Aaron Beck, Ph.D. is widely considered the founder of cognitive therapy. Beck discovered that distorted thoughts and beliefs – rather than unconscious forces – result in negative moods and harmful behavior. A cognitive therapist follows a structure that guides clients through a process of learning and practicing skills, to alleviate problems and symptoms. After completing cognitive therapy, clients are less likely to experience a reemergence of their negative symptoms at a later date, because they can choose to continue using the skills that they have learned in counseling.
During the initial phase, clients learn to identify thought patterns that are associated with their symptoms of depression and anxiety. In the middle phase, as a client progresses, they become adept at examining their thoughts, to determine if what they are thinking is realistic, and productive. After a client understands how (i.e., the mechanism) to examine their own thoughts, they can choose to implement thinking patterns that are more realistic, and helpful.
In the latter phase, inaccurate beliefs that negatively impact self-esteem, self-image, and mood are identified. Clients are assisted in challenging deep-seated beliefs, and to consider replacing them with more realistic and positive beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them.
In addition to working with thoughts and beliefs, behavioral interventions are utilized. It is common for a depressed individual’s activities to become restricted due to reduced motivation and energy levels.
Clients are encouraged to schedule exercise and enjoyable daily activities at a level that they can tolerate, to help reduce their symptoms. Clients are also assisted with the implementation of problem-solving skills. For example, people struggling with depression may feel overwhelmed by the thought of trying to deal with the problems they face. In cognitive therapy, clients are taught how to take a large task, and break it down into manageable, daily steps that can be easily accomplished.
One benefit of cognitive therapy’s structure, compared with other therapeutic models, is that the time necessary to produce significant results is shortened. In cognitive therapy, a full course of treatment is considered to be 14 to 16 sessions.
Research has demonstrated that cognitive therapy is at least as effective as antidepressant medication, in alleviating symptoms of depression. Also, studies indicate that cognitive therapy is more effective than antidepressant medication in preventing future episodes of depression.