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What is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?

By Jacqui Beasley
Rehabilitation Consultant

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a talking therapy that looks to help you manage problems by enabling you to recognise, and ultimately change, the way you think and behave. Combining a cognitive approach with a behavioural approach, CBT encourages you to notice how your thoughts and actions influence one another. The therapy aims to break overwhelming problems down into smaller parts to make them easier to cope with. 

Why is it different from other therapies?

Unlike other types of psychotherapy it does not involve talking freely, or dwelling on events in your past to gain insight into your emotional state of mind. It is not a 'lie on the couch and tell all' type of therapy.
CBT is based on the idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behaviour) all interact together.  Specifically, our thoughts determine our feelings and our behaviour.

Therefore, negative and unrealistic thoughts can cause us distress and result in problems. When a person suffers with psychological distress, the way in which they interpret situations becomes skewed, which in turn has a negative impact on the actions they take.

CBT aims to help people become aware of when they make negative interpretations, and of behavioural patterns which reinforce the distorted thinking.  Cognitive therapy helps people to develop alternative ways of thinking and behaving which aims to reduce their psychological distress.

CBT is also different to counselling, which is meant to be non-directive, understanding of how you feel (empathetic) and supportive. Although the CBT therapist will offer support and empathy, the therapy has a structure, is problem-focused, directive and is practical.

CBT has been shown to help people with various conditions - both mental health conditions and physical conditions. For example:

Is CBT effective?

So far, clinical trials have shown cognitive behavioural therapy to be incredibly helpful for a range of mental health concerns. In some cases the therapy is proven to be just as effective as drug therapies, especially in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Because of this, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) now recommends CBT to those with common mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety.

How many sessions ?

Typically, a session of therapy is once a week in order to have the greatest impact. Most courses of CBT last for several weeks. It is common to have 8-12 sessions but a course of CBT can be longer or shorter, depending on the nature and severity of the condition. As a rule, the more specific the problem, the more likely CBT may help. This is because it is a practical therapy which focuses on particular problems and aims to overcome them.