Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

What if you could replace your negative thoughts and behaviors with more positive and useful ones? Cognitive behavioral therapy offers you a path—and practices—for doing just that.
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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used, goal-oriented psychotherapy techniques aimed at helping people improve their thinking to improve their lives. Learn more about this popular approach and why therapists at Hazelden Betty Ford often incorporate CBT techniques in working with patients.

What Is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is commonly referred to as CBT. As a type of psychotherapy or "talk therapy," CBT can help you identify and replace negative thoughts and behaviors with more positive and useful ones. Considered a "time-limited" form of therapy, CBT guides patients in quickly adapting new insight, tools and techniques to modify negative thoughts and feelings.

How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?

Typically, three key activities are involved in CBT sessions: breathing retraining, mental health education and cognitive restructuring. Alone and together, these therapeutic activities offer an effective means for reducing symptoms such as anxiety, negativity, distress, irritability or physical tension in the body. Here's more about what's involved with each.

Breathing Retraining

Over time and with practice, you can use this technique to retrain your body to inhale and exhale in ways that help you reach a relaxed state, even when experiencing stressful situations.

Mental Health Education

By learning about the causes and symptoms of mental illness and gaining a better understanding of the connection between mental health issues, cognitive thought patterns and other challenges (including substance use disorders), you can focus on the most-effective resources and practices to manage your health and ongoing recovery.

Cognitive Restructuring

Using this therapy technique, you can identify and challenge thoughts and beliefs that cause you distress. It's a practice and technique that involves self-monitoring to increase your awareness of thoughts that lead to distress and anxiety. With the guidance of your therapist, you can learn to identify thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety or negative feelings. Then your therapist can teach you helpful cognitive and behavioral techniques for challenging and modifying your thought patterns to reduce feelings of distress or anxiety.

Who Benefits from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Therapists use CBT techniques to treat a variety of psychological and behavioral health issues, including co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. People with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and other mental health challenges have been shown to benefit from this type of therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also help you cope with emotional challenges or anxiety, whether situational or ongoing. In fact, CBT practices can be useful for anyone interested in learning how to modify cognitive and behavior patterns in order to reach personal goals, create healthier relationships and, generally, change their lives for the better.

When Might a Therapist Recommend CBT Techniques as Part of Treatment or Therapy?

The types of situations when a therapist might suggest CBT include:

  • Managing mental illness symptoms
  • Preventing relapse or reoccurrence of substance use disorder
  • Treating mental health conditions (such as anxiety disorders) when medications are not a good option
  • Learning to cope with stressful life situations
  • Managing emotions
  • Learning better ways to communicate with loved ones and coworkers
  • Coping with loss or grief
  • Overcoming trauma
  • Coping with a medical illness
  • Managing chronic physical symptoms, including pain

Therapists often combine CBT with other therapies such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Your therapist may recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with other treatment approaches or types of psychotherapy, depending on your specific struggles and circumstances.

What Makes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy So Effective?

Recognized as an evidence-based therapy, CBT produces results faster than other therapies because the approach is very structured and requires fewer sessions than other psychotherapy approaches. Many therapists prefer CBT because the therapy sessions quickly prepare patients to not only identify cognitive (thinking/processing) issues but to cope with those challenges.

How Long Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Take to Work?

Most people experience the full benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy within five to 10 months, depending on how much practice and participation they put into changing their thoughts and behaviors. CBT is considered a short-term form of psychotherapy because patients can see results in as little as 10 to 20 therapy sessions.

Practice is an essential part of the CBT treatment process. For example, a therapy "homework" assignment could involve a technique for self-monitoring your cognitive or behavioral responses to upsetting situations. Other therapy assignments might involve setting aside time on a daily basis to work on a skill, such as breathing exercises as a relaxation technique. Daily practice of CBT skills is necessary in order to benefit from this type of therapy. The amount you practice outside of your therapy sessions will directly relate to the benefits you experience from CBT. In other words, like many things in life, you get out of this therapy what you put into it.

Although therapists commonly use CBT to treat mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and obsessive-compulsive conditions, cognitive therapy can be beneficial even if you don't have a mental health diagnosis. That's because the skills you learn in therapy can help you manage stress, negative thoughts, anxiety or emotional struggles in all aspects of your life.


Dartmouth, F. f. (2011). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for People with Co-occurring Disorders. In F. f. Dartmouth, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for People with Co-occurring Disorders. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Mayo Clinic. (2018, 12 28). Cognitive behavioral therapy. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic