Cognitive therapy changes a person's thinking towards a situation by telling him the other less negative possibilities he can think of. Behavioral therapy changes a person's thinking towards a situation by modifying the way he behaves in that situation. Therefore, both cognitive and behavioral therapy aims at changing the way a person thinks. Cognitive and behavioral therapies can be used singly or combined to treat a number of psychiatric conditions. The specific techniques in cognitive behavioral therapy include relaxation, exposure, social skills training (assertiveness training and anger management), enuresis alarms and dialectic behavioral therapy.
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The word ‘cognitive’ refers to all the mental processes of a person (dreams, memories, images, thoughts, and attention). The word ‘behavioral’ refers to everything that a person does (how he tries to solve a problem, how he acts and avoidance). 

Understanding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive therapy aims at a person’s thinking. This is because normally a person feels what he thinks. The aim of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to change the way a person thinks. A healthy and positive thinking would result in a person to feel happier. Thinking or beliefs about themselves and people around them are changed by convincing them to take their beliefs as hunches rather than facts and keep beliefs non-extreme and flexible.

For example, you are talking to someone and they look over your shoulder as you are talking, break eye contact, and yawn. You conclude that the other person thinks your conversation is boring and that he’d rather be talking to someone else. Cognitive therapy makes you realize that the person you were talking to may be tired, be day dreaming, or would have spotted someone he knows.

As the name implies, behavioral therapy emphasizes on behavior. It involves changing the way a person thinks and feels by modifying the way he behaves. For example, becoming more active if a person is depressed or facing fears step by step if a person is anxious. 

General Principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive and behavioral therapy start with a cognitive and behavioral analysis of the patient. The symptomatology or problem area of the patient is clearly defined, and the frequency, duration, and intensity of the symptoms are recorded, together with events that occur when the symptoms are experienced.

This is usually accomplished by asking the patient to keep a diary for a week or so before any diagnosis is made. This diary is helpful to describe the patient’s problems in terms of their cognitions (thoughts), behavior and ‘autonomic symptoms the patient feels during the thoughts’ (for example, palpitations or breathlessness felt when the patient gets the negative thought).

Usually, the patient’s own account of cognitions, behavior and autonomic symptoms is used in the cognitive behavioral analysis. However, if possible the patient’s behavior should be observed and autonomic symptoms should be recorded by the psychiatrist (for example, recording the patient’s pulse rate or respiratory rate).

ABC Criteria

The hypothetical diagnosis of the condition is made after following the ABC criteria:

Activating event

An activating event is an event that triggers the depression, anxiety or fear. It may be an actual event that has occurred, a future event that one fears to occur, or a fearsome or depressive image, memory, or dream.


The beliefs of a person are his thoughts, his personal rules, the demands he sets on himself and the people around him, and the meanings that he attaches to specific things.


The consequences are the emotions, behavior and autonomic symptoms felt by the patient when he encounters the activating event.

Diagnosis vs. hypothesis

The diagnosis is basically a hypothesis about the nature and origin of the symptoms. The hypothesis will usually suggest appropriate treatment strategies. For example, the hypothesis that ‘a patient’s withdrawal from social contact is because he feels anxious meeting people’ might suggest a different type of treatment plan from the hypothesis that ‘the patient’s withdrawal from social contact is just due to inadequate social skills’. Therefore, treatment actually tests the hypothesis, which itself may require modification in the light of success or failure of the treatment.

Cognitive behavioral treatment involves an objective goal based on the diagnosis (hypothesis) derived from the cognitive behavioral analysis and agreed on by the patient. Most therapists also use intermediate targets, the attainment of which provides an important source of reinforcement for the patient. 

Specific Techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


Since the primary complaint in many psychiatric illnesses is one of anxiety, the patient must first be trained to produce the opposite response, i.e, relaxation. The patients are first taught to recognize the signs of tension in their body and how these can be altered by voluntary control.

They are then taught a series of exercises by which they can learn to reduce anxiety, and they may also be given an audiotape of these exercises that they can use for regular home practice. Relaxation exercises include progressive muscle relaxation (the patient’s muscles are alternatively tensed and then relaxed to achieve a relaxed state), autogenic relaxation (muscle tension is released without the muscles first being tensed) and breathing exercises.

Learning to relax is a skill and will also include cognitive aspects like ‘a sense of control over difficult situations’. Some patients find it very difficult to relax or even find it anxiety provoking because the feeling of ‘letting go of tension’ provokes their fear of ‘being out of control’. 


Exposure is used to reduce avoidance behavior, especially in the treatment of phobias (fears). Exposure can be carried out in two ways, in practice (exposing the patient to the anxiety-provoking stimulus in reality) or in imagination (making the patient imagine the anxiety provoking phobic situation).

In either procedure, exposure can be gradual, starting with situations that provoke little anxiety and progressing slowly through increasingly more difficult ones (desensitization), or it can be intensive from the start (flooding). The usual form of exposure is usually carried out with a speed and intensity between these extremes, and when possible in practice rather than in imagination.

A. Desensitization

First, a list of anxiety-provoking situations is compiled in a decreasing order of anxiety (a hierarchy).

The list usually has about 10 items chosen so there is an equal increment of anxiety between the items. This aim is sometimes difficult to achieve, in which case the severity of anxiety of certain items may be adjusted by introducing modifying factors. For example, the anxiety response to a situation may be less if the person has a trusted companion.

