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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Alcoholism: Definition, Benefits, and Effectiveness

Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 05/23/2023

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder, is a chronic and often relapsing disease that can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life. It is a complex issue that cannot be resolved simply through willpower or good intentions alone. Instead, it often requires a comprehensive, multifaceted treatment approach. The primary goal of this article is to shed light on some of the evidence-based treatments for alcoholism and provide insights into how these methods can facilitate the recovery process. From traditional therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing to more holistic approaches such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and even adventure therapy, this article will take a deep dive into the various therapeutic options available for those battling with alcoholism. By understanding the breadth of these treatment options, it’s hoped that individuals struggling with this condition, as well as their loved ones, can make more informed decisions about their path to recovery.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that aims to change negative thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors and emotional distress. CBT focuses on the relationship between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and teaches individuals how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior.

Theoretical Foundation of CBT

CBT is grounded in the idea that our thoughts significantly influence our feelings and behaviors. This therapy operates on the principle that negative thought patterns can lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as excessive drinking. The goal of CBT is to identify these harmful thought patterns, challenge them, and replace them with healthier, more positive ones.

How Does CBT Help in Alcoholism?

CBT helps individuals with alcoholism in several ways. Primarily, it’s useful for giving recovering alcoholics the tools necessary to remain sober over the long term. We cover how CBT helps in alcoholism cases below.

  • Identification of Triggers: CBT helps individuals identify situations or emotions that trigger their urge to drink, providing them with a better understanding of their addiction.
  • Development of Coping Strategies: Once triggers are identified, CBT teaches individuals various coping strategies to handle these situations and prevent relapse. These strategies may include stress management, problem-solving, and assertiveness.
  • Changing Negative Thought Patterns: CBT helps individuals recognize and change negative thinking patterns that contribute to their alcohol use.

Depending on the patient, CBT may be helpful in other ways. It’s also worth noting that CBT helps with co-occurring disorders and co-occurring addictions.

What are the Benefits of CBT for Alcoholism?

CBT benefits recovering alcoholics in many ways. Below we list a few of the benefits of CBT for alcoholism.

  • Improved Coping Skills: CBT equips individuals with tools and strategies to effectively cope with the triggers for their alcohol use. Greater Self-Control: By identifying triggers and learning new coping strategies, individuals can gain greater control over their behavior.
  • Reduced Risk of Relapse: CBT has been shown to effectively reduce the risk of relapse in individuals recovering from alcoholism.
  • Versatility: CBT can be delivered in individual or group settings, and it can be adapted to suit a variety of individual needs and circumstances.

Benefits vary based on the individual. Always consult with a therapist or case manager to determine if CBT is right for you.

What does CBT Look like for Alcoholism?

CBT for alcoholism takes many shapes and forms. Ultimately, it depends on the patient and their needs. Typically, CBT sessions are held weekly. Sessions are usually about 60 minutes and include the client and the therapist. In some cases, there may even be group counseling sessions for CBT or family therapy options. Overall, it depends on the patient’s unique situation and relationship with alcohol.

Here is what most CBT patients for alcoholism go through:

  1. Assessment: The first step in CBT is a thorough assessment. The therapist will conduct an initial evaluation to gather information about the individual’s drinking habits, the impact of alcohol use on their life, any concurrent mental or physical health issues, and their readiness to change. This assessment is crucial in tailoring the treatment plan to the individual’s unique needs.
  2. Goal Setting: Once the assessment is complete, the therapist and the individual work together to set realistic, measurable goals. These goals may include reducing or completely stopping alcohol use, managing cravings, improving relationships, or enhancing overall mental health. The goals should be clear, achievable, and relevant to the individual’s recovery.
  3. Skill Development: The core part of CBT involves developing coping skills to handle triggers and stressors without resorting to alcohol. The therapist will guide the individual through various cognitive and behavioral techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, or behavioral experiments. These techniques are designed to change destructive thought patterns and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones.
  4. Practice: Once the individual has learned these skills, they are encouraged to practice them outside the therapy sessions. This could involve homework assignments or real-world applications of the skills learned in therapy. The aim is to integrate these new skills into everyday life, enhancing their practicality and effectiveness.
  5. Review and Adjustment: In subsequent sessions, the therapist and individual review the progress made towards the goals, discuss any obstacles encountered, and adjust the strategies as needed. This ongoing evaluation ensures that the therapy remains effective and responsive to the individual’s evolving needs.
  6. Relapse Prevention: A crucial component of CBT for alcoholism is relapse prevention. The individual is taught strategies to recognize early signs of potential relapse and take proactive steps to prevent it. This might involve developing a comprehensive relapse prevention plan, which includes identifying high-risk situations, developing coping strategies, and establishing a supportive network.
  7. Termination and Follow-up: Once the therapy goals have been achieved, the individual and therapist will discuss the termination of therapy. This usually involves a review of the skills learned, a discussion about how to maintain these changes, and a plan for follow-up or booster sessions.

