The hallmark of cognitive therapy is understanding clients’
reactions—emotional and behavioral—in terms of
how they interpret situations.
– Judith S. Beck
The hallmark of cognitive therapy is understanding clients’
reactions—emotional and behavioral—in terms of
how they interpret situations.
– Judith S. Beck
By Judith S. Beck, PhD,
President, Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Guilford Publications asked me to reflect on my reasons for writing Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond and Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems: What to Do When the Basics Don’t Work, both of which Guilford first published in 1995 and 2005, respectively. Below is what I sent:
I remember the moment I conceived of writing CBT: Basics and Beyond. It was in the early 1990’s and I was presenting a workshop with my father, Dr. Aaron Beck, in California. Most of the workshop participants were familiar with his work but asked very basic questions. Again and again, I found myself surprised by what they didn’t know (e.g., how to conceptualize patients according to the cognitive model, structure a session, set an agenda, use Socratic questioning, handle homework challenges, ask for feedback). I realized they needed a basic book that could teach them these skills in a step-by-step format, with transcripts illustrating key therapeutic interventions. I had lots of automatic thoughts when writing the book (“People will think this is too simplistic,”), for which I used CBT techniques on myself to keep going. The book is now the basic text used by most graduate schools in all the mental health disciplines, in the United States and abroad.
I also remember when I conceived of writing Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems: What to do When the Basics Don’t Work and it traces back to the first book. When I was writing CBT: Basics and Beyond, I had to continually separate material that was basic from material that was advanced–which made me realize that people would probably need a sequel to the basic text. I presented dozens and dozens of workshops on Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Patients and Cognitive Therapy for Personality Disorders in the years that followed. At each workshop, I asked participants to specify problems they had with some of their patients. (“What does the patient do or not do in session or between sessions that’s a problem? What does the patient say or not say that’s a problem?”) I soon had a very long list of problems. The challenge for me was in organizing the material I collected, and I had lots of false starts. It took me five years to determine how the book should best be structured. Once I figured this out, it took just another two years to complete the book.
I started off my career, not in psychology, but in education. Early on, I learned how to break down and explain complicated ideas and tasks for my young elementary school students who had learning disabilities. Through my books and workshops and other training activities, I believe I’ve been able to do the same for therapists who are learning and practicing CBT.
How does cognitive theory integrate more recent clinical and experimental findings?
We define Cognitive Therapy in terms of the application of the Cognitive Model, rather than in terms of the specific techniques. Although the original version of the therapy emphasized techniques such as cognitive restructuring, it later emphasized behavioral methods that were shown to produce adaptive changes in information processing (for example, activity scheduling, role playing, and behavioral experiments).
The basic cognitive model assigns a major role to cognitive schemas in information processing. The content of the schema (beliefs, expectancies, images) shapes the content of the information processing. There is a continuum from adaptive to dysfunctional beliefs. When the beliefs are exaggerated or biased, they lead to inappropriate or exaggerated affect and behavior.
While the basic cognitive model emphasizes the importance of cognitive bias in creating psychological problems, a body of clinical observations and basic research findings has pointed to the role of deployment of attentional resources in adaptive and maladaptive behavior (Beck & Haigh, 2014). Thus, the combination of attentional focus and cognitive bias plays a major role in psychopathology.
Attentional fixation, an extreme form of attentional focus, is instrumental in the development of conditions as diverse as panic disorder, suicidal impulses, and the craving behaviors in addictions. When attention is fixated on a particular sensation and belief as in panic disorder, the individual is incapable of reasoning or accessing contradictory information regarding the benign nature of the symptoms.
When attentional focus is enhanced as in psychopathology or in intense states of arousal such as anger it is deployed on each component of the information processing sequence:
The combination of attentional hyper focus and bias is particularly evident in the development of the somatic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, and hypochondrias.
The expanded cognitive model can be utilized to understand each of the psychological disorders with their unique cognitive formulation (Beck & Haigh, 2014). The formulation may be drawn on to conceptualize a specific case.
As indicated, the expanded model is comprehensive enough to provide a blueprint for the treatment. The treatment is geared to the characteristics of the disorder. The emphasis on discrete refocusing techniques such as mindfulness constitutes a central part of mindfulness based cognitive therapy and other mindfulness strategies. Refocusing approaches were initially used in cognitive therapy of panic disorders but are subsequently used in a variety of psychological problems such as chronic pain, hypochondriasis, hallucinations, and anxiety.
Learn to use the cognitive model in our CBT for Depression – Core 1 Workshop
Beck, A.T., & Haigh, E.A.P. (2014) Advances in Cognitive Theory and Therapy: The Generic Cognitive Model. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 10, 1, 1-24.
What do you think is important for a young CBT therapist or researcher to know about the history of CBT?
Aaron Beck has always started with clinical material first, working with clients and generating hypotheses about his observations. He tests his hypotheses, refines his theories, and bases treatment on these theories, continually testing and improving the validity of his theories and the efficacy of treatment. He continues to do so to this day, in his work with individuals with schizophrenia. Researchers should follow his lead, always treating clients to inform their work. And they should learn to treat clients outside of their specialty area, for example, clients with different ages, cultures, genders, diagnoses, and so on, so they can maintain a broad perspective.
What is in your opinion most exciting about CBT today?
There are many different directions the field is going in today, but I’ll just choose one, something that we’re heavily involved in at the Beck Institute: developing online training programs for therapists. So many mental health professionals throughout the world can’t afford existing training programs or can’t travel to attend workshops or conferences. With today’s technology, we can train many more mental health and health professionals in evidence-based treatments. So many more people, with a range of problems, can be helped.
Any predictions for the future? Will there be a place for CBT in the future?
Yes—and the treatment for certain disorders may look somewhat different from how it looks today, based on advances in research and technology. And I hope more people will adopt a different view of CBT. Many professionals believe that CBT is defined by its use of cognitive and behavioral strategies. But that’s too narrow a definition. CBT should be seen as a system of psychotherapy that is based on the cognitive model, not based on its use of certain techniques. In fact, with clients with personality disorders, we often adapt techniques from a range of psychotherapeutic modalities, used in the context of the cognitive model, such as strategies more commonly associated with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Positive Psychology, and a number of others. CBT will continue to be a major force in mental health treatment as long as research studies show equal or better outcomes for both treatment and relapse prevention.
Written by Paulo Knapp, PhD
A systematic review of the literature of all published papers in the year of 2014 describing randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared cognitive-behavioral interventions with a wait-list control group, or another form of psychosocial intervention or other medical treatment was conducted. Only RCTs that clearly specified a CBT theoretical orientation were included. Samples included all populations, undergoing any type of psychiatric or medical condition; subjects with no formal diagnosis (e.g., students in a school-based prevention program), and psychotherapy professionals in training condition were also included. As the objective of the review was to take an instant picture of the current clinical applications of CBT interventions in the whole spectrum of psychiatric and other medical disorders, variables such as fidelity of therapists to the proposed intervention, heterogeneity of the experimental samples, appropriateness of the control groups, and any other confounding variables were not analyzed.
The data extracted from 394 identified RCTs published in the year of 2014 revealed that around 58,000 individuals underwent CBT-based interventions conducted in 34 countries for the treatment of 22 different medical and psychiatric diagnoses. As could be expected, the most prevalent investigated diagnosis was depressive disorders in 20% of trials, while other medical conditions, as chronic pain and fatigue, and collateral symptoms of cancer treatments, e.g., insomnia, were treated with cognitive-behavioral interventions in 75 studies, 19% of total. Among other diagnosis, mixed anxiety-depression symptoms were addressed in 63 studies, and substance use disorders in 37 studies.
One hundred forty seven trials were conducted in the USA, and 15 in Canada, summing up 162 (41% of total) studies in North America. European countries showed a similar contribution with 167 (43% of total) studies, mostly from United Kingdom (43), The Netherlands (35), Germany (25), and Sweden (21), representing three quarters of the European trials. Outside North America and Europe, Australia published a fair amount of studies (35), and CBT-oriented trials were also reported with samples far apart in the globe as China (9) and Brazil (4), as well as in different countries like Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Congo, Indonesia, Turkey, Korea, India, and Greece, among others. However, almost all (95% of total) trials were conducted in high-income economy countries.
