Cognitive Therapy

cognitive therapy

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In Cognitive Therapy. Dr. Judith S. Beck illustrates how this present-oriented, brief form of psychotherapy works. Dr. Beck meets with an African American woman in her late 30's who is a single parent dealing with life-long depression. Dr. Beck helps the client begin to sort out her problems and modify her dysfunctional cognitions through Socratic questioning and other techniques.

DVD Bonus Feature: This powerful session features a voice-over in which Dr. Beck comments on her work with this client.


Cognitive therapy is a comprehensive system of psychotherapy, and treatment is based on an elaborated and empirically supported theory of psychopathology and personality. It has been found to be effective in more than 400 outcome studies for a myriad of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse, among others, and it is currently being tested for personality disorders. It has also been demonstrated to be effective as an adjunctive treatment to medication for serious mental disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Cognitive therapy has been extended to and studied for adolescents and children, couples, and families. Its efficacy has also been established in the treatment of certain medical disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension, fibromyalgia, post-myocardial infarction depression, noncardiac chest pain, cancer, diabetes, migraine, and other chronic pain disorders.

Developed by Aaron T. Beck, MD, in the mid-1960s, cognitive therapy is a short-term, structured therapy that uses an information-processing model to understand and treat psychopathological conditions. The theory is based, in part, on a phenomenological approach to psychology, as proposed by Epictetus and other Greek Stoic philosophers and more contemporary theorists such as Adler, Alexander, Horney, and Sullivan. The approach emphasizes the role of individuals' views of themselves and their personal worlds as being central to their behavioral reactions, as espoused by Kelly, Arnold, and Lazarus. Cognitive therapy was also influenced by theorists such as Ellis, Bandura, Lewinsohn, Mahoney, and Meichenbaum.

Cognitive therapy is based on a cognitive theory of psychopathology. The cognitive model describes how people's perceptions of, or spontaneous thoughts about, situations influence their emotional, behavioral (and often physiological) reactions. Individuals' perceptions are often distorted and dysfunctional when they are distressed. They can learn to identify and evaluate their "automatic thoughts" (spontaneously occurring verbal or imaginal cognitions), and to correct their thinking so that it more closely resembles reality. When they do so, their distress usually decreases, they are able to behave more functionally, and (especially in anxiety cases), their physiological arousal abates.

Individuals also learn to identify and modify their distorted beliefs: their basic understanding of themselves, their worlds, and other people. These distorted beliefs influence their processing of information, and give rise to their distorted thoughts. Thus, the cognitive model explains individuals' emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses as mediated by their perceptions of experience, which are influenced by their beliefs and by their characteristic ways of interacting with the world, as well as by the experiences themselves. Therapists use a gentle Socratic questioning process to help patients evaluate and respond to their automatic thoughts and beliefs—and they also teach them to engage in this evaluation process themselves. Therapists may also help patients design behavioral experiments to carry out between sessions to test cognitions that are in the form of predictions. When patients' thoughts are valid, therapists do problem solving, evaluate patients' conclusions, and work with them to accept their difficulties.

The goals of cognitive therapy are to help individuals achieve a remission of their disorder and to prevent relapse. Much of the work in sessions involves aiding individuals in solving their real-life problems and teaching them to modify their distorted thinking, dysfunctional behavior, and distressing affect. Therapists plan treatment on the basis of a cognitive formulation of patients' disorders and an ongoing individualized cognitive conceptualization of patients and their difficulties. A developmental framework is used to understand how life events and experiences led to the development of core beliefs, underlying assumptions, and coping strategies, particularly in patients with personality disorders.

A strong therapeutic alliance is a key feature of cognitive therapy. Therapists are collaborative and function as a team with patients. They provide rationales and seek patients' agreement when undertaking interventions. They make mutual decisions about how time will be spent in a session, which problems will be discussed, and which homework assignments patients believe will be helpful. They engage patients in a process of collaborative empiricism to investigate the validity of the patient's thoughts and beliefs.

