CBT, DBT, ACT—What Do They Mean?


Psychotherapy is a crucial component of mental health treatment. As the field continues to grow, different modalities of therapy have emerged. These specific types of therapy are often referred to by acronyms, which can lead to some confusion. Three of the most common approaches are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). These different therapy techniques were developed for the treatment of specific disorders, however there is overlap among them and many practitioners utilize a combination of these.

The most commonly used form of psychotherapy today is cognitive behavioral therapy. The basic theme of this form of therapy is often illustrated by a triangle which connects thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The idea is that one of these inevitably leads to the others and that understanding how these are connected can bring about changes in each area. For example, patterns of unhealthy behaviors can be broken by recognizing and changing certain thoughts and feelings. Or, changing certain behaviors and patterns of thinking can improve the way one feels. CBT is widely used to treat a variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is a form of psychotherapy born out of CBT. It was originally developed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder, but is now widely used to treat depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD and substance abuse. There are four main tenets or areas of focus in DBT. These are mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. In contrast to CBT, which is done on an individual level, part of DBT includes group therapy. When considering DBT, one should look for a mental health professional who has specialized training in DBT.

A third form of psychotherapy, which is slightly less common, is ACT. Acceptance and commitment therapy has been shown to be useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, psychosis and addiction. The goal of this treatment is acceptance of life’s difficulties. The six core principles are cognitive defusion, acceptance, contact with the present moment, the observing self, values, and committed action. The acronym “ACT” can also be used to describe the therapy as “Accept your reactions and be present”, “Choose a valued direction”, and “Take action.”

These are just a few of the many modalities utilized in psychotherapy. Determining which therapy is best for you depends on your individual case, your treatment goals, your history and personality. However, asking your therapist what types of treatments they are trained in can be very useful and knowledge of these treatments can make you a partner in your recovery.