Top Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is popular for its practical system of techniques that are highly effective in treating a wide variety of mental health issues — including PTSD, depression, phobias, and other significant problems. But it’s not just for those who suffer serious illnesses. Anyone who wants to better deal with stress and change their responses to everyday stressors can benefit. Let’s explore how CBT can help and look at ten CBT techniques that can empower clients even beyond the therapy session itself.

How CBT Can Help

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a flexible treatment that can help people in many ways, in a variety of situations. It focuses on changing ingrained patterns of thinking that drive behavior and affect emotions. Clients transition from being ruled by cognitive patterns (often developed during childhood as coping mechanisms) to first recognizing that a dysfunctional assumption or automatic thought is in the driver’s seat and then using specific techniques to break these cognitive patterns. CBT has proven effective with many different problems and issues, including:

  • Managing symptoms of mental illness
  • Preventing a relapse of mental illness symptoms
  • Coping with stressful life situations
  • Managing emotions
  • Coping with grief or loss
  • Overcoming emotional trauma related to abuse or violence
  • Coping with a medical illness and managing chronic physical symptoms

By helping clients to identify limiting behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and providing them with effective techniques and skills, you empower your clients to move towards a path of healing. This sense of new-found control can lead to significant improvements in quality of life and happiness. 

10 Popular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

CBT techniques can be used effectively alone, but they work best when you use a few in tandem, based on a client’s specific situation. They can be introduced during a session and the client can then continue practicing the techniques between visits to reinforce new skills leading to changes in behaviors and thoughts. All of these techniques help to identify maladaptive thinking and introduce how to make intentional, specific changes to achieve the desired outcome. 

1. Cognitive Restructuring or Reframing

This is the basic technique that helps people to identify thought patterns responsible for ineffective behavior and negative emotions and then reframe them into a more positive perspective. By recognizing that negative thought patterns aren’t balanced, such as placing too much importance on minor details or over-generalizing, clients are freed to consider a different point of view that focuses on the positive. This technique helps the client retrain their thought process by identifying and challenging the distortions in their thinking. 

2. Guided Discovery

In guided discovery, you as a therapist would get familiar with your client’s viewpoint and then ask questions to broaden their thinking and perhaps challenge their beliefs. You may want to ask the client to provide evidence of their assumptions as well as evidence that doesn’t support their beliefs — with the goal of helping them to see things from a different perspective. Guided discovery helps clients break away from patterns of negative thought and choose a more helpful path. 

3. Graded Exposure Therapy

Also called exposure therapy, this technique helps clients to slowly and systematically face what they fear. Because people tend to avoid situations they fear, their anxiety builds as a result. With guided exposure, you as the therapist incrementally expose your client to increasing levels of the thing that provokes fear or anxiety while sharing guidance on how to cope with the trigger(s) in the moment. Ultimately, this technique enables a person to feel more confident with their coping abilities and less vulnerable when they encounter the problematic trigger. 

4. Skills Training

Skills training gives people practical skills to achieve their goals. It may include communication training, assertiveness training, and social skills training and often uses modeling, role-playing, and direct instruction. Mindfulness is a particularly helpful skill that leverages Buddhist teachings — clients learn to disengage from negative thoughts and feelings and to redirect their attention to the present moment. 

5. Relaxation and Stress Reduction Techniques  

Progressive relaxation techniques like imagery, muscle relaxation, and deep-breathing exercises can help to lower stress and to increase a sense of control. These techniques are especially valuable as a client is going through challenging work such as exposure therapy.

6. Activity Scheduling and Behavior Activation

Identifying and scheduling positive, helpful behaviors increases the likelihood that clients will take action on them. Scheduling activities that people tend to put off can help them to follow through — going for a walk, working on a project, or learning a new skill. This technique is helpful for people with a tendency to procrastinate or who don’t engage in many rewarding activities due to depression. Activity scheduling helps people to practice behaviors that are likely to generate positive emotions.

7. Behavioral experiments 

In a behavioral experiment, the client is asked to predict what will happen before starting a task that makes them anxious. After the client completes that task, you discuss with them whether their prediction came true. Over a series of behavioral experiments, people often see that the catastrophe they initially predicted isn’t likely to happen. This method often helps to reduce anxiety. 

8. Journaling 

Writing is an effective way to get in touch with thoughts and feelings. For this reason, it’s helpful for people to identify and describe their thoughts, moods, and behaviors. You might ask a client to note new thoughts and behaviors they employed since their last session to help them see how much progress they’ve made. Another writing exercise is to list negative thoughts in one column and list positive alternative thoughts in another column. 

9. Roleplaying

Roleplaying different possible scenarios can help to reduce fear since it gives clients practice in these potential situations. It can help clients to identify automatic thoughts, create new responses and practice them, and modify core beliefs. Roleplaying can also help to build problem-solving skills, improve communication skills, and boost social skills such as assertiveness. 

10. Pie technique

Using a pie chart, this technique helps clients visualize their ideas and goals. This exercise enables them to use the information for goal-setting and accepting responsibility for outcomes. 

 

CBT techniques are highly effective in helping people deal with a range of mental health issues and stressors. As a therapist, you can provide clients with the means to manage their thoughts and reactions and empower them with skills they can use on an ongoing basis.

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