What is CBT?

Written by:  Ana M. Ugueto, PhD

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, commonly referred to as CBT, is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy that focuses on changing maladaptive patterns of thoughts and behaviors to improve a person’s feelings, solve problems, and enhance functioning. The goal of CBT is to teach clients how to manage their problematic cognitions and behaviors through various strategies, so clients can reach their goals and end treatment. Ultimately, CBT aims to prepare clients to maintain treatment gains, autonomously manage future problems, and attain future goals without needing to re-enter therapy.

Unlike other “talk therapies,” CBT is focused primarily on the present, not the past, but recognizes maladaptive thoughts and behaviors learned in the client’s life. At the beginning of treatment, the client identifies specific problems and goals for treatment, which is the focus of every therapy session. The therapist takes an active stance in therapy and is viewed as an expert in identifying effective interventions to improve thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The client is viewed as an expert in their own life and personal experiences. Together the therapist and client work collaboratively to address the client’s needs.

While many types of therapies can last years, or even indefinitely, CBT is a structured, time-limited therapy. Most CBT manualized treatments range from 15-20 sessions, although the number of sessions can vary as the treatment is always tailored to the client’s specific needs and therapy isn’t concluded until the initial goals are met.

CBT is a skill-based therapy designed to enhance existing or teach new strategies to change thoughts and behaviors. Education about the symptoms and course of a mental health disorder, as well as various skills, are provided to the client. These skills include different methods of relaxation, such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery and visualization, challenging negative and unrealistic thoughts (i.e., cognitive restructuring), problem solving, increasing goal-directed behaviors and pleasant activities (i.e., behavioral activation), approaching avoided situations or activities (i.e., exposure), and relapse prevention. The therapist will typically identify a skill that will help the client in session. The skill is then discussed thoroughly with focus on how it can improve a client’s functioning and reduce negative emotions, practiced in session, and practiced outside of session to maximize benefit.

CBT is the most effective form of psychotherapy, and has been used to successfully treat a wide range of issues for children and adults, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, including phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, grief and loss, sleeping disorders, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, and childhood behavioral problems. It can also be used to manage or cope with chronic physical illnesses, medical problems, and pain.

To find a CBT provider at UTHealth, please call 1-888-4UT-DOCS.  To learn more about specific CBT interventions or to find a provider nationwide, please visit www.PsychologicalTreatments.org.