Choose Your Therapy: Comparing CBT to Five Different Therapies

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapeutic approach that helps individuals facing mental health challenges by focusing on their thoughts and behaviours. It is a structured, goal-oriented therapy that identifies and modifies negative thought patterns and behaviours contributing to distress and emotional difficulties. CBT has proven effective in treating various mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance abuse.

CBT is like a detective, helping you find the source of your problems. It believes that your thoughts affect your feelings, which then affect your behaviour. In other words, if you change your thoughts, you can change your feelings and actions.

The primary goal of CBT is to empower individuals by helping them understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It operates on the premise that our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviours, and by altering our thoughts, we can positively impact our feelings and actions. The therapy is typically conducted collaboratively, with individuals actively participating in the treatment process and working together with the therapist to set specific goals and develop strategies for change.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of CBT is its present-focused and practical nature. Unlike some other therapeutic approaches, such as psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalysis, which delve into past experiences and unconscious conflicts, CBT primarily concentrates on the here and now. It focuses on identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, and cognitive distortions contributing to emotional distress. By gaining awareness of these patterns, individuals can replace them with more realistic, adaptive, and positive thoughts.

CBT incorporates various techniques and strategies to achieve therapeutic goals. One commonly used technique is cognitive restructuring, which involves identifying and challenging negative or irrational thoughts and replacing them with more accurate and balanced ones. This process helps individuals develop a more realistic and constructive perspective on themselves, others, and the world around them. Another technique is behavioural activation, which involves engaging in activities and behaviours that bring a sense of pleasure, accomplishment, and fulfilment, thereby alleviating depressive symptoms.

In addition to cognitive restructuring and behavioural activation, CBT employs other evidence-based techniques, such as exposure therapy, which gradually exposes individuals to feared situations or stimuli to reduce anxiety and avoidance behaviours. It also includes skills training, which equips individuals with specific coping skills, problem-solving techniques, and communication strategies to improve their ability to navigate challenging situations. Relaxation techniques, mindfulness exercises, and guided imagery are often incorporated to help individuals manage stress, enhance self-awareness, and promote emotional regulation.

While CBT has a strong evidence base and is widely recognised for its efficacy, it is essential to note that it may not be suitable for everyone or all conditions. Therefore, it is crucial to consider individual needs, preferences, and the nature of the presenting problem when selecting a therapeutic approach. Let’s compare CBT with some other therapeutic modalities to gain a better understanding of their differences and unique features:

CBT vs. Systemic Therapy

Systemic therapy is like a family reunion. It looks at your problem in the context of your relationships with other people. It believes your problem isn’t just yours; rather, it’s influenced by your family, friends, and society.

Systemic therapy, also known as family therapy or couple therapy, takes a broader perspective by examining the individual within their social and relational context. It focuses on understanding the dynamics and interactions within the family or relationship system and how these contribute to the individual’s difficulties. Systemic therapy aims to improve communication, enhance relationships, and promote healthy patterns of interaction among family members or couples.

While CBT primarily focuses on the individual’s internal thoughts and behaviours, systemic therapy emphasises the interconnectedness of family members and how their interactions and roles can influence the wellbeing of the individual seeking treatment. It explores family patterns, communication styles, and the impact of the more extensive system on the individual’s functioning and symptoms.

CBT vs Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

DBT is like a balance scale. It tries to balance two things that seem the opposite: accepting who you are right now and working on changing for the better. DBT helps you manage your emotions, cope with stress, and improve relationships.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is a specialised form of CBT that was initially developed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD). However, it has since been adapted for various conditions involving emotional dysregulation and self-destructive behaviours. DBT combines CBT with mindfulness techniques and incorporates a dialectical approach emphasising acceptance and change.

DBT strongly emphasises helping individuals develop skills for emotional regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness. It recognises that individuals with BPD often struggle with intense emotions and have difficulty managing them effectively. DBT provides tools and strategies to enhance emotional control, navigate interpersonal challenges, and develop a sense of self-acceptance.

CBT vs. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT is like a road trip. It helps you accept the bumps in the road, choose your direction, and commit to driving towards your destination. It uses mindfulness to help you accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is another CBT branch that promotes psychological flexibility. ACT aims to help individuals accept their thoughts and emotions rather than struggle to change or suppress them. It encourages individuals to identify their values and commit to actions aligned with those values, even in the presence of discomfort or difficult emotions.

ACT incorporates mindfulness techniques to increase awareness of the present moment and facilitate psychological flexibility. By developing mindfulness skills, individuals learn to observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing them to respond more flexibly and adaptively. ACT also employs metaphors, experiential exercises, and cognitive diffusion techniques to help individuals distance themselves from unhelpful thoughts and develop a more compassionate and accepting relationship with themselves.

CBT vs. Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is like a time machine. It believes that your past affects your present. It takes you back to your childhood experiences and unresolved conflicts to understand your current problems.

Psychodynamic therapy is a therapeutic approach that explores how past experiences, early relationships, and unconscious processes shape an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. It aims to uncover unresolved conflicts, unmet needs, and maladaptive patterns contributing to current difficulties.

Unlike CBT’s primary focus on the present and practical strategies, psychodynamic therapy delves into the individual’s past, childhood experiences, and the unconscious factors that influence their present-day functioning. It recognises that early experiences can affect an individual’s emotional wellbeing, relationship patterns, and sense of self. Psychodynamic therapy aims to gain insight into these underlying dynamics and promote psychological growth and healing.

CBT vs. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is like a movie rewind. It helps you go back to traumatic experiences and reprocess them safely and controlled, reducing their impact on your life.

EMDR is a specialised therapeutic approach primarily used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma-related conditions. While CBT mainly focuses on thoughts and behaviours, EMDR incorporates exposure therapy and bilateral stimulation elements to process traumatic memories and alleviate distressing symptoms.

EMDR involves a structured protocol where individuals recall traumatic experiences while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or hand tapping. This process facilitates reprocessing traumatic memories, reduces distressing emotions, and promotes adaptive resolution of the trauma. EMDR also incorporates elements of cognitive restructuring and incorporates a comprehensive approach to address the cognitive, emotional, and physiological aspects of trauma.

In summary, while CBT shares some common elements with other therapeutic approaches, it distinguishes itself through its present-focused, goal-oriented nature and its emphasis on modifying negative thought patterns and behaviours. CBT provides individuals with practical skills and strategies to challenge distorted thinking, manage distressing emotions, and engage in adaptive behaviours. Other therapeutic modalities such as systemic therapy, DBT, ACT, psychodynamic therapy, and EMDR offer unique perspectives, techniques, and treatment goals that cater to specific needs and conditions. When choosing the most appropriate therapeutic approach, it is essential to consider individual circumstances, preferences, and the therapist’s expertise.


  1. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427–440.
  2. Carr, A. (2009). The Effectiveness of Family Therapy and Systemic Interventions for Adult-focused Problems. Journal of Family Therapy, 31(1), 46–74.
  3. Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  4. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. Guilford Press.
  5. Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98–109.
  6. Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. Guilford Press.