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What are the Different Cognitive Therapy Techniques?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 08 December 2016
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Cognitive therapy is a subsection of the larger psychotherapy concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Techniques used in cognitive therapy seek to create a cumulative learning experience that allows the patient to change negative thinking, relearn positive schemas, and affect changes in self-destructive behaviors. Types of cognitive therapy techniques include cognitive rehearsal, guided discovery, journaling, modeling, and validity testing. Therapists trained in cognitive therapy techniques conduct sessions with individual patients and, when appropriate, facilitate group sessions meant to help multiple patients through shared experiences and group accountability.

Aaron Beck, the psychologist credited with developing the concept of cognitive therapy, expounded the benefits of modifying a patient's thought processes and schemas in the 1960s. In Beck's cognitive therapy, the principle belief is that self-destructive or maladapted behavior ties directly to an individual's automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts develop from irrational thinking, distorted points of view, and overgeneralizations. Irrational or distorted thoughts lead to maladaptive behavior. Cognitive treatments first identify these automatic thoughts, using cognitive therapy techniques to effect changes in thinking patterns.

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Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common mental health issues for which cognitive therapy techniques are the favored approach. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists use cognitive therapy principles in conjunction with behavioral therapy and medication for these conditions. Patients with more serious mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other psychotic disorders may also participate in cognitive and behavioral therapies. The various techniques used in cognitive counseling can help patients analyze their own thoughts in an effort to lessen maladaptive behaviors or reduce dependence on medication.

To provide an example of cognitive therapy for depression, a psychologist often uses cognitive rehearsal to draw on the patient's past experiences. The therapist helps the patient recall a past situation, going over how to better cope with the thoughts and feelings involved and choose appropriate responses. Rehearsal of numerous similarly connected situations helps to replace damaging automatic thoughts and responses. Validity testing, one of the most common cognitive therapy techniques, requires the patient to defend his thoughts and reasoning. When no valid argument is evident, the patient must face his erroneous beliefs or generalizations.

Cognitive treatment for depressive disorders closely models cognitive therapy for anxiety and other disorders. Techniques such as modeling provide role-playing exercises to help patients practice new responses. Homework often involves journaling, another cognitive therapy technique, as well as reading, practicing learned coping mechanisms, or other activities that encourage self-discovery between sessions. Journaling, combined with guided discovery, requires the patient to write down day-to-day experiences, relative emotions and behavioral responses. Using the journal and carefully selected questions, the therapist guides the patient on a calculated journey to discovering his own maladapted and self-destructive thinking patterns.

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