Steps and the general process may vary depending on the person.

CBT and Co-occurring Disorders

Alcoholism often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. CBT is particularly effective in these cases because it can address both alcoholism and the co-occurring disorder. This holistic approach to treatment can lead to better outcomes and a lower risk of relapse.

CBT is also the perfect therapy to teach people to cope with both mental health issues and alcoholism. It’s also possible for CBT to work for co-occurring addictions. Some examples include alcohol addiction that occurs alongside cocaine, marijuana, or other substances.

The Role of the Therapist in CBT

In CBT, the therapist plays an active and directive role. They guide the individual in identifying and challenging negative thoughts and learning new skills. However, the success of CBT heavily relies on the individual’s willingness and commitment to change. Every therapist is different but the goals of CBT are the same.

Adapting CBT to the Individual

CBT is a flexible approach that can be adapted to meet the needs of the individual. For example, some individuals may benefit from a greater focus on cognitive techniques, while others may benefit more from behavioral techniques. The therapist can adjust the treatment plan based on the individual’s needs, preferences, and progress.

Continuing CBT Skills Post-Treatment

After the completion of CBT treatment, individuals can continue to use the skills they have learned in their daily lives. This ongoing application of CBT skills can help individuals maintain their gains and prevent relapses.

Components of CBT for Alcoholism

There are several components that go into CBT for alcoholism. These components may vary based on the patient and whether or not someone has co-occurring disorders or addiction. Below we list the components of CBT for alcoholism.

  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Behavioral Strategies
  • Relapse Prevention

Cognitive Restructuring

One of the main components of CBT is cognitive restructuring. This involves identifying negative, maladaptive thoughts that lead to drinking and challenging these thoughts. By doing this, individuals can learn to view situations in a more realistic and healthier manner.

Behavioral Strategies

CBT employs various behavioral strategies to help people change their drinking behavior. These can include self-monitoring (keeping track of one’s drinking), stimulus control (avoiding situations that trigger drinking), and contingency management (receiving rewards for reaching sobriety milestones).

Relapse Prevention

Relapse prevention is a crucial part of CBT. Individuals learn to identify high-risk situations that might lead to relapse and develop effective coping strategies to deal with these situations. They also learn to view relapses as learning opportunities instead of failures.

Drawbacks and Limitations of CBT for Alcoholism

While CBT is an effective treatment for alcoholism, it does have some limitations. For example, it requires a high level of motivation and commitment from the individual. It also requires individuals to confront uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, which can be challenging. However, the potential benefits of CBT for alcoholism often outweigh these challenges.

Cognitive Techniques in CBT

As the name suggests, cognitive behavioral therapy has some cognitive techniques to help people recover from alcoholism. These practices include things like:

  • Thought Records
  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Socratic Questioning

More on each modality is below.

Thought Records

This technique helps in the self-monitoring of thoughts. It allows individuals to document their automatic thoughts that occur during specific situations, what triggered them, the intensity of these thoughts, and the feelings and actions that followed. By examining these thought records, individuals can recognize patterns, identify irrational thoughts, and understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Cognitive Restructuring

Once negative thought patterns are identified, cognitive restructuring helps to challenge and change these thoughts. This is not about “positive thinking,” but rather about helping individuals to view things more realistically. For instance, instead of thinking “I can’t handle this party without drinking,” cognitive restructuring would guide the person to consider alternative thoughts such as, “It will be challenging, but I can handle social situations without alcohol.”

