The goals of cognitive therapy are to help individuals achieve a remission of their disorder and to prevent relapse. Much of the work in sessions involves aiding individuals in solving their real-life problems and teaching them to modify their distorted thinking, dysfunctional behavior, and distressing affect. Therapists plan treatment on the basis of a cognitive formulation of patients’ disorders and an ongoing individualized cognitive conceptualization of patients and their difficulties. A developmental framework is used to understand how life events and experiences led to the development of core beliefs, underlying assumptions, and coping strategies, particularly in patients with personality disorders.
A strong therapeutic alliance is a key feature of cognitive therapy. Therapists are collaborative and function as a team with patients. They provide rationales and seek patients’ agreement when undertaking interventions. They make mutual decisions about how time will be spent in a session, which problems will be discussed, and which homework assignments patients believe will be helpful. They engage patients in a process of collaborative empiricism to investigate the validity of the patient’s thoughts and beliefs.
Cognitive therapy is educative, and patients are taught cognitive, behavioral, and emotional-regulation skills so they can, in essence, become their own therapists. This allows cognitive therapy to be time-limited for many patients; those with straightforward cases of anxiety or unipolar depression often need only 6 to 12 sessions. Patients with personality disorders, comorbidity, or chronic or severe mental illness usually need longer courses of treatment (6 months to 1 year or more) with additional periodic booster sessions.
Cognitive therapists elicit patients’ goals at the beginning of treatment. They explain their treatment plan and interventions to help patients understand how they will be able to reach their goals and feel better. At every session, they elicit and help patients solve problems that are of greatest distress. They do so through a structure that seeks to maximize efficiency, learning, and therapeutic change. Important parts of each session include a mood check, a bridge between sessions, prioritizing an agenda, discussing specific problems and teaching skills in the context of solving these problems, setting of self-help assignments, summary, and feedback.