The principal of Cognitive Therapy (CT) is that thoughts and perceptions can impact on our feelings and behaviour. CT helps you with methods to reassess negative thoughts to help you learn more positive, flexible thought patterns which will in turn positively influence your behaviour.
CT is a present-focussed, problem-solving orientated treatment where therapists and clients develop skills to identifying distorted thoughts and beliefs and work on methods for changing and replacing associated habitual behaviour. When in distress we often do not recognise that our thoughts are inaccurate and cognitive therapy helps with identification and re-evaluation of these.
Therapy may consist of testing the assumptions which one makes and looking for new information that could help shift the assumptions in a way that leads to different emotional or behavioral reactions. Change may begin by targeting thoughts (to change emotion and behavior), behavior (to change feelings and thoughts), or the individual’s goals (by identifying thoughts, feelings or behavior that conflict with the goals). Beck initially focused on depression and developed a list of “errors” (cognitive disortion) in thinking that he proposed could maintain depression, including selective abstraction, over-generalization, and magnification (of negatives) and minimization (of positives).
As an example of how CT might work: Having made a mistake at work, a man may believe, “I’m useless and can’t do anything right at work.” He may then focus on the mistake (which he takes as evidence that his belief is true), and his thoughts about being “useless” are likely to lead to negative emotion (frustration, sadness, hopelessness). Given these thoughts and feelings, he may then begin to avoid challenges at work, which is behavior that could provide even more evidence for him that his belief is true. As a result, any adaptive response and further constructive consequences become unlikely, and he may focus even more on any mistakes he may make, which serve to reinforce the original belief of being “useless.” In therapy, this example could be identified as a self-fulfilling prophecy or “problem cycle,” and the efforts of the therapist and patient would be directed at working together to explore and shift this cycle.