Psychotherapy is a general term used to describe the process of treating psychological disorders and mental distress through the use of verbal and psychological techniques. During this process, a trained psychotherapist helps the client address specific or general problems, such as a particular mental illness or source of life stress.
Depending on the approach used by the therapist, a wide range of techniques and strategies may be used. Almost all types of psychotherapy involve developing a therapeutic relationship, communicating and creating a dialogue, and working to overcome problematic thoughts or behaviors.
Psychotherapy is increasingly seen as a distinct profession in its own right, but many types of professionals offer it, including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, social workers, mental health counselors, and psychiatric nurses.
This article discusses the different types of psychotherapy available and the potential benefits of psychotherapy. It also covers the different conditions it can treat and its effectiveness for a variety of disorders.
What types of psychotherapy are there?
Psychotherapy can take different formats depending on the style of the therapist and the needs of the patient. Some of the formats that can be found are
- Individual therapy, which consists of working one-on-one with a psychotherapist.
- Couples therapy, which consists of working with a therapist as a couple to improve the functioning of the relationship.
- Family therapy, which focuses on improving the dynamics within families and may involve several individuals within a family unit.
- Group therapy, which involves a small group of individuals who share a common goal. (This approach allows group members to offer and receive support from each other, as well as practice new behaviors within a supportive and responsive group).
The different streams of psychotherapy
When people hear the word “psychotherapy,” many picture the stereotypical image of a patient lying on a couch talking while the therapist sits in a nearby chair writing down his or her thoughts in a yellow notebook. The reality is that there are a wide variety of techniques and practices used in psychotherapy.
The exact method used in each situation may vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the therapist’s training and background, the client’s preferences, and the exact nature of the client’s current problem. The following is a brief summary of the main types of therapy.
When behaviorism became a more prominent school of thought during the early part of the 20th century, conditioning techniques began to play an important role in psychotherapy.
Although behaviorism is no longer as dominant as it once was, many of its methods are still very popular today. Behavioral therapy often uses the classical conditioning behavioral therapy often uses operant conditioning and social learning to help clients modify their problem behaviors.
The approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic treatment that helps patients understand the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviors. CBT is used to treat a range of conditions, including phobias, addiction, depression and anxiety.
CBT includes cognitive and behavioral techniques to change negative thoughts and maladaptive behaviors. The approach helps people change the underlying thoughts that contribute to distress and modify the problematic behaviors that result from these thoughts.
The cognitive revolution of the 1960s also had a major impact on the practice of psychotherapy, as psychologists began to focus increasingly on how human thought processes influence behavior and functioning.
For example, if you tend to see the negative aspects of every situation, you are likely to have a more pessimistic outlook and an overall gloomy mood.
The goal of cognitive therapy is to identify the cognitive distortions that lead to this type of thinking and replace them with more realistic and positive ones. By doing so, individuals can improve their mood and overall well-being.
Cognitive therapy focuses on the idea that our thoughts have a powerful influence on our mental well-being.
Beginning in the 1950s, the school of thought known as humanistic psychology began to have an influence on psychotherapy. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers developed an approach known as client-centered therapy, which focused on the therapist showing unconditional positive regard for the client.
Today, aspects of this approach are still widely used. The humanistic approach to psychotherapy focuses on helping people maximize their potential and stresses the importance of self-exploration, free will, and self-actualization.
Although psychotherapy has been practiced in various forms since the time of the ancient Greeks, it had its formal beginning when Sigmund Freud began using talk therapy to work with patients. Among the techniques Freud used were transference analysis, dream interpretation, and free association.
This psychoanalytic approach involves delving into a person’s past thoughts and experiences to look for unconscious thoughts, feelings and memories that may influence behavior.
How can psychotherapy help?
Psychotherapy comes in many forms, but all are designed to help people overcome challenges, develop coping strategies and lead happier, healthier lives.
If you are experiencing symptoms of a psychological or psychiatric disorder, you may benefit from an evaluation by a trained and experienced psychotherapist who is qualified to assess, diagnose and treat mental health disorders.
Psychotherapy is used to treat a wide range of mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance use disorder
In addition, psychotherapy has been found to help people cope with the following
- Chronic pain or serious illness
- Divorces and breakups
- Grief or loss
- Low self-esteem
- Relationship problems
Getting the Most Out of Psychotherapy
The effectiveness of therapy can vary depending on a wide range of factors. The nature and severity of your problem will play a role, but there are also things you can do to get the most out of your sessions, such as
- Be honest with your therapist: Don’t try to hide your problems or feelings. Your goal is to show up as your true self without trying to hide aspects of your personality that you might be afraid to reveal.
- Feel your feelings: Don’t try to hide negative or distressing emotions such as grief, anger, fear, or jealousy. Talking about these feelings in the context of therapy can help you understand them better.
- Be open to the process: Work on forming an open and genuine therapeutic alliance with your therapist. Some research suggests that therapy is most effective when you feel a connection with the mental health professional who is treating you.1
- Attend sessions: Life is busy, but try to stick to your treatment plan and scheduled appointments as best you can.
