What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Can it treat ADHD?

Updated: Jul 1

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has become increasingly popular as a treatment for adults with ADHD - but what actually is CBT? And would CBT work for me?

Referred to as the “gold standard” of modern psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most successful treatments for a range of mental health issues. In recent years, CBT has become more popular amongst individuals with ADHD seeking treatment - and it’s evident why. Studies have shown CBT as an effective treatment option adults and children with ADHD, as a means to empower the individual while substantially reducing the effects of their symptoms.

So, what is cognitive behavioral therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a form of psychotherapy aimed at identifying and modifying the client’s maladaptive thought processes and problematic behaviors through cognitive restructuring and behavioral techniques to achieve change.” CBT examines how interrelated one’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors are - and how this relationship may influence emotional problems.

Having ADHD can be isolating, especially as people with ADHD often struggle with impulse control and emotional regulation. This means that setbacks are more likely to occur, which can gradually chip away at a person’s self-esteem and their ability to reach their full potential. To make matters worse, people with ADHD are also more prone to develop anxiety and depression.

So, how does cognitive behavioral therapy help adults with ADHD?

Changing thoughts & behaviors that may be reinforcing the disorder

One of the key components of CBT is a process called cognitive restructuring. When faced with a challenge or stress, someone with ADHD may have a familiar critical voice that runs through their head: "I’m such a failure. I can’t do this. I always mess things up." Those who grow up with ADHD may have these patterns imprinted in their mind from an early age, to the point that they are internalized and become their reality. Cognitive restructuring is the process of identifying which thought patterns are creating a negative effect on a person's self-image, working to uncover the origin of those thoughts, and then replacing them with more helpful ones.

Teaching techniques to help manage symptoms

CBT can also be effective in helping people with ADHD cope with their symptoms. People with ADHD are more likely to have difficulty with executive functioning, which allows us to remember things, organize, and plan. Moreover, people with ADHD often find it difficult to keep track of time, get enough sleep, and communicate effectively with others. Through CBT, a therapist and patient can explore when and where challenges are arising and discuss possible solutions to address these problems.

Improving self-image for the long term

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, CBT gives people with ADHD the tools they need to manage their symptoms in the real world, beyond just the time they spend with their therapist. Cognitive restructuring teaches the person to become more conscious of their thoughts, and is therefore more able to challenge that nagging, self-critical voice and transform it into something productive. New habits and problem-solving skills are implemented, empowering the person to tackle the everyday struggles they face.


NCBI: Description and Demonstration of CBT for ADHD in Adults

ADHD Institute: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Resources

ADAA: Understanding the facts about Adult ADHD

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