Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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Editor: Jacqueline L. Longe
Date: 2016
The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology
From: The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology(Vol. 1. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 207

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy based on the principle that behavior, feelings, and thoughts all influence each other and that maladaptive moods and behavior can be changed by replacing distorted or inappropriate thoughts with thought patterns that are healthier and more realistic.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It does not focus on diagnosing an individual or on a specific diagnosis but considers the individual as a whole and determines what critical thinking or behaviors need changing. When cognitive behavioral therapy is applied to treat depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, it first identifies negative thought patterns and helps to change them to more positive thought patterns so that the patient can change negative moods and behaviors. The combination of behavior and cognitive principles is undertaken to address specific problems and is action oriented, using specific strategies to address the problems. It differs from psychoanalysis because it does not look for unconscious meanings that underlay the patient's moods and behaviors and instead looks at conscious thoughts that influence the patient's behavior directly. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used alone or combined with other therapies and/or medication as part of an overall treatment plan.

Pioneers in the development of cognitive behavioral therapy include Albert Ellis (1929–), who developed rational-emotive therapy (RET) in the 1950s, and Aaron Beck (1921–), whose cognitive therapy has been widely used for depression and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy combines principles of behavior therapy and cognitive therapy and has become increasingly popular as therapists recognize that cognitive processes can act alone to influence behavior.

A variety of conditions can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, including depression, mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders and obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse. In adults, cognitive behavioral therapy has been effective in treating chronic low back pain, personality disorders, psychosis, and schizophrenia. It has also been applied in treating repetitive behavior disorders such as tic disorder and trichotillomania, a condition in which the individual pulls hair from the scalp compulsively. Cognitive therapy is not typically used for disorders such as autism, in which thinking or communication is severely disturbed, but the technique is being investigated for treating more serious psychiatric disorders.

Cognitive behavior therapy tends to be short-term, often between 10 and 20 sessions, similar to other types of behavioral interventions. It focuses on the client's present thinking and behavior rather than the client's life-long history of thought patterns, behaviors, and experiences, which is the basis of Freudian psychoanalysis and other psychodynamically oriented therapies. The therapeutic process begins with identifying distorted perceptions and thought patterns that may be causing or contributing to the client's problems, often through detailed record keeping by Page 208  |  Top of Articlethe client. Self-defeating ways of thinking identified by Aaron Beck include all-or-nothing thinking; magnifying or minimizing the importance of an event; overgeneralization such as drawing extensive conclusions from a single event; taking events too personally (personalization); giving disproportionate weight to negative events (selective abstraction); drawing illogical conclusions from an event (arbitrary inference); and a pattern of negative, scolding thoughts that become ingrained beliefs (automatic thoughts).

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Arbitrary inference
—Reaching conclusions without sufficient evidence, such as thinking other people disapprove of oneself but with no knowledge that this is true.
Automatic thoughts
—Streams of negative thoughts about oneself, others, or the future that seem to arise spontaneously, especially in depressive states.
Behavioral therapy
—A treatment that helps change potentially self-destructive behavior by replacing bad thoughts or habits with good ones; also called behavioral modification and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Conduct disorder
—Antisocial and sometimes aggressive behavior displayed in childhood or adolescence that is intended to hurt others and may violate social expectations in a particular environment, including hurting other children or animals, setting fires, lying, and theft.
—Modification of something to make it more meaningful or appropriate for a specific individual or taking something personally that may be a generalization.
—A system of psychological theory and therapy based on treating mental disorders by evaluating conscious and unconscious elements in an individual's mind, including repressed fears and conflicts.
Selective abstraction
—Forming a conclusion based on an isolated detail, such as deciding one will flunk out of school because one had a low score on one test.

After identifying negative thinking patterns, the therapist and client work together on replacing those negative thoughts with more adaptive ones. Various techniques may be employed, including self-evaluation, positive self-talk, control of negative thoughts and feelings, and accurate assessment of both external situations and of the client's own emotional state. Clients can practice these techniques alone, with the therapist, and also, when possible, in the actual settings in which stressful situations develop. As patients begin to break out of their habitual dysfunctional response patterns in specific situations, they gradually build up confidence in their ability to cope successfully with difficult situations.

Cognitive behavior therapy is widely used as an intervention for children and adolescents who are anxious, depressed, or have problems with social skills. As in treatment of adult clients, children undergoing cognitive behavior therapy are made aware of distorted perceptions and errors in logic that are responsible for inaccurate or unrealistic views of the world around them. The therapist then helps the child change erroneous beliefs and perceptions through instruction, modeling, and rehearsing new attitudes and responses, encouraging the child to practice these attitudes and responses in real-life situations.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has worked especially well, often in combination with medication, for children and adolescents with depression. It can help free depressed children from the pervasive feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are supported by self-defeating beliefs. Children in treatment are assigned to monitor their thoughts, and the therapist points out ways that these repetitive thoughts (such as “Nothing is any fun” or “I never do anything right” ) misrepresent or distort reality. Other therapeutic techniques may include the completion of graded task assignments and the deliberate scheduling of pleasurable activities.

Children and adolescents with conduct disorder, which is characterized by aggressive, antisocial actions, including hurting animals and other children, setting fires, lying, and theft, may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. Young people with this disorder are taught ways to handle anger and resolve conflicts peacefully. Through instruction, modeling, role playing, and other techniques, they learn to react to events in socially appropriate, nonviolent ways. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder has also been treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals control their emotions and avoid impulsive behavior. They are often taught to memorize and internalize a set of behavior guidelines that can be repeated when needed, such as “Stop—Listen— Look—Think—Act.”

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Beck, Judith S. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford, 2011.

Evans, Ian M. How and Why Thoughts Change: Foundations of Cognitive Psychotherapy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


Hayes, S. C., et al. “Open, Aware, and Active: Contextual Approaches as an Emerging Trend in the Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 7 (January 2011): 141–68.


Albert Ellis Institute, 145 E. 32nd St., 9th Fl., New York, NY, 10016, (212) 535-0822, Fax: (212) 249-3582,, .

Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapies, 305 7th Ave., 16th Fl., New York, NY, 10008, (212) 6471890, Fax: (212) 647-1865.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3631000147