An Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s and quickly grew to be the most widely used therapy in North America.

Basically, CBT assumes that the way we feel is largely determined by how we think and how we behave. It is also true that our mood can affect how we think and behave, and our physical body affects and is affected by these factors as well. This interaction of thinking, behaviour, physical body and mood is shown in Figure 1 on the back of this page.

Unfortunately we cannot change mood directly. If you can remember being angry and someone telling you NOT to be angry, you know this first hand. You cannot simply change your mood state directly. Mood can be affected by the physical body through the action of psychotropic drugs (e.g. antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication). However, there is growing research evidence that shows psychotherapy can produce the same changes in neurotransmitters in the brain as medication.

The basis of CBT is then to get people to change their behaviour and their thinking to produce a change in their mood. The behaviours that are often a focus of CBT include exercise, healthy eating, socializing, and engaging in pleasurable activities. More specific behaviours include physical relaxation exercises (e.g. deep breathing and muscle relaxation).

The most important part of CBT is changing thoughts, beliefs and thinking patterns. Problematic thoughts can often be automatic (i.e. we are unaware of them). Some problematic thoughts can be thought of as "twisted thinking" or cognitive "errors"; inaccurate ways of assessing a situation. CBT is NOT "positive thinking", rather it is looking at situations accurately and not making assumptions, especially assumptions that are emotionally upsetting. CBT also examines more core beliefs about yourself, other people and the world.

One of the most important things to know about CBT is that it works. CBT is an "empirically supported therapy", i.e. there is an extensive body of research which demonstrates that it is an effective therapy. In addition to being an effective therapy, CBT has been shown to be effective for a wide variety of difficulties including: anxiety, depression, personality disorders, psychosis, problem gambling, irritable bowel syndrome and the list goes on and on.