Life is full of challenges. Managing our emotions, overcoming substance use, and finding relief from anxiety or depression are common life challenges that require us to change the way we think and behave. But changing life-long habits and patterns of behavior can feel like an uphill battle, leaving us frustrated, weary, and displeased with our progress. This is especially true when we try to make significant lifestyle changes on our own. Luckily, therapy is an effective way to make positive and mental behavioral changes. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, can help us manage some of life’s most debilitating challenges by changing the way we think and behave.
Key Concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the gold standard treatments of psychotherapy. Unlike other forms of talk therapy, CBT doesn’t focus on your past. Instead, cognitive behavioral therapy explores how your emotions and thoughts affect your day-to-day actions. CBT’s core concept is the idea that our thoughts, emotions, and actions are connected, meaning that how we think and feel determines what we do. CBT is also based on the idea that our thoughts and behaviors can change.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based around other ideas as well, including:
- Inaccurate and negative thoughts can — and often do — contribute to emotional distress and mental health issues.
- The distress from inaccurate and negative thoughts sometimes leads to unhelpful or harmful behaviors.
- Eventually, inaccurate and negative thoughts and the behaviors they initiate can become a pattern.
- Learning how to address and change these patterns can help us deal with problems as they arise, reducing future distress.
What Happens During a CBT Session
Even though cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy, CBT uses a hands-on, practical approach to problem solving. Depending upon your specific challenges and needs, CBT sessions can last anywhere from 5 to 20 weeks, with each session lasting for 30 to 60 minutes. At first, you and your therapist might talk about why you’ve enrolled in CBT and what you want to achieve in therapy. After those initial sessions, the cognitive behavioral work begins.
While you’re in cognitive behavioral therapy, you can expect to:
- Talk About The Way You Think. The core concept of CBT is identifying and changing negative and harmful thoughts. Be prepared to talk about your thoughts a lot. As you talk about problems you’d like to overcome and the situations you find stressful, your therapist will ask you deeper questions. For example, they will want to know what you were thinking before, during, and after you encountered a stressful situation. They’ll also want to understand how you think about yourself. If you’re not used to sharing your private thoughts, you may feel uncomfortable sharing so much information. But in time, you’ll get used to the process. Remember, you have to acknowledge, identify, and analyze your thoughts before you can change them. Come prepared to talk about your thought patterns every single session.
- Identify Harmful Thought Patterns & Hurtful Emotions. As you talk about your thinking with your therapist, you’ll work together to identify whether your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful, beneficial or harmful. This means you’ll undoubtedly discover a lot of harmful thought patterns you’ve held onto and believed. For example, you may discover that you’ve held onto hurtful beliefs like “I’m a failure,” “I’m not loveable,” “I can’t do anything right,” or “things just don’t work out for me.” Finding out you’ve held on to these inaccurate thoughts for years can make you feel upset or even trigger hurtful memories from the past. Be prepared to explore and feel deep emotions in CBT sessions.
- Break Down, Analyze, and Solve Problems. As you discuss problems with your therapist, you’ll learn to break down your problems into thoughts, physical feelings, and actions. First, you may talk about your thoughts about the situation. Next, you might talk about how you felt physically when faced with the challenge.
- Did your heart beat faster?
- Did your breathing become shallow?
- Did your neck tense up?
- Did your back tighten?
At this point, you and your therapist will analyze your actions based upon thoughts and physical sensations. Did your rapid heartbeat lead to an impulsive decision? Could reframing your thoughts and taking a moment to breathe deeply result in a healthier action next time?
CBT is all about learning to solve problems. Expect to identify problems, create lists of possible solutions, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each possible outcome. Then, be prepared to choose a solution and implement it. Remember, CBT is talk therapy mixed with hands-on action. So be prepared to break down, analyze, and directly solve problems.
- Learn New Coping Skills. As you break down and analyze challenging situations, your therapist will introduce you to new CBT strategies that can help you develop healthier thought patterns, which in turn, will help improve the health of your emotions and behaviors. Through guided discovery and questioning, your therapist may question assumptions you have about yourself or your current situation. By doing this, they can show you how to challenge negative thoughts and self-talk and consider different viewpoints. Your therapist may challenge you to replace negative or critical self-talk with compassionate, constructive self-talk. Alternatively, they encourage you to schedule a rewarding activity every day to help increase your positive outlook and improve your mood. Other CBT coping skills you may learn include constructive restructuring and situation exposure. Be prepared to learn exercises that help you relax, stay calm, and manage stress. Expect to learn new skills.
- Have Homework After Your Sessions. Time spent at home is another part of CBT’s hands-on treatment approach. CBT is so effective because you learn to apply the techniques you’re learning throughout the week, not just during therapy sessions. As a result, you should expect homework. Your homework might include keeping a journal of your thoughts and emotions throughout the week, reading a book related to your challenges and issues, creating a list of possible solutions, or doing relaxation exercises. Your therapist might also ask you to seek out situations where you can apply some of the techniques you’re learning and then journal about the outcome. Different therapists provide different types of homework, but you can expect to apply CBT techniques inside and outside of therapy sessions.
- Develop & Accomplish Goals. Even though CBT is a form of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy is a goal-oriented treatment. Expect to come up with and discuss “SMART” goals. SMART goals are:
Be prepared to put some thought into your goals. Instead of telling your therapist, you want to “stress less,” expect to come up with a related SMART goal. This could be, for example, a goal like “by the end of this CBT session, I will learn to manage my stress better by meditating for 15 minutes 3 times a week.” Once you’ve developed SMART goals, expect to work towards and accomplish them.
Restoring the Brain to Optimal Health
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know how devastating anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addiction can be for your mental, emotional, social, and physical health. We also know, however, that the brain can change and be restored back to optimal health. Our treatment approach combines brain science with evidence-based therapy, nutrition, and exercise.
Mental health challenges don’t have to control your life. We can help you manage unexpected challenges in a healthy way. Contact us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are interested in learning more about cognitive behavioral therapy.
Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies
Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.