DBT Therapy & CBT Therapy: What They Are, And What’s The Difference

Addressing a newly diagnosed mental disorder can feel daunting, and finding the right kind of treatment or therapy can be even more overwhelming. When seeking out therapy for specific issues, someone with depression or anxiety might try to find a psychologist or therapist through their insurance company, or by recommendation of a doctor. There are hundreds of ways to get help, and some therapies might work better for some than others. Behavioral therapies are popular in many treatment settings at various levels of care, and help to treat many different kinds of mental health issues from mild to severe. There are also multiple types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most successful of which being DBT. But what does DBT stand for? What are the types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? And what are the key differences between CBT vs DBT?

A person participating in CBT and DBT therapy is talking with a professional therapist who is holding a clipboard with a paper and pen.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Among the newer therapies that have gained popularity in the last decade, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT stands at the forefront. But what is it? (2) According to the American Psychological Association, CBT “is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness”, and focuses primarily on changing thinking and behavioral patterns. Behavioral therapies like CBT focus on what the client is currently going through in their life, and focuses less on what has happened in their past. (2)

CBT is based on a few core principles:

  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  • People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives. “

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

There are various types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of which being DBT, but what does DBT stand for? DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a treatment created by Marsha Linehan, originally intended to treat Borderline Personality Disorder or people with self-harming behaviors. (1) According to Behavioral Tech, DBT is different than other therapies, especially because of its structure and focus on coping skills rather than traditional talk-therapy style processing. “The skills training portion of DBT is broken down into 4 modules:

  • Mindfulness: the practice of being fully aware and present in this one moment​
  • Distress Tolerance: how to tolerate pain in difficult situations, not change it​
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: how to ask for what you want and say no while maintaining self-respect and relationships with others​
  • Emotion Regulation: how to change emotions that you want to change​”

These skills, accompanied by individual therapy and phone coaching, have proven to change the lives of those who learn and practice them, making DBT one of the most successful types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


When considering CBT vs DBT, there are a few important things to consider.  CBT is proven to be successful in treating many different mental health issues, and is the original of the leading types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT teaches you how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence each other. For example, if you believe that people don’t like you (thought), you might avoid social situations (behavior) and feel lonely (feeling). However, CBT teaches you how to use these relationships to your advantage: a positive change in one factor (changing a thought or behavior) can lead to positive changes in all factors”(3). Here to Help goes on to describe CBT, one of the many types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as a “structured, short-term, goal-oriented and focused on the present. It starts with education around the particular mental illness or challenge and how the illness or challenge affects you. Next, you’ll learn and practice skills and strategies like problem-solving or realistic thinking to help you make changes in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You’ll learn how you can use your new skills to deal with problems in the future”.  Now let’s look at CBT vs DBT.

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Of the many types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, DBT is the other heavy-hitter that is well known and thoroughly studied, proven to help treat personality disorders and self-harming individuals. But what does DBT stand for, and what decision to make when considering CBT vs DBT? Here to Help describes DBT in a comparative article, explaining simply what DBT is and what the differences are between CBT vs DBT; “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT is based on CBT, with greater focus on emotional and social aspects. DBT was developed to help people cope with extreme or unstable emotions and harmful behaviors. DBT is an evidence-based approach to help people regulate emotions.

It started as a treatment for borderline personality disorder, and current research shows it may help with many different mental illnesses or concerns, particularly self-harm… Key differences between CBT and DBT are validation and relationships. DBT teaches you that your experiences are real, and it teaches you how to accept who you are, regardless of challenges or difficult experiences. Relationships are also very important in DBT—including the relationships between you and your DBT practitioner. You may have frequent check-ins to talk about any successes or problems. Treatment may include a mix of one-on-one sessions and group sessions. In addition to CBT skills, you’ll learn skills around managing your emotions, building relationships with others, coping well with problems or distress, acceptance, and mindfulness”(3).  

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Now that you know what DBT stands for, the key differences between CBT vs DBT, and the main types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you may have a better idea of what these therapies can be helpful for. Seeking help is not easy, and taking the behavioral modification route can be a great foundational step toward healing and recovery from depression, anxiety, mood disorders, addictions, and personality disorders.