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.

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