Understanding Psychotherapy

Medically Reviewed By N. Simay Gökbayrak, PhD
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Psychotherapy is one type of treatment available for psychological conditions. It is helpful for several mental health conditions and emotional difficulties. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help individuals with a wide variety of psychological conditions and emotional difficulties.

Some of the issues that psychotherapy can help with include the impact of trauma, coping with daily life, medical illness, loss, and psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.

There are many different types of psychotherapy, and certain types are more suited to specific issues than others.

This article further defines psychotherapy. It also talks about how it compares with other treatment methods, the different types of psychotherapy, and its effectiveness.

What is psychotherapy?

Woman talking to a therapist
Alina Hvostikova/Stocksy United

Mental health professionals use psychotherapy to help people with various psychological conditions and emotional difficulties.

Psychotherapy typically begins with a discussion about your background, including your family life and important events you have experienced, and the concerns that led you to seek help in the first place. After the initial assessment, you and your mental health professional will discuss treatment options and come to an agreement. This is often called a treatment or therapy contract.

Occasionally, this contract will be written down. More often, however, it is simply a verbal discussion between you and your mental health professional.

Typically, the treatment contract will include:

  • the specific goals of the treatment
  • the procedures of the treatment
  • the regular time, location, and duration of your sessions

Psychotherapy is either short-term, lasting only a few sessions, or long-term, lasting months or even years.
People seek psychotherapy for many different reasons, such as when they:

  • are dealing with severe or long-term stress
  • are seeking treatment for a loved one who has a condition affecting their mental health
  • have symptoms with no physical explanation
  • have or may have depression, anxiety, or another psychological condition

One of the basic and most important aspects of psychotherapy is confidentiality. You should feel safe and comfortable sharing your thoughts, feelings, and concerns with your mental health professional and know that they will not share those discussions with anyone else.

What can psychotherapy help treat?

Research suggests that psychotherapy is an effective treatment option for improving the symptoms of numerous psychological conditions. This has made it a popular and versatile approach.

Psychotherapy typically takes place in a one-to-one setting. However, it can be useful for groups, couples, and families as well.

Psychotherapy can help with a variety of psychological conditions and mental health concerns, including:

Psychotherapy is different for everyone. Your mental health professional will most likely tailor your treatment to meet your individual needs. They may use one main approach or incorporate other elements, depending on your needs and their training.

Elements of psychotherapy can include:

  • identifying ways to cope with stress
  • offering guidance with social and communication skills
  • helping you become aware of ways of thinking that are often automatic but that may be unhelpful or harmful
  • teaching you mindfulness and relaxation techniques
  • tracking emotions and behaviors to raise your awareness of the impact of one on the other
  • performing exposure therapy for those with anxiety disorders
  • providing emotional support
  • helping explore troubling issues
  • creating a safety plan for someone with thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Psychotherapy has many uses, and mental health professionals often administer it in combination with other types of treatment, such as medication.
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Psychotherapy vs. counseling

The main difference between psychotherapy and counseling is the training, licensing, and education of the mental health professional conducting the treatment.

Counselors tend not to need the same level of education as psychologists do. Although psychologists are required to have a doctoral degree, counselors are only required to have a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes, an associate’s degree is all that is required.

Counselors tend to provide guidance to their clients, and their approach to client care may vary widely. Psychologists, on the other hand, tend to stay more within their field of expertise and often adopt a specific type of therapy or treatment in their client care.

Counseling also tends to focus more on how people function both personally and in their relationships throughout all the stages of life. On the other hand, psychotherapy tends to focus on treating the psychological condition at hand and the symptoms it is causing.

Psychotherapy vs. psychology

Psychology refers to the study of people.

It is a discipline that is predominantly interested in the functioning of the mind. Specifically, it focuses on how people think, act, react, and interact.

Psychology is concerned with all aspects of a person’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and the underlying motivations for their healthy and unhealthy behaviors. It also explores areas such as learning, memory, and psychological development.

In contrast, psychotherapy is one type of treatment for a wide array of psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Psychotherapy vs. medication

Often, based on the type and severity of your mental health condition or concern, a professional may recommend a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Medication can play a role in the treatment of several different psychological conditions.

Not everyone will react to medication in the same way, however. It is important to discuss the details of any recommended medications with your doctor before you begin taking them.

