Most people living with anxiety are aware that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is frequently recommended for the treatment of anxiety symptoms. But how does CBT help with anxiety? Anxiety disorders are more than occasional feelings of discomfort or worry. For people who struggle with this common mental health disorder, symptoms can be severe enough to interfere with their quality of life. Adult therapy and child therapy for anxiety encompass a number of different therapeutic approaches, including CBT.
If you are just beginning to explore the options available for treating anxiety, a clear understanding of what cognitive-behavioral therapy is and what you can expect from it will be helpful.
What Is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?
CBT is a type of talk therapy that was first developed in the 1960s. Psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis are credited as being the “fathers” of modern CBT. It is based on an even earlier approach to psychoanalysis known as behaviorism. Behaviorism and its off-shoot, CBT, do not focus solely on a patient’s past like other mental health treatments of the time. Instead, CBT focuses on the present and gives people the tools they need to improve present circumstances.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used to treat several conditions. In addition to anxiety, CBT may be recommended for depression, phobias, and process disorders, such as gaming, eating, or gambling disorders. CBT teaches patients how to identify their own negative thinking and behavioral patterns.
In the case of anxiety, CBT focuses on thoughts and behaviors that increase anxiety. Similar to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), CBT may be combined with other therapeutic approaches to create an effective, customized treatment plan.
How Does CBT Work?
CBT can be a powerful tool for treating anxiety in both adult and child therapy. There are three basic steps involved with CBT, though your therapist may enhance the basic steps as needed to support your progress.
Step One: Identify Negative Thoughts
Many anxiety symptoms, such as sweating, heart palpitations, and nausea, are physical. However, anxiety begins in thoughts. Negative, or “maladaptive,” thinking patterns are learned behaviors that can be changed.
Once these kinds of negative thought patterns are identified, the therapist and the client work together to reframe and restructure them. Many patients with anxiety tend to overgeneralize or automatically assume the worst will happen. This way of thinking can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a person who has social anxiety may start worrying about attending an event hours or even days ahead of time. Dwelling on concerns about having an anxiety attack in public can lead to actually having an anxiety attack at home.
Once a patient becomes aware of their negative thought patterns, they can begin the journey of restructuring maladaptive habits into productive ones.
Step Two: Introduce New Skills
The specific skills your therapist will suggest depend on your individual needs and what your anxiety triggers are. Skills are learned through homework assignments that are practiced between therapy appointments. Homework may come in the form of:
- Practicing relaxation techniques like meditation
- Behavioral activation, such as scheduling an activity that anxiety would have prevented you from doing in the past
- Thought challenging using logic and lived experiences to question your negative thoughts
Practicing the recommended homework is key to being successful with CBT.
Step Three: Track Progress
Recovering from anxiety is not a quick process for most people. Small successes add up to big changes, but it’s easy to minimize your progress along the way if you’re not paying attention.
Your therapist will help you set achievable, specific goals that can be easily measured. For example, going to an office holiday party may be unrealistic when you first begin anxiety treatment. Meeting an office friend for a cup of coffee is a realistic goal that can help you build up to attending a larger function.
What to Expect from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that over 40 million U.S. adults have anxiety disorders and unfortunately, many of them do not seek treatment. The stigmas surrounding mental health treatments prevent some people from getting the help they need, but anxiety over new experiences is also an obstacle.
The first therapy session is typically a time for the therapist and patient to get to know one another better. You may be asked questions about your mental health history, your childhood, career, education, family relationships, and current living situation. All of this information helps the therapist understand your challenges and begin to develop effective strategies.
During subsequent sessions, you can share which behavioral strategies are working for you and which are not. Your therapist will recommend new CBT techniques as therapy progresses.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is not a cookie-cutter approach. It is highly customized to each individual’s needs. It may take some experimentation and collaboration to find the methods that work best for you.
CBT is not meant to be a long, ongoing form of therapy. Exactly how many appointments are recommended depends on several factors. However, meeting with a therapist once a week for up to 20 weeks is typical.
In order to get the most from your anxiety disorder treatment, be open and honest about your challenges, and do the homework that is assigned. Patience is an important part of any therapeutic process. If you have lived with anxiety for years, it is unrealistic to expect you will be “cured” after only one or two CBT treatment sessions.
Benefits of CBT
The overarching goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety is to help patients control how they think about and cope with the activities, people, or situations that make them anxious. CBT is popular with both therapists and patients for providing the following benefits:
- Helps people develop healthier, more functional thought patterns
- Offers short-term treatment
- Effective for a wide array of behaviors and disorders
- Often more affordable than other types of therapy
- Effective for online therapy as well as in-person appointments
- Can be included as part of a treatment plan or as a stand-alone therapy
One of the biggest benefits of cognitive-behavioral therapy is that it helps patients develop skills that are useful in all aspects of life. CBT can help people gain confidence, set and meet goals, and enjoy life to the fullest without anxiety holding them back.
If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, Blackhawk Family Development Center can help. Our team of clinicians uses an integrative and strength-based approach to diagnosis and treatment. Contact us today to learn more.