There’s a lot of overlap between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) as techniques for psychotherapy—so much so that it can be difficult to tease apart the differences between them.

Let’s first define each, and then compare and contrast.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is the older of the two, by a couple of decades. Developed in the 1950s by Dr Aaron Beck, CBT differs from other forms of “talk” therapy in that it is less concerned with the root of a problem—i.e. why you think the way you do—and more concerned with fixing it in the here and now.

The goal of CBT is to reprogram irrational thoughts and beliefs (about oneself, the world, and the future) by challenging them with truth. (Incidentally, this approach is also very biblical).

The last fifty years of studies have shown CBT to be effective. Newer research now indicates that this is likely because of neuroplasticity: that is, changing your behavior and reprogramming your thoughts actually changes the structure of your brain over time.

Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)

NLP, on the other hand, was created in the 1970s by Richard Sandler and John Grinder, and it’s harder to define. It assumes a rational explanation for each person’s behavior, based on his or her subjective experience of the world. The therapist attempts to understand this subjective experience by listening carefully to the person’s words and observing his or her body language. This enables the therapist to understand how the problematic thoughts or behaviors are serving the person. By gently helping him to alter his subjective experience of the world, the idea is, the problem will no longer serve the purpose it once did, and it will therefore go away on its own.

Because NLP is necessarily individualized, it doesn’t lend itself well to studies—so there aren’t nearly as many as there are for CBT. But there are a few: this study shows that it is as effective as other psychotherapeutic modalities. This study shows that it is helpful for PTSD, and this one shows that it can be effective for social problems.

Limbic Retraining Programs

Both of these approaches can be very helpful for conditions like depression, anxiety, OCD, and the like.

But for chronically ill patients with biotoxin illnesses, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I often recommend a limbic retraining program that combines the two.

Annie Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System and the Gupta Programme (no affiliation with either) are the best known examples of this type of therapy. Limbic retraining uses both CBT and NLP as tools for remodeling the limbic (emotional) part of the brain via neuroplasticity, specifically to decrease hyper-responsiveness to otherwise harmless materials. I have found this approach to be a very helpful addition for many of these patients.

The Upshot

CBT is probably better understood (and certainly better studied) than NLP, and for that reason if I had to choose between them, I’d pick CBT. But both types of therapies can be effective for psychotherapeutic treatment (and in many cases they are complimentary!)