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Define Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy format that relies on the most up-to-date research on psychology and human behavior. It is an active, problem solving approach that targets current problems rather than focusing on the distant past. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been the subject of hundreds of scientific studies that overwhelming support its use for most psychological problems. When compared to traditional talk-therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy is significantly more effective at reducing symptoms, and treatment is usually dramatically shorter, with most CBT treatments lasting between ten and twenty sessions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy works from the most current scientific understanding of psychology. It relies on a model of understanding psychological problems as the result of an interplay between thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors. As each component affects the other, often resulting in chain-reaction of worsening symptoms over time, CBT targets each of the three components with the expectation that the entire system will change. Switching from ineffective thinking patterns to more effective thinking patterns will in turn result in more adaptive behavior and fewer emotional problems. Similarly, by modifying ineffective behavior, both thoughts and emotions are positively affected. Cognitive behavioral therapy targets each of the components, and results in a short-circuiting of the system responsible for negative mood states and problematic behavior.   

There are many ways cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to intervene with psychological problems. The main ways are through cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, and mindfulness-based therapies.

Cognitive therapy focuses mainly on thought patterns as responsible for negative emotional and behavioral patterns. From the perspective of cognitive therapy, negative emotional states are caused and maintained by ineffective or exaggerated biases in thinking. The key intervention in cognitive therapy is identifying distorted or self-defeating patterns, and learning to respond to them with more balanced, reality-based thinking. This then results in fewer emotional problems, and more successful behavioral patterns. This process is known as cognitive restructuring.

Behavioral therapy focuses more on the behavior as the more influential component of problematic psychological patterns. In behavioral therapy, problems are analyzed, and problematic behaviors are identified. The main mechanism of change in behavioral therapy is facilitating the learning and implementation of effective behaviors to replace ineffective behaviors. This can take the form of modeling/teaching new behaviors, increasing exposure to previously-avoided stimuli, and increasing rewarding behavior. Some treatments rely more heavily on cognitive interventions, while others primarily on behavioral. However, treatments for most psychological difficulties rely on a combination of both cognitive and behavioral interventions to achieve long-lasting change.

Mindfulness-based therapies are the newest addition to cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness is a meditation technique found in Theravada Buddhism, that directs attention to the task at hand in a focused, non-judgmental fashion. Although in some ways it is a cognitive intervention, mindfulness differs from traditional cognitive therapy in that mindfulness emphasizes sustained attention on the present, whereas traditional cognitive therapy relies more on Socratic questioning of assumptions about the past, present, and future.

During early sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy, problems are discussed, and treatment goals are agreed upon. Based on the treatment goals and conceptualization of the problem, each session is devoted to problem solving current difficulties. Unlike most forms of psychotherapy, between-session homework assignments are assigned as a way of helping the client implement the solution in his/her life. There is significant research showing the use of homework in treatment is one of the most powerful indicators of success in therapy. By rehearsing solutions to problems throughout the week, the client gains mastery in the skills needed to solve his/her own problems. In this way, the client learns to become his/her own best resource when future difficulties arise. You can learn more about the process of CBT and what to expect as a client here.