Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an action-oriented form of psychosocial therapy that assumes that maladaptive,
Theoretically, cognitive-behavioral therapy can be employed in any situation in which there is a pattern of unwanted behavior accompanied by distress and impairment. It is a recommended treatment option for a number of mental disorders, including affective (mood) disorders, personality disorders, social phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety or panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also frequently used as a tool to deal with chronic pain for patients with illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, back problems, and cancer. Patients with sleep disorders may also find cognitive-behavioral therapy a useful treatment for insomnia.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may not be suitable for some patients. Those who don't have a specific behavioral issue they wish to address and whose goals for therapy are to gain insight into the past may be better served by psychodynamic therapy. Patients must also be willing to take a very active role in the treatment process.
Cognitive-behavioral intervention may be inappropriate for some severely psychotic patients and for cognitively impaired patients (for example, patients with organic brain disease or a traumatic brain injury), depending on their level of functioning.
Pioneered by psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis in the 1960s, cognitive therapy assumes that maladaptive behaviors and disturbed mood or emotions are the result of inappropriate or irrational thinking patterns, called automatic thoughts. Instead of reacting to the reality of a situation, an individual reacts to his or her own distorted viewpoint of the situation. For example, a person may conclude that he is "worthless" simply because he failed an exam or didn't get a date. Cognitive therapists attempt to make their patients aware of these distorted thinking patterns, or cognitive distortions, and change them (a process termed cognitive restructuring).
Behavioral therapy, or behavior modification, trains individuals to replace undesirable behaviors with healthier behavioral patterns. Unlike psychodynamic therapies, it does not focus on uncovering or understanding the unconscious motivations that may be behind the maladaptive behavior. In other words, strictly behavioral therapists don't try to find out why their patients behave the way they do, they just teach them to change the behavior.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy integrates the cognitive restructuring approach of cognitive therapy with the behavioral modification techniques of behavioral therapy. The therapist works with the patient to identify both the thoughts and the behaviors that are causing distress, and to change those thoughts in order to readjust the behavior. In some cases, the patient may have certain fundamental core beliefs, called schemas, which are flawed and require modification. For example, a patient suffering from depression may be avoiding social contact with others, and suffering considerable emotional distress because of his isolation. When questioned why, the patient reveals to his therapist that he is afraid of rejection, of what others may do or say to him. Upon further exploration with his therapist, they discover that his real fear is not rejection, but the belief that he is hopelessly uninteresting and unlovable. His therapist then tests the reality of that assertion by having the patient name friends and family who love him and enjoy his company. By showing the patient that others value him, the therapist both exposes the irrationality of the patient's belief and provides him with a new model of thought to change his old behavior pattern. In this case, the person learns to think, "I am an interesting and lovable person; therefore I should not have difficulty making new friends in social situations." If enough "irrational cognitions" are changed, this patient may experience considerable relief from his depression.
A number of different techniques may be employed in cognitive-behavioral therapy to help patients uncover and examine their thoughts and change their behaviors. They include:
- Behavioral homework assignments. Cognitive-behavioral therapists frequently request that their patients complete homework assignments between therapy sessions. These may consist of real-life "behavioral experiments" where patients are encouraged to try out new responses to situations discussed in therapy sessions.
- Cognitive rehearsal. The patient imagines a difficult situation and the therapist guides him through the step-by-step process of facing and successfully dealing with it. The patient then works on practicing, or rehearsing, these steps mentally. Ideally, when the situation arises in real life, the patient will draw on the rehearsed behavior to address it.
- Journal. Patients are asked to keep a detailed diary recounting their thoughts, feelings, and actions when specific situations arise. The journal helps to make the patient aware of his or her maladaptive thoughts and to show their consequences on behavior. In later stages of therapy, it may serve to demonstrate and reinforce positive behaviors.
- Modeling. The therapist and patient engage in role-playing exercises in which the therapist acts out appropriate behaviors or responses to situations.
- Conditioning. The therapist uses reinforcement to encourage a particular behavior. For example, a child with ADHD gets a gold star every time he stays focused on tasks and accomplishes certain daily chores. The gold star reinforces and increases the desired behavior by identifying it with something positive. Reinforcement can also be used to extinguish unwanted behaviors by imposing negative consequences.
- Systematic desensitization. Patients imagine a situation they fear, while the therapist employs techniques to help the patient relax, helping the person cope with their fear reaction and eventually eliminate the anxiety altogether. For example, a patient in treatment for agoraphobia, or fear of open or public places, will relax and then picture herself on the sidewalk outside of her house. In her next session, she may relax herself and then imagine a visit to a crowded shopping mall. The imagery of the anxiety-producing situations gets progressively more intense until, eventually, the therapist and patient approach the anxiety-causing situation in real-life (a "graded exposure"), perhaps by visiting a mall. Exposure may be increased to the point of "flooding," providing maximum exposure to the real situation. By repeatedly pairing a desired response (relaxation) with a fear-producing situation (open, public spaces), the patient gradually becomes desensitized to the old response of fear and learns to react with feelings of relaxation.
- Validity testing. Patients are asked to test the validity of the automatic thoughts and schemas they encounter. The therapist may ask the patient to defend or produce evidence that a schema is true. If the patient is unable to meet the challenge, the faulty nature of the schema is exposed.
Initial treatment sessions are typically spent explaining the basic tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy to the patient and establishing a positive working relationship between therapist and patient. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a collaborative, action-oriented therapy effort. As such, it empowers the patient by giving him an active role in the therapy process and discourages any overdependence on the therapist that may occur in other therapeutic relationships. Therapy is typically administered in an out-patient setting in either an individual or group session. Therapists include psychologists (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D. or M.A. degree), clinical social workers (M.S.W., D.S.W., or L.S.W. degree), counselors (M.A. or M.S. degree), or psychiatrists (M.D. with specialization in psychiatry) and should be trained in cognitive-behavioral techniques, although some brief cognitive-behavioral interventions may be suggested by a primary physician/caregiver. Treatment is relatively short in comparison to some other forms of psychotherapy, usually lasting no longer than 16 weeks. Many insurance plans provide reimbursement for cognitive-behavioral therapy services. Because coverage is dependent on the disorder or illness the therapy is treating, patients should check with their individual plans.
Rational-emotive behavior therapy
Rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a popular variation of cognitive-behavioral therapy developed
There are 10 basic irrational assumptions that trigger maladaptive emotions and behaviors:
- It is a necessity for an adult to be loved and approved of by almost everyone for virtually everything.
- A person must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and successful in all respects.
- Certain people are bad, wicked, or villainous and should be punished for their sins.
- It is catastrophic when things are not going the way one would like.
- Human unhappiness is externally caused. People have little or no ability to control their sorrows or to rid themselves of negative feelings.
- It is right to be terribly preoccupied with and upset about something that may be dangerous or fearsome.
- It is easier to avoid facing many of life's difficulties and responsibilities than it is to undertake more rewarding forms of self-discipline.
- The past is all-important. Because something once strongly affected someone's life, it should continue to do so indefinitely.
- People and things should be different from the way they are. It is catastrophic if perfect solutions to the grim realities of life are not immediately found.
- Maximal human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction or by passively and without commitment.
Meichenbaum's self-instructional approach
Psychologist Donald Meichenbaum pioneered the self-instructional, or "self-talk," approach to cognitive-behavioral therapy in the 1970s. This approach focuses on changing what people say to themselves, both internally and out loud. It is based on the belief that an individual's actions follow directly from this self-talk. This type of therapy emphasizes teaching patients coping skills that they can use in a variety of situations to help themselves. The technique used to accomplish this is self-instructional inner dialogue, a method of talking through a problem or situation as it occurs.
Patients may seek therapy independently, or be referred for treatment by a primary physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Because the patient and therapist work closely together to achieve specific therapeutic objectives, it is important that their working relationship is comfortable and their goals are compatible. Prior to beginning treatment, the patient and therapist should meet for a consultation session, or mutual interview. The consultation gives the therapist the opportunity to make an initial assessment of the patient and recommend a course of treatment and goals for therapy. It also gives the patient an opportunity to find out important details about the therapist's approach to treatment, professional credentials, and any other issues of interest.
In some managed-care clinical settings, an intake interview or evaluation is required before a patient begins therapy. The intake interview is used to evaluate the patient and assign him or her to a therapist. It may be conducted by a psychiatric nurse, counselor, or social worker.
Many patients who undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy successfully learn how to replace their maladaptive thoughts and behaviors with positive ones that facilitate individual growth and happiness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be used in conjunction with pharmaceutical and other treatment interventions, so overall success rates are difficult to gauge. However, success rates of 65% or more have been reported with cognitive-behavioral therapy alone as a treatment for panic attacks and agoraphobia. Relapse has been reported in some patient populations, perhaps due to the brief nature of the therapy, but follow-up sessions can put patients back on track.
Greenberger, Dennis, and Christine Padesky. Mind over Mood: A Cognitive Therapy Treatment Manual for Clients. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.
Enright, Simon. "Cognitive Behaviour Therapy." British Medical Journal 314, no. 7097 (June 1997): 1811-16.
Goisman, R. M. "Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Today." Harvard Mental Health Letter 13, no. 11 (May 1997): 4-7.
Albert Ellis Institute. 45 East 65th St., New York, NY 10021. (800) 323-4738. <http://www.rebt.org>.
Beck Institute. GSB Building, City Line and Belmont Avenues, Suite 700, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004-1610. (610) 664-3020. <http://www.beckinstitute.org>.
The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. P.O. Box 2195, Weirton, WV 26062. (800) 853-1135. <http://www.nacbt.org>.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin
Automatic thoughts—Thoughts that automatically come to mind when a particular situation occurs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to challenge automatic thoughts.
Cognitive restructuring—The process of replacing maladaptive thought patterns with constructive thoughts and beliefs.
Maladaptive—Unsuitable or counterproductive; for example, maladaptive behavior is behavior that is inappropriate to a given situation.
Psychodynamic therapy—A therapeutic approach that assumes dysfunctional or unwanted behavior is caused by unconscious, internal conflicts and focuses on gaining insight into these motivations.
Relaxation technique—A technique used to relieve stress. Exercise, biofeedback, hypnosis, and meditation are all effective relaxation tools. Relaxation techniques are used in cognitive-behavioral therapy to teach patients new ways of coping with stressful situations.
Schemas—Fundamental core beliefs or assumptions that are part of the perceptual filter people use to view the world. Cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to change maladaptive schemas.