An Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Mental health problems can affect a person at any point in their life. Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders faced by young people across the UK, with 20% of people aged 16 or over showing symptoms of anxiety or depression. (i) Having depression or anxiety can severely impact your day-to-day life and leave someone feeling like they’re not the person they used to be.

Fortunately, there are several forms of treatment available to treat mental health problems, including depression. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that is one of the most researched types of therapy. A wealth of research shows us that CBT can help treat some of the common mental health issues young people face.

If you are thinking about getting help and are curious about how mental health treatments work, here is some helpful information about CBT and how it works.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of treatment that is based on talking. CBT is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression. However, it may also help treat other mental health issues. (ii)

The central concept of CBT is that our thoughts and feelings play a significant role in our behaviour. (ii) By focusing on the ways thoughts, attitudes and beliefs influence emotions and behaviour, CBT helps teach people critical coping skills for dealing with problems.

People undergoing CBT learn how to recognize and change thought patterns that are harmful or disturbing. Changing thought patterns can help reduce the adverse effects they have on a person’s emotions and behaviour. (iii)

The main focus of CBT is on changing the automatic and negative thoughts that can worsen emotional issues, depression and anxiety. Spur-of-the-moment negative thoughts usually have a massive impact on a person’s mood. CBT therapy works to help a person identify and change these thoughts, replacing them with ideas that are more grounded in reality. (vi)

Unlike other talking therapies, CBT focuses on current problems that someone is facing, rather than dealing with issues in their past. It relies on using practical ways of improving a person’s state of mind.

What happens in a CBT session?

If someone is referred by their doctor for CBT, they will usually have a weekly or bi-weekly session with a therapist. The treatment lasts between five and 20 sessions, with each session taking either half an hour or an hour. (v)

In each session, the therapist will work with the person to break up their problems into their individual parts – like taking a clock apart. This involves looking at each thought, physical feeling and action separately. Then, the therapist will teach the person to analyze areas that might be unrealistic or unhelpful and determine how they affect their daily lives.

After identifying the thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that negatively impact the person, the therapist and patient will work on how to change them. During the CBT session, a person learns what they can change and will practice those changes in their daily lives. Finally, the therapist will check how the changes are going in future sessions.

Eventually, CBT therapy will give the person the skills needed to make these changes in their day to day life. As a result, it should become easier to manage problems for years after the treatment sessions end. (v)

Benefits of CBT

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aims to teach people that they can control how they interpret and manage things in their daily environment. CBT is known for having some significant benefits that include:

  • It is an effective treatment option in the short term. Improvements can be seen as early as five to 20 sessions.
  • There is evidence showing it is effective in treating a range of harmful behaviors. (iii)
  • It gives people tools to develop healthy thought patterns by making them aware of the harmful and unrealistic thoughts that impact feelings and moods. (iii)
  • It can be equally effective when done online, as face to face sessions. (vi)
  • It can help people develop coping skills that will remain useful long into the future. (iii)
  • CBT can help in cases where medication alone has not worked. (v)

Taking the next step

Cognitive behavioural therapy can be an effective treatment for anybody looking to get help for a range of psychological issues. If you think that you or someone close to you might benefit from CBT, there are some steps you can take:

You can make a self-referral directly to an NHS psychological therapies service without needing a referral from your GP.

Alternatively, you can book an appointment with your family doctor and ask for a referral. Another option would be to book a private session outside of the NHS. Private sessions can vary in price, usually around £40 to £100 for a CBT session. (v)

When considering private therapy, you can always check for qualified therapists on The British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies register. The British Psychological Society also has a directory of chartered psychologists, including psychologists who specialize in CBT.

Dealing with mental health problems alone can be draining. However, even if you are unsure if your situation is ‘serious’ enough to get treatment, it is always worth checking with your doctor.


  1. Evans, J., Macrory, I., & Randall, C. (2016). Measuring national wellbeing: Life in the UK, 2016. ONS. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/measuringnationalwellbeing/2016#how-good-is-our-health.
  2. Mind.org.uk. (2020). What is CBT? [online] Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/about-cbt/ [Accessed 21 May 2021].
  3. Hofmann, S.G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I.J.J., Sawyer, A.T. and Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, [online] 36(5), pp.427–440. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1 [Accessed 21 May 2021].
  4. How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Works. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-behavior-therapy-2795747#citation-2 [Accessed 21 May 2021].
  5. NHS Choices (2021). Overview – Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/talking-therapies-medicine-treatments/talking-therapies-and-counselling/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/overview/ [Accessed 21 May 2021].
  6. Kumar, V., Sattar, Y., Bseiso, A., Khan, S. and Rutkofsky, I.H. (2017). The Effectiveness of Internet-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders. Cureus. [online] Available at: https://www.cureus.com/articles/8283-the-effectiveness-of-internet-based-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-in-treatment-of-psychiatric-disorders [Accessed 21 May 2021].

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