What is CBT and how can it help you? A client friendly guide

Discover Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A comprehensive exploration of how CBT works, the conditions it treats, and what to expect during your therapy journey.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, commonly known as CBT, is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Its popularity among health professionals and patients alike can be attributed to its scientifically-proven effectiveness, pragmatic approach, and short-term nature. This guide aims to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of CBT from a patient's perspective.

Understanding Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that has been scientifically tested and found effective in treating a wide range of issues. It's a solution-focused approach that deals with current problems and practical solutions rather than focusing solely on past issues.

CBT is based on the idea that thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected, and changing negative thoughts and behaviors can lead to changes in emotions. This approach can help you understand the impact of your thinking patterns and behavioral responses, and how they may be contributing to your psychological issues.

The CBT Process

CBT is usually a short-term, goal-oriented treatment approach, often consisting of about 5 to 20 sessions. The sessions provide a structured setting in which you and your therapist work together to identify your specific psychological issues and develop effective strategies for dealing with them.

In CBT, you'll learn to recognize and change destructive thought patterns that have a negative influence on your behavior and emotional state. This might involve learning to identify unhelpful thinking styles, challenging the validity of negative thoughts, and developing a more balanced and realistic way of thinking.

What CBT Looks Like From The Patient Perspective

From the perspective of a patient, the process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be both enlightening and challenging. It starts with an initial session where you and your therapist get to know each other. Your therapist will ask about your current concerns, your history, and what you hope to gain from therapy. This session lays the groundwork for future work and helps to establish a rapport.

The core part of CBT involves identifying unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior that may be contributing to your difficulties. This process can be uncomfortable at times, as it may bring to the surface thoughts or feelings you've been avoiding. Your therapist, however, will guide you through this process in a supportive and nonjudgmental manner.

Once these patterns have been identified, the next step is to learn and practice new ways of thinking and behaving. Your therapist will teach you specific strategies and techniques, which you will then practice both in and out of sessions. Homework assignments are a common part of CBT and are designed to help you apply what you've learned to your everyday life.

Throughout the process, your therapist will encourage you to take an active role in your therapy. This might involve setting goals for what you want to achieve, tracking your thoughts and feelings between sessions, and gradually facing situations that you find challenging.

Over time, you may start to notice changes in how you think and feel. Situations that used to trigger stress or anxiety might become easier to handle. You might find yourself responding to challenges with more resilience and confidence. These are signs that the therapy is working.

Why CBT is So Popular

The popularity of CBT can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, it has a robust evidence base. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of CBT in treating various psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among others.

Secondly, CBT is usually a short-term treatment, which makes it cost-effective. It's not uncommon for individuals to notice significant changes after just a few sessions.

Thirdly, CBT is a very active therapy, meaning you'll work closely with your therapist during sessions, but you'll also be given "homework" to do between sessions. This active participation can help you make changes more quickly.

Conditions Treated with CBT

CBT is a versatile treatment used for a variety of psychological conditions. It's effective in treating mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, and trauma-related disorders such as PTSD.

Furthermore, CBT is also used in treating eating disorders, substance use disorders, and personality disorders. Its strategies can also be helpful for anyone looking to manage stress better, improve relationships, and handle life's challenges more effectively.

What to Expect in CBT

During your first few sessions, your therapist will likely gather information about you and your needs. You'll discuss what you want to work on during therapy and set goals that you want to achieve.

In CBT, you'll also learn specific skills that you can use to challenge your negative thoughts, such as cognitive restructuring. You'll also learn behavioral strategies to help you act differently, even when your mind is telling you to act in ways that might not be helpful. These skills, once learned, can be used in various situations throughout your life, even after you've finished therapy.

The Role of the Patient in CBT

In CBT, the patient plays an active role. It's often said that the real work in CBT happens outside the therapy room. Between sessions, you'll be expected to practice the skills learned and complete homework assignments. This might involve keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings, practicing relaxation exercises, or gradually confronting feared situations.

This active involvement is part of what makes CBT so effective. The skills you learn in CBT are designed to be used throughout your life. By actively practicing these skills, you're not only working to overcome your current problems but also building resilience for the future.

CBT and Other Therapies

While CBT is a standalone form of therapy, it's often used in conjunction with other treatments. Depending on the nature and severity of the psychological issue at hand, medication might be recommended. CBT can also be combined with other forms of therapy, such as family therapy, group therapy, or other types of individual therapy.

CBT and Mindfulness

In recent years, mindfulness—a form of meditation where one focuses on being intensely aware of what they're sensing and feeling in the moment—has been integrated into CBT, leading to the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT has been particularly effective in preventing relapse in depression and managing stress and anxiety.

CBT in the Digital Age

In recent years, CBT has also been adapted for delivery in digital formats, including online therapy platforms and CBT-based apps. These digital adaptations offer the benefits of convenience and accessibility, enabling people to access CBT resources anytime, anywhere. However, it's crucial to note that while these resources can be beneficial, they're not a substitute for professional treatment.

Limitations of CBT

Like any therapy, CBT is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Its effectiveness can be influenced by various factors, including the nature of the problem, the individual's readiness for change, and the therapeutic relationship. In some cases, other forms of therapy might be more appropriate.

While CBT focuses on the 'here and now,' some individuals might need help processing past traumas or long-standing issues. In such cases, therapies that delve deeper into the past, such as psychodynamic therapy, might be more suitable.

Choosing the Right Therapist for CBT

If you're considering CBT, one of the first steps is finding the right therapist. While the principles of CBT are widely adopted, the way it's practiced can vary significantly between therapists. It's essential to find a professional who is not only qualified but also someone with whom you feel comfortable.

During your initial meetings, it's entirely appropriate to ask questions about the therapist's qualifications, experience with CBT, and approach to therapy. Building a strong therapeutic alliance—a collaborative, trust-based relationship between you and your therapist—is crucial for effective therapy.

The Future of CBT

As a continually evolving field, the future of CBT holds much promise. Researchers are actively working to refine and adapt CBT techniques to better serve diverse patient populations and address a wider range of mental health conditions. The further integration of technology into therapy also opens exciting possibilities for making CBT even more accessible and tailored to individual needs.

Final Thoughts

CBT is a practical, effective form of therapy that has helped countless individuals overcome their psychological challenges and improve their quality of life. It provides individuals with valuable skills that can be used long after therapy has ended, contributing to its enduring popularity.

If you or someone you know is considering CBT, it's recommended to consult with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can provide further guidance and help determine if CBT is the right approach for you.


CBT is an effective, evidence-based form of therapy that can help people with various psychological problems. It's a practical approach that can teach you different ways of thinking and behaving to improve your emotional wellbeing. If you're struggling with psychological issues, CBT might be the right therapy for you. However, it's important to discuss this with a healthcare provider who can guide you in making the best decision for your specific needs.

Further Reading

  1. Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond.
  2. Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
  3. Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think.
  4. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. (2011). Generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults: management. Clinical guideline CG113.
  5. World Health Organization. (2016). mhGAP Intervention Guide - Version 2.0.
  6. Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse.
  7. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses.