Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used to treat a number of different mental health conditions, including: 

  • obsessive compulsive disorder¬†
  • phobias and panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • depression
  • eating disorders (for example, anorexia and bulimia)

CBT can also help:

  • anger problems
  • habits (such as facial tics)
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • relationship problems
  • sleep problems

CBT is also used to treat people with chronic health conditions, such as arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome. Although CBT cannot cure any physical symptoms, it can help people who have long-term conditions to cope better with their symptoms.

How does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Help?

CBT can help you to make sense of overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. Following from the problem, event or difficult situation are your:

  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • physical sensations
  • actions

Each of these areas can affect the others. For example, your thoughts about a problem can affect how you feel physically and emotionally, and how you act upon it.

An example

There are helpful and unhelpful ways of reacting to a situation, which are often determined by how you think about them. For example:

  • If your marriage has just ended in divorce, you could think that you have failed as a partner and are not capable of having another meaningful relationship.
  • This could lead you to feel hopeless and lonely, depressed and tired, so you stop going out and meeting new people.
  • You become trapped in a negative cycle, sitting at home alone and feeling bad about yourself.
  • However, instead of this thought pattern, after your divorce you could:
  • Accept that many marriages end, learn from your mistakes and move on, feeling optimistic about the future.
  • Feeling energetic, you may then become more socially active, start evening classes and find a new circle of friends.

This is a simplified example but illustrates how certain thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions can trap you into a negative spiral and even create new situations that make you feel worse about yourself. CBT helps to stop negative cycles such as these. By breaking down the things that are making you feel bad, anxious or scared, CBT makes them more manageable. CBT can show you ways to change your negative patterns and improve the way you feel. CBT aims to get you to a point where you can do all this on your own and tackle problems without the help of a therapist.

What CBT involves CBT is usually done individually, but can also be offered:

  • as group therapy, with others who wish to tackle a similar problem
  • as a self-help book, where you carry out exercises from the book
  • as a computer programme (known as computerised CBT)

The sessions

Individual work will usually involve meeting with a CBT therapist for 5 to 20 weekly or fortnightly sessions, with each session lasting 30-60 minutes. The first sessions will be spent making sure that CBT is the right therapy for you, and that you are comfortable with the process. The therapist will ask you questions about your life and background. You will decide what you want to deal with in the short, medium and long term.


With your therapist, you break down a problem into its separate parts: situation, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions. To help with this, you may be asked to keep a diary or write down your thought and behaviour patterns.

With your therapist, you will look at your thoughts, feelings and behaviours to work out if they are unrealistic or unhelpful and how they affect each other and you.

Your therapist will help you to work out how to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.

After you have worked out what you can change, your therapist will recommend homework, so you can practise these changes in your daily life. This may involve questioning upsetting thoughts and replacing them with more helpful ones, recognising when you are going to do something that will make you feel worse and instead doing something more helpful.

At each session, you will discuss with your therapist how you have got on with your homework, and what it felt like. Your therapist can make other suggestions to help you. Confronting fears and anxieties can be very difficult. Your therapist will not ask you to do things you do not want to do, and will only work at a pace you are comfortable with. During your sessions, your therapist should continue to check you are comfortable with the progress you are making. One of the greatest benefits of CBT is that once your course has finished, you can continue to apply the principles of CBT to your daily life. This should make it is less likely that your symptoms or problems will return.

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