6 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises To Try

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Monday, July 24 2023

Therapists and psychologists have developed a range of therapy techniques over the last several decades. Today, one of the most common therapy techniques for treating various mental health disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).    

If you schedule an appointment with a therapist to treat your anxiety, OCD, stress, or any number of other mental health conditions, there's a good chance that you may experience CBT firsthand. 

To help you make the most of these therapy sessions, let's take a look at how CBT works, the cognitive distortions it helps eliminate, and six CBT exercises that you can do with or without the help of a therapist.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

CBT is a type of cognitive restructuring designed to eliminate unhelpful thinking, negative thought patterns, and other cognitive distortions. 

By pinpointing and reframing the negative thoughts that can contribute to mental disorders, CBT provides a person with powerful coping skills. In a recent analysis of 269 studies, CBT has been found to be highly effective at treating anxiety disorders, eating disorders, stress, and other mental health conditions.

Talk therapy is one core component of CBT and is used to help people identify and work through recurring negative emotions and thought patterns. However, there are a number of other cognitive behavioral therapy exercises that may reduce unhelpful thoughts as well. This includes CBT exercises like journaling, therapy worksheets, mindfulness meditation, and breathing exercises.

Common cognitive distortions

Some of the common cognitive distortions that CBT can potentially help treat include:

All-or-nothing thinking

We don't live in a black-and-white world, and there are plenty of gray areas within the human experience. However, Someone impacted by all-or-nothing thinking tends to only see situations in terms of extremes. 

With all-or-nothing thinking, things are either fantastic or horrible, with no middle ground. This type of thinking impacts a person's ability to process situations with the nuance and perspective required for a healthy outlook on life.

Mental filtering

Mental filtering is the tendency to only focus on the negatives of a situation while overlooking the positives. People with this cognitive distortion tend to be pessimistic about their experiences and situations and let even the smallest negatives outweigh the positives.

Jumping to conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is the tendency to make unhelpful assumptions based on little or no evidence. For example, deciding not to pursue a promotion because you conclude that a coworker is more qualified — even if you have no evidence that they are. 

Mind reading

Mind reading is the attempt to interpret the thoughts and beliefs of others without sufficient evidence. People with this cognitive distortion will often assume that others have negative thoughts or feelings about them even when there is no reason to believe that this is true.


Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion similar to mental filtering. It causes people to take one negative experience and generalize it into a pattern that may not actually exist. For example, a person who has one bad relationship concludes that they will never have a healthy relationship. 


Catastrophizing is exaggerating the meaning, importance, or likelihood of an event. The classic children's story of Chicken Little, who saw an acorn fall from a tree and concluded that the sky was falling, is a story all about the dangers of catastrophizing. People with this cognitive distortion cannot place events and emotions in the proper perspective and tend to assume the worst in every negative situation.

Fallacy of fairness

The world isn't always a fair place — many people learn this at an early age. However, people who fall into the fallacy of fairness will subconsciously feel as if the world should always be fair and will commonly experience anger, resentment, and hopelessness when they experience unfairness.

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is one of the most common cognitive distortions that people fall prey to. This cognitive distortion causes people to place too much trust in their emotions, leading them to believe things as facts just because they feel that they are true.

Disqualifying the positive

Disqualifying the positive is only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring its positive aspects. People with this cognitive distortion are usually unable to see the silver lining in negative situations and tend to fixate on the negatives — even in situations that are predominantly positive.


Personalization is the tendency to take everything personally and blame yourself for every negative situation and outcome. Someone with this cognitive distortion may take every negative outcome in their life as a symptom of their own failure — even when there is no logical reason to blame themselves.


Labeling is a type of overgeneralization that causes people to place labels on themselves or others based on a single experience. For example, a student who fails a test may label themselves as unintelligent based on this single result. These labels cause people to unfairly place themselves and others in boxes that can be difficult to escape from.

"Should" statements

The tendency to make "should" statements is a cognitive distortion that causes a person to hold themselves to too high of a standard regarding what they "should" or "must" do. Having high expectations for yourself isn't always a bad thing. But when those expectations are too lofty and cause you to feel guilt or failure when not met, then they’re more damaging than helpful.

6 CBT exercises to try at home

Cognitive distortions can easily cause stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Thankfully, CBT can be highly effective at identifying and reframing numerous cognitive distortions.

While working with an experienced CBT therapist is one way to enjoy the benefits of CBT, there are also CBT techniques that you can employ on your own. Below are six CBT exercises that you can try at home.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation

Disorders such as stress and anxiety can often manifest physical symptoms, with muscle tension being one of the most common. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique designed to relieve muscle tension caused by stress and anxiety.

To practice PBR, focus on tensing and relaxing one muscle group at a time. Many people start with their legs and feet and work their way up, progressively tensing and relaxing all of the individual muscles in their body.

2. Mindfulness meditation and breathing

Mindfulness meditation is designed to help people disengage from negative thought patterns and focus on the present moment. Breathing exercises are often used to facilitate meditation, helping serve as a relaxation technique. 

To practice mindfulness meditations, sit or lie down in a comfortable space and empty your thoughts so that you’re only focusing on your breathing. If your attention starts to stray, simply refocus on your breathing. 

Several different breathing techniques are commonly used to help with stress and anxiety, like belly breathing, humming bee breathing, and equal breath breathing. 

3. Positive affirmations

If you tell yourself something often enough, you may eventually believe it. This is true for negative thoughts but can be just as true for positive ones.

Practicing positive affirmations involves telling yourself positive things — even if you don't feel or believe them. Here are a few examples of common positive affirmations:

  • "I am loved and worthy of love."
  • "My past does not determine my future."
  • "I am calm, happy, and content."
  • "I am doing my best, and my best is enough."
  • "I can do anything that I set my mind to."

The positive affirmations should be personalized to your unique challenges. Committing to positive affirmations may help convince your subconscious mind that they are true and boost your self-esteem.

4. Identify and reframe negative thoughts

Identifying and reframing negative thoughts can require a lot of self-awareness. You will need to be on the lookout for negative and disruptive thoughts. When these thoughts arise, you need to try and cut them off and replace them with something positive. This is a great time to call upon those positive affirmations!

5. Journaling

Putting your thoughts and experiences into writing can help you put them in the proper perspective, and merely the act of writing them down can be highly therapeutic. 

Journaling also allows you to keep track of your mental health journey; being able to read back past journal entries and see how far you've come can motivate you to continue improving your mental health and can be a big boost to your self-esteem.

6. Goal setting

Mental health goals can often seem daunting or overwhelming. The idea of changing your mindset and the way that you think can certainly be an intimidating prospect. However, change doesn't happen overnight, and it’s important to view your mental health goals as a journey rather than a task.

Setting goals as CBT exercise can involve breaking down each mental health goal into achievable milestones. By tackling your goals one action, behavior, and milestone at a time, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed or discouraged. This approach is sometimes referred to as “successive approximation,” wherein you gradually come closer to the healthy behavior you desire with each smaller goal success.

For example, someone who struggles with speaking up in social situations may start with a goal of contributing to one conversation during their next outing. From there, they may set another goal of speaking up two or more times, or speaking to someone new, until they gradually become more comfortable and confident in social settings.

Match with a cognitive behavioral therapist with SonderMind

Cognitive behavioral therapy exercises are often more effective when practiced under the guidance of an experienced therapist. At SonderMind, we help match our clients with their ideal therapist using a brief yet effective questionnaire. 

Ready to take control of your mental health journey? Get matched with a SonderMind therapist today.

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