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What is CBT? The Complete Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Learn all the key concepts of CBT, one of the most effective mental health treatments ever.

CBT is one of the most researched and used therapies in mental health.

In the 1960s, a doctor named Aaron Beck made a groundbreaking discovery that would later seem obvious. He found that many people don’t think very nice things about themselves.

Humans often have thoughts like:

“I’m worthless.”

“I’ll fail at everything I try.”

“There’s something inherently wrong with me.”

These beliefs then lead to all kinds of life problems. They cause people to feel discouraged, anxious, depressed, and to behave in ways that seem to make their lives more difficult, rather than easier.

Dr. Beck worked with his patients to find ways to challenge these unhelpful thoughts. To everyone’s surprise at the time, it worked—really well. CBT was born.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of mental health treatment and set of techniques that help people challenge negative thoughts.

By changing patterns of thinking about themselves and the world, people can better deal with, and sometimes overcome, daily challenges as well as mental health problems.

I’ve created a series of worksheets that are based on the most effective CBT techniques for anxiety and PTSD specifically. You can check them out here.

CBT is also sometimes called cognitive behavior therapy (rather than “behavioral”) or simply, cognitive therapy.

The therapy strategies involved are also helpful for everyday stress and problems, and many people use them outside of mental health treatment.

This guide will take a closer look at CBT. You’ll get an idea of the basic premise, specific techniques, and areas where it's grown. It will also include next steps you can take, either for yourself or as a mental health professional.

Article Highlights

How CBT Works

Cognitive Behavioral Theories

History of CBT

Expansion in Recent Years

Treating Anxiety Disorders

Treating Depression

Treating PTSD

Choosing a Therapist

CBT Self Help

CBT Terms

Therapist Training

Download CBT Worksheets

This infographic is called “What is CBT?” and highlights the main points of the article.

How CBT Works

The most basic idea of CBT is fairly simple. It’s often explained with a tool called the CBT triangle (see the diagram below). The triangle shows how our thoughts (especially patterns of thoughts) lead to certain feelings, which lead to certain behaviors.

Over time, this often negative pattern leads to ongoing problems.

Here’s an example.

Laura believes that she’s not capable of being in a happy relationship. That’s her thought.

A friend, Tony, asks Laura out. They go out on a date, but Laura feels self-conscious and embarrassed. This brings up feelings of shame, because of her underlying beliefs about herself. Shame and embarrassment are her feelings.

The more Laura thinks about the date later, the more horrified she becomes. Even though Tony texts her, she thinks it’s just out of politeness.

She texts Tony back and says it was nice to hang out, but obviously this isn’t going to work out. This is her behavior.

No matter what Tony says in the text, Laura may not be able to see anything positive. She may continue to avoid situations where she could meet someone new, and simply give up, despite wanting a relationship deep down. This is Laura’s pattern.

This infographic shows the CBT triangle and the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The details are also explained in the article.

Laura’s situation has nothing to do with being desirable, or if she’s capable of having a happy relationship. It has to do with her thoughts and feelings about herself and the situation.

So what can she do about it?

Laura may need to change her patterns of thinking. Sometimes this process is simple. Just looking at alternatives about a situation can make things more clear.

In other cases, it may take more time. If Laura has felt this way for years, she may need to work through it a bit longer. She will also need to challenge her assumptions. This is where CBT comes in.

With CBT, Laura may change her pattern to look something like this.