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8.5: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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    8.5: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    Although both psychoanalysis and PCT are still used today, another therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), has gained more widespread support and practice. CBT refers to a family of therapeutic approaches whose goal is to alleviate psychological symptoms by changing their underlying cognitions and behaviors. The premise of CBT is that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions interact and contribute to various mental disorders. For example, let’s consider how a CBT therapist would view a patient who compulsively washes her hands for hours every day. First, the therapist would identify the patient’s maladaptive thought: “If I don’t wash my hands like this, I will get a disease and die.” The therapist then identifies how this maladaptive thought leads to a maladaptive emotion: the feeling of anxiety when her hands aren’t being washed. And finally, this maladaptive emotion leads to the maladaptive behavior: the patient washing her hands for hours every day.

    CBT is a present-focused therapy (i.e., focused on the “now” rather than causes from the past, such as childhood relationships) that uses behavioral goals to improve one’s mental illness. Often, these behavioral goals involve between-session homework assignments. For example, the therapist may give the hand-washing patient a worksheet to take home; on this worksheet, the woman is to write down every time she feels the urge to wash her hands, how she deals with the urge, and what behavior she replaces that urge with. When the patient has her next therapy session, she and the therapist review her “homework” together. CBT is a relatively brief intervention of 12 to 16 weekly sessions, closely tailored to the nature of the psychopathology and treatment of the specific mental disorder. And, as the empirical data shows, CBT has proven to be highly efficacious for virtually all psychiatric illnesses (Hofmann, Asnaani, Vonk, Sawyer, & Fang, 2012).

    8-5 circle thoughts .png

    Pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors addressed through cognitive-behavioral therapy.

    History of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    CBT developed from clinical work conducted in the mid-20th century by Dr. Aaron T. Beck, a psychiatrist, and Albert Ellis, a psychologist. Beck used the term automatic thoughts to refer to the thoughts depressed patients report experiencing spontaneously. He observed that these thoughts arise from three belief systems, or schemasLinks to an external site.: beliefs about the self, beliefs about the world, and beliefs about the future. In treatment, therapy initially focuses on identifying automatic thoughts (e.g., “If I don’t wash my hands constantly, I’ll get a disease”), testing their validity, and replacing maladaptive thoughts with more adaptive thoughts (e.g., “Washing my hands three times a day is sufficient to prevent a disease”). In later stages of treatment, the patient’s maladaptive schemas are examined and modified. Ellis (1957) took a comparable approach, in what he called rational-emotive-behavioral therapy (REBT), which also encourages patients to evaluate their own thoughts about situations.

    Techniques in CBT

    Beck and Ellis strove to help patients identify maladaptive appraisals, or the untrue judgments and evaluations of certain thoughts. For example, if it’s your first time meeting new people, you may have the automatic thought, “These people won’t like me because I have nothing interesting to share.” That thought itself is not what’s troublesome; the appraisal (or evaluation) that it might have merit is what’s troublesome. The goal of CBT is to help people make adaptive, instead of maladaptive, appraisals (e.g., “I do know interesting things!”). This technique of reappraisal, or cognitive restructuring, is a fundamental aspect of CBT. With cognitive restructuring, it is the therapist’s job to help point out when a person has an inaccurate or maladaptive thought, so that the patient can either eliminate it or modify it to be more adaptive.

    In addition to thoughts, though, another important treatment target of CBT is maladaptive behavior. Every time a person engages in maladaptive behavior (e.g., never speaking to someone in new situations), he or she reinforces the validity of the maladaptive thought, thus maintaining or perpetuating the psychological illness. In treatment, the therapist and patient work together to develop healthy behavioral habits (often tracked with worksheet-like homework), so that the patient can break this cycle of maladaptive thoughts and behaviors.

    For many mental health problems, especially anxiety disorders, CBT incorporates what is known as exposure therapy. During exposure therapy, a patient confronts a problematic situation and fully engages in the experience instead of avoiding it. For example, imagine a man who is terrified of spiders. Whenever he encounters one, he immediately screams and panics. In exposure therapy, the man would be forced to confront and interact with spiders, rather than simply avoiding them as he usually does. The goal is to reduce the fear associated with the situation through extinction learning, a neurobiological and cognitive process by which the patient “unlearns” the irrational fear. For example, exposure therapy for someone terrified of spiders might begin with him looking at a cartoon of a spider, followed by him looking at pictures of real spiders, and later, him handling a plastic spider. After weeks of this incremental exposure, the patient may even be able to hold a live spider. After repeated exposure (starting small and building one’s way up), the patient experiences less physiological fear and maladaptive thoughts about spiders, breaking his tendency for anxiety and subsequent avoidance.

    jumping spider on a finger .png

    "Common jumping/bold jumping spider" by Oregon Department of Agriculture is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of CBT

    CBT interventions tend to be relatively brief, making them cost-effective for the average consumer. In addition, CBT is an intuitive treatment that makes logical sense to patients. It can also be adapted to suit the needs of many different populations. One disadvantage, however, is that CBT does involve significant effort on the patient’s part, because the patient is an active participant in treatment. Therapists often assign “homework” (e.g., worksheets for recording one’s thoughts and behaviors) between sessions to maintain the cognitive and behavioral habits the patient is working on. The greatest strength of CBT is the abundance of empirical support for its effectiveness. Studies have consistently found CBT to be equally or more effective than other forms of treatment, including medication and other therapies (Butler, Chapman, Forman, & Beck, 2006; Hofmann et al., 2012). For this reason, CBT is considered a first-line treatment for many mental disorders.

    Focus Topic:

    Pioneers of CBT

    The central notion of CBT is the idea that a person’s behavioral and emotional responses are causally influenced by one’s thinking. The stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus is quoted as saying, “men are not moved by things, but by the view they take of them.” Meaning, it is not the event per se, but rather one’s assumptions (including interpretations and perceptions) of the event that are responsible for one’s emotional response to it. Beck calls these assumptions about events and situations automatic thoughts (Beck, 1979), whereas Ellis (1962) refers to these assumptions as self-statements. The cognitive model assumes that these cognitive processes cause the emotional and behavioral responses to events or stimuli. This causal chain is illustrated in Ellis’s ABC model, in which A stands for the antecedent event, B stands for belief, and C stands for consequence. During CBT, the person is encouraged to carefully observe the sequence of events and the response to them, and then explore the validity of the underlying beliefs through behavioral experiments and reasoning, much like a detective or scientist.


    The above content was remix from:

    38.4: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts

    Therapeutic Orientations by Hannah Boettcher, Stefan G. Hofmann, and Q. Jade Wu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NC-NA 4.0 International License.

    Style Boettcher, H., Hofmann, S. G., & Wu, Q. J. (2019). Therapeutic orientations. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers.

    8.5: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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