Sometimes the anxiety-provoking situations seem so diverse that they cannot form a single hierarchy. For example, an agoraphobic patient may fear to visit the hairdresser, going to the cinema and attending a parent-teacher meeting. In such cases, a unifying fear should be sought like in this case, the fear of being unable to leave a situation without embarrassment. When no common theme exists, two hierarchies are constructed.

Patients imagine or enter each item on the hierarchy while relaxing until they can do this without anxiety. The patient moves in an upward fashion on the hierarchy, i.e, from the least anxiety provoking item, gradually, to the most anxiety provoking item.

Desensitization in imagination is used when exposure to the actual situation is impractical. For example, phobia of flying or in post-traumatic stress disorder. Otherwise, exposure in practice is generally more effective.

B. Flooding

Patients enter situations from ‘the most anxiety-provoking items’ in the hierarchy from the start of treatment and remain in there until the anxiety has diminished.

The process is repeated with other ‘near maximal stimuli’.

When successful, this procedure leads to a rapid reduction in anxiety, but many patients find the experience distressing. As the technique has not been shown to be more effective than desensitization, it is used infrequently.

C. Exposure in everyday practice

Most exposure treatment is carried out in a way intermediate in speed and intensity between those used in desensitization and flooding. The patient enters a feared situation every day, either alone or with a relative or friend.

If anxiety does not diminish, it may be necessary to start again with items lower on the hierarchy. Each session lasts about 45 minutes.

Some patients fail to progress because they have formed a habit of disengagement from anxiety-provoking situations by thinking of other things. Such patients should be helped to change this behavioral so that progress can be made.

D. Exposure with response prevention

This technique is used to treat obsessions and compulsions. In this technique, patients are made to refrain from carrying out compulsions despite their strong urges to do so. This is called response prevention. If the restraint continues for long enough (usually at least an hour), the urge diminishes.

As treatment progresses, these urges are deliberately increased by encouraging the patient to enter obsession provoking situations that have been previously avoided by the patient (exposure).

At first, patients are accompanied by the therapist and reassured while they strive to prevent their obsessions, but with practice, they are able to do this on their own. Sometimes the therapist reassures the patient on the first few occasions by carrying out the exposure procedure himself, a procedure called ‘modeling’.

The therapist begins by explaining the aim of treatment and agreeing on targets for exposure with the patient. If the obsession is to wash hands, again and again, a target might be to touch a contaminated object such as a door handle and not to wash the hands during the next hour. A more advanced target might be to do all the household dusting without washing the hands until the task is completed.

Patients need to feel confident that every task will be agreed in advance and that they will never be faced with the unexpected.

Response prevention generates substantial anxiety at first, but patients usually tolerate this as they know that it will decline eventually.

Obsessional thoughts accompanying compulsions improve as the compulsions are brought under control. Obsessional thoughts without compulsions are more difficult to treat. They can be treated by habituation training or thought to stop. 

Habituation training:

It is a form of mental exposure treatment. Patients dwell on the obsessional thoughts for long periods or listen repeatedly to a tape recording of the thoughts spoken aloud for an hour or more.

Thought stopping:

It is a type of distraction technique in which a sudden sensory stimulus is produced (for example, snapping a rubber band on the wrist of the patient) to distract the patient from the obsessional thought.

Social skills training (assertiveness training and anger management)

Many people cope poorly with social situations because they have never received appropriate social responses from people they have encountered in life.

Social skills training includes assertiveness training and anger management. It is usually done with groups of patients and aims to provide explicit training of how to respond to such inappropriate social responses.

Mock social situations are set up, and the patients practice by role playing after the therapist has provided a model of the appropriate behavior (modeling).

The patient’s performance may be videotaped so those particular problems can be discussed in subsequent sessions.

Enuresis alarms

This treatment was developed specifically for nocturnal enuresis. In the old method, two metal plates separated by a pad were placed under the sheets of the bed (the pad and bell method). If the child passed urine in his sleep, the pad became moist and its resistance fell, allowing electric contact between the metal plates, which are wired to a battery and a bell or buzzer.

Nowadays, a small sensor attached to the pajamas can replace the plates and pad. The noise of the alarm wakes the child, who must then rise to empty the bladder. After this procedure has been repeated on several nights, the child wakes before his bladder empties involuntarily. Eventually, he sleeps through the night without being enuretic.

Eye movements and desensitization reprocessing

This treatment was developed for post-traumatic stress disorder. This treatment has three components. Exposure using imagined images of the traumatic events.

A cognitive component in which patients attempt to replace negative thoughts associated with the images with positive ones.

Saccadic eye movements (side to side eye movements) are induced by making the patient follow the psychiatrist’s finger. It is claimed that this unusual component assists in the ‘processing’ of the cognitions associated with the traumatic events.

Dialectic behavioral therapy

This method was developed as a treatment for patients who repeatedly harmed themselves and who had borderline personality disorder.

Patients learn problem-solving techniques for dealing with stressful events. The steps of problem-solving are described below. Treatment is done individually and in group sessions. Treatment lasts for up to a year.

Steps of Problem-solving

  1. Draw up a list of problems
  2. Choose a problem to manage
  3. Form a clear definition of the problem and break down complex problems into smaller manageable problems
  4. Establish achievable goals
  5. Brainstorm potential solutions
  6. Evaluate and choose the best solution by considering the pros and cons of each of the alternatives
  7. Implement the chosen solution
  8. Evaluate the outcome

Disorders in Which Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is Used

  • Addiction
  • Anger problems
  • Anxiety
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Relationship problems
  • Social phobia
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