- Do the work: If your therapist assigns you tasks to complete outside of sessions, make an effort to finish them before the next session.
What are the benefits of psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy is often more affordable than other types of therapy and a viable option for those who do not need psychotropic medication.
You can take advantage of the potential benefits of psychotherapy even if you just feel that there is something “off” in your life that could be improved by seeing a mental health professional.
Among the notable benefits of psychotherapy are
- Improved communication skills
- Healthier thought patterns and increased awareness of negative thoughts
- Greater understanding of your life
- Ability to make healthier decisions
- Improved coping strategies to manage distress
- Stronger family bonds
Is psychological therapy effective?
One of the main criticisms of psychotherapy questions its effectiveness. In one of the earliest of the often-cited studies, a psychologist named Hans Eysenck found that two-thirds of participants improved or recovered on their own within two years, regardless of whether or not they had received psychotherapy.
However, in numerous subsequent studies, researchers found that psychotherapy can improve clients’ well-being.
91% are satisfied with the quality of therapy they
receive84% are satisfied with their progress toward personal mental health
goals78% believe that therapy plays an important role in achieving those goals
In his book “The Great Psychotherapy Debate,” statistician and psychologist Bruce Wampold reported that factors such as the therapist’s personality, as well as his or her belief in the effectiveness of the treatment, played a role in the outcome of psychotherapy.
Surprisingly, Wampold suggested that the type of therapy and the theoretical basis of the treatment had no effect on outcome. The disagreement has motivated researchers to continue to examine and study the efficacy of psychotherapy.3
More recent research has shown psychotherapy to be an effective form of treatment for some anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and eating disorders, as well as for grief and trauma.
What issues should you consider in going to therapy?
There are a number of issues or concerns for both therapists and clients. When providing services to clients, psychotherapists must be mindful of issues such as informed consent, patient confidentiality, and duty to warn.
Informed consent involves notifying the client of all potential risks and benefits associated with treatment. This includes explaining the exact nature of the treatment, potential risks, costs, and available alternatives. The duty to warn gives counselors and therapists the right to break confidentiality if a client poses a risk to another person.
Because clients frequently discuss issues that are highly personal and sensitive in nature, psychotherapists also have a legal obligation to protect the patient’s right to confidentiality. However, one instance in which psychotherapists are entitled to breach patient confidentiality is if clients pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
How do I know if I need to see a psychotherapist?
You may realize that psychotherapy can help you with life’s problems, but it can still be difficult to seek help or even recognize when it’s time to talk to a professional.
Some key signs that it might be time to see a psychotherapist are when:
- The problem is causing significant distress or disruption in your life. If you feel that the problem you are facing is disrupting a number of important areas of your life, such as studies, work, and relationships, it may be time to try psychotherapy.
- You rely on unhealthy or dangerous coping mechanisms. If you find yourself coping in unhealthy ways, such as smoking, drinking, overeating, or taking out your frustrations on others, seeking help can help you find healthier and more beneficial coping strategies.
- Friends and family care about your well-being. If you’ve reached a point where others are concerned about your emotional health, it may be time to see if psychotherapy can improve your psychological state.
- Nothing you’ve tried so far has helped. You’ve read self-help books, explored some techniques you’ve read on the Internet, or even tried just ignoring the problem, but things seem to be staying the same or even getting worse.
Thinking of seeking a therapist? Follow these tips
Psychotherapy can be an effective treatment option for a number of psychological problems. You don’t have to wait until your life is so overwhelming that you can’t cope to ask for help. The sooner you do, the sooner you can get the help you need to live a healthier, happier life.
If you think you or a loved one could benefit from this form of therapy, consider the following steps:
- Consult with your primary care physician. Your doctor may begin by ruling out any physical illnesses that could cause or contribute to your symptoms. If no specific physical cause is found, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional who is qualified to diagnose and treat mental illness.
- Find a qualified person. People who offer psychotherapy may have different titles or degrees. Titles such as “psychologist” or “psychiatrist” are protected and carry specific training and licensing requirements. Some of the people qualified to provide psychotherapy are psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed counselors, licensed social workers, and advanced psychiatric nurses.
- Choose the right therapist. When choosing a therapist, consider whether you are comfortable disclosing personal information to the therapist. You should also evaluate the therapist’s qualifications, including the type of degree held and years of experience. Referrals from friends and family can sometimes be a good way to connect with a therapist who can help you.
- Consider whether you need medication. Your symptoms should influence the treatment and therapist you choose. For example, if the best treatment for you requires prescription medication and psychotherapy, seeing a psychiatrist may be beneficial. If some form of talk therapy without adding prescription medication is most beneficial for you, you may be referred to a clinical psychologist or counselor.
- Be prepared to fill out paperwork. When you begin therapy, the therapist will likely collect your medical history and personal contact information. You will also likely have to sign some consent forms.
- Don’t be afraid to try different therapists. Psychotherapy is an art and a science. If sessions don’t work for you or you don’t fit with your current therapist, it’s okay to try therapy with someone else. Keep looking until you find a professional with whom you feel comfortable.