Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - Conditions

Authored by Dr Colin Tidy, 03 May 2017

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Reviewed by:
Dr Laurence Knott, 03 May 2017

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is used to deal with how you feel, think and act now. CBT aims to find ways to change your current thoughts and behaviours so that you can function better now and in the future.

CBT is a mixture of cognitive and behavioural therapies. They are often combined because how we behave often reflects how we think about certain things or situations.

The emphasis on cognitive or behavioural aspects of therapy can vary, depending on the condition being treated. For example, there is often more emphasis on behavioural therapy when treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) - where repetitive compulsive actions are often one of the main problems. The emphasis may be on cognitive therapy for other situations - for example, when treating depression.

Cognitive therapy

Our thoughts include our ideas, mental images, beliefs and attitudes. These are called cognitive processes. Cognitive therapy is designed to help you to understand your current thoughts. It can help you identify any harmful, unhelpful and false ideas or thoughts that you have. The aim is then to change the way you think so that you can avoid these ideas. Cognitive therapy helps your thought patterns to be more realistic and helpful.

Behavioural therapy

This aims to change any behaviours that are harmful or not helpful. For example, a common unhelpful behaviour is to avoid situations that can make you anxious. In some people with phobias the avoidance can affect day-to-day life. A type of behavioural therapy called exposure therapy may be used to help. This involves you being gradually exposed more and more to the feared situation. The therapist will show you how to control anxiety and how to cope when facing up to the feared situations.

CBT has been shown to help people with many different conditions - both mental health conditions and physical conditions. For example:

  • Certain anxiety disorders, including phobias, panic attacks and panic disorder.
  • Depression.
  • Eating disorders - for example, bulimia nervosa.
  • OCD.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder.
  • Anger.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Sexual and relationship problems.
  • Habits such as facial tics.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Some sleep problems.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).
  • Persistent (chronic) pain.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome.

CBT can help people cope better with their symptoms. As a rule, the more specific the problem, the more likely that CBT may help. This is because it is a practical therapy which focuses on particular problems and aims to overcome them. CBT is sometimes used as the only treatment and sometimes used in addition to medication, depending on the type and severity of the condition being treated.

Further reading and references

  • Computerised cognitive behaviour therapy for depression and anxiety; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, February 2006 (last updated May 2013)

  • Gartlehner G, Gaynes BN, Amick HR, et al; Comparative Benefits and Harms of Antidepressant, Psychological, Complementary, and Exercise Treatments for Major Depression: An Evidence Report for a Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2016 Mar 1164(5):331-41. doi: 10.7326/M15-1813. Epub 2015 Dec 8.

  • Pompoli A, Furukawa TA, Imai H, et al; Psychological therapies for panic disorder with or without agoraphobia in adults: a network meta-analysis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Apr 134:CD011004. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011004.pub2.

  • James AC, James G, Cowdrey FA, et al; Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Feb 182:CD004690. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004690.pub4.

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