Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven, evidence-based form of psychotherapy based on the theory that our thoughts affect how we feel. It is a collaborative and structured therapy that focuses on learning new skills, including problem-solving, identifying distorted thinking, changing behaviors, and improving interpersonal relationships.
Here are some examples of distorted thinking:
OVER-GENERALIZING: At times, we may see things as all-or-nothing. For example, if one thing goes wrong with a project, we may think that the entire project is a failure. Or if there is one thing that upsets us about a person, we may decide we do not care for that person at all.
MIND READING: We assume that we know what someone is thinking. We may tell ourselves that someone thinks we are “stupid” or does not like us even though there is no evidence that supports this thought.
CATASTROPHIZING: We exaggerate how “awful” something is or imagine the worst possible outcome. Perhaps our boss wants to speak with us and we catastrophize that we are going to be fired. Or it rains on one of the days of a vacation we may think that “this is the worst thing that could have happened”.
FORTUNE TELLING: We think we know for sure what is going to happen. For example, we tell ourselves, “I know I am not going to get that promotion” or “I won’t be able to handle that assignment”.
Thousands of research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has been shown to improve depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, Adult ADHD and many other disorders. As a psychiatrist and therapist, I have been practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in my New York City private practice of nearly 15 years. Many psychiatrists choose to only prescribe medications in treating patients; however, some psychiatrists are trained in both medication management and cognitive behavioral therapy, thus providing the option of both treatments in one place. I am trained and certified in both medication management and CBT. I found several principles of CBT to be particularly helpful in treatment and may be helpful in your treatment. Here are the principles that your psychiatrist or therapist may use in order to provide you with the most effective treatment.
1. DISCUSS GOALS OF TREATMENT
During the initial assessment phase, it is important for your psychiatrist or therapist to collaborate with you on the goals of treatment. This helps keep the treatment focused and productive. Without goals, therapy can end up focusing on whatever problem is coming up that week and can interfere with progress of the original presenting problems. Sometimes, the patient may not be able to specifically describe a goal except a vague “I want to be less anxious” or “I want to feel happier”. This is fine at the beginning. However, over the first couple of months, you should return to this discussion about goals to see if they can be described in more specific terms.
For example, if someone presents with depression, the goals may include the following: Finding a more fulfilling job, returning to college, exercising three times a week, making two new friends, and stopping the use of marijuana.
2. START EACH SESSION WITH AN AGENDA
Every session, your psychiatrist or therapist should start with an agenda that is discussed collaboratively between the therapist and the patient. Again, this helps to keep the session focused and more effective. The agenda should include following up on homework from the previous session, a check-in about the mood and week, bridging or reviewing the topics and progress from the previous session, and topics related to discuss in the current session that is related to a specific goal.
3. DISCUSS WHERE TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE
Most therapy goals will have several components including distorted thoughts, beliefs or behaviors. Thus, during the session, collaboratively decide on which level to address the goals. If you are working on distorted thoughts, it is important to elicit what thoughts or images occur that are leading to the distress, such as anxiety, low mood, or blocking a certain behavior. If you are working on certain behaviors such as social skills or relationship issues, it is important to discuss when the skills will be used and how likely it is the skills will be used. Another useful technique for addressing behaviors is role playing and visualizing which helps to practice the skills and address any blocks or anxieties around the behavior.
4. USE FLASHCARDS
Flashcards can be used to remember the key points of the session or a mantra that may help with certain thoughts or feelings. If I am working with a patient who is struggling with depression, I will title the flashcard something like “Survival Kit” and it will include strategies to cope with the depression such as reaching out to a friend, getting out of the house, reaching out to me, or taking care of a small chore.
5. STAY FOCUSED
At the beginning of treatment, goals for therapy are discussed. Sometimes, the therapy session may head in a direction that is unrelated to any of the goals of treatment. This is appropriate at certain times, but if this is happening every session and for the entire duration, there can be a limit to the progress of therapy. Structure is important in CBT, but flexibility is also important. This would be a time to collaborate to discuss whether to continue on the current diversion or issue that is being discussed or go back to what was discussed in the agenda.
6. ASSIGN HOMEWORK
Towards the end of each session, a collaborative discussion takes place about homework or “action tasks” to perform between sessions. An action task might be to buy a calendar if one of the issues is time management or recording thoughts and images that occur during stressful periods in a notebook to discuss and address at the following session. Always make sure to follow-up on the homework or action task at the next session or it creates the impression that working on problems or goals in between sessions is not a crucial part of getting better.
7. ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Towards the end of the session, ask what went well during the session, what could have gone better, and what the main take-away messages are. This helps to maximize the gains of therapy, improve future sessions, and improve rate of progress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an extremely effective form of therapy, either with or without medications and is an excellent way to practice psychiatry.