In accordance to our current times, 65 (16.5%) studies reported web-based cognitive-behavioral interventions, from Internet sites to phone apps. Four studies conducted in school settings aiming psychopathology prevention were published, as well as two trials comparing different formats and settings for professional training in CBT.
This systematic review shows that there has been a steady dissemination and adoption of the cognitive-behavioral therapies in practitioner’s clinical work in a wide array of psychiatric and medical conditions. The high number of randomized clinical trials conducted in a single year, with worldwide study samples, reporting an increasingly widespread use for different clinical conditions, demonstrates a definite consolidation of cognitive behavioral therapies in the contemporary therapeutic scene.
by Judith S. Beck, Ph.D.
Originally published in Cognitive Therapy Today, the Beck Institute Newsletter in 2004.
I have recently been supervising a number of novice therapists and experienced therapists new to cognitive therapy.
At the beginning of (and throughout) supervision, I stress conceptualization, the cognitive model, and structure.
Also from the beginning I stress the importance of using the conceptualization to plan treatment within individual sessions. I ask therapists to keep two questions in mind during a session:
These two questions have helped my supervisees deliver more effective treatment. One supervisee, Carol, had been a therapist for 22 years. For the most part, before our supervision began, she delivered supportive psychotherapy mixed with some psychodynamic and some problem-solving techniques. Her sessions were quite unstructured. She and patients discussed whatever was on the patient’s mind at the moment. Sometimes the topic involved a current difficulty; sometimes it was related to distressing childhood experiences. Patients tended to drift from one topic to another without closure and Carol followed their lead. When Carol occasionally made suggestion to help solve a problem, she rarely checked on the implementation of her advice at the next session and the problem was dropped unless the patient herself brought it up again.
Carol had been treating Cynthia, a 35-year-old divorced woman, for almost a year. Cynthia’s managed care company, noting that Cynthia had made no progress in that time, contacted us to supervise Carol. Carol was a willing supervisee. She truly wanted the best for her patients and realized that Cynthia was stuck in therapy. Cynthia was severely depressed and alcohol dependent. She had recently gone on disability from her job as a manager in a department store. I could hear from the initial audiotape that Carol sent me of her session with Cynthia that the two had developed a good therapeutic alliance. Therefore, my first goal (along with cognitively conceptualizing the patient) was to get Carol to actively do problem solving with Cynthia, teaching her the cognitive and behavioral skills she needed in the context of solving those problems. I role-played with Carol how to set agendas with Cynthia that contained current problems.
Three difficulties arose. First, when Carol asked Cynthia what problems she wanted to discuss, Cynthia started to describe the problem instead of just naming it. Because Carol did not interrupt and guide her to just name the problem at the beginning of the session, Cynthia did not bring up other crucial problems until the end of the session, if at all. Second, Cynthia put items on the agenda that were not problems she needed help with or was willing to work on. Often these agenda topics were about the way her ex-husband had treated her in the past or complaints about her children. Third, Carol did not add to the agenda herself. Cynthia, hoping to avoid discussions of her alcohol dependence, did not put her drinking on the agenda and neither did Carol.
To solve the first problem, I suggested that Carol model for Cynthia how to name a problem: “Can you tell me what problems you want my help in solving today? Can you just name the problem, for example, problem with drinking, problem with feeling lonely, problem with money?” When Cynthia again launched into a description of the problem, I role-played with Carol how to interrupt her, “Sorry to interrupt, but can you just tell me the name of the problem? Should we call this, “Problem with your son?”
After I recognized the existence of the second and third problems, I helped Carol conceptualize how it was that she thought Cynthia would get better. Through questioning, she was able to recognize that Cynthia most urgently needed to learn skills to deal with her urges to drink, to manage her negative emotions (the precursor to drinking), to solve problems around being alone in the house (which was the only time she drank), and to structure her day and feel productive. I also helped her evaluate Cynthia’s other difficulties and we agreed that Cynthia’s chronic problems with her grown children and with her finances, and the problem of returning to work, were of lesser immediate importance, unless these difficulties led her to feel so upset that they triggered urges to drink. Carol related this new treatment plan to Cynthia and elicited Cynthia’s agreement to give these four areas priority in treatment.
