How can cognitive psychology be applied to treat mental disorders? The cognitive model runs under the assumption that we must understand thought in order to understand behavior. Therefore, abnormal behavior, too, has a basis in cognition. Therapists who use the cognitive model believe that abnormal functioning results from inaccurate assumptions and attitudes about the world, illogical thinking patterns and cognitive distortions like overgeneralization and catastrophizing.
Developed by Aaron T. Beck, cognitive therapy has the goal to help people recognize and change their thinking processes. His treatment was specifically used for depression but can be applied to other disorders as well. Cognitive therapists first help clients becoming mindful of their negative thoughts, biased interpretations and errors in logic that dominate their thinking and lead to feeling depressed. Then the therapist can guide them to think of new interpretations and apply new ways of thinking to their daily lives. But is there evidence to suggest this form of therapy actually works?
Studies on both anxiety and depression show that CBT significantly improves conditions. This article states that the majority of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have concluded that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is “an efficacious treatment for depression”. CBT is therefore “recommended as the first-line treatment for depression.” In the study, the patients participated in CBT group therapy and the results showed a significant reduction in depression and anxiety among patients who received the treatment. The observed treatment gains were maintained at 3-months follow-up.
There are also data that suggest CBT is effective therapy for anxiety. Specifically this study placed participants with Panic Disorder in groups that received only CBT, one received CBT and medication, and one was the control group. The results showed that “There were significant reductions in panic/ agoraphobia symptoms and related variables between baseline and post-treatment, and these reductions were maintained in three-month follow-up. No differences were observed between those patients who received only CBT and those who received pharmacological treatment as well as CBT”.
So how is this treatment effective? This article says that it takes a practical, structured approach to problem solving and has the goal of changing patterns of thinking that in turn change the way they feel. It works by changing attitudes and behavior by examining cognitive processes: thoughts, images, beliefs, and schemas so that we can adapt more functional ways of processing. Further more, Aaron Beck proposed that people have an internal dialogue in their minds as if they are talking to themselves and we are often unaware of this dialogue. Many thoughts are unconscious and emotion filled and can pop up in the mind without us being fully aware. But patients learn to identify them and report them to the therapist and then work to change them.
In conclusion CBT is an effective form of therapy for many mental disorders and uses cognitive psychology as its basis. It suggests that it is not the events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give to these events. Therapists help patients understand internal dialogue, and change their distorted thoughts into more realistic ones that promote healthier behavior. It shows that we can change patterns of thought that seem to be wired within us to improve our lives.
Below is a worksheet used for homework in CBT. It is an example of the process behind the therapy and can be used by anyone to help sort out their thoughts and the meanings they attach to events.