Cognitive Behavioral Therapy | How it Works

Did you know that what we do, and what we think influences how we feel?


Well, the fundamental principle of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that if you have a negative thought; you’ll have a negative outcome.

It’s the same thing as what you put into the world comes back.

If you put out negative stuff, you’ll get negative stuff in return; if you’re mean to someone, you’ll find someone who will be mean to you.

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What is Cognitive-Behavioral therapy (CBT)?

cognitive behavioural therapy

It is an evidence-based treatment that mainly focuses on your actions and what you can do to change them.

CBT focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors and how they affect each other.

One out of five people struggle with anxiety, depression, or panic attacks, and this therapy is excellent for these mental health-related issues.

It is normal to feel sad or gloomy for a day or two, but when it’s a constant feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, you should seek professional help.

There are many therapists out there who practice this therapy, and you can also do it individually or in groups.

It all depends on how comfortable you are around people; if you struggle with social anxiety, you should see a therapist individually.

If you are comfortable talking about your struggles in front of people you might not even know, then try the group therapy; you can even make some friends!

CBT can be helpful if you don’t have a mental health condition because you’ll learn how to manage stressful situations better.

We’ve briefly talked about the types of disorders this therapy focuses on, but there are many others: depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, sleep disorders, eating disorders, OCD, drug abuse, schizophrenia, sexual disorders, etc.

What are the techniques used in CBT?

There are many techniques used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy; some you can practice without a therapist’s help.

These techniques will help you think more rationally and turn your negative thoughts into positive ones.

You can practice them in your spare time and assess the effect on your overall wellbeing.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy techniques you can try today

Cognitive behavioral therapy

#1 Journaling

Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be helpful, especially to make you understand how irrational some fears are.

You might think that no one loves you, but try writing down “I think my friends don’t love me,” then add something nice your friend did for you “today they brought me a coffee.” You’ll see that your fear of being unloved is irrational, and your friends do love you.

You can journal daily, monthly, or whenever you feel like it.

There are days when you’ll feel good enough that you won’t need to write down your feelings because they are positive ones; some days, however, it will be tough.

So, pick up your pen and let yourself be vulnerable.

You’re allowed to be vulnerable to yourself; the words you don’t know how to say will come out easier once you get used to journaling, and you’ll be more in tune with your feelings.

You’ll also see a pattern, and next time you feel anxious, you’ll know how to deal with it.

#2 Guided discovery

This procedure usually involves a therapist because they know how to do it properly.

The therapist will acquaint your point of view, and they’ll ask you questions to challenge your beliefs.

Sometimes they’ll ask you to give them some evidence to back up your assumptions to indicate that they are correct.

Usually, this technique is useful if you struggle with anxiety or OCD since it’s common to assume the worst when you have anxiety disorders.

It will broaden your thinking as well as getting rid of some negative thoughts you’ve been cultivating for years.

Having someone ask you to prove to them why you think a certain thing is the way it is, is very useful if your thoughts are usually irrational and you can’t give them any proof.

#3 Cognitive restructuring

cognitive behavioural therapy

You’re overthinking something; in your head, all the questions start with “what if…?” and you end up not going to that party or going and thinking the worst will happen.

Sounds familiar?

Your therapist will ask about your thought process in certain situations so you can recognise the negative patterns.

Once you learn to recognise them, you can reframe those thoughts and turn them into positive thoughts.

You can turn the negative thought, “I’m such a failure, I can’t even do my job properly” into the positive belief, “I have so much to learn! I can’t wait to get better at something I love!”

This technique will require the help of a therapist at first, but once you get better at recognising patterns, you will be able to do it without help.

It only takes practice.

#4 Exposure therapy

This is not a therapy for everyone, even though it is particularly useful to confront fears and phobias.

The aim is to make you get used to your fears so that you no longer fear them.

It is usually done with people who have arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. They’ll be shown a tarantula in the first session. In the second session, the tarantula will roam around freely. In the third session, the arachnologist will ask the patient if they’re comfortable to hold the tarantula.

It is then done in small increments; the exposure will make you feel less vulnerable, and you’ll get more confident day-by-day.

You need the help of at least two specialists here, and it is expensive, so before considering it and unless you can afford it, it is advisable to try the other techniques.

#5 Behavioral experiment

This is an interesting one because you’ll be asked to predict the worst-case scenario, and then after you’ve been through the situation, you’ll be asked if your predictions came true.

This technique aims at making you understand that “it is all in your head” – I know, how many times have you heard this sentence? – and that your predictions are not likely to happen. Once you get accustomed to this type of thinking, your anxiety levels will become lower.

You won’t necessarily need a therapist for this one, even though it would be helpful to have someone more experienced than you.

#6 Relaxation

cognitive behavioural techniques

Using relaxation skills in CBT to calm anxiety involves techniques aimed at reducing muscle tension, slowing down breathing and calming the mind.

