking problems such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and drug misuse.
Unlike other talking treatments, such as psychotherapy, CBT focuses on the problems and difficulties you have now, rather than issues from your past. It looks for practical ways you can improve your state of mind on a daily basis.
Number of sessions
CBT usually involves weekly or fortnightly sessions with a therapist. The number of sessions required varies greatly depending on your problems and objectives, with treatment usually lasting from six weeks to six months.
CBT can help you see how your thoughts and behaviour relate to the way you feel, and how this might contribute to problems in your life.
Your therapist will help you find ways to change your thought patterns and behaviour so you can cope with your problems and anxieties better (see box, left).
CBT cannot remove your problems, but can help you to manage them in a more positive way.
CBT is thought to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety and depression.
Helpful and unhelpful reactions
CBT helps you to realise that your problems are often created by you. It is not the situation itself that is making you unhappy, but how you think about it and react to it. The Royal College of Psychiatrists illustrates this using the following example:
- Situation: You have had a bad day, feel fed up, so go out shopping. As you walk down the road, someone you know walks by and apparently ignores you.
- Unhelpful thoughts such as ‘They ignored me – they don’t like me’ result in you feeling low and rejected, and you get stomach cramps and feel sick. You decide to go home and avoid the person.
- Helpful thoughts such as ‘They look a bit wrapped up in themselves – I wonder if there’s something wrong?’ mean you feel concern for the person, rather than negative feelings, and you get in touch to make sure they are ok.
When cognitive behavioural therapy is used
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used to treat a number of different mental health conditions, including:
- obsessive compulsive disorder
- phobias and panic disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- eating disorders (for example, anorexia and bulimia)
CBT can also help:
- anger problems
- habits (such as facial tics)
- drug and alcohol abuse
- relationship problems
- sleep problems
CBT is also used to treat people with chronic health conditions, such as arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome. Although CBT cannot cure any physical symptoms, it can help people who have long-term conditions to cope better with their symptoms.
Where to find a CBT therapist
CBT is available on the NHS for the treatment of many conditions including anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, depression and schizophrenia. If you feel that CBT may be of benefit to you, discuss it as a possible treatment option with your GP. They can refer you to someone trained in CBT, such as a psychologist, nurse, social worker or psychiatrist.
Alternatively, you can get CBT privately. The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) keeps a register of all accredited therapists in the UK. The cost of private therapy sessions varies, but is usually £40-£100.
Is CBT right for me?
Before you start your CBT sessions, you will have an assessment interview. A therapist will work with you to identify what troubles you most, and if you have anxiety and/or depression.
If you do have anxiety or depression, you will be asked when it started to interfere with your family, work and social life. The therapist will also want to know about events that might have played a part in your problems, any treatments you have already had, and what goals you would like to reach through the therapy.
If CBT seems appropriate for you, the therapist will let you know what to expect from a course of treatment. If it is not appropriate, or you do not feel comfortable with it, they can recommend alternative treatments.
How cognitive behavioural therapy works
CBT can help you to make sense of overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts.
Following from the problem, event or difficult situation are your:
- physical sensations
Each of these areas can affect the others. For example, your thoughts about a problem can affect how you feel physically and emotionally, and how you act upon it.
There are helpful and unhelpful ways of reacting to a situation, which are often determined by how you think about them. For example:
- If your marriage has just ended in divorce, you could think that you have failed as a partner and are not capable of having another meaningful relationship.
- This could lead you to feel hopeless and lonely, depressed and tired, so you stop going out and meeting new people.
- You become trapped in a negative cycle, sitting at home alone and feeling bad about yourself.
However, instead of this thought pattern, after your divorce you could:
- Accept that many marriages end, learn from your mistakes and move on, feeling optimistic about the future.
- Feeling energetic, you may then become more socially active, start evening classes and find a new circle of friends.
This is a simplified example but illustrates how certain thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions can trap you into a negative spiral and even create new situations that make you feel worse about yourself.
CBT helps to stop negative cycles such as these. By breaking down the things that are making you feel bad, anxious or scared, CBT makes them more manageable. CBT can show you ways to change your negative patterns and improve the way you feel.
