Relative effects of CBT and pharmacotherapy in depression versus anxiety: is medication somewhat better for depression, and CBT somewhat better for anxiety?

Depress Anxiety. 2011 Jul;28(7):560-7. doi: 10.1002/da.20829. Epub 2011 May 23.


Background: Little is known about whether cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapy is relatively more advantageous for depressive versus anxiety disorders.

Methods: We conducted a meta-analysis wherein we searched electronic databases and references to select randomized controlled studies comparing CBT and pharmacotherapy, with or without placebo, in adults with major depressive or anxiety disorders. The primary effect size was calculated from disorder-specific outcome measures as the difference between CBT and pharmacotherapy outcomes (i.e., positive effect size favors CBT; negative effect size favors pharmacotherapy).

Results: Twenty-one anxiety (N = 1,266) and twenty-one depression (N = 2,027) studies comparing medication to CBT were included. Including all anxiety disorders, the overall effect size was.25 (95% CI: -0.02, 0.55, P =.07). Effects for panic disorder significantly favored CBT over medications (.50, 95% CI: 0.02, 0.98). Obsessive-compulsive disorder showed similar effects-sizes, though not statistically significant (.49, 95% CI: -0.11, 1.09). Medications showed a nonsignificant advantage for social anxiety disorder (-.22, 95% CI: -0.50, 0.06). The overall effect size for depression studies was.05 (95% CI: -0.09, 0.19), with no advantage for medications or CBT. Pooling anxiety disorder and depression studies, the omnibus comparison of the relative difference between anxiety and depression in effectiveness for CBT versus pharmacotherapy pointed to a nonsignificant advantage for CBT in anxiety versus depression (B =.14, 95% CI: -0.14, 0.43).

Conclusions: On balance, the evidence presented here indicates that there are at most very modest differences in effects of CBT versus pharmacotherapy in the treatment of anxiety versus depressive disorders. There seems to be larger differences between the anxiety disorders in terms of their relative responsiveness to pharmacotherapy versus CBT.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Panic Disorder / therapy
  • Phobic Disorders / therapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents