Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)


What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a structured, goal-oriented type of psychotherapy (talk therapy). Counselors use it to treat or manage mental health disorders and emotional concerns.

A therapist or psychologist helps you take a close look at your thoughts and emotions. You’ll come to understand how your thoughts affect your actions. Through CBT, you can unlearn negative thoughts and behaviors and learn to adopt healthier thinking patterns and habits.

CBT usually takes place over a limited number of sessions. Using a question-and-answer format, your therapist helps you gain a different perspective. As a result, you learn to respond better to stress, pain, and difficult situations.

CBT can be used alone or along with medication and other therapies. Your therapist will customize your treatment based on the issue you’re addressing.

How do I choose a therapist?

A therapist can be a medical doctor (a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications), psychiatric nurse, psychologist, social worker, and marriage or family therapist. Talk to people you trust to give you a referral, whether it’s your personal care physician or a friend or family member. Or search online through local and state psychological associations.

Be sure that any therapist you’re looking at is a state certified and licensed mental health professional and that they treat your area of concern (for example, eating disorders, depression, marriage and family problems, anxiety, PTSD, etc.).

Most therapists’ websites list the conditions and problems they treat. If you have questions, call, text or email the therapists’ office before you choose.

What disorders and conditions does cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treat?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a valuable tool for treating and managing a wide range of mental disorders and emotional challenges. People of all ages (including children) can receive CBT.

Therapists and psychologists use CBT to treat many disorders and conditions, including:

  • Mental illness: Often, people who have various mental disorders respond well to CBT. It can help people with depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When combined with medication, CBT is also useful in treating bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
  • Eating disorders: CBT can help people who have bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorders.
  • Substance use disorders: People who have substance use disorders use CBT to adjust to sober living and support their recovery.
  • Sleeping disorders: Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that CBT can help treat or manage.
  • Chronic pain: CBT can teach people who have fibromyalgia or other chronic pain disorders to manage pain in a new way. A new perspective may help you change how you respond to physical discomfort.
  • Everyday challenges: Cognitive behavioral therapy can benefit anyone who is struggling with life’s challenges. You might seek help for issues like grief, divorce, problems at work or relationship troubles.

Procedure Details

How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?

Cognitive behavioral therapy usually takes place over a limited number of sessions (typically five to 20).

Don’t expect results immediately; usually therapy takes time and sometimes involves uncomfortable work. Think of your therapist as a partner working with you through a process. If you keep working together toward the goals you’ve set, you’ll be able to mark your progress over time.

Here’s how it works. Your therapist will:

  • Gain an understanding of the problem: At the start of therapy, you’ll discuss challenges you’re dealing with, symptoms you’ve noticed, and any concerns you have. If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, tell your therapist. This important first step will help you set goals for your therapy.
  • Ask a series of questions: Depending on your situation, your therapist may ask you questions. You might discuss an incident in your past, fears or phobias, troubling behaviors, or your thoughts and feelings. Together, you’ll explore your answers so you can gain insight into how you respond to challenges in your life.
  • Help you recognize problematic thoughts and behaviors: Through interactive question-and-answer sessions, your therapist will encourage you to pay close attention to how you respond to tough situations. You’ll work together to identify unhealthy emotions, beliefs or behaviors that may be contributing to your troubles. Your therapist may ask you to keep a journal of these situations and your responses to them.
  • Work with you to adjust your thoughts and behaviors: Your therapist will help you find ways to change negative emotions, thoughts and habits. You can change your perspective and adopt positive thought patterns and behaviors. Then you can apply those skills to future situations.

Risks / Benefits

What are the pros and cons of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people become more aware of their emotions, thoughts and behaviors. After CBT, most people adopt healthier habits. CBT can’t make stressful situations disappear, but you can respond to them more positively and feel better overall.

Depending on your situation, you might feel slightly more upset during therapy. Your therapist can help you work through these feelings. You can use new skills to overcome negative emotions.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I call the doctor?

It’s normal to feel uncomfortable during therapy because it can be painful to explore negative emotions, fears and past experiences. If your symptoms get worse or you experience increases anxiety or depression, contact your doctor right away. Get help immediately if you have thoughts of suicide or if you’re thinking about harming yourself or others.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/13/2020.


  • Merck Manuals. Treatment of Mental Illness. ( Accessed 1/23/2020.
  • American Psychological Association. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? ( Accessed 1/23/2020.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therapy to Improve Children’s Mental Health. ( Accessed 1/23/2020.
  • Hofmann SG, Asnaani A, Vonk IJ, Sawyer AT, Fang A. The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. ( Cognit Ther Res. 2012 Oct 1;36(5):427-440. Accessed 1/23/2020.

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