Socratic Questioning

This technique involves the therapist asking thought-provoking questions to challenge the individual’s beliefs and thoughts. This encourages self-discovery and helps the individual to realize the irrationality of their thoughts. Socratic Questioning is one of the best methods to help someone maintain long-term sobriety.

Behavioral Techniques in CBT for Alcoholism

CBT for alcoholism also employs behavioral treatments. When paired with cognitive treatments it becomes effective for addiction treatment. Learn more about each technique below.

  • Behavioral Experiments
  • Role-Playing
  • Exposure Therapy
  • Skills Training
  • Contingency Management

Behavioral Experiments

These are designed to help individuals directly test the validity of their negative thoughts and beliefs and to develop more adaptive alternatives. For instance, a person might experiment with going to a social event and not drinking, allowing them to see that they can enjoy social situations without alcohol.


This can be a highly effective method for preparing for potentially difficult situations. By practicing a scenario, like refusing a drink at a social gathering, the individual can feel more confident and prepared when the situation arises in real life.

Exposure Therapy

This is a specific type of behavioral experiment that involves gradual and repeated exposure to the feared situation or object (in this case, potential triggers for drinking). Over time, through repeated exposure, the individual learns to reduce their fear response and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Skills Training

This technique is used when individuals lack the necessary skills to cope with certain situations. These might include assertiveness training or communication skills, which can help individuals express their needs and boundaries effectively, particularly in relation to their alcohol use.

Contingency Management

This involves creating a system of rewards and punishments to promote behavior change. For example, individuals may reward themselves for reaching sobriety milestones. These rewards are what encourage people to remain sober over the long term. For alcoholism, this is huge.

Studies and Evidence of CBT’s Effectiveness in Treating Alcoholism

There is a significant body of research underscoring the effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in the treatment of alcoholism. These studies have demonstrated the power of CBT in both reducing the consumption of alcohol and improving the quality of life of those in recovery.

  1. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: A comprehensive review published in this database analyzed numerous studies on CBT’s effectiveness in treating alcoholism. The analysis concluded that CBT was notably more effective than no treatment at all in reducing the intensity of alcohol consumption. This shows that individuals undergoing CBT were more likely to moderate their alcohol intake, a critical step in the recovery process.
  2. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: A significant study published in this journal found that individuals who received CBT had fewer days of heavy drinking and reported lower alcohol-related problems. This indicates that CBT not only helps to reduce alcohol consumption but also assists in mitigating the destructive consequences often associated with heavy drinking. This could include improving relationships, enhancing work performance, or reducing legal issues tied to alcohol misuse.
  3. Addiction: Another study published in the scientific journal Addiction found that CBT, when combined with motivational enhancement therapy, led to significant reductions in the frequency of drinking, the quantity of alcohol consumed, and the frequency of heavy drinking episodes. This suggests that CBT can work effectively in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches to maximize outcomes.
  4. American Journal of Psychiatry: A study in this esteemed journal demonstrated the long-term effectiveness of CBT. It found that the benefits of CBT extended well beyond the end of treatment, with patients exhibiting reduced alcohol consumption for at least a year following the conclusion of their CBT treatment. This points to CBT’s effectiveness in equipping individuals with long-lasting skills and strategies to maintain their recovery.

These studies represent just a snapshot of the extensive research supporting the use of CBT in treating alcoholism. As a well-established and extensively studied therapy, CBT continues to be a cornerstone of many effective treatment plans for alcohol addiction.

Please note that individual results can vary, and what works best will often depend on a person’s unique situation, including the severity of their alcoholism, their personal history, and their willingness and motivation to change. As such, it’s always recommended to seek personalized professional advice when dealing with alcoholism.

What Other Treatments Are Available for Alcoholism?

Several treatment modalities are available for alcoholism. Below we list the most common alcoholism treatment options.


  • The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • American Psychological Association