What is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?

Susannah Hickling

After months of living with a pandemic, for many of us our mental health is not what it could be. But cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is now widely available and has proved effective for a range of mental health problems

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a talking therapy, which aims to get you to change the ways that you think about the things that worry you, and make them more manageable.

 

How can it help?

The way that you think affects the ways that you feel and behave. If those thoughts are negative, this can have a damaging effect on your emotions and actions. The idea of cognitive behavioural therapy is to break the cycle of negativity in order to improve the way you feel.

In CBT sessions, you tend to focus on your current problems rather than what’s happened in the past, although negative thinking patterns do often start early in life. For example, believing that you’re 
a failure after a teacher persistently said that you were dim while you were at school. A CBT therapist 
will help you to identify and challenge these patterns.

 

What mental health issues can it help?

CBT commonly helps with stress, anxiety and depression, but it can be used to help deal with a wide range of other mental health problems too, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, bipolar, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, phobias, even anger and physical symptoms for which doctors can’t find a reason. People sometimes find it useful in learning to cope with long-term conditions, like chronic pain.

 

How does it work?

Most people need a series of sessions, probably at least five and often more. You will take a practical, collaborative approach with your therapist and identify what makes you feel anxious or upset. Your therapist will help you to break down what might seem overwhelming into smaller parts and encourage you to find ways to cope on a day-to-day basis. They will help you work out what you might be able to change and encourage you to challenge negative thoughts when they pop up and replace them with a more positive one. They will also support you in recognising when you are going to do something that could make you feel bad so that you can do something else instead which will not have the same damaging effect on your state of mind. You will need to practise what you have discussed and review the changes you’ve made at your next session.

 

How can I get it?

The good news is that you can now access psychological therapies, including CBT, through self-referral and you no longer have to see your GP or other health professional first. You can find a therapist in England by visiting nhs.uk/service-search/find-a-psychological-therapies-service.

You can pay for private therapy too, with fees upwards of £40 a session, but always make sure that you go to a therapist who is accredited with the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies or on the British Psychological Society’s list of chartered psychologists. There are also a number of NHS-recommended apps, visit nhs.uk/apps-library/category/mental-health.

Read more: How to deal with anxiety when you return to work

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