Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

January 1, 2020
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Therapists use it to treat a wide range of psychological problems. In this article, we'll take a closer look at its central ideas and see how it differs from other approaches.

Over the years, psychology has adopted a wide array of approaches to understand and address human behavior. Each approach has its theoretical foundation and practical applications. For more than three decades, cognitive behavioral therapy has proven to be one of the most effective psychotherapeutic methods.

Psychologists have used it successfully to treat many types of issues. It is, after all, a flexible and efficient option. It can produce significant changes in a short amount of time and its multiple techniques give it a lot of flexibility to adapt to the person and problem at hand.

A patient with her therapist doing cognitive behavioral therapy.

The origin of cognitive behavioral therapy

Trends in psychology morph and change over the years. Two of those, cognitivism and behaviorism, are at the heart of the approach we’re discussing today. Thus, we decided to share a little bit about each theory first.

Behaviorism

Behaviorism is primarily interested in visible conduct. Its object of study is behavior that’s observable and measurable.

This school of thought believes that behavior is a response to certain stimuli and it increases or decreases in frequency based on the consequences. Thus, you can modify someone’s behavior by changing the relationships between stimulus, response, and consequence.

Here’s an example: someone with a phobia of dogs has associated dogs with fear. Consequently, when they see a dog, they want to run away. If you can break that association, dogs will cease to be an aversive stimulus and the person won’t have to run away from them. On the other hand, if you want your child to eat more vegetables, you should reward them every time they do it.

Cognitivism

This psychological approach focuses on studying cognitions, or thoughts and mental processes. It’s interested in understanding how human beings interpret and process the information they receive.

The foundation of cognitivism is the idea that you don’t perceive reality as it is, but as you areEvery person has their internal processes, and those give a different meaning to the reality they perceive. 

Here’s an example: you call a friend and they don’t pick up. You might think that they didn’t hear your call or you could believe they didn’t want to talk to you because they don’t actually like you. The reality is the same, but the internal process is completely different.

A woman with her therapist.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Thus, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a combination of the aforementioned schools of thought. It relates thoughts with behavior. According to this approach, there’s an intrinsic relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Changes in any of those components affect the others.

This therapy uses a variety of techniques designed to modify one of the three elements, knowing that the changes will affect the other two. For example:

  • Cognitive restructuring is a technique based on helping the individual modify their beliefs or thoughts. It invites them to evaluate the truth about what they’re thinking and find more adaptive alternatives. Once you change the way you interpret reality, you change the way you feel and act.
  • Exposure therapy is all about changing behavior. It encourages the patient to stop avoiding what they fear, and face it head-on. When they change their behavior and deal with their fear, they realize that it’s unfounded and they change their related beliefs and emotions.
  • Relaxation techniques focus on changing emotions. They help people with emotional self-regulation and help them control their level of activation. If their emotions change, their thoughts become less catastrophic, and they change their behavior to face their problems instead of running away.

In conclusion

Therefore, cognitive behavioral therapy is a complete, flexible, and effective approach. It can help patients with a wide range of disorders and conditions achieve significant improvements in a short amount of time. Not only that, but it happens to be the psychological approach with the most scientific evidence. Nevertheless, if you’re thinking about trying therapy, it’s a good idea to explore all the available options and pick the one you identify the most with.

Fernández, M. Á. R., García, M. I. D., & Crespo, A. V. (2012). Manual de técnicas de intervención cognitivo conductuales. Desclée de Brouwer.

Yela, M. (1996). La evolución del conductismo. Psicothema8(Sup), 165-186.