Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: 5 Examples of How This Powerful Therapy Works
Sometimes it seems like when the issue of mental health comes up it’s always in reference to a new medication or some other pharmacological treatment option. And, while those are the types of stories that allow for attention-grabbing headlines, the truth is, treating mental health issues involves a wide range of medical and psychological tools designed to bring a person’s mental, physical, and social health into balance.
In addition to medication, mental health professionals can also employ therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to address some of the underlying causes of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and more.
What Exactly is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
The U.K.’s National Health Service describes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a “therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based on the premise that thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and even behavior are all interconnected. A mental health practitioner using this type of therapy will view some or all of the symptoms of a mental health issue as the result of imbalances in the ways a patient’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors feed into each other in a vicious cycle.
The treatment focuses on changing the way a patient thinks about the problems they are having and aims to teach them how to view the issues as smaller, less overwhelming pieces. By viewing the problems as smaller steps towards a larger goal, rather than as a single, insurmountable challenge, the patient should be able to develop a plan of behaviors that allow them to confront the current issues, leading to a virtuous thought-action-though cycle.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Used For?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective treatment option that can be employed by a trained professional to aid in the treatment of a variety of behavioral and mental health disorders. Though it is not intended to treat the physical symptoms of diseases with a clear physical cause such as brain degeneration, it can be useful for treating the resulting behavioral symptoms.
Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression
For people living with depression, one of the major symptoms they must deal with is the prevalence of negative thought patterns, which can cause a small setback to turn into a major mental-health crisis after falling into a vicious cycle of negative feedback.
Therapists using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat a patient with depression may employ the technique known as cognitive restructuring or reframing to help the patient overcome these overly pessimistic patterns of thinking.
The basic functioning of this technique involves exploring the thought processes a patient uses in various situations in order to identify negative patterns. By exploring these processes and patterns, the therapist can help the patient to notice when they are starting to go down the path of negative thinking. Once the patient is aware of these patterns, it becomes easier to ‘reroute’ their thinking towards more productive and realistic thoughts.
Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety
Similar to patients living with depression, people who are living with anxiety often must deal with undesired patterns of thoughts which negatively affect their daily life.
The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique known as thought records, or journaling, can be useful in helping patients overcome these anxiety-inducing patterns of thinking.
When a therapist asks a patient to keep thought records, they may ask the patient to keep a journal of their negative thoughts they have had over the previous week, what they were doing when those thoughts arose, how those thoughts made them feel, and how they could have reacted to that situation in a more positive way.
In addition to this, as the patient becomes comfortable with this technique, the therapist may ask them to begin keeping track of new, positive thoughts and behaviors since over the previous period. As the patient makes progress, seeing the progress in writing can help to reinforce the positive changes.
Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias
Many people are afraid of spiders or heights, which is perfectly normal because these things can be dangerous if we are not careful. The difference between rational fear and a phobia is when the person experiences fear beyond a reasonable degree, or when the fear is due to an irrational thought process.
For someone who is experiencing a phobia that is interfering with their daily life, a therapist may try what is known as exposure therapy, a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where the patient is slowly and methodically exposed to increasing levels of a specific stimulus.
For example, when treating a person who had a phobia of shaking hands with other people—a phobia which, for obvious reasons, could have a negative impact on their daily interactions with others—the therapist may begin by discussing a situation where two people shake hands and ask the patient about their thought process and why they believe they would feel fear in a similar situation, from here, the therapist may move on to showing a video of two people shaking hands followed by a similar conversation.
This exposure would increase gradually, perhaps moving to watching a person shake hands in person (as opposed to a video), having the patient “shake” an object held in another person’s hand, shake hands while wearing gloves. Finally, after gradual exposure to the fear-inducing situation, the patient may be ready to shake hands with a person without feeling fear or anxiety.
Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for ADHD
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a behavioral disorder that has become increasingly apparent over the past several years. For most people, when they think of treatment for ADHD, they think of pills to help kids sit still and pay attention. The reality is that treatment for ADHD includes both pharmacological treatments such as medication as well as therapeutic treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
One way that this may be used to help a patient with ADHD is through a technique called activity scheduling and behavior activation. This technique is useful for when a person tends to procrastinate, put tasks off for later, or forget specific tasks regularly. Activity scheduling is akin to creating a guided to-do list where a therapist might help a patient to organize tasks based on importance, difficulty, or time commitment and schedule those tasks in a way that is easy to complete. In addition to this, the therapist may work with the patient to develop skills and habits, which will further increase the likelihood that the patient can complete the tasks.
An additional technique that can be especially beneficial for patients living with ADHD is known as successive approximation. This involves examining tasks that may seem overwhelming or impossible to complete and breaking them into smaller, ‘snack-size’ tasks, which can be quickly completed in shorter amounts of time, leading to virtuous cycles of completing tasks and being more confident in one’s ability to complete tasks.
Examples of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anorexia & Bulimia
Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, which can lead to serious health-related issues if left untreated, can often be due to body dysmorphia, which involves irrational thoughts about one’s own body or an obsession with perceived flaws which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist may use a technique known as guided discovery to help a person suffering from body dysmorphia or disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
In guided discovery, the therapist will try to take the patient on a journey through their own thought processes by asking questions about how the patient thinks, their reasoning behind how they think, and asking for evidence that supports their thoughts and beliefs.
For example, a therapist may ask a person to explain why they feel there is a flaw in their physical appearance, ask them to explain why they think the feature is a flaw, and ask them to look for additional points of view which they may not have taken into account previously.
The goal of guided discovery is to help the patient to understand that there is more than one way to see the world and that by thinking critically about a particular belief or thought, we can uncover better ways of thinking.
As you can see, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be a powerful tool for the treatment of a variety of mental health issues. However, as with any treatment option, it should be used as part of a comprehensive plan developed with a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, please take the time to reach out to a mental health professional.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology, Scott went on to work as a teacher and educational counselor while working towards his master’s degree. He has spent several years working with children and adults and has personal experience with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Dyslexia, and Depression.