When it comes to taking medication for a mental health concern, remember to:

  • Tell your doctor about all medications, supplements, and vitamins you are taking.
  • Remind them of any allergies you have or any reactions you have had to medications in the past.
  • Do not take any medications prescribed to someone else or give yours to anyone else.
  • Make sure you understand how to take the medication before you begin taking it.
  • Only take the medication as prescribed.
  • Contact your doctor right away if you experience any problems with your medication.

It is important that you work closely with your doctor and communicate any concerns and issues clearly in order for them to find the right dosage to help you.
Mental health medications are typically grouped into the following categories:

  • antidepressants
  • antianxiety drugs
  • stimulants
  • antipsychotics
  • mood stabilizers

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may recommend one type or a combination of medications. For example, it is not uncommon for them to prescribe both antidepressants and antianxiety medications for anxiety disorders.
Both medication and psychotherapy are only fully effective if you stick with them. Results from these treatments typically do not happen overnight. It is important that you choose a treatment plan that you feel comfortable with so that you are more likely to adhere to it long enough for it to help you.

Whether you are beginning a medication treatment or choosing to end one, it is important to talk with your doctor and only change your regimen under their supervision.

Learn more about anxiety here.

Types and techniques of psychotherapy

There are different types of therapy that your mental health professional may recommend based on your individual needs. Each one treats an issue differently and may not be as effective for one person as it is for someone else.

Discuss the options with your mental health professional, and if you feel that the treatment is not working for you, ask about trying a different one.

Some types of therapy that may be effective include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is effective for many psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The main focus of CBT is identifying negative or false beliefs and testing or restructuring them.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT was originally developed to treat BPD in chronically suicidal individuals. However, it has since been adapted to treat many different psychological conditions. That said, the majority of people who undergo DBT do have BPD as their primary diagnosis. DBT is similar to CBT, but the main focus is learning how to accept uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors instead of struggling with them.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): The main focus of IPT is the relationships you have with others. The goal is to improve your interpersonal skills. IPT is most often recommended for the treatment of depression, but it is also useful for the treatment of other psychological conditions.
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is a type of CBT that is most often used to treat OCD, PTSD, and phobias. This therapy focuses on identifying the triggers of your anxiety, learning techniques to avoid performing rituals to cope with it, and confronting your triggers in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: The main goal of psychodynamic therapy is recognizing negative patterns of behaviors and feelings that are rooted in your past experiences and resolving them. Mental health professionals most often use psychodynamic therapy to treat anxiety disorders, BPD, and depression.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a more intense version of psychodynamic therapy. It typically involves sessions that are conducted three or more times per week. It is also a long-term treatment.
  • Supportive therapy: Supportive therapy uses guidance and encouragement to help you develop your own resources. The main goals of supportive therapy are to build self-esteem, reduce anxiety, strengthen your coping mechanisms, and improve your social and community functions.

Other types of psychotherapy include:

  • mentalization-based therapy
  • eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
  • therapy pets
  • creative arts therapy

You should work closely with your mental health professional to choose the right type of therapy for your individual needs.

How effective is psychotherapy?

Research suggests that approximately 75% of people who undergo psychotherapy have some kind of benefit from it. They typically experience relief from at least some of their symptoms and find that they are able to function better within their lives.

Brain imaging indicates that a person’s brain changes after psychotherapy. The brain changes occur in those with psychological conditions — such as PTSD, depression, or panic disorder — as a result of psychotherapy. These changes are similar to those that occur due to taking medication.

For psychotherapy to be the most useful to you, it is important that you are able to develop a sense of collaboration, trust, and safety with your mental health professional. Research also suggests that people get the most out of therapy if they attend sessions regularly and stick to the plan that they create with their mental health professional.

Summary

Psychotherapy is one form of treatment for psychological conditions and mental health concerns. Whether on its own or paired with another treatment option, such as medication, psychotherapy can be an effective way to treat a variety of conditions and concerns.

It is important to talk with your doctor and mental health professional openly and honestly about any symptoms, worries, or issues you may be experiencing. It is also important that you work closely with your mental health professional to form the right treatment plan for your individual needs and then follow it closely.

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Medical Reviewer: N. Simay Gökbayrak, PhD
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.