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What is Cognitive Processing Therapy?

By Jennifer Long
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a type of cognitive-behavior therapy used to treat people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is most commonly used for war veterans, people who have witnessed a violent attack, and trauma victims, such as sexual assault victims. CPT combines aspects of cognitive therapy, clinical psychology, and psychotherapy. Therapy occurs in three main steps.

Step one of cognitive processing therapy involves learning about the PTSD symptoms that each individual experiences and how CPT will treat these symptoms. People will learn about how their anger, nightmares, and avoidance issues are related to the trauma, and how their life has been altered as a result. The relation between the memories and the symptoms must be understood so that patients gain the ability to allow therapy to help them get passed their emotional obstacles.

The second step in cognitive processing therapy is to become aware of all thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. Human beings often associate emotions with specific memories and when trauma is involved, these responses are often on a subconscious level. Feelings of fear, anger, guilt, and more are generally automatic responses to trauma. Being aware of the specific events that trigger these feelings helps PTSD sufferers take a step back and see how their responses affect their daily life.

Writing is often therapeutic and part of the third step of cognitive processing therapy. Patients are advised to write about the event that occurred, detailing the point of trauma. This helps people bypass the need to avoid the topic and face it head on. Ultimately, the therapist’s goal is to reduce the guilt and self-blame while increasing the ability to accept what happened.

In many cases, exposure therapy is used as a part of cognitive processing therapy. This form of therapy involves exposing the patient to reminders of the trauma. Images, smells, and sounds are used to help patients confront their fears.

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is another type of therapy that may be used. Therapists use cues that show which things act as reminders. The patient can then learn how to manage symptoms that occur through techniques such as deep breathing. This particular type of therapy is usually beneficial for people who suffer from panic attacks as a symptom of PTSD.

The end goal of cognitive processing therapy is to help a person with PTSD learn about what they are experiencing so that behaviors and thinking can be changed. An average of 12 sessions is common to complete the process, but a therapist may recommend more depending on each individual case and how quickly progress occurs. Additionally, sessions may be one on one, in a group setting, or a combination of the two.

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