It was difficult for Carol initially to interrupt Cynthia and steer the discussion. I ascertained that Carol did not have any negative thoughts about imposing more structure; she simply did not recognize when she got off course. At first I gave Carol a written list of questions to review with Cynthia. When Carol had difficulty allotting sufficient time to go through the list, I gave her a list of questions for Cynthia to read aloud and answer. Data from these questions were crucial to help Cynthia plan the session. They included questions about frequency and circumstances of drinking, frequency and strength of urges, automatic thoughts related to urges and drinking, and use of coping behaviors. They also included questions about how Carol was spending her days and what had most upset her during the week, as well as problems Carol predicted might arise before their next session. I helped Carol figure out with Cynthia, given their limited amount of time together, what was most important to work on, i.e., what would help the patient feel better by the end of the session and what would help the patient have a better week.
Before we began supervision, Carol’s formula was: To get better, patients need to unburden themselves and receive support and encouragement from their therapist. Carol was beginning to learn a new formula: To get better, patients need to work on solving specific problems with their supportive and encouraging therapist, with a focus on what they can do (and how they can think differently) to have a better week. Setting a good agenda was the first step. Following the agenda and teaching skills in the context of solving problems was the second step. In a future column, I will address this step and further challenges in supervision with Carol.
At this week’s CBT for Substance Use Disorders workshop, we had the pleasure of welcoming Katherin Torres back to Beck Institute.
She and her colleagues from Pathways in San Diego recently attended the CBT for Schizophrenia workshop in April, and now she returned solo to learn more about using CBT with her substance abusing clients.
A pre-licensed MFT intern at Pathways in San Diego, Katherin is a first episode of psychosis specialist, working in the Kickstart program which provides confidential assessment and early assistance for young people between the ages of 10 and 25 who are at risk for mental illness in San Diego County.
First episode of psychosis clients often have comorbidity, and this workshop taught Katherin new ways to treat substance use disorders, address issues with open communication, and provide support to her high-risk clients.
Katherin has a long time affection for CBT, “It’s my therapeutic style: collaborative.”
At the workshop, she enjoyed watching the videos of the instructor, Dr. Cory Newman, in therapy sessions and completing roleplays with fellow participants to put new skills into practice.
This workshop will help her to structure her sessions, remember to set goals, and better understand her clients with substance use disorders. She is most excited to bring what she has learned back to the staff in the Kickstart program.
This week’s workshop, CBT for Children and Adolescents, included Kanan Kanakia, who traveled from Mumbai, India to attend the workshop. She has experience as a psychotherapist, special educator, counselor, and hypnotherapist which allows her to choose the best treatment path for her clients.
After learning about CBT, she wanted to get the actual feel of how to apply CBT and researched Beck Institute workshops, deciding “which better institute than here.”
“This workshop was exactly what I was looking for with the know-how and the application in real life and real circumstances.”
When asked about Dr. Torrey Creed, the workshop instructor, Kanan replied, “Oh, she’s amazing!” She presented real case examples of the topics she was instructing, which made the complex topics easy to grasp.
Kanan also had the opportunity to role play a tough client with Dr. Aaron Beck via Skype.
By Deborah Beck Busis, LCSW
Director, Beck Diet Programs
A recent article published in the New York Times, “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” details how most of the contestants on the television show, “The Biggest Loser,” regained much, if not all of the weight they had lost while on the show. The article also describes how the contestants’ metabolisms slowed down as they lost weight and did not return to their original level once they regained their weight. The level of the hormone leptin, which influences hunger, also did not return to the original level, and in fact, reached only about half of what it had been before they started to diet.
The article certainly is discouraging. It also emphasized that the dieters, who lost weight through extreme calorie restriction and high levels of exercise, had to eat substantially fewer calories (up to 500 calories less) than other people who hadn’t dieted, to maintain their weight loss. We don’t believe the situation is hopeless, however. There is a significant amount of research that shows that while there is a change in metabolism as people lose weight, the amount varies. These studies generally show that the metabolic penalty is between 20-200 calories and that this penalty decreases modestly in the year following weight loss. On the other hand, a meta-analysis that was published in 2012 found no change in the metabolic rates of dieters.
