Why Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Effective?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented form of talking therapy. It was developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960’s, who was using psychoanalysis in his practice. During his sessions with clients, he started noticing something. The clients were having inner dialogues in their heads. These dialogues tended to be negatively skewed, and this was affecting the way they were feeling and behaving. A client might have a thought “I noticed my friend has not been in touch with me lately”. Beck noted, that whether their next thought was “she must be angry with me” or “maybe she isn’t well, I should check up on her” had a direct effect on their emotions about the situation and consequent reactions. This was the basis of Beck’s theory of how thoughts affect feelings, and feelings in turn affect behaviour – this is the theory behind cognitive behavioural therapy.

Change your perception, change your life

The whole concept of cognitive behavioral therapy is based on changing the way you think. This change will automatically change the way you are feeling and behaving as a result. In Beck’s theory, it’s not the actual events that make us upset, it’s how we perceive them and what type of meaning we assign to them. So, if your friend does not contact you for a while, and you see the world through negative thinking, your first thought might be that she is angry with you. This will probably cause you to feel upset, and maybe you won’t contact her since you don’t know why she is angry. However, if you change your thinking into more positive, you might see the situation completely differently, and maybe you’ll go check up on your friend. The same situation can have two completely different outcomes based on whether you see the world in a negative or positive light.

How CBT can provide long-term relief from negative thoughts

Changing how you perceive things and getting rid of negative cognitive distortions is not easy. However, it is worth it. CBT has been shown to be an effective treatment and have a long-lasting positive impact on people with various conditions, such as depression and anxiety, anger control problems, and stress (Hofmann et al 2012). Whereas taking antidepressants or other type of medication may also be helpful in treating mental illness, the relief brought by the drugs tends to wear off soon after the patient stops taking them. If, however, the patient is getting CBT treatment – with or without medication - the effects are more likely to be long-lived. It takes a while to change your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes, but by addressing the root of the problem and not only the symptom, long lasting effects can be achieved.

Be prepared to do your homework!

Cognitive behavioural therapy is quite an active form of therapy. The patient often gets “homework”. This could be, for example, writing down the negative thoughts they observe when something upsetting happens. This is a method to teach the patient to start noticing their thoughts, so that they can start observing the thought-feeling-behaviour patterns. Often people are so consumed by their negative emotions that they don’t stop to question where the feeling originated from. For example, if someone you know walks past you without saying hello, and you immediately feel offended – you might be so consumed by the emotion that you use it to justify that it is right to feel this way. But you don’t stop to question the assumptions you have just made. If this situation upset you, you probably assumed that the person chose not to say hello to you, for whatever reason. If you don’t question your thoughts, this feeling is quite understandable. You believe the person was being rude. However, if you learn to pick up on these automatic assumptions and thoughts, such as “they did this on purpose”, you can start questioning them and changing your perception. Perhaps the person was simply occupied and did not see you. If you believed this, imagine how different your emotional response would be?

So why is CBT effective?

The reason CBT is so effective, is that it changes the way you perceive the world around you. In Beck’s theory, this is the root of many problems and mental illnesses. With CBT, you stop seeing events through a negative lens. By noticing your thought patterns and questioning them, you can change the way you perceive things and learn to think more positively. And when you are thinking positively, you start feeling more positive too. However, you must be ready to do the work. As mentioned, CBT is not a passive form of therapy. The patient plays a very active role in their own treatment. The therapist simply gives you tools to work with, but you need to be ready to put in the work. It has probably taken you years to develop these negative thought patterns, and for them to have become automatic. Unlearning them will be a long, but worthy and rewarding process. Are you ready to take on the challenge and start seeing the world in a more positive light?


Hofmann, S., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I., Sawyer, A. & Fang, A. (2012) The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognit Ther Res. 36(5): 427–440. doi: 10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

Janica has her bachelors in psychology from the University of Strathclyde and her Msc Clinical Health Psychology from the University of Strathclyde. She loves psychology, statistics, and scientific writing. She's also interested in humanistic sciences, travel, health, and holistic well being.

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