Practical Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Strategies for Everyday Life

Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t just a one-hour chat with your therapist. It’s a set of skills that you can carry into your daily life. They can help you cope with hard things, manage stress when it comes up, and reshape your thought patterns when needed. The goal is to help you live a productive, healthy […]

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on Feb 15, 2024

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Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t just a one-hour chat with your therapist. It’s a set of skills that you can carry into your daily life. They can help you cope with hard things, manage stress when it comes up, and reshape your thought patterns when needed. The goal is to help you live a productive, healthy life. 

In this article, we’ll share activities that you can practice with a therapist and on your own. However, know that these activities aren’t a substitute for therapy; rather, they are tools that you would learn in therapy. Whether you’re new to CBT or looking to reinforce your existing skills, these techniques can help guide you toward growth and well-being. 

What Is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that focuses on changing the unhealthy or unhelpful thoughts that underlie unhealthy or unhelpful behaviors. The theory is that your thoughts, feelings, and actions are all interconnected—so when you work on replacing negative thoughts with more productive ones, you can start feeling better and make positive behavior change, too.  

CBT is usually short-term with clear goals in mind. Whether you’re dealing with distressing challenges such as trouble sleeping or upsetting experiences like depression or anxiety, CBT can help. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques to Practice

When you hear “talk therapy,” you might imagine spending your sessions discussing your life and then picking up the conversation at the next session. CBT will definitely involve conversation, but the primary goal is helping you take action.  

“CBT is very much based in homework,” says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. 

In CBT, your therapist will likely give you assignments to complete between sessions. They’re designed to help you practice the skills you learned in therapy. When you come back to therapy, you and your provider will discuss how things went and what you learned. This last step is key—having accountability is how behavior change happens. 

Considering Self-Help CBT?

If you’re still functioning okay in your daily life, you may feel like trying “self-help CBT,” cutting out the therapist and giving yourself homework. Galica says that’s fair. “But it’s based on the presumption that you are tackling the behaviors that need to change,” she clarifies. 

Depending on your symptoms, CBT isn’t always work you can do on your own. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that self-help CBT could be appropriate for someone with mild to moderate symptoms who is generally functioning well. But someone who is severely depressed and struggling to function will probably need one-on-one treatment with a professional. 

Before trying self-directed CBT, Galica suggests getting honest about three questions:

In other words, can you identify what’s actually going on inside yourself during a stressful or triggering moment? It’s important to note that sometimes our first analysis of a situation is actually just a cover for what’s going on even deeper.

As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know — and a therapist can help identify the root causes that we can’t see. The behavior homework will only be effective if you’re targeting the right root cause. 

Negative cycles of thoughts and behaviors are incredibly hard to break. After all, there’s a reason we got stuck in them in the first place. In kind, empathetic ways, a CBT therapist will push you toward getting out. 

Techniques to Practice on Your Own

Still, there are plenty of reasons besides self-help for practicing CBT techniques on your own. Maybe you’re currently doing CBT and want to keep building your skills. Or, maybe you’ve had CBT before and want a refresher course. If you’re up for it, we’ve got six CBT techniques for practice outside of therapy. 

#1. Write It Down

For Galica’s clients, writing is a powerful tool for getting to the root of behaviors. When you’re feeling off or recognizing behaviors that aren’t productive, write down what’s happening. This doesn’t have to be a novella or a flowery journal. Galica says it could be the back of an envelope.

Ask yourself:

Keep your journals focused on what’s happening in your brain and body. “It doesn’t have to be that very much romanticized Norman Rockwell” says Galica. “It can be: I got home, work was crap, and I need to silence somebody.” Then, take those notes to therapy.

#2. The Five Why Game

Another technique that Galica shares with her clients is the Five Why Game. You ask yourself why you’re doing something five times in a row. Again, the goal is getting to the root, the beliefs behind your thoughts and actions. 

To illustrate, Galica gives a simple example: Imagine you’re shopping and you see a rug. You don’t need a new rug but start considering it. Before buying, ask yourself a series of whys. On the first why, you might think, “It’ll look nice in my dining room.” On the second, you might think, “Because it’ll save my floors.” On the third, you may realize, “Because my home growing up never looked nice, and I felt ashamed.” Whenever you can’t go further, you know you’ve hit the root. 

