Monday, 12 September 2011

CBT & NLP Compared & Contrasted

You may have heard something about CBT and NLP but what do they involve and how can they help you? Read on for my overview to these therapeutic models and how they compare.

What is NLP?

Neuro Linguistic Programming or NLP can be defined as the art and science of excellence (consistently repeating results, unconsciously and automatically), and the study of how language and perception of external events affect our behaviour. It is based on something called modelling; the process of duplicating ‘excellent’ behaviour to create the same result, e.g. learning to drive requires you to go through certain processes in your mind and body, such as ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ until it becomes automatic and habitual.

NLP was created in the 1970’s two men, Bandler and Grinder, one a linguist and the other a computer programmer. Some of the original models of communication they developed were influenced by therapists including Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy) and Virginia Satir, a family therapist. 

NLP claims to provide simple, powerful methods for changing behaviour and producing results through the use of various techniques. It is used in business, education, training as well as therapeutic applications.  It teaches you new patterns of excellence through modelling those who are successful in different aspects of life, such as health, career or personal well being.  For example, if you wanted to learn how to run a great business, you might choose someone such as Richard Branson as your model to work from. 

What is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy also says that the person’s view of themselves and their world are central to their behaviour. The core idea is that individuals are emotionally disturbed by their thoughts about an actual event, rather than the event itself.  It is used to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from anxiety and depression through to eating disorders and substance abuse.  It uses thought records to challenge a person’s thoughts and behaviours, as well as exposure work in the case of phobias/fears.

CBT was developed in the 1950’s first by Ivan Pavlov, through his working with dogs and then by Albert Ellis who was one of the main pioneers through REBT. Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, a branch of CBT, shows the link between events, beliefs and feelings through the ABC model:


A – Actual Event                    Fail at maths test
B – Belief                               I’m stupid/ I’m no good at maths
C – Consequences                 Feel depressed, a failure

Alternative view:

A – Actual Event                    Fail at maths test
B – Belief                               If I work at it, I’ll do better next time
C – Consequences                 Feel motivated to achieve a goal

Aaron Beck was the next person to develop and popularise CBT in the 1960’s.  CBT focuses on problems in thinking patterns and Beck recognised that ‘automatic thoughts’ about something links with how we feel about it. If you changed how you think about it, you can change your mood and/or behaviour. 


Event: A friend is due to come round to dinner and arrive at 7pm. It is now 8pm and they haven’t called. How do you feel?

Automatic Thought                           Feeling                                    Behaviour

She is so selfish, she didn’t                 Angry             Have a go when she arrives
bother to phone!

It doesn’t matter, I can do
Something else while I wait                Indifferent         Nothing much

She might have had                            Anxious          Ring hospitals
a car crash.

We may all react differently based on beliefs, thought patterns and past experiences, and we all have our own unique model of the world from which we work from.

What can we learn from these theories?

Have you heard the saying:

‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t- either way you’re right’ Henry Ford             

We all have our own belief systems, many formed in childhood, which help us to make sense of the world so we can function within it and create structure in our lives. Beliefs such as ‘don’t put your hand in fire, or you’ll get burned’ are useful to us, and enable us to survive.  Others aren’t so positive or useful and can drive us to behave or react in negative ways.  Examples may include: ‘the world is a dangerous place’, or ‘I’m a failure’.  We can hold beliefs about anything and anyone and they suggest that something is fixed and unchanging, without exception.

From NLP developed something called the ‘Meta Model’, which identifies ‘all or nothing’ or distorted, generalised thinking patterns and questions them in a similar way to CBT.  It asks ‘Are things always like this, or just some of the time?’ and aims to reframe thoughts in the positive, such as ‘I find maths challenging, and I could learn to do it better if I chose to’. NLP also uses a technique whereby you imagine yourself stepping into another person’s shoes (almost like empathy) and take on their own model of the world and borrow their resources such as feelings or beliefs that you might want to adopt for yourself; or to learn a way of doing something, such as to be more confident doing presentations.  You can also use this technique to go back into your own past and utilise feelings/behaviours that you have and imagine yourself stepping back into that time and bringing those into the present or future time where they can be used again. 

Beliefs can be compared to an operating system in a computer such as Windows that enables us to make sense of things and function.  They act as filters and determine how we perceive ‘reality’ and how we feel, think and behave in the outside world.

Our brain can only take in 7+ or – 2 pieces of information at a time. We are bombarded with hundreds of pieces of sensory information every second, so in order for us to cope in the world, we ‘edit out’ and select what we want to see or experience.

Distorted filter
Anxiety filter                  →      See anything scary or ‘almost scary’

Depression filter          →        See anything negative or unhappy

If the pattern you are running is anxiety or depression for instance, you will only perceive fearful or negative things, and edit out the positives. It is a bit like when you get eight things right and 2 things wrong, you focus on the wrong things.  If this thought process happens enough times, it effectively creates a neural pathway in the brain, and whenever a negative thought is triggered, it responds with the same feeling or behaviour, and sets up an automatic ‘loop’.  CBT aims to break this thought and mood cycle by challenging the thoughts as soon as they arise, and replacing them with alternative, more positive ones, creating new neural pathways in the brain. 

How effective are they?

NLP and CBT teach you to take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings and show you how thinking and behaviour patterns are causing symptoms, rather than the events themselves.  Quite simply, they say, if you change your thoughts, you can change your world, and create new choices in how you respond.

CBT is a quick and effective therapy and helps you gain a greater understanding of the relationship between your thoughts, feelings and behaviours through breaking negative thought patterns, and forming alternative thoughts and ways of responding to situations.  It is more problem focused than NLP which instead focuses on what you want to create, such as confidence, rather than looking at what you don’t want to feel, such as depressed or anxious.  CBT is also very time limited and doesn’t look much at a client’s past emotional history or the root causes of their condition such as early life experiences.  It is also very formulated and directed by the therapist and allows little opportunity for the exploration of feelings, unlike humanistic counselling.

Clinical trials have shown CBT can substantially reduce the symptoms of many emotional disorders. For some people it can work just as well as drug therapies at treating depression and anxiety disorders. All too often, when drug treatments finish, people relapse, and so practitioners may advise patients to continue using medication for longer. When patients are followed up for up to two years after therapy has ended, many studies have shown an advantage for CBT. This research suggests that CBT helps bring about a real change that goes beyond just feeling better while the patient stays in therapy. This has fuelled interest in CBT. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends CBT via the NHS for common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. 

However, CBT relies on the client to be self motivated and disciplined (and NLP to a certain extent) in order to use the thought records and techniques on a consistent basis in order to create long term change.  NLP also requires a good level of sensory awareness, i.e. the ability to visualise things in order to bring about changes in state. 

Without the regular support of a therapist, or lack of emotional exploration, their may be the risk of a client relapsing at a later date if underlying issues aren’t addressed.  In the case of any therapy, its effectiveness depends on the quality of the therapist, its delivery and how well the client is suited to the approach, and the complexity of their problems. 

Alexandra Bacon is a certified Advanced EFT Practitioner, Counsellor, NLP Coach, Wellbeing consultant and Trainer. To book a free 20 minute consultation, please call Alexandra on 07950 568635 or visit: