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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 101

In hopes of giving you a better understanding of the philosophical foundation at Balanced Achievement, we have created a ‘Balanced Achievement 101’ series that reviews the various components that merge together to form our teaching ideology. In each article (links can be found at the bottom of this page) we outline the given topic, discuss important historical information, and examine key educational concepts that are relevant to the teachings at Balanced Achievement. In this article, we explore one of the most effective psychotherapeutic treatment strategies in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 101.

It was in the 1960s when a psychiatrist by the name of Aaron T. Beck began developing the psychotherapeutic treatment strategies used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). While working at the University of Pennsylvania, Beck was treating individuals suffering from depression with psychoanalysis techniques, popularized by Sigmund Freud, and decided to carry out a number of studies and experiments in hopes of validating the legitimacy of his work. Fortunately, Beck’s theories about the effectiveness of psychoanalysis were not validated but rather dismissed, as he determined that the treatment strategies had little positive affect on his patients.

Aaron T. Beck is shown alongside of the Dalai Lama. Beck is the founding father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

The Dalai Lama has praised the work of Aaron Beck.

Upon coming to this realization, Beck began searching for alternative treatment options that would more effectively help those who were dealing with depressive symptoms. By working with numerous individuals, Beck was able to determine that his depressed patients shared a common cognitive pattern of persistently negative automatic thoughts. He discovered that his patients, oftentimes unknowingly, all had negative ideas about themselves, the world, and/or their future.

After coming to the conclusion that all depressed individuals had negative and faulty cognitive patterns, Beck began developing and using new psychotherapeutic strategies focused on shifting his patient’s negative automatic thoughts. By helping individuals identify, evaluate, and challenge their negative cognitions, Beck began noticing improvements in his patients’ psychological, emotional, and behavioral well-being.

Since Aaron Beck pioneered the initially treatment strategies found within Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, numerous psychologists and psychiatrists have continued to build upon the foundation. Today, CBT is not only used to treat depression, but also other debilitating mental health disorders that stem from anxiety, addiction, and anger. More recently, there has been an increased emphasis on using CBT to not only treat the mentally ill but also healthy individuals who are focused on improving the quality of their lives. Over the decades, research has shown that CBT is one of the most, if not the most, effective psychotherapeutic treatment strategies.

The Foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

To gain an understanding of what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is all about, we can look at a number of important conceptual models that theorize human reality and show how individuals become negatively affected by mental health disorders. Before we examine these models, however, it is important to point out that proponents of CBT largely believe that an individual’s behaviors, emotions, and quality of life are largely a byproduct of their internal thoughts. For this reason, Cognitive Behavioral Therapists will prioritize working with an individual’s automatic thoughts and faulty cognitions, in hopes of inducing emotional and behavioral change.

It should also be reiterated, that while CBT is primarily focused on helping individuals who are struggling with mental illness, its concepts, and strategies can just as easily be applied by mentally healthy individuals who are focused on creating an abundance of success, happiness, and fulfillment.

A picture of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy triangle is shown. This model shows us how an individual's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors all affect one another.The first model that we can look at is what is referred to as the CBT Triangle, which represents one of the most important foundational concepts in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT therapists work with their patients under the assumption that every individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are continuously affecting each other all of the time. If an individual begins to think negatively, there will be negative consequences at the emotional and behavioral levels. Similarly, if an individual behaves in a harmful manner, they will experience negative ramifications at the cognitive and emotional levels.

The framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tells us that our cognitions continuously affect our emotions and behaviors, our emotions continuously affect our behaviors and cognitions, and our behaviors continuously affect our cognitions and emotions.

The majority of individuals who develops mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, unknowingly allow their negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to continuously influence one another until they spin out of control. By understanding this truth, a CBT therapist will aim to break this vicious cycle by working with patients to discover, evaluate, and challenge their dysfunctional thoughts. While there are behavioral steps that an individual can take to overcome a mental health disorder, CBT therapists will always start from the top by working with an individual’s cognitions.

The second CBT model that we can look at shows us how particular situations and events cause a chain reaction between our cognitions, emotions, and behaviors. The cognitive model tells us that stimuli in our environments automatically create thoughts and images in our head, which in turn leads to our emotional and behavioral responses. If an individual suffering from social anxiety is put into a high-pressure social situation, they will have particular cognitions that heighten their anxiety and ultimately lead to their behavioral choices.

Oftentimes, in instances such as these, the individual suffering from social anxiety will completely remove themselves from the situation and look to find methods to lower their stress levels in similar situations fo the future. This could be by the way of breathing exercises, using products from this website, or finding a therapist who specialises in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

A cognitive behavioral therapy activating events model is shown. It tells us that situations cause thoughts which cause emotions which cause our behaviors.

Dysfunctional Thinking & Faulty Beliefs:

Based upon the two Cognitive Behavioral Therapy models that we just explored, it should be easier to see how the automatic thoughts of individuals greatly contribute to their emotional and behavioral wellbeing. When working with individuals suffering with mental illness, a CBT therapists will point the finger at overtly negative cognitions as being the culprits that cause emotional and behavioral disturbance. Moreover, it should be equally clear to see how particular environments, situations, and circumstances create automatic, and oftentimes unconscious, cognitive responses. With this information in hand, we can now examine the idea of automatic thoughts, and more specifically dysfunctional ways of thinking and underlying beliefs that affect the ways we think, feel, and behave.

According to the framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, individuals who suffer from mental illness will have negative cognitive distortions and/or deficiencies that cause them to think dysfunctionally. Cognitive distortions are characterized by the inaccurate processing of information and consist of particular cognitive patterns such as overgeneralization, catastrophic thinking, personalization, and all-or-none thinking. Cognitive deficiencies, on the other hand, consists of any barriers that negatively affect individuals’ thought processes and can be caused by drugs, alcohol, intellectual disabilities, and/or environmental factors.

When mentally ill individuals make beneficial changes at the level of their dysfunctional thinking, they will be more easily able to make behavioral choices that lead to improvements in their emotional well-being.

An image of an iceberg is shown with labels of automatic thoughts, underlying assumptions, and core beliefs. This cognitive behavioral therapy model shows how some cognitions can be seen at the conscious, but others remain unconscious.

Cognitions arise at the conscious and unconscious levels. (Photo/Vee Wong)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapists would also tell us that below the level of an individual’s surface level cognitive processes are beliefs that they hold about themselves, others, and the world at large. These beliefs, which oftentimes remain unconscious, play an important role in determining how people think, feel, and behave. Automatic thoughts and dysfunctional ways of thinking are especially affected by an individual’s underlying assumptions and core beliefs.

An individual’s underlying assumptions, or rules for living, largely determine their behavioral responses in particular situations, and oftentimes take the form of ‘if….then’ statements. Underlying assumptions are considered to be an intermediate stage of cognitions that reside between automatic thoughts and core beliefs. If a person’s underlying assumptions are rigid and inflexible, they can create counterproductive behavioral patterns. Below the level of underlying assumptions, at the deepest level of an individual’s cognitions, are core beliefs that act a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences.

If an individual modifies their dysfunctional beliefs, in comparison to dysfunctional thinking at the surface level, they can experience more permanent and life-affirming changes at the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels.

Other Important Principles of CBT:

Now that we have an understanding of the foundational concepts that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is built upon, we can dig deeper by looking at a number of other important CBT principles. Here are six additionally important Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concepts that help outline the treatment strategy as a whole:

  • CBT is based upon an ever-evolving case formulation that is continuously modified and updated when information, about an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, is gathered and recorded.
  • CBT is goal-oriented and helps individuals focus on problem-solving.
  • CBT teaches individuals to monitor, evaluate, and change their limiting thoughts and beliefs.
  • CBT is empirical in nature, meaning that individuals will create and test personal hypotheses as a way to work through their issues.
  • CBT therapists aim to teach their patients important cognitive, behavioral, and emotional skills, so that they can act as their own therapists in the future.

Positively Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

A computer is shown with a notebook and camera by its side. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be practiced by anyone at anytime.Since cognitive behavioral therapy explains and outlines the processes of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns, its strategies can just as easily be used as a tool for personal development and growth. While CBT therapists primarily work to enhance patients’ lives by overcoming mental health disorders, healthy individuals can similarly use the strategies found within CBT to create more meaningful success and happiness in their lives. The tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy allow individuals to regularly experience positive emotional states, such as gratitude and confidence because they help individuals focus their efforts on creating beneficial cognitive patterns.

Practical Tools of CBT:

If you are interested in using the strategies found within Cognitive Behavioral therapy, regardless of your current cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states, you can begin by using a number of practical CBT tools that will push you towards higher levels of happiness, success, and fulfillment. Below, you will some of the most useful CBT strategies and tools, accompanied by descriptions, links to more thorough explanations, and relevant instructional forms:

Self-Monitoring: One of the most important CBT activities is the process of self-monitoring. By developing the ability to observe one’s cognitions, actions, and emotions, individuals can more effectively deal with negative thoughts and behavioral patterns. Two relevant CBT tools that you may want to use are the ABCD Model and Dysfunctional Thoughts Record. The ABCD model is an acronym that stands for Activating event, Belief about the event, Consequences of beliefs, and Dispute of beliefs. This model can help individuals understand and modify their faulty beliefs. Additionally, the Dysfunctional Thoughts Record is another useful self-monitoring tool that allows individuals to rationally analyze and change their dysfunctional cognitions.

SMART Goals: We previously discussed how one of the primary principles in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that it is goal-oriented and helps individuals solve problems. To keep individuals focused on their desired outcomes, CBT recommends using SMART Goals which is another acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Limited. By setting goals within these guidelines, individuals are much more likely to succeed while trying to manifest their desired outcomes.

Action Planning: While the SMART Goals that individuals set in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are typically longer-term objectives, action planning helps to break them down into stepping stones that take them from point A to point B. During a CBT session, the therapist and patient will work together to create meaningful assignments for the patient to complete before the following session. By breaking goals down into smaller steps, and setting up ‘homework assignments’ that push them towards success, individuals can monitor their path and make changes along the way. Action planning also helps individuals think creatively about potential ways to speed up the achievement process.

Behavioral Interventions: It should now be clear to see how the framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy largely focuses on altering an individual’s thoughts, however, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t behavioral steps one can take to improve their emotions and cognitions. If you recall the CBT Triangle we discussed above, you will remember that just as cognitions affect emotions and behaviors, behaviors affect emotions and cognitions. By taking behavioral steps that produce desirable emotional responses, individuals can assist in the process of cognitive restructuring. Two of the most important behavioral interventions in CBT are Behavioral Experiments and Behavioral Activation. Behavioral experiments help individuals gather the information that can be used to verify or disprove particular beliefs, while behavioral activation helps individuals break the cycle of detrimental behavioral patterns.

Within the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, there is a wide variety of valuable information and practical strategies that can be used by any individual. While CBT is most commonly used as a psychotherapeutic treatment strategy, each of us can improve our lives by using it, regardless of our current state of being. By understanding the basics of CBT, you can now take the reigns of your life by restructuring your own cognitions and taking behavioral steps that push you closer to excellence.


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