What is CBT?

Has someone recommended that you use CBT as a tool for mental health? Maybe you're wondering what it is? In this post I will share the basics of CBT and how it can help you.

I personally have received CBT therapy and done several CBT training programs. I know that it has made a huge difference in my life and I believe it can make a difference in most people's lives, even if they are not suffering from a mental health illness.

What Is CBT?

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In psychology there are several schools of thought on how to explain human behavior. Two of those schools of thought are the Cognitive and Behavioral perspectives, and these play a role in CBT treatment although; CBT does also borrow from other perspectives as well. CBT is focused on making real changes in your day to day life.

The Beck Institute of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy defines CBT as "a time-sensitive, structured, present-oriented psychotherapy directed toward solving current problems and teaching clients skills to modify dysfunctional thinking and behavior."

Notice that their definition prioritizes solving "current" problems and "teaching" skills. While some therapy approaches focus on working through past issues (and those past issues may be at the root of current problems in a person's life), CBT focuses on the issues affecting a person's daily life. So, for example, a person may be having issues with drinking heavily, and while there may be many underlying issues that led to the person starting this habit like having alcoholic parents, CBT would help the person focus on specific actions to take to tackle the drinking problem now.

The word Cognitive means "of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering)"

The word Behavior means "an action, activity, or process which can be observed and measured."

The third aspect of CBT, that is not directly named, is the Emotional aspect.

Basically CBT works on the patterns surrounding your THINKING, ACTIONS, and EMOTIONS.


We all look at thoughts differently. Some people feel that we have no control over them. Some people believe we have absolute control of them. What if I told you that it's more like in the middle??? CBT takes this into consideration to help you make necessary changes.

Some of our thoughts are what are called Automatic Thoughts and Images. These are the thoughts that just pop up in your mind, without prompt, and without you actively trying to think them. Then, there are thoughts, that we actively control.

Think of how when you're reading in your head, you have one voice reading the words and another thinking about what it means or creating a visual image in your brain.

In CBT you would learn to notice the automatic thoughts that come up, what causes them to come up, how you typically react to them, and how to change those reactions.


We all know that our behavior has a huge impact on our happiness and life in general. Good habits makes us happy and bad habits make us sad. The problem is that most of us don't know how to change our habits. Changing behavior sounds easy but it rarely is. CBT is probably the biggest method used to help people quit negative habits like smoking and drug use. It helps people understand what actions are leading them down a bad road and which actions can help them turn back. The reason deciding to just change a habit is almost impossible is because our actions are so closely related to our thoughts and emotions and in order to change one, all three must be addressed.


While our thoughts and actions are what we tend to focus on changing the most, it's our emotions that get us into trouble! It's our anger that makes a fight seem like a good idea and our sadness that makes us avoid happy events. A lot of people believe that our feelings are just there, always as a reaction, and can't be changed. While others are adamant about keeping their feelings tightly wrapped and hidden. This creates both relating both to uncontrolled emotional reactions and overly controlled repressive feelings. Believe it or not, changing our emotions is possible but it requires us to look at more than just our feelings alone.

(Note that the word feelings can be used for both emotional reactions like feeling sad and physical reactions like feeling tired which can fall under the behavior section as well if for example you feel thirsty because you didn't drink water.)


So basically your thoughts, feelings, and actions affect each other and create more thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Over time these patterns become cemented and changing even one link in the chain becomes very hard. With CBT you learn to look at these patterns and understand what triggers the reactions so that you can make changes.

Your thoughts can affect both your emotions or behavior. So it's the morning and an especially annoying song on your radio alarm wakes you up and you automatically think, "today is going to be a crappy day". That might make you feel upset all day or it may make you call into work.

Your emotions can affect both your thoughts and your behavior as well. You may see someone who in the past has said something negative to you, and automatically feel like crap when you see them. This may lead to negative thoughts about yourself like "why am i so ugly?" or negative behavior like lighting a cigarette to feel better.

Your behavior can also affect both your thoughts and emotions. Switching a healthy breakfast for some sweets and sugary coffee seems like a good idea until 2 hours later when your sugar drops and you get hangry (hungry and angry!). Binging on junk food may make you feel better at the moment but can leave you with an emotional hangover and negative self thoughts!

If you can see where a (thought, emotion, or action) affects your (emotions, thoughts, or actions) and how it leads to another (action, thought, or emotion) then you can see exactly where to make the change. You can figure what triggers the response in the first place and change the trigger.


I hope this gives you a better understanding of what CBT is and how it works. CBT is very personal and requires a personalized approach. Check out the articles below to learn more and go to Prevail to check out a low cost CBT program that you can start today! :)


Further Reading: