What is Cognitive Therapy?

Many people have heard about a type of treatment used for various mental health issues, called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It is the most research-supported treatment for mental health. But CBT has 2 parts. The “C” and the “B”. I mostly write about the behavioral parts (the “B”) of treatments on this blog – Things that people do differently. Today I am going to write about what cognitive parts (the “C”) of treatment involve. This is cognitive therapy.

Cognitive treatment is actually more widespread than behavioral treatment. We know this from studies that look at what therapists do. Therapists use behavioral aspects of treatment (e.g. exposure therapy) much less often, even when they are well trained in the treatment. As you may know, I think this is a travesty for anxiety disorder treatment because there’s a wide range of literature showing that the exposure component is the active ingredient in progress. That being said, cognitive therapy can be effective and some people prefer it.

What is Cognitive Therapy?

Cognitive Therapy tries to change the way someone looks at a problem, so that they feel differently about it.


Imagine, as happened to me recently, that a tree falls on the power line to your house and you lose all power for a couple of days. That sucked! Now, there could easily be two reactions:

Person A:

Person A could easily get anxious about it happening again. Or worse, the tree actually falling on their house next time. It could happen, and if it does it will cost a lot of money to repair.  As such, Person A might check the trees each week to make sure everything is in order. If they don’t, they will not feel confident that their house is safe. With such beliefs it’s no wonder they feel anxious!

Person B:

Alternatively, Person B could think that it’s quite unlikely and probably won’t happen again. And if the worst happens that’s exactly what house insurance is for anyway. They can definitely cope. They aren’t going to check trees near their house, they wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. With such beliefs, Person B is a lot less anxious.

Cognitive therapy tries to move you from being Person A to Person B. As a cognitive therapist will sometimes say, you are in control of what you think. Cognitive therapy uses various strategies to change the way you look at things, which in turn changes the way you feel about them. This in turn changes how you act.


Everyone Has Experienced This At Some Point

Think back for a moment to when you were a kid. There was probably a time where your parents helped you think about something in a different way, which made you feel safe. Your parents were your first cognitive therapists. When I was a kid, my mum helped me when I wasn’t enjoying golf (because I was doing terribly!) to look at the situation differently. She helped me see that all I can do is try my best and that if I stick with it I’ll get better. This helped me to go and play again and it became my main sport for many years afterwards. It just took someone to help me see things in a different way.

There are many strategies which cognitive therapy uses. These include:

  • Examining facts
  • Finding “thinking errors”
  • Looking alternative interpretations
  • Behavioral experiments

I’ll leave the in-depth details about these tools for another article, but they can be quite potent. The key is really to think back to what has worked in your own life and you can see what strategies are helpful. Cognitive therapy just formalizes this process.

Hopefully this gives you a basic overview of cognitive therapy. Thanks for reading!


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