What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? (And How Can It Help Your Family?)

What do you picture in your mind when you hear the term “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”?

Do you imagine Pavlov’s dogs salivating when a bell rings? Do you picture a person sticking their hand into a box with a tarantula in it until they are no longer afraid?

You may be surprised to learn that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is primarily a talk therapy that helps individuals re-program negative thought patterns to overcome mental health challenges.

The therapists who practice CBT help guide patients to discover healthier thought patterns that, in turn, help to reduce anxieties, stress, and fears.

Curious about how it works? Keep reading to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

The History of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT was pioneered by Dr. Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s while he was a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania. He designed and carried out experiments in order to test psychoanalytic concepts of depression, thinking his findings would validate these concepts.

He was wrong.

What he found was that depressed individuals experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to come out of nowhere. He labeled these “automatic thoughts” and divided them into three categories: thoughts about the self, the world, and the future.

Dr. Beck began to help patients identify and evaluate these automatic thoughts, causing patients to think more realistically. As a result, they felt better emotionally and were able to behave more functionally.

Once patients changed their underlying beliefs about themselves, the world, and the future, the results of the therapy were long-lasting.

Dr. Beck termed this approach “cognitive therapy,” which has since become known as Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

Since Dr. Beck coined the term, CBT has grown to become a psychological treatment that has proven effective for problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance use issues, marital issues, eating disorders, and severe mental illness.

CBT operates on a set of core principles that include:

  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  • People suffering from psychological issues can learn coping skills that will help relieve their symptoms and become more effective in their lives.

CBT treatment must work to change thinking patterns to live up to these principles. This is done by helping individuals learn to recognize their own distorted way of thinking and how these thinking patterns are creating problems.

Patients are then guided through reevaluating these thoughts while comparing them to reality. This helps the patient gain a better understanding of their own behaviors and motivations as well as those of other people.

Therapists administering CBT will provide patients with problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations and help them develop a greater sense of confidence in their own abilities.

CBT can also be used to change behavioral patterns, such as overeating or smoking, by helping patients face their fears instead of avoiding them, using role-playing to prepare for potentially stressful interactions with others, and learning how to calm the mind and relax the body.

These are just a few of the strategies therapists may choose to implement. What treatment looks like depends on the collaboration between the therapist and patient in developing a suitable and achievable plan.

While therapists are there to facilitate CBT, the focus is on helping individuals learn how to be their own therapists to ensure that the positive effects of therapy continue on into the future.

Can CBT Be Implemented Without a Therapist?


While seeing a therapist will certainly make CBT highly effective, it is possible to do CBT without one. There are many books and internet-based treatments you can seek, and self-help Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has proven effective.

Here are some ways you can use CBT techniques to help you deal with your mental struggles:


Holistic health recognizes that our minds, bodies and spirits are all inter-connected and negative/positive effects on one can affect the others.

For example, muscle tension and shallow breathing are linked to anxiety and stress, which can negatively impact your physical health.

Learning how to relax your body can reverse these effects by controlling your bodily sensations, which in turn, help to calm your stress and anxiety.

In CBT, calm breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two simple strategies often used:

  • Calm Breathing: consciously slowing your breath
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups.

Overall, you can use any technique that helps you relax, such as yoga, meditation, or simply listening to relaxing music. Keep in mind that the goal of relaxation is not to avoid anxiety but to put yourself in a state-of-mind where dealing with it is a little easier.

Realistic Thinking

A huge part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is recognizing negative thought patterns and replacing them with realistic and balanced thinking.

The patterns of unhelpful thinking have a huge impact on the way we feel, so changing them can ultimately make us feel better.

For example, you may have the unhelpful thought: “I always mess things up.”

You can replace that with: “It’s okay to mistakes, and I can learn from this.”

Pay attention to shifts in your emotions. When you find your levels of upset or distress increasing, ask yourself, “What am I telling myself right now?” or “What is making me feel this way?”

This takes practice, but the key to turning these negative thoughts around is to challenge the thought when it happens. Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support the thought. If not, challenge the thought with a counter-statement.

Facing Your Fears

Known in the world of CBT as “exposure,” this process involves facing your fears gradually and repeatedly until you feel less anxious.

When you avoid situations that cause you anxiety or stress, you are preventing yourself from learning that the things you fear aren’t as dangerous as you believe they are.

In order to face your fears, start with situations that only cause you a little bit of anxiety. Once you’ve conquered them, move on to a situation that causes you more anxiety.

Remember to face your fears gradually. There’s no need to throw yourself into an extremely stressful situation right away just to prove that nothing bad will happen. The anxiety of doing this alone will make the exercise futile.

How Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help My Family?

When it comes to family therapy, the CBT approach examines how your family members interact with each other and how each member contributes to the function and dysfunction of the family.

The therapist then supports family members in changing their interactional patterns by exposing distorted beliefs held by each member of the family.

Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Right For Me?

CBT can be extremely helpful for many individuals facing any mental health issue – whether it’s depression, addiction, disorders, or phobias.

However, CBT is not for everyone. The process requires commitment, and you must put in the work to overcome your struggles – a therapist alone cannot do this for you.

This involves extra work between sessions and confronting your emotions, fears and anxieties.

If you’re up for it, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be beneficial in helping you address and work past your mental health challenges.

Follow this link to find a CBT therapist online.

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