Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (talking therapy) based on the idea that how you think and act affects how you feel. It can help in many different situations.
How does cognitive behaviour therapy work?
If you are thinking negatively about yourself or a situation and that is causing you problems, CBT might be able to help.
In CBT, you work with a therapist to recognise the patterns of thinking (cognition) and behaviour that cause you problems.
- First you will work with your therapist to understand what are the most troubling problems for you.
- Then you work out what your thoughts, emotions and beliefs are about these situations.
- You will identify which of these thoughts, emotions and beliefs are negative or inaccurate.
- Working with your therapist, you find ways to challenge them. You might ask yourself: is that true? Or you might ask yourself: so what?
- You then also identify what behaviours are you doing based on these negative beliefs that you could change.
- Then you can find ways to think and act that are less harmful to you.
CBT has been around for many years. It’s the basis of other therapies such as acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).
What is CBT used for?
CBT has been shown to help people with:
- anxiety issues like generalised anxiety disorder, panic, phobias and social anxiety
- obsessive compulsive disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- eating disorders
- relationship issues
- anger and stress
What can I expect from CBT?
CBT helps you to understand your thinking and behaviour.
You’ll learn skills that will help with your current problems and that you can apply to future problems.
It relies on a close professional relationship with your therapist. They will help you to recognise the difference between helpful and unhelpful thoughts, and teach you how to let go of the unhelpful thoughts.
Your CBT program could be anywhere between 5 and 20 weeks, depending on your problem and the treatment program you and your therapist agree on. CBT can be conducted in private or group sessions, or online (e-therapy). Psychologists, some doctors with special training in mental health and other therapists conduct CBT. You may be eligible for a mental health plan by your doctor to access Medicare rebates for CBT.
It’s likely to include some homework. You’ll work with your therapist to set some tasks to practise what you talk about. CBT can be used at the same time as relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, medication or supportive counselling.
When doesn’t CBT work?
CBT is difficult for people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. It is also difficult for people with learning difficulties.
Also, it won’t help you deal with why you have a lot of negative thoughts.
Where to get help
If you are looking for a therapist, search for health services in your area. There are also many organisations you can contact for help.
If you want general mental health support and information:
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health (women’s mental and emotional health) - online help
- Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) – call 1300 22 4636 or chat online
- Black Dog Institute (anyone affected by mood disorders) – online help
- SANE Australia (people living with a mental illness) – call 1800 18 7263 or chat online
- This Way Up clinic (anyone with stress, anxiety and depression) - online courses
Not sure what to do next?
If you or someone you know are finding it difficult to manage mental health issues, try healthdirect’s Symptom Checker and get advice on when to seek professional help.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2019