Cognitive therapy is based on the concept that our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all connected, meaning that the way we think affects the way we feel.
This type of therapy is also known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) because the goal is to help you identify problems in your thinking (cognitive) that affect the way you act (behavior).
CBT requires you to work in collaboration with your therapist to develop skills to test and modify your thinking, beliefs and responses.
Examples of cognitive therapy techniques include:
- Activity scheduling
- Graded exposure assignments
- Mindfulness practices
- Skills training
- Cognitive restructuring
- Successive approximation
Typically, cognitive therapy involves 45- to 60-minute sessions every week for 3-6 months. Cognitive therapists may use any of the above techniques depending on the psychiatric illness or behavioral disorder they are trying to treat.
Examples of cognitive therapy in action
People with depression usually have lost interest in activities that used to give them pleasure. A cognitive therapist may schedule activities their patient used to enjoy, such as taking long walks or meditating, and encourage them to try engaging in them again. The patient may find these activities rewarding and feel better while doing them as part of their treatment.
Graded exposure assignments
Another cognitive therapy technique is the use of graded exposure assignments in people with anxiety disorders. Exposure is a type of CBT technique that helps people get systematically (step-by-step) exposed to what triggers fear or anxiety in them.
For example, a person may get stage fright and feel like running away from that situation when faced with it. Their therapist will try to expose them to stage-like situations with increasing difficulty and provide training to control their response.
Mindfulness and skills training
Cognitive therapy may benefit someone who has lost hope in trying new challenges. For example, let’s say someone feels like they are going to fail anything they try because they failed in the past. This incorrect assumption may hold them back from making progress in life, which only frustrates and depresses them more.
A cognitive therapist can help this person identify what’s wrong with their thinking and help them shift their thinking pattern. Using mindfulness and skills training techniques, they can help their patient live in the present instead of brooding over past experiences:
- Mindfulness focuses on disengaging the person from their constant negative thoughts and paying attention to the present
- Skills training technique helps the person develop skills like problem-solving. To do this, the therapist may give customized assignments to the person and encourage them to finish them.
What conditions is cognitive therapy used for?
Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy in the 1960s. Since then, this therapy has been extensively researched and found to be effective for psychiatric disorders including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Personality disorders
- Bipolar disorder
Additionally, cognitive therapy has been used to treat people with non-psychiatric disorders such as:
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