Why is cognitive behavioural therapy so effective?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a treatment that focuses on how a person’s thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect their feelings and behaviours, and teaches patients to develop the coping skills necessary to successfully deal with the issues they may be facing.

It is a talking therapy and is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can also be used for other mental and physical health problems. Unlike some other forms of therapy, CBT deals with current problems rather than focusing on issues from the past. It looks for practical ways of improving your state of mind and breaking the vicious circle of negative thoughts and feelings.

What the experts say

Of all the talking therapies, CBT has the most clinical evidence to suggest that it works. Research studies have shown CBT can be at least as effective as taking medication to treat disorders like anxiety and depression, with the added benefit of not producing the side effects some medications do.

Doctor Jennifer Wild, Consultant Clinical Psychologist from Kings College London commented:

‘In the trials we’ve run with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder, we’ve seen that even when people stop the therapy, they continue improving because they have new tools in place and they’ve made behavioural and thinking style changes.’

How it works

CBT centres on the way a person thinks about situations and the affect they have on feelings and behaviour. For example, if someone trying to overcome an alcohol addiction keeps saying they can’t beat it, they will experience negative emotions. In turn, those bad feelings might then lead to certain behaviours (i.e. going to a bar where temptation is too much to resist or socialising with known bad influences). CBT addresses this defeatist thought process.

CBT is essentially re-training the brain to think differently. A therapist will work with a patient to identify and challenge their negative thinking patterns and behaviours. This can change a person’s perspective on certain situations and enable them to change their future behaviours.

One of the reasons cognitive behavioural therapy is effective for anxiety is because it addresses a process commonly referred to by psychologists as ‘negative reinforcement’.

Take the case of someone with a phobia of public speaking. By avoiding situations where they may have to speak publically, they can reduce their anxiety levels. This means a short-term reward of less anxiety, but in reality, the person is simply reinforcing their fear of public speaking by doing everything they can to avoid it.

Graded exposure is a CBT technique that helps a person to unlearn the patterns that cause phobias and anxiety disorders. By gradually confronting the things that scare them and observing that nothing bad actually happens, it retrains the brain not to fear it anymore.

Further studies

Some studies have also found that cognitive behavioural therapy has the ability to change the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain which is responsible for higher-level thinking – indicating CBT can make real and physical changes to both our emotional brain (instincts) and our logical brain (thoughts).

Research carried out a few years ago also found that cognitive behavioural therapy can help to reduce the symptoms of depression in patients who fail to respond to drug treatment. The study found that participants who received CBT in addition to antidepressants, rather than just antidepressants alone, were three times more likely to respond to treatment. These patients witnessed a reduction in their symptoms over the following 12 months.

What is CBT used for?

Cognitive behavioural therapy has proven particularly successful in cases of:

  • Anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Drug and alcohol addictions
  • Eating disorders
  • OCD
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Sex addiction
  • Psychosis
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • CBT can also be helpful for a number of other conditions including chronic pain, learning disabilities, anger problems, breaking habits and overcoming sleep issues

This type of therapy focuses on tackling present problems, so it may not be suitable for patients who have more complicated roots, like childhood trauma leading to depression, in which case a longer-term therapy may be expedient.

CBT can be administered to individuals, couples, families or groups and it can be used alone or in conjunction with medication. Many patients find it empowering and successful because it teaches them to solve their problems using their own resources. It also helps people to develop skills that they can use for the rest of their lives which increases the likelihood of long-term success.

If you think that you or someone you know could benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy, please feel free to contact Life Works in the strictest of confidence and we will be more than happy to help.

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