In our program, most people have been able to lose weight and keep it off—when they’re willing to have periodic booster sessions to keep their cognitive and behavioral skills sharp. There are several key components of our weight loss program that are drastically different from what the contestants on the “The Biggest Loser” do. First and foremost, our clients do not lose as much weight and they do not lose it quickly; usually, the rate is half a pound to two pounds per week.
Along with slower weight loss, our clients also follow diet and exercise plans that fit in with their lives. In terms of exercise, none of our clients devote the nine hours per week that the “Biggest Loser” participants were advised to do once they returned home. Although the article didn’t describe the specific diets participants followed while they were being filmed, it is likely that the diets were quite restrictive, both in terms of number of calories and the types of permitted foods. This, too, is quite contrary to our program. From the start, we work with our clients to incorporate all their favorite foods into their diets in reasonable ways. We work hard to ensure that our clients only make changes in their eating that they can sustain in the long term.
When helping our clients make changes in eating and exercise, the two words that we constantly use are reasonable and maintainable. We have found that when dieters lose weight eating or exercising in a way they can’t maintain, they invariably gain the weight back when they revert to old behaviors. Most of our clients don’t lose as much as they’d like because to do so would require unmaintainable eating and/or exercise plans. But they do get to a place where they feel strong and in control of their eating; their health is better; they have gained most of the advantages of being at a lower weight; they experience far fewer cravings; and they feel confident that they can keep doing what they’re doing. They not only know what to do but also can competently solve problems and address dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs that interfere with maintaining the needed changes in behavior.
As far as we can tell, “The Biggest Loser” is the antithesis of our program. Although we haven’t had our clients track their metabolisms before and after weight loss, we assume that taking a much more measured approach is part of what enables our clients to lose weight and keep it off. While doing it this way is less compelling in the moment, because the pounds fail to drop off at lightning speed, it seems to pay off in the long term, as dieters lose weight by putting behaviors into place, supported by changes in cognition, that they can ultimately maintain.
Are you a professional who works with dieters?
Norman Cotterell, Ph.D.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Beck and Gellatly (2016) propose that catastrophic thinking is a central feature in psychopathology. Such thinking magnifies both the immediate and eventual consequences of any perceived threat. A variety of disorders can be conceptualized as such: Clients magnify external threats (accidents, attacks, arson) but most notably misinterpret and magnify perceived internal threats. Sensations, thoughts, and emotions are seen as signs of immediate physical or psychological catastrophe.
Beck and Gellatly regard such thinking as an essential ingredient in the development and maintenance of these anxiety disorders. They identify 6 essential ingredients of a cycle that fuels them: Catastrophic Beliefs (“I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying,”) triggered by a Precipitating Event (heart palpitations) results in both Anxiety Symptoms (shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling out of control) and an Interpretive Bias (“If my chest hurts, I’m having a heart attack”). These, in turn trigger an Attentional Fixation (“There’s no other way to look at this!”) and an Attentional Bias (“I really need to pay close attention to my chest.”) And these attentional factors serve to refuel the anxiety, the interpretative bias, the catastrophic beliefs and each other.
Beck and Gellatly propose taking catastrophizing into account would be useful in the diagnosis, prediction, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology. Future research and exploration will answer such questions as: Which catastrophic beliefs differentiate which conditions? Who is susceptible to developing such beliefs? How do we educate people to promote resiliency against such beliefs? What interventions will best enable clients to counter these beliefs?
Although they point to catastrophic beliefs as the key essential factor, other factors may serve as points of interventions. Decatastrophizing enables clients to test the validity of catastrophic beliefs through exposure to the sensations. Therapists use panic inductions, for example, to alter the misinterpretation of symptoms. Other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal, may ameliorate attentional fixation by providing more plausible ways to account for symptoms. Various in-office procedures may modify attentional bias by directing focus to breathing, to objects in the office, or to sounds inside and outside the building. This model may serve as a way to conceptualize the problem and identify where interventions work.
Beck, A.T. & Gellatly, R. Catastrophic Thinking: A Transdiagnostic Process Across Psychiatric Disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2016, pp. 1-12.