Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.
It is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems.
CBT cannot remove your problems, but it can help you deal with them in a more positive way. It is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.
CBT aims to help you crack this cycle by breaking down overwhelming problems into smaller parts and showing you how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel.
Unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with your current problems, rather than focusing on issues from your past. It looks for practical ways to improve your state of mind on a daily basis.
Read more about how CBT works.
When is CBT used?
CBT has been shown to be an effective way of treating a number of different mental health conditions.
In addition to depression or anxiety disorders, CBT can also help people with:
CBT is sometimes used to treat people with long-term health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). CBT cannot cure the physical symptoms of these health conditions, but it can help people cope better with their symptoms.
Finding a CBT therapist
If you think you have a problem that may benefit from treatment with CBT, the first step is usually to speak to your GP.
Your GP may be able to refer you for CBT that is free on the NHS, although this is not available in all areas and the waiting list can be long.
If you can afford it, you can choose to pay for your therapy privately. The cost of private therapy sessions varies, but it is usually £40-£100 per session.
If you are considering having CBT privately, ask your GP if they can suggest a local therapist. The British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) keeps a register of all accredited therapists in the UK and The British Psychological Society has a directory of chartered psychologists, some of whom specialise in CBT.
You can also use this website to search for CBT services near you.
What happens during CBT sessions?
If CBT is recommended, you will usually have a session with a therapist once a week or once every two weeks. The course of treatment will usually last for between five and 20 sessions, with each session lasting 30-60 minutes.
During the sessions, you will work with your therapist to break down your problems into their separate parts – such as your thoughts, physical feelings and actions.
You and your therapist will analyse these areas to work out if they are unrealistic or unhelpful and to determine the effect they have on each other and on you. Your therapist will then be able to help you work out how to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.
After working out what you can change, your therapist will ask you to practise these changes in your daily life and you will discuss how you got on during the next session.
The eventual aim of therapy is to teach you to apply the skills you have learnt during treatment to your daily life. This should help you manage your problems and stop them having a negative impact on your life – even after your course of treatment finishes.
Pros and cons of CBT
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages of CBT.
Research has shown that CBT can be as effective as medication in treating some mental health problems. Compared to other talking therapies, CBT can also be completed over a relatively short period of time.
However, to benefit from CBT, you need to commit yourself to the process. A therapist can help and advise you, but they cannot make your problems go away without your full co-operation.
Also, due to the structured nature of CBT it may not be suitable for people with more complex mental health needs or learning difficulties.
Read more about the pros and cons of CBT.