Galica elaborates: “When you ask why long enough, you get to the root cause of what’s going on. Such as: I’m resentful I’m not being heard. Or my expectation isn’t being met.” 

Playing the game keeps you from unloading on others or engaging in unhealthy behaviors. 

#3. Take a Breath

We all struggle with letting our strong, negative feelings drive our actions. This exercise, Take a Breath, can help you learn to pause between feeling and doing — so that you can avoid hurting others or yourself. Galica says the goal is that you’re able to think “Is this the hill I want to die on?” when you feel “that instant fire” of anger or fear — and then respond accordingly. 

Emotions tend to flood our brains, and you have to create space for this cognition to happen. To do this, practice taking one breath. Train yourself to consider whether this moment is worth, for example, raising your voice. You may decide it is — but when you, not your emotions, are in the driver’s seat, you’ll be better equipped to respond in appropriate, productive ways. 

#4. Reframing Unhelpful Thoughts

Therapists call this technique for challenging unhelpful thoughts Catch It, Check It, Change It. First, you have to know what to look for. Working with a therapist can help you identify the types of negative thoughts you experience the most; some examples include:

Once you recognize them, you can practice “catching” these thoughts as they’re happening throughout your day. Then, you can “check” them, which means stepping back and asking yourself pointed questions, such as:

Lastly, you can “change” out the more negative thoughts for neutral or positive ones.

#5. Practice Problem-Solving

A CBT strategy for dealing with social anxiety is proactive problem-solving. In this technique, you think through what you would do if your fears become real. How would you respond? What actions would you take? Your therapist will help you learn and practice good ways of coping. As the National Social Anxiety Center notes, the more confident you feel that you can cope, the less socially anxious you’ll feel. 

#6. Slow Diaphragmatic Breathing 

Slow diaphragmatic breathing involves slowing down your breathing to communicate “safety” to your brain, according to Michigan Medicine. Twice a day for 10 minutes, practice using the following steps:

  1. Lie down or sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor.
  2. Fold your hands over your belly.
  3. Breathe in calmly and slowly, filling your belly up with a normal breath. Your hands should move up as if you’re filling a balloon.
  4. Breathe out slowly to the count of five. Slow down your exhale with each breath, and hold your breath for several seconds before breathing in again.
  5. Continue to slow the pace of your breath.

With CBT, You Can Make Positive Changes

CBT is about progress—not perfection. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle along the way. Remember that each day is an opportunity to practice, learn, and grow—and a therapist can be both your cheerleader and your guide. You can use our “Find a Therapist” tool to find a mental health professional in your network who takes your insurance. 

So keep that journal handy, play the ‘Five Why’ game, take a breath when needed, and challenge those unhelpful thoughts. With time and persistence, you’ll notice positive changes in your life.


  • CBT looks different for everyone. Your specific process depends on your goals, your therapist, your symptoms, and your preferences. One specific CBT skill is called cognitive restructuring, and therapists divide it into five steps: 1) Write down the upsetting situation. 2) Identify the most upsetting feeling you had during the situation. 3) Identify the thoughts underlying this feeling. 4) Evaluate the thought. Is it accurate? 5) Make a decision about whether or not this thought is accurate. Repeat these steps for as many feelings as you need.

  • The 3 C’s—catch it, check it, change it—is a CBT technique for restructuring negative thoughts. Simply put, you “catch” a negative thought and “check” it for accuracy. Lastly, you “change” untrue thoughts, swapping them out for more realistic ones.

  • One CBT exercise used for treating insomnia is progressive muscle relaxation. You tense and relax different muscle groups, such as the neck or shoulders. Practicing this exercise can help release tension and reduce stress as you’re falling asleep.

  • CBT differs for everyone and depends on their goals for treatment. Generally, the Mayo Clinic notes that CBT typically includes the following steps: 1) Identifying concerns in your life. 2) Developing greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs around these concerns. 3) Learning to recognize inaccurate or negative thoughts. 4) Practicing reframing inaccurate or negative thoughts.

  • The dictionary definition of cognitive is “of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering).” In the CBT context, cognitive refers to your thoughts and the mental constructs behind them.

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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