How to Become a CBT Therapist – A Complete Guide to Preparing for a Career in Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the latest revolutions in mental health and has quickly become one of the most effective interventions available to therapists.

A mashup between the older schools of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology, CBT offers practical, action-oriented strategies of therapy. By helping patients recognize poor thought patterns reinforcing harmful behaviors, CBT therapists short-circuit the negative feedback loops powering all kinds of psychological disorders ranging from depression to anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Research suggests that CBT offers a more effective alternative to these kinds of mental health issues than medications, with no side effects, lower cost, and more permanent effects. That combination makes CBT the wave of the future in the most common mental health treatments, and CBT therapists a hot commodity among mental health professionals.

First, a Primer on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT has become enormously popular since the 1970s when it was first introduced. It’s a holistic, practical approach to dealing with detrimental thoughts and behaviors that has shown great success across a long spectrum of mental health issues.

The core of CBT aims to diagnose harmful thought and behavior patterns and replace them with more positive responses. To do this, CBT therapists go through a series of steps with each patient:

  • Identify and diagnose critical behaviors
  • Recognizing the stimulus or entry points to those behaviors
  • Reconceptualizing the thoughts leading to the behaviors
  • Altering the behavioral responses to those thoughts

In general, CBT is about training individuals to recognize the patterns to their negative behaviors in the same ways a therapist would see them.

CBT allows your patients to step outside themselves and view harmful thoughts and actions objectively, and develop alternatives that are more positive. And instead of only providing coping mechanisms and treatment during your sessions themselves, CBT empowers clients to continue the action of therapy during their daily lives… right where they need it the most.

CBT is flexible enough that much of the day-to-day implementation happens with the patient alone. In other words, the therapist trains the client during sessions in the techniques of recognizing critical behaviors and readjusting thoughts and reactions into healthier patterns. The patient then puts those tools to use as they go through their lives each day, where the challenges of their condition confront them. Subsequent visits take the form of a tune-up, or dealing with emergent issues.

CBT is also used in group therapy. It’s particularly effective in addiction counseling and eating disorders.

Finally, CBT is also easy to mix and match with other kinds of traditional therapy techniques. Those include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Exposure therapy
  • Relaxation training
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Metacognitive therapy

Who can perform CBT?

CBT is not a technique that is legally restricted in any way. Marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists all make use of CBT techniques on a regular basis. There are even computer programs that can perform CBT with users through apps or online.

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What Qualifications Do You Need To Become a CBT Therapist?

A bachelor’s in psychology is a good starting point for a career path into CBT. But your CBT education is going to take more than just a four-year degree to get off the ground.

CBT therapy is a technique and not a profession. In fact, it’s a popular technique offered by many different mental health professionals. So there are no qualifications that are specific to performing CBT that you need to meet. Your requirements will differ between the different kinds of professions that use CBT.

CBT is a therapeutic technique and not a specific title or restricted to any specific type of therapy profession.

Most of those professions have a few things in common, however:

  • They require that you earn a license to practice therapy directly with patients
  • They require an advanced degree in the field for your education
  • You will have to pass a professional examination demonstrating your qualifications
  • You usually have to perform some period of supervised practice

Like all kinds of interpersonal therapy, you’ll need to be a good listener. You need to have empathy and at the same time learn to assess issues objectively and rationally. Communication skills are a must when you are working in CBT. You need to have the verbal skills to talk to and connect with clients who are buried deep in the damaged circuits of their own brain.

The kind of training you get as a counselor, therapist, or psychologist is designed to provide exactly those kinds of skills, fortunately.

Should you pursue a certification in CBT?

Because CBT crosses professional lines, one way of signaling your expertise and specialization is to earn a professional certification in CBT. You can earn these through national organizations such as the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. The requirements include:

  • Earn an advanced degree in psychology or a related field
  • Accumulate ten years of post-graduate experience in CBT
  • Get three letters of recommendation from fellow mental health professionals
  • Complete a CBT-specific certification program

Patients and potential employers can count on certification to demonstrate your expertise in CBT regardless of whether you are a psychologist, counselor, or marriage and family therapist.

What Degree Should You Pursue To Become a CBT Practitioner?

A master’s in psychology or a related field is probably the minimum degree level you should consider if you are serious about becoming a CBT practitioner. But many CBT therapists become full-fledged psychologists by pursuing doctoral degrees in the field.

A master’s isn’t usually required to get into PhD or PsyD programs, however. Most of them will accept anyone with a bachelor’s degree, awarding a master’s along the way to the doctorate.

In general, you don’t need to worry about the differences between an MA vs MS in psychology if you choose that path. There are no significant differences between the two types of programs as they apply to learning CBT techniques.

But the degree you choose is definitely important. You want a program that prepares you for clinical practice, working directly with patients. Although concentration options in CBT itself are rare, you definitely want a degree that exposes you to at least some CBT techniques. And pursuing a concentration in behavioral therapy definitely gives you an edge in learning the nuts and bolts of CBT techniques later on.

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How long does it take to become a CBT?

Because the technique is widespread and there are no restrictions on what type of therapists can use it, there is no single answer to this question. In general, becoming any type of counselor or therapist requires at least a master’s degree, however. That means a minimum of at least six years, including four years in a bachelor’s program and two years of advanced studies, are required. In some cases, it could take as long as 12 years, however.

Do you need a degree to become a CBT?

Yes. Although CBT as a technique is not restricted, working as a therapist requires licensure in every state. All state licensing boards require a master’s degree or higher in order to earn that license. You’ll also get the appropriate training in using CBT in clinical scenarios through a degree program.

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Is a master’s in CBT online right for you?

A master’s degree can definitely unlock some of the paths to becoming a CBT therapist, so that’s one option. Whether or not an online master’s degree is the right choice for you is a little more personal.

Online programs offer unprecedented flexibility. They don’t just allow you to take classes physically distant from the university of your choice, but also at a time of your choice through asynchronous courses. That’s a killer feature for anyone with a current career or family obligations. It comes with a trade-off in interpersonal interaction, but internships and practicum placements can usually be made locally to ensure you still get the client-facing pre-professional experience you need to be prepared for the job.