While both cognitive therapy and applied behavior analysis are used to help individuals engage in the social realm in a meaningful way, there are defined differences between the two approaches. It is true that some practitioners blend the two with varying degrees of success in order to meet the needs of their clientele. However, for the purposes of clarity, the following article explores the defined differences between them as understood in scenarios of classical application.

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Gazing Inward

Cognitive therapy tenets are employed in a variety of cases. Based upon the needs of the patient or client, a practitioner tailors their therapeutic focus. As with many types of therapy, they work with their client to establish goals for the treatment. In classical terms, cognitive therapies center upon identifying the thoughts, thought processes, and emotional underpinnings that shape external actions or behaviors.

Its efficacy in helping those struggling with anxiety and major depressive disorders as well as substance-based or behavioral addictions has been demonstrated. The precise rationale for success is in the approach itself. This therapy actively engages the client or patient to examine how and what they think—about the world, their interpersonal relationships, and even their chosen profession or pastimes.

Regarding treating anxiety, depressive disorders or addictive behaviors, it looks past the issue itself. The therapy sessions may examine the disorder or behavior, but they also encourage individuals to understand the motivation for these thought patterns and impetuses to action. Therapeutic practitioners emphasize that negative thoughts are learned, not intrinsic. They can, therefore, be challenged and changed once they are more fully understood.

Reaching Outward

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) focuses on assisting clients and patients with social skills and other essential behaviors. While in a classical therapy setting, those helping individuals with cognitive or functional difficulties most frequently employ ABA, it is also often used to support the treatment of a number of injuries or issues. These range from individuals coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to people recovering from traumatic brain injuries.

According to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, the core principals of ABA constitute a reliable assessment of social or environmental variables and proven, adaptive methods for behavior modification. Analysts may often provide assessments to determine the precise needs of a given client or group, but they work closely with their patients in a variety of ways.

These clients may be young children with developmental or cognitive delays as well as their parents or caregivers. They can also be adults. The flexibility of treatment is because ABA is adaptive and based upon rigorously tested observation. Therapists work to help clients develop communication and social skills—from speaking in turn to appropriate interpersonal dynamics. They also help clients and caregivers modify aggressive or asocial behaviors through the practice of skills and tested interactive activities.

While there are marked differences in how these therapies work, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies points out that they share some common foundation. Two of the most significant points each approach stresses are the power of the client to choose the path best for them socially and emotionally and the pursuit of therapeutic goals outside the sessions. Both ABA and cognitive therapy approaches are typically used in short bursts as needed. The similarity in foundation allows therapists to blend approaches to meet the needs of different clientele, which renders the difference between cognitive therapy and applied behavior analysis a strength.