counsellor and client work through Cognitive behavioural therapy session

Cognitive Therapy: How a Handful of Sessions Could Change Your Life


Wondering what cognitive therapy is all about?

Perhaps your GP or other doctor referred you to a cognitive therapist?

Or maybe you’ve tried other forms of therapy and haven’t found success?

Whatever brought you to this search, we’re happy to answer your questions about cognitive therapy. Let’s explore what it is, what it isn’t, how it has helped hundreds of thousands of people and how it could help you.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is All About Changing Your Thinking

Cognitive therapy, also known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or “CBT,” takes a much less theoretical, more practical approach to treating a wide variety of mental and emotional conditions. These include:

– depression

– anxiety

– chronic pain

– eating disorders

– sleep issues

– addiction & substance abuse

– mood swings

– anger issues

– obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

– sexual problems

– phobias

– bipolar disorder

– other personality disorders

CBT is a form of talk therapy that focuses on addressing and getting rid of negative thoughts and emotions. CBT is time-limited, not an open-ended ongoing series of sessions but rather a finite number. The goal from the first session onward is to identify triggers and patterns, and then come up with real-time & real-world ways to challenge those ways of thinking. It’s all about eliminating negative thought patterns.


This is not to say that cognitive therapy is a whitewash, though. It’s quite different from the “positive thinking” pop-psychology approaches that ignore core issues in an unrealistic attempt to make everything bright and happy. Instead, CBT acknowledges that we all have triggers in our lives, things that prompt a negative thought or reaction. Left unchecked, these can spiral quickly into a series of negative thoughts and emotions which leave the afflicted person in a state of depression, anxiety and/or other emotional conditions.

Cognitive Therapy Is a Common-Sense Approach to Change the Wiring in Your Brain by Eliminating Negative Thinking Patterns

Rather than doing a deep dive into “why” these triggers exists – the classical Freudian psychological approaches where the therapist asks the patient to “tell me about your childhood” – CBT cuts right to the core and quickly comes up with ways to move forward. It’s not to say that those things don’t exist. Nor is it a means of pretending that external factors (job stress, family issues, finances, etc.) aren’t real. They do and they are. What Cognitive Therapy says instead is that we all have the power to affect change in our lives by the way we think. In other words, it’s an internal way of coping with the world around us.

What it’s effectively doing is changing the wiring in your brain.


By challenging your ways of thinking, you’re creating neural pathways in your brain. The more you use a neural pathway, the smoother and easier to traverse it becomes – actually kind of the opposite of the roads we use, in that sense. If you go through a series of cognitive therapy sessions and follow through with the exercises and homework during that and beyond, you’ll find yourself changing the way you react to life around you.

What does CBT look like in practice?

shutterstock_652923205Okay, so that’s the theory behind cognitive therapy. What can one expect in actual treatment?

CBT takes a few different forms, most notably individual therapy sessions as well as group therapy.

Unlike traditional (“Freudian” etc.) therapy that you may have experienced or heard of, there is a specific structure that the therapist and client follow. It’s not a free-flow discussion, associating thoughts and emotions that take turns and tangents. There’s little exploration of issues from the past.

Instead, your therapist will ask a series of assessment or intake questions. These are designed to identify the challenges you’re currently facing and how you’ll go about getting past them. Such questions could include:

– “What brought you here?

– “What are the problems you’re currently experiencing?”

– “Do you have a history of (depression, anxiety, etc.)?”

– “Do you have any physical ailments or health conditions?”

– “How well (or poorly) are you sleeping?”

– “What would you like to accomplish here?”

– In other words, “What would a successful CBT result look like for you? What specific improvements would your life have?”

Once these challenges are identified, an assessment is made in good order – the sooner that’s available, the sooner the journey to success can begin.

What does the CBT journey to success involve?

shutterstock_320312924First things first, we should make it clear that CBT isn’t for everyone. The initial assessment could come back with results that say that there is no need for therapy, or that a different form of therapy would be preferable. At Capital Choice Counselling in Ottawa, for example, we treat a wide range of conditions with several forms of therapy available.

Should CBT be suitable for you, the therapist will then work with you to determine a set of goals and a specific series of steps to get there. That’s how the content of your sessions and your homework is determined. It is not a cookie-cutter approach, no “one-size-fits-all” solutions in CBT. Your situation is unique, and the steps you’ll take to conquer your challenges will ultimately be unique to you.

CBT does, however, rely on a time-tested structure and framework in which to implement those steps.

Remember, cognitive therapy is all about solving life problems.

You’ll be engaged with your therapist during these sessions, asked specific and relevant questions, then put into different scenarios to challenge your way of thinking.

Let’s break down the essential CBT steps

A typical series of CBT would involve this essential structure:

  • Identify the challenges you face. Common issues include stress, physical conditions, workplace issues, divorce or family issues, anger, depression, anxiety, etc. These issues are real. There’s no trivialization of them in CBT. You and your therapist will identify the core challenges and establish goals and priorities to overcome them.
  • Identify the thoughts & emotions you have regarding these challenges. While the issues above are real and in many cases are less than avoidable, how you respond to those issues is within your control. Your therapist will engage you in talk therapy – conversation, really – to discover how you think and feel when talking about these specific matters. Homework could include a journal of thoughts and emotions, so that you’re better aware of them during this process (and beyond!).
  • Identify negative patterns of thinking.When discussing specific situations, your therapist will probably observe and point out how you react in physical, emotional and behavioral ways.
  • Change the way you think.When observing your reactions, your therapist will then challenge your way of thinking or dealing. This is where facts and perceptions are separated. It may seem abrupt or even startling at first, especially if we’re talking about long-held beliefs.

Change won’t necessarily happen overnight. But your negative beliefs and thought patterns will be challenged from early on. In good time you’ll experience change – so long as you’re committed to the process.


An example of CBT in practice

Let’s say a patient, Kathleen, arrives at a cognitive behavioral therapist’s office.

– Kathleen has a history of depression and anxiety

– Kathleen is the mother of two teenagers, is experiencing a high level of stress at work, and she has recently had a benign tumor removed

– The therapist first identifies these issues, then encourages Kathleen to talk about them

– Watching and listening to Kathleen, the therapist shares her observations of Kathleen’s negative thought patterns

– While this seems startling to Kathleen at first, together they find ways for Kathleen to replace her negative thinking with alternative forms; e.g. “Yes, I have a challenging job. But I’m grateful to have it, and I know I can overcome these challenges because I’ve dealt with similar challenges successfully in the past.”

Oversimplified? A bit, yes, for our purposes here. But that’s the essence of it.

CBT Capital Choice

How many sessions does CBT cover? How long will its effects last?

A typical series of cognitive behavioral therapy last somewhere between 10 and 20 sessions. This can vary depending on the situation(s) you face, severity and history of symptoms and your commitment to progress.

What you learn in CBT, however, can last a lifetime. Cognitive therapy is all about using tools to defeat negative thinking. Your therapy sessions are but a beginning step on a lifetime journey of success.

At Capital Choice Counseling, we have experienced cognitive therapists in Ottawa who can help. Contact us today to find the right therapist for you, and get started now on working through your challenges with CBT.