Mental health has arguably never been a more important topic than right now. It’s estimated that one in four people in England will experience a mental health problem of some sort each year, whether that’s depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or something else entirely.
The prevalence of these conditions makes it hugely important to understand what support is available to deal with them. If you’re suffering from poor mental health personally, or looking out for a friend or loved one that’s having a hard time, one of the first steps to take is to learn what help is out there.
Thankfully, there are a lot of different avenues to explore when it comes to addressing or treating mental health problems. We’re here to discuss the difference between two of the most common routes – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling. Both of these services fall under the umbrella term of talking therapy, but there are key differences between them which you need to know about if you’re trying to make a decision on which one is right for you.
Read on to learn more about what CBT and counselling really are, what separates them, and how you can chose the one that suits your needs.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behavioural therapy, commonly referred to as CBT, is a talking therapy that centres around the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected, and that changing one can have positive effects on the others.
It involves a trained therapist providing guidance on how to identify and correct the negative thought patterns that contribute to the effects of conditions like depression and anxiety. The theory is that, by learning how to notice these thought patterns as they occur, people are able to work on overcoming them and can regain more control over how their thoughts impact their feelings and behaviours.
Importantly, CBT is a type of therapy that’s rooted in the present, not the past. It’s unlikely that CBT sessions will include what you might think of as ‘typical’ therapy, where you recall traumatic events from earlier life or talk about your childhood. Instead, it focuses on the problems you’re dealing with right now, and looks for practical methods of improving your day-to-day state of mind.
Studies show that CBT is provably effective as a therapeutic approach for a wide range of mental health conditions including anxiety, eating disorders, anger control issues, general stress, and depression.
What is counselling?
Counselling is another form of talking therapy that’s commonly used as part of a treatment plan for people with mental health conditions. While the term counselling is often used to describe talking therapies in general, it’s also a type of therapy in its own right.
It involves attending sessions with a trained counsellor who will listen to the life problems or difficult feelings you’re encountering in a safe, confidential environment. It’s not the counsellor’s job to provide you with advice or tell you what to do to solve your problems, they simply provide an outlet that allows you to talk about what’s bothering you and work on uncovering any potential root causes.
The most important element of counselling is that you are given access to a space where you can talk openly and honestly without fear of judgement or criticism. Seeing a counsellor can help you to learn more about yourself, your ways of thinking and feeling, and perhaps even guide you towards finding your own solutions to problems you’re facing.
There are different types of counselling available, including psychodynamic, humanistic, and Gestalt, but all forms fundamentally aim to relieve distress and help people to better understand themselves and the challenges they face.
Differences between CBT and counselling
Both CBT and counselling are applied in the treatment of a huge range of mental health problems, but the basic differences between them mean that they suit different conditions, objectives, and types of people. Here’s a guide to some of the most notable differences between CBT and counselling.
CBT and counselling have completely different therapeutic focuses. CBT is very focused on delivering potential methods of dealing with problems that are being experienced in the present, while counselling has a broader focus that encompasses the past and doesn’t claim to provide a concrete plan of action, so much as promoting open discussion.
While there are similarities in the structure of CBT and counselling, in that they both take place in sessions that will typically last around an hour and be delivered regularly over the course of weeks, there are also key differences. Chief among these is that CBT sessions are generally more structured within themselves than counselling sessions, with a plan for what will be achieved and actionable outcomes. Counselling operates more fluidly, as the conversation guides the path of the session.
Both CBT and counselling can have tangible benefits on your state of mind, but they are most suitable for different conditions. CBT is generally most associated with depression, anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders, while counselling seems better suited to addressing only some forms of depression, as well as other mental health issues like stressful life events, bereavements, and fertility difficulties.
What actually happens during a session is another key difference between the two talking therapies. CBT is a relatively active process, during which you might discuss coping mechanisms, conduct thought experiments, complete worksheets, and carry out roleplaying exercises. Counselling, on the other hand, is primarily based in open, freeform discussion, sometimes accompanied by active techniques.
Choosing the right type of therapy
It’s understandably difficult to choose the type of therapy that’s going to help you best, but which one will have the biggest impact really depends on lots of different factors. You may find it helpful to carry out more research into CBT and counselling to make your mind up, but the best way to figure out what type of therapy to pursue is to see a trained medical professional, such as a GP.
If you’re looking for more information about the different types of therapy available, resources like the NHS website and the mental health charity Mind can be invaluable.