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7 Magical Steps In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT

Updated: 5 days ago

Here’s how changing your thoughts can change your life.

Magic rays shoot out of a woman's face, representing the magic feel of CBT therapy.
CBT can seem like magic when it works, and it often does. Image by Gerd Altmann.

Many people have heard of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s sometimes used by counselors to help with depression, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD, but it can be helpful for almost anyone.

Here’s a look at what CBT is, and how the steps of CBT can make a difference.

(Looking for a resource you can use right away? This worksheet bundle may help. Or check out these CBT games with hundreds of learning prompts.

Article Highlights

What is CBT?

The Inner Critic

Steps of CBT

Natural Vs. Manufactured Thoughts

Examples of Changing Thoughts

CBT Worksheets

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, focuses on changing unhelpful thoughts. By changing negative patterns of thinking, you can find relief from anxiety, depression, and more. The effective CBT steps can seem like magic, and they're also based in science.

CBT therapy techniques, especially when practiced over time, actually rewire the brain to think differently. This can change your mood in the short-term as well as long haul. CBT has been shown to help with the following areas, among others:

  • Calming anxiety, and anxiety disorders

  • Fighting and preventing depression

  • Treating past trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTSD)

  • Chronic pain

  • Hormonal imbalances

  • Ongoing stress

  • Panic attacks

  • Self-image issues

  • Common medical disorders, like diabetes and fibromyalgia

I often use this thought-changing strategy when helping people process past trauma or deal with frequent anxiety. You can check out my CBT worksheets that cover the steps I use with clients.

For conditions like PTSD, therapists often use an even more targeted version of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses in on the difficult thoughts relating to the trauma. In trauma-focused therapies, the negative thoughts that occur are often based on shame about what happened.

The Inner Critic

Even if you don’t need or want counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy treatment, you can use this same process to cope with everyday stresses.

Many people think of our negative thoughts as our “inner critics” or “inner bully.” These thoughts are a part of ourselves, even coming from a specific location in the brain, and they are typically trying to protect us in some way. However, they often miss the mark, instead making us feel worse rather than better. So, we can reprogram them to work differently!

If you know the thought isn’t really rational, but you are having trouble changing it, these steps from cognitive behavioral therapy can help. Complete the 7-step process below for a few of the strongest negative messages that come up on a regular basis. You can also try some of the follow-up techniques to reframe your thoughts in general.

Steps of CBT

The following steps can be used to identify a negative thought and change it. This can work in the moment, but works particularly well over time as you change your patterns of thinking.

1. Identify a common negative message you often say to yourself.

For example, a common negative message might be, "I'm a failure." Write it down on a sheet of paper. Notice if this comes from a particular struggle, stressor, or situation. (Example: "When I try something new and it’s not going well, I'm reminded that I'm such a failure.")

2. Ask yourself if there's a purpose for this thought.

For example, question:

  • Is it trying to help or protect you in some way?

  • How is it protecting me? (Example: It keeps me from being vulnerable and taking too many risks.)

  • Honor that you've had this thought in the past for a reason.

3. Look for evidence against your negative thought.

Here's another example: "Actually, I have a couple of hobbies that I’m really good at." Or, "Actually, I remember that one project that I did really well with. I always forget about the times I do well."

Here are some other ways to consider the evidence against your belief:

  • If there's also evidence for your thought, can you question it?

  • Is that the whole story?

  • Is it based in habit, or fact?

(For example, maybe you're only remembering your failures and not all the times you've done well.)

4. Ask, "What would my wise, fair self say about this?"

For example, your wise self that's being fair about this idea might say, "There are a lot of examples of me doing well at things. It's not really fair to say I fail all the time."

5. Find a new job for your inner critic.

Our inner critics are the source of our negative thoughts. They're there to protect us. But often, we don't need that protection anymore. So, find something else for it to do. For example, think: "Inner critic, you can protect me by motivating me to do my best, but let’s not discourage me with this mean thought. Maybe you can work on noticing things I'm doing well."

6. Consider a more helpful thought you can believe right now.

Here's an example of a more positive thought to replace the failure thought: "I might fail sometimes, but more often than that, I succeed!" Or put more simply, "I am a success!"