CBT aims to get you to a point where you can do all this on your own and tackle problems without the help of a therapist.
What CBT involves
CBT is usually done individually, but can also be offered:
- as group therapy, with others who wish to tackle a similar problem
- as a self-help book, where you carry out exercises from the book
- as a computer programme (known as computerised CBT; see below)
Individual work will usually involve meeting with a CBT therapist for 5 to 20 weekly or fortnightly sessions, with each session lasting 30-60 minutes.
The first sessions will be spent making sure that CBT is the right therapy for you, and that you are comfortable with the process. The therapist will ask you questions about your life and background. You will decide what you want to deal with in the short, medium and long term.
- With your therapist, you break down a problem into its separate parts: situation, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions. To help with this, you may be asked to keep a diary or write down your thought and behaviour patterns.
- With your therapist, you will look at your thoughts, feelings and behaviours to work out if they are unrealistic or unhelpful and how they affect each other and you.
- Your therapist will help you to work out how to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.
- After you have worked out what you can change, your therapist will recommend homework, so you can practise these changes in your daily life. This may involve questioning upsetting thoughts and replacing them with more helpful ones, recognising when you are going to do something that will make you feel worse and instead doing something more helpful.
- At each session, you will discuss with your therapist how you have got on with your homework, and what it felt like. Your therapist can make other suggestions to help you.
Confronting fears and anxieties can be very difficult. Your therapist will not ask you to do things you do not want to do, and will only work at a pace you are comfortable with. During your sessions, your therapist should continue to check you are comfortable with the progress you are making.
One of the greatest benefits of CBT is that once your course has finished, you can continue to apply the principles of CBT to your daily life. This should make it is less likely that your symptoms or problems will return.
A number of interactive software programmes are now available that replicate some of the functions of a CBT therapist. Go to https://www.nhs.uk/apps-library/category/mental-health/ for a full list of apps.
Some people find they prefer using a computer rather than talking to a therapist about their private feelings, or they use the software as an introduction to CBT.
Evidence suggests that the delivery of CBT via a computer can help with anxiety and depressive disorders, especially when a patient also sees a therapist.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) differs from most other types of psychotherapies because it is:
- Pragmatic. CBT helps identify specific problems; an attempt is then made to solve them.
- Highly structured. Rather than talking freely about your life, you and your therapist will discuss your specific problems and set goals for you to achieve. As part of this, you may be given homework in the form of activities you should try to complete before your next therapy session.
- Focused on current problems. Unlike some other therapies that attempt to explore and possibly resolve past issues, CBT is mainly concerned with how you think and act now.
- Collaborative. Your CBT therapist will not tell you what to do. They will work with you to help you find solutions to your current difficulties.
- Research has shown that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be as successful as medicine in treating many types of depression and other mental health disorders
- CBT can be completed in a relatively short time compared with other talking therapies.
- Because it is highly structured, CBT can be provided in a number of different formats such as through computer programmes, groups and self-help books.
- The skills learnt in CBT are useful, practical and helpful strategies that can be incorporated into an individual’s life to help them cope better with future stresses and difficulties.
- To benefit from CBT, you need to commit yourself to the process. A therapist can help and advise you, but cannot make your problems go away without your co-operation.
- Because of the structured nature of CBT, it may not be suitable for people who have more complex mental health needs or learning difficulties.
- Some critics of CBT argue that because the therapy only addresses current problems and focuses on very specific issues, it does not address the possible underlying causes of mental health conditions, such as an unhappy childhood.
- CBT focuses on the individual’s capacity to change themselves (their thoughts, feelings and behaviours), and does not address wider problems in systems or families that often have a significant impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing.
How effective is CBT?
CBT can help you to manage problems, such as anxiety and depression, so they are less likely to have a negative impact on your life. There is always a risk that the bad feelings you associate with your problem return, but with your CBT skills it should be easier for you to control them.
Even after you are feeling better and your sessions have finished, it is important to practise your CBT skills. Some research suggests that CBT may be better than antidepressants at preventing the return of depression. ‘Refresher’ CBT courses are available if you feel you need to go through the skills you have learnt again.