How Cognitive Theory Is Used in Phobia Treatment

Write a New Script for Your Anxiety Triggers

Man talking with therapist in therapy
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Cognitive theory is an approach to psychology that attempts to explain human behavior by understanding your thought processes. For example, a therapist is using principles of cognitive theory when they teach you how to identify maladaptive thought patterns and transform them into constructive ones.

Cognitive Theory Basics

The assumption of cognitive theory is that thoughts are the primary determinants of emotions and behavior. Information processing is a common description of this mental process. Theorists compare the way the human mind functions to a computer.

Pure cognitive theory challenges behaviorism, another approach to psychology, on the basis that it reduces complex human behavior to simple cause and effect.

The trend of the last decades has been to merge cognitive theory and behaviorism into a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral theory (CBT). This allows therapists to use techniques from both schools of thought to help clients achieve their goals.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is a subset of cognitive theory. Therapists use it to treat phobias and other psychological disorders. It is primarily focused on the ways in which we learn to model the behavior of others. Advertising campaigns and peer pressure situations are good examples.

Cognitive Restructuring to Treat Phobia

All three types of phobia fall into a larger group of psychological issues called anxiety disorders, which are the most common type of psychiatric disorder.

Cognitive restructuring, based on cognitive theory, is part of an effective treatment plan for anxiety disorder. It involves the therapist asking you questions, helping you analyze the answers to increase your understanding of your anxiety, and assisting you in "rewriting" your maladaptive thoughts.

The basic approach to cognitive restructuring put forth by leading cognitive theorist Christine A. Padesky, Ph.D., recommends that your therapist goes through four basic steps with you:

  1. Ask questions to identify the "self-talk" going on in your head when you feel anxious, and then facilitate a discussion to test if what you're thinking is really true.
  2. Listen to what you have to say with an empathetic ear and unconditional acceptance.
  3. Ask you to summarize the main points of the session to reinforce what you've learned and to let them address any misunderstandings.
  4. Ask you questions that allow you to synthesize and analyze the new and more realistic view of your anxiety so you can restructure your thought patterns.

Cognitive Biases Treatment

Your therapist is relying on cognitive theory if they highlight identifying the cognitive biases in your maladaptive thoughts as a part of your treatment plan. Two types of cognitive biases addressed in anxiety treatment include:

  • Attention bias means that when you are experiencing your anxiety trigger, you pay attention to the negative signals instead of positive ones. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, you only look at audience members with facial expressions you see as threatening, rather than seeking out the smiling faces.
  • Interpretation bias, as the name implies, refers to misinterpreting information. At the podium, you might think an audience member with a negative facial expression is a reflection of how they feel about you when they're really just tired.
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Yoon HJ, Tourassi G. Analysis of Online Social Networks to Understand Information Sharing Behaviors Through Social Cognitive Theory. Annu ORNL Biomed Sci Eng Cent Conf. 2014. doi:10.1109/BSEC.2014.6867744

  3. Padesky CA, Mooney KA. Strengths‐Based Cognitive–Behavioural Therapy: A Four‐Step Model to Build Resilience. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2012;19:283-290. doi:10.1002/cpp.1795

  4. Beard C. Cognitive Bias Modification for Anxiety: Current Evidence and Future Directions. Expert Rev Neurother. 2011;11(2):299-311. doi:10.1586/ern.10.194

  5. Barry TJ, Vervliet B, Hermans D. An integrative review of attention biases and their contribution to treatment for anxiety disorders. Front Psychol. 2015;6:968. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00968

  6. Beard C, Amir N. Negative Interpretation Bias Mediates the Effect of Social Anxiety on State Anxiety. Cognit Ther Res. 2010;34(3):292-296. doi:10.1007/s10608-009-9258-6

Additional Reading

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.