What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Should You Try It?


Whether you’ve got an inconvenient phobia, depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, therapy can make a big difference. One popular method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a method of talk therapy that’s proven effective in treating a number of different mental health problems.

The philosophy is in the name: our thoughts shape our feelings, which in turn shape our behaviors. If we can change our thoughts, it’s easier to change our emotions and behavioral patterns—and banish those dysfunctional behaviors for good.

Is CBT right for you? Read on for an overview—then consider looking up CBT practitioners in your area. A healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body, and in many cases, it can make the latter more achievable.

Core principles

According to the American Psychological Association, CBT has several core principles:

  1. Psychological problems stem from disordered or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are also based on learned behavioral patterns.
  3. Choosing healthier coping mechanisms can relieve psychological symptoms.

Think of it this way: if you suffer from anxiety, you might have a hard time forcing yourself to go to a party. Over time, your brain distorts a social invitation into something much bigger and scarier. You might find yourself battling unhelpful thoughts, like “I’m probably going to have a terrible time,” and “I’m so awkward—everyone will think I’m weird.” Instead of facing your fears, you might use dysfunctional behaviors to cope, like staying home (avoidance) or pre-gaming to loosen up.

Are your thoughts objectively true? Probably not. But if you have them, your behavior adapts to them, perpetuating a dysfunctional cycle. CBT addresses both your thoughts and your behaviors, so you can get some relief.

When you undergo CBT, you’ll learn to recognize those distorted thoughts when you have them. Realizing that your thoughts are not objective truth can make a big difference in the behaviors you use to cope. Similarly, CBT teaches you how to use problem-solving skills in a healthy way, which in turn gives you greater confidence in your own abilities.

What can CBT treat?

CBT is effective in treating a number of different mental health issues, including but not limited to:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Marital problems

It’s particularly good for people who are constantly “in their head.” If you lie awake at night, thinking about the stupid thing you said in 8th grade history class, CBT can help. Learning to recognize the distorted thoughts (“everyone thinks I’m an idiot”) and contextualize them (you’re probably the only one who remembers, since it happened 15 years ago) can help you deal with current challenges in a healthy way.

What’s a CBT session like?

CBT typically focuses on the present, rather than delving deep into your past—you don’t need to lie on the couch and talk about your relationship with your mother. Although your therapist will probably ask you certain questions about what’s led to these distorted thoughts and emotions, most of your work will center around your current challenges.

A CBT session can take a few different forms, depending on the reason you’re seeking therapy and the exercises that work for you. Your therapist might role play difficult situations with you, such as preparing to tell your future mother-in-law that no, she cannot come along on your honeymoon. They may help you with focused relaxation techniques, which can calm your mind and body.

The structure of a session will follow this general outline, which starts with a mood check-in and progresses through the specific challenges you’re working on. Your therapist will almost certainly give you “homework” to complete over the following week.

For example, if you’re anxious about going to a party, they might encourage you to track your mood and thoughts leading up to the party. Then they’ll ask you to go, and track your mood and thoughts when you’re there and after you get home. Chances are, your anticipatory anxiety made the party seem much more daunting. If you find that attending was less difficult than you thought it would be, you’ll see firsthand how thought distortions affect your behavior. In turn, it will be easier to go next time—without the anxiety beforehand.

Bottom line

Cognitive behavioral therapy is work—but it’s also a great way to address the root cause of mental health problems. It can be used in conjunction with medication or on its own. Either way, it’s a recognized technique to improve your mental health. Why not give it a try?

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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