While we have a lot left to learn when it comes to addressing the quality of mental healthcare throughout the world, we’re further along than we have ever been. Decades of research and rigorous clinical study have led to milestone developments in mental healthcare over the past century, enabling millions of people diagnosed with lifelong mental health issues to lead fulfilling lives despite their symptoms.
One of the most powerful tools in a modern therapist’s toolkit is the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Originating in the 1960s, cognitive behavioral therapy is an amalgam of multiple successful techniques in both cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy, creating a vast protocol that hundreds of thousands of skilled therapists continue to rely on to promote a healthier inner voice in countless patients.
It isn’t enough to say that cognitive behavioral therapy is the golden standard for talk therapy. It’s essential to understand what sets it apart from other talk therapy methods, and why there’s so much research underlining its efficacy.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Just as with CBT itself, understanding is the first step towards improving. If you or a loved one are considering seeking professional help for your thoughts and symptoms, a primer on CBT and talk therapy, in general, may provide a better context for how therapy works, what to expect, and what to look forward to.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy or psychotherapy. Originating in the 19th century as psychoanalysis, the idea to treat someone by delving into what they think and do subconsciously was popularized by controversial neurologist Sigmund Freud.
His findings, while not always hitting the mark, eventually paved the way for other therapeutic methods wherein patients and therapists could work together to identify and modify aberrant or harmful thoughts.
A more in-depth history of the development of cognitive behavioral therapy will demonstrate its organic growth by assimilating various theories on human cognition and behavior and tested interventions, from self-talk to individual problem solving, the psychology of self-control, emotion regulation, and the conditioning phases of habituation and extinction in the treatment of anxiety and fear (i.e., overcoming fear and anxiety).
In the 1960s, the application of cognitive behavioral therapy was limited mainly to severely disordered youth. It wasn’t until the 1970s that CBT saw application in higher functioning adults. Today, there are over 2,000 peer-reviewed outcome studies that have proven the effectiveness of CBT in a wide variety of mental health issues. If you or someone you know have gone to therapy to address your declining mental health during a period of severe distress, the odds that your therapist applied methods from CBT to your treatment are pretty high.
In general, modern CBT is built upon three foundational tenets:
- Psychological problems are rooted partially in unhealthy thoughts.
- Psychological problems are rooted partially in unhealthy behavioral patterns.
- Psychological problems can be addressed through healthier coping skills.
Based on these core principles, CBT sets out to improve a patient’s understanding of how their own behavioral patterns and unwanted, intrusive thoughts play a central role in the development and exacerbation of mental health symptoms. This includes:
- Learning your own cues and tells for a bad mental health episode.
- Better understanding your own thought processes and learning to challenge them.
- Identifying key coping skills to apply in your everyday life.
- Developing a healthier self-esteem.
Depending on the severity of these symptoms and potential codependent diagnoses, patients undergoing CBT may also be prescribed medication to reduce symptoms and aid in self-management and emotion regulation.
Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is not a mental health panacea, but it has its fair share of benefits, especially as a means to bestow patients with agency over their lives and their mental health. Here are a few key benefits of CBT.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is not built to address any single condition or diagnosis. It is a versatile framework with dozens of types, decades of research, and multiple schools of thought throughout the world.
Regardless of how they differentiate themselves, all forms of CBT have one thing in common: evidence-based treatment methods.
2. Heavily Researched
Research is at the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive therapies and behavioral models developed independently throughout the 20th century, yet in linking these together and creating CBT, psychiatrists were able to pool cumulative efforts from across multiple different branches of psychiatry to develop a framework that has since then continued to garner empirical support, and a substantial body of evidence.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is not concerned with treating a textbook definition of a mental health disorder but instead acts as a more generalized framework addressing the patient’s individual fears and issues.
4. Can Be a Relationship Saver
Mental health issues severely impact the way we treat ourselves, as well as others. They can be dealbreakers and push people away. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people re-earn the trust of those around them and build a support network of loved ones.
5. Builds a Healthier Ego
A distorted sense of self is often at the heart of many mental health issues. Whether through years of abuse or as a result of distorted thinking from birth, many patients who struggle with their mental health are incredibly unkind towards themselves, even if they don’t advertise it. Ironically, even narcissism can come from a place of inadequacy and a misrepresentation of the self.
Learning to untangle these unhealthy misconceptions from healthier, more accurate concepts of self, formed by the opinions and experiences of others and by self-affirmation and self-care, can create the basis for stronger, healthier self-esteem and greater resilience against stress and recurring negative thoughts.
6. Allows You to Overcome
Overcome your fears, overcome your anxieties, overcome your own negative perceptions. An important step in cognitive behavioral therapy is learning to confront, relieve, reduce, and extinguish anxieties rooted in irrational thinking, learning to undo years of fear-based conditioning that may inform your anxious behaviors and thoughts.
CBT helps you retrain the way you see the things that keep you from doing what you want to do and being who you want to be. It takes time – but you can keep working on yourself and how you perceive the world around you.
Other Critical Interventions and Mental Health Resources
A treatment plan is more than just talk therapy. Any given treatment plan for a patient with a mental health issue will depend on the factors that contributed and continue to contribute to their diagnosis, as well as individual circumstances and how they affect treatment availability.
CBT can be a first-line treatment for multiple different conditions, but a patient may still require residential care, partial hospitalization, medication, or alternative interventions, such as DBT, to better manage their mental health. If you have questions about your treatment plan, talk to your therapist about your next steps forward and what you should come to expect in the weeks and months ahead.