CBT vs DBT: What's the Difference?

Aarushi Pant

What kind of therapy is best for you?

Main image courtesy of Medical News Today.

If you’re interested in trying therapy, or just want to learn more about it, you might have already noticed how many different forms of therapy there are. There are so many different approaches to therapy, from psychodynamic to behavioral approaches. Some of the more common types of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). 

Navigating the world of therapy can be confusing, and it can be difficult to know which kind of therapy could be the right fit for you. If you’re stuck between CBT and DBT, here are some important things to know about their respective uses, benefits, and how they could impact your mental health and wellbeing. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is also referred to as talk therapy because it focuses on verbally working through your problems with a therapist or other mental health professional. It can be helpful to cope with negative thoughts and mindsets you may be struggling with, and it can allow you to take control of your mind instead of feeling trapped or like you’re no longer in charge of your thoughts. 

It’s important to note that CBT is a more general term applied to different kinds of therapies that target your thinking process —  DBT is actually a subset of CBT. Some key characteristics of CBT are that it emphasizes dealing with your emotional responses to different situations, and it can be a particularly valuable tool for those who struggle with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. CBT is also helpful for individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and different kinds of phobias. 

CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, and even more effective than, other forms of therapy, as well as medication. 

A typical CBT session will involve you talking about your problems and what you may be facing at the moment, while also discussing your feelings and reactions to these things. The goal is to change toxic or self-destructive thinking patterns so that you are better able to cope with and respond to potentially stressful emotional situations with a clear mind and a more unbiased perspective. 

Your therapist may also ask you to do something between sessions, like read a certain article or keep a journal of certain patterns. It’s important to actually do your homework and put the work in so you can really see the results!

diagram depicting how CBT impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
CBT helps you break down, understand, and improve the way you think about things. Image courtesy of Breathe UK.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

As mentioned before, DBT is actually a form of CBT; it was originally intended to treat patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD), but has now been adapted for a wide range of mental health conditions. It helps teach people skills like stress management and relief and fostering positive, mutually beneficial relationships with the people around them. 

DBT is supposed to help patients who struggle with emotional regulation or self-destructive behaviors, such as eating disorders or self-harm practices. DBT is often incorporated into group therapy sessions as well. 

DBT focuses on teaching patients skills to cope with things that happen to them and better manage their emotional responses to them. DBT can help you develop mindfulness skills that will allow you to be more engaged and present in the moment. These mindfulness skills can make it easier for you to slow down, calm down, and avoid making impulsive decisions. 

DBT can also help you deal with the situation that you are facing without letting your emotions overwhelm you. These practices can include self-soothing, which are comforting behaviors such as listening to music, that can help you feel better about what’s happening. You’ll also learn techniques such as opposite action, which basically encourages you to do the opposite of what you’re feeling. For example, if you’re feeling angry and want to lash out at those closest to you, give them a few compliments and tell them how thankful you are for them instead. 

coping strategies
DBT can help you identify the best coping strategies for you to deal with any potentially triggering or stressful situations. Image courtesy of Port St Lucie Hospital.

How are they different?

In reality, CBT and DBT aren’t so different from each other. DBT is basically just a more specific form of CBT that focuses on actually building concrete skills and strategies to help you emotionally regulate yourself. While both forms of therapy target your thinking process and encourage positive thoughts and a healthy mindset, CBT encourages you to verbally work through them and learn more about your thought process and how you can change it. DBT gives you activities that you can use in terms of a crisis in order to avoid making any impulsive, destructive decisions that might lead to you hurting yourself or others.

CBT is particularly effective in patients with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, while DBT is used more for conditions such as BPD and for patients who struggle with chronic suicide ideation or self-harm behaviors. 

Both CBT and DBT target the thought patterns that may be negatively impacting your mental health. Image courtesy of Book Riot.

Overall, CBT and DBT both have their unique benefits and applications. Although you may be armed with a lot of information, it’s important to get in touch with a mental health professional to discuss what your options are with them. Just because one form of therapy works for someone else does not mean that it’ll be helpful for you, and vice versa. There are so many different treatments out there for you, and there is always hope for a better, brighter future!

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