How Cognitive Therapy Works for Stress Relief

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Negative thoughts can create more stress in our lives. Not only can "negative affect," or being in a bad mood, color our experience so that many of the things we experience seem more stressful and even overwhelming, but our bad mood can be contagious, and can even cause others to treat us in a less friendly way, perpetuating negativity in us and virtually everyone we encounter, to a degree.

It is easy to get trapped into the habit of thinking negatively, and changing those thought processes is a goal in cognitive therapy.

Many people have found this to be a useful tool in their stress management strategy.

Cognitive therapy has been found to be effective in the treatment of many issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, and even severe stress. Whether the stress is contributing to mood disorders or is just creating unpleasant feelings that are interfering with a happy lifestyle, cognitive therapy (or a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapy) can be a very effective mode of treatment.

The Idea Behind Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy for stress rests on the premise that it’s not simply the events in our lives that cause us stress, it’s the way we think about them.

For example, two people may be caught in traffic. One person could view this situation as an opportunity to listen to music or get lost in thought and become (or remain) relaxed. Another person may focus on the wasted time or the feeling of being trapped, and become distressed.

There are hundreds of examples of how our thoughts and our negative self-talk color our experiences. These can lead to a triggered stress response or a calm demeanor.

Virtually all of the thought patterns that negatively impact our experiences can be categorized into one of 10 common cognitive distortions. Therapists using a cognitive approach work with clients to recognize and alter these habitually negative thought patterns. You can also work on some of them at home.

Using Cognitive Therapy for Stress Relief

Many people have found a cognitive approach to be wonderfully helpful and much quicker than other therapeutic approaches.

There is no standard length or number of cognitive therapy sessions needed for the treatment of stress. It depends on what your needs are. After a few sessions, some people see improvement. Other people may need months of therapy before they feel better. 

This is significantly faster than the years-on-the-couch rate of psychoanalytic therapy, which is what many people still think of when they think of "going to a shrink."

Support for the effectiveness of this approach comes from research on optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles. It is also revealed by the positive results that come from cognitive therapy for stress, or a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapy.

Cognitive therapy has also been combined with the practice of mindfulness. This created mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has shown promising effects as well.

Giving It a Try

When interviewing potential therapists, ask about their experience with this approach. You can also search out someone who specializes in cognitive therapeutic interventions.

If you’re not interested in seeing a therapist at this point but would like to use some cognitive techniques to reduce your stress levels, you can begin at home. There are plenty of books, online courses, and resources that can help you learn to change your thinking patterns.

A Word From Verywell

If you're not sure if you need cognitive therapy, you might start by asking your physician. Explain your symptoms and ask whether your doctor thinks a referral to a therapist might be helpful. Seeking help can be a little scary but it might be one of the best choices you ever make.

4 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.
  1. Hofmann SG, Asmundson GJ, Beck AT. The science of cognitive therapy. Behav Ther. 2013;44(2):199-212. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2009.01.007

  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Cognitive behavioral therapy.

  3. Chand SP, Kuckel DP, Huecker MR. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2020.

  4. Lackner RJ, Moore MT, Minerovic J, Fresco DM. Explanatory flexibility and explanatory style in treatment-seeking clients with Axis I psychopathology. Cognit Ther Res. 2015;39(6):736-743. doi:10.1007/s10608-015-9702-8

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.