Cognitive therapy is educative, and patients are taught cognitive, behavioral, and emotional-regulation skills so they can, in essence, become their own therapists. This allows cognitive therapy to be time-limited for many patients; those with straightforward cases of anxiety or unipolar depression often need only 6 to 12 sessions. Patients with personality disorders, comorbidity, or chronic or severe mental illness usually need longer courses of treatment (6

months to 1 year or more) with additional periodic booster sessions.

Cognitive therapists elicit patients' goals at the beginning of treatment. They explain their treatment plan and interventions to help patients understand how they will be able to reach their goals and feel better. At every session, they elicit and help patients solve problems that are of greatest distress. They do so through a structure that seeks to maximize efficiency, learning, and therapeutic change. Important parts of each session include a mood check, a bridge between sessions, prioritizing an agenda, discussing specific problems and teaching skills in the context of solving these problems, setting of self-help assignments, summary, and feedback.

Therapists use a wide variety of techniques to help patients change their cognitions, behavior, mood, and physiology. Techniques may be cognitive, behavioral, environmental, biological, supportive, interpersonal, or experiential. Therapists select techniques based on their ongoing conceptualization of the patient and his or her problems and their specific goals for the session. They continually ask themselves, "How can I help this patient feel better by the end of the session and how can I help the patient have a better week?" These questions also guide clinicians in planning strategy.

There is no one typical client for this approach, as cognitive therapy has been demonstrated in numerous research studies to be effective for depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders; for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (as an adjunct to medication); and for a variety of medical problems with psychological components. Of course, treatment has to be varied for each disorder and therapists must not only understand the cognitive formulation of a specific disorder but also be able to conceptualize individual clients accurately and devise a treatment plan based on this formulation and conceptualization. Cognitive therapy interventions must also be adapted for older adults, children, and adolescents and for group, couples, and family treatment.

About the Therapist

Judith S. Beck, PhD, is the director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in suburban Philadelphia and clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and currently divides her time among administration, supervision and teaching, clinical work, program development, research, and writing.

Dr. Beck has presented numerous workshops nationally and internationally on cognitive therapy for a variety of disorders. She is the author of the widely adopted textbook, Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond, which has been translated into 12 languages. A coauthor of Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders, she has written many articles and chapters on various applications of cognitive therapy. Her latest books are The Oxford Textbook of Psychotherapy and Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems. Dr. Beck is the president of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, a nonprofit organization that certifies mental health professionals in cognitive therapy, and is currently a consultant for several National Institute of Mental Health research studies.

APA Videos

  • Cognitive–Behavior Therapy
Jacqueline B. Persons
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Couples Therapy Arthur Freeman
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Family Therapy Frank M. Dattilio
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy for Clients With Anxiety and Panic Bunmi O. Olatunji
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy for Clients With Multiple Problems Gayle Y. Iwamasa
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Social Anxiety Amy Wenzel
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy Strategies Keith S. Dobson
  • Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy With Donald Meichenbaum Donald Meichenbaum
  • Cognitive Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder Mary Anne Layden
  • Cognitive Therapy for Panic Disorder David M. Clark
  • Cognitive Therapy Over Time G. Alan Marlatt
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression Zindel V. Segal
  • Qualities and Actions of Effective Therapists Bruce E. Wampold
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Over Time Ann Vernon
  • Schema Therapy Jeffrey E. Young
  • Working With African American Clients

    Thomas A. Parham

  • APA Books

    • Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice: A Framework for Clinicians and Counselors
    Pamela A. Hays
  • Chronic Depression: Interpersonal Sources, Therapeutic Solutions Jeremy W. Pettit and Thomas E. Joiner
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy for Specific Problems and Populations Edited by John R. White and Arthur S. Freeman
  • Culturally Responsive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Assessment, Practice, and Supervision Edited by Pamela A. Hays and Gayle Y. Iwamasa
  • Experiences of Depression: Theoretical, Clinical, and Research Perspectives Sidney J. Blatt
  • The Interactional Nature of Depression: Advances in Interpersonal Approaches Edited by Thomas E. Joiner and James C. Coyne
  • Personality-Guided Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

    Paul R. Rasmussen

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