Relaxation techniques follow a structured process such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices (techniques that slow down the mind).

Other non-structured activities such as self-care, self-love and enjoying pleasurable activities are also helpful to make us feel relaxed.

Research shows that relaxation techniques are best used in combination with other CBT skills and are most effectively when practiced consistently.

Different techniques work for different people, so to start off with, try to find the best relaxation strategy that you are likely to enjoy and stick to it.

Tips for starting a relaxation technique

  • Learn when and how to use these skills.
  • Learn to breathe in ways that will promote calm and relaxation.
  • Slow down activity in the mind to avoid or learn to better tolerate “racing thoughts.”
  • Increase awareness of tension in the body and pause for a moment to relax the body
  • Improve awareness of the difference between tension and relaxation using mindfulness techniques such as guided and unguided meditation.
  • Lower general levels of tension and restlessness in the body.
  • Work on one task at a time
  • Learn to incorporate activities into our lives that are fun and/or make us feel competent.
  • Be calmer in our daily lives by learning to “slow down” and set realistic goals for our lives.

My Relaxation Plan

what is cognitive behavioural therapy

Use the following questions and design your own relaxation plan to incorporate relaxation skills into your daily life.

In time, you can find the best strategy that will suit you.

How I plan to incorporate relaxation into my daily life

  • Formal relaxation exercises (Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Mindfulness, Slow Diaphragmatic Breathing, Yoga):
  • How often (days per week, time of day, etc.)
  • Pleasure and mastery (activities I enjoy, socialising, things I am good at):
  • Self-care (see the examples of self-care and write down examples that would improve your life):
  • Other soothing activities:
  • Are there any aspects of my lifestyle (time management, too many projects, etc.) that increase my level of tension and anxiety daily?
  • What could be modified?
  • What could I add on?
  • How would my life improve if I incorporated some of the elements above into my daily life?
  • What is one thing I can do today or tomorrow to make a small step toward more relaxation in my daily life?

Can I practice CBT for myself?

CBT for therapy

Does cognitive behavioural therapy intrigue you, but you can’t afford it?

What if you could do it to yourself? Of course, you’re not a professional, but there are some things you can do that don’t need any qualification.

We’ve talked about journaling, which is relatively easy; you’ll need a cheap notebook and a pen.

If you’re the creative type, you can buy a bullet journal and some markers and write down what you feel using colors and pictures.

You can also try predicting the worst-case scenario and see how things play out. It’s not as fun as journaling, but it involves the same amount of creativity.

Finally, instead of saying, “I’m a bad person,” say “I did my best to be a good person today, and I made some mistakes, I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Change your point of view, don’t blame yourself for the things you didn’t do or could have done better. After all, you’re human; making mistakes is part of the living experience.

Although CBT provides us with the techniques to fight against anxiety, there are other lifestyle changes that can help to keep anxiety from interfering with our life aims and move us closer to living the lives we want.

Try out some of these self-care changes you can start off with. Here’s my article on self-love and self-care.

Self-care techniques you will find useful


  • Diet–eating a balanced diet to help maintain health and overall wellbeing.
  • Confront conflict–Learn to be assertive, do not allow interpersonal conflict to overcome your life.
  • Goal setting–Set realistic goals and remember to strive for balance. You do not have to reach a larger goal at once, but take one small step at a time to reach those larger goals.
  • Treat Physical Illness–There is a connection between your physical wellbeing and mental health. If you can improve your physical health, you are more likely to improve your mood and anxiety. Also, exercise regularly.
  • Moderate and Balance Coping Skills – Address anxiety from a variety of different angles by confronting fear, problem solving, accepting that which cannot be controlled, and changing your thinking when necessary. Take care of the body and mind.
  • Be mindful of the use of drugs as these can alter the state of mind–certain drugs, caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, other illicit drugs, can exacerbate anxiety in both the short and long term.
  • Slow down and set realistic goals – planning your day will ensure you manage your time effectively. Do you feel like rushing each day? If so, perhaps waking up 15minutes earlier so you are able to slow down on your pace and reduce any sense of urgency.
  • Sleep–sleeping well is an important aspect of managing anxiety. Have at least 7 hours of sleep and if you suffer from sleep apnoea or insomnia, speak to your Doctor.

Are there any risks in CBT?

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy makes you feel emotionally uncomfortable; that’s for sure. With your therapist, you’ll explore painful feelings, and these bottled up feelings may make you cry, feel upset, or angry. They may drain you.

It is expected, though, if you’re feeling drained, it means that the therapy sessions are working, and you’ll soon feel better.

The only risk is not trying; by shutting people off, you end up even more alone, and your depression or anxiety may get worse.

Remember to choose a qualified therapist if you decide to seek help from a professional; it’ll make all the difference.

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