Dr. Aaron T. Beck: The Father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
On Monday, Nov. 1, the world lost an incredible psychiatrist when Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the aptly named “father of cognitive behavioral therapy” who pioneered the field and taught at the University of Pennsylvania and other colleges, died peacefully in his sleep at the impressive age of 100.
Throughout his storied career, Dr. Beck earned many awards, including the prestigious Gustave O. Lienhard Award from the Institute of Medicine. He also co-authored 25 books and upwards of 600 articles over the years and, in 2017, was named the fourth most influential physician over the last century.
In 1994, Dr. Beck, along with his daughter Dr. Judith Beck, co-founded the Beck Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to helping people around the world live more fulfilling lives through the promise of cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT.
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
At a very basic level, CBT is a talking therapy that’s all about helping people solve their problems by understanding how the way they think about the situation at hand influences how they respond to it.
For example, if a small business owner who runs a tight ship gets a letter from the IRS and immediately starts thinking about the worst-case scenario, chances are they will be stressed out and respond irrationally to the circumstances — much to the chagrin of those in their lives.
By learning that the way they mentally interpret an event influences how they’ll physically respond to it, the small business owner might use CBT to retrain how they react to letters from the IRS and remind themselves to take a deep breath the next time one invariably ends up in their mailbox.
According to Dr. Beck, the way we think about issues can be established in childhood. And if we think about issues the wrong way, these cognitive errors could lead to problems down the road.
By enrolling in CBT sessions, Dr. Beck believed people could unlearn these unproductive ways of thinking while developing healthier responses to unwelcomed situations. Rather than stumbling into a tricky situation and feeling overwhelmed, people can learn to break down big problems into smaller manageable parts, making it that much easier to respond to them in a calm, cool, and collected manner.
Why Is Cognitive Therapy Important?
There’s not much any of us can completely control in this world. That said, we do have control over how we think about the world and our experience in it. This is why CBT can be particularly helpful — and why Dr. Beck’s daughter, Dr. Judith Beck, is continuing her father’s work at the Beck Institute.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the main reasons therapists and their clients find CBT to be particularly attractive.
It’s generally risk-free
While clients might deal with uncomfortable emotions and sentiments during CBT sessions, this is more or less par for the course when it comes to any form of therapy. Aside from crying, getting upset, and otherwise feeling awkward, there’s very little risk when patients decide to use CBT to confront the problems they’re facing.
That said, it’s important to remember that CBT is not a quick fix for behavioral and mental health issues. While it can be particularly helpful for many patients, it’s not the right treatment for everyone, e.g., those with complex mental health needs.
It can help people overcome serious trauma
Ultimately, the whole point of therapy is to help people become the best versions of themselves possible — and this is an area where CBT shines. By helping clients reframe how they think about issues, it’s possible to help them overcome all sorts of issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, and even more serious traumas, like sexual abuse and physical abuse.
It produces quick results
Whereas some approaches to therapy might take patients months or even years to overcome the issues they’re facing, CBT can deliver results quickly — in as fast as five sessions. This is attractive to both clients who want to solve their problems as quickly as they can and therapists who want nothing more than to improve their patients’ lives; the sooner that happens, the better.
How CBT Changed the World
At the end of the day, all of us see the world through a distorted lens, at least every now and again. Thanks to Dr. Beck’s innovative work in the realm of CBT, the stigma around mental health has perhaps faded at least a bit, as it made therapy more approachable to pretty much everyone.
While the world is no doubt a little less bright due to Dr. Beck’s passing, we can take comfort in the fact that his work will live on through the Beck Institute — and that CBT will continue to evolve to provide more help to even more people who need it.
To continue your learning, read more about the development of psychotherapy and our understanding of mental health here. Interested in CBT for yourself? Search for therapists near you and filter your results by Type of Therapy > Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
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