Roughly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year, with 1 in 20 experiencing serious mental illness, according to a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Mental illness not only causes psychological anguish — it can also have ripple effects in people’s lives, affecting their ability to work, succeed in school, and stay physically healthy.
The good news is that with the right treatment, individuals can overcome their mental health challenges and lead more productive and fulfilling lives. Mental health professionals trained in various types of psychotherapy often play a vital role in helping people manage everything from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Learning about psychotherapy and how it can improve people’s well-being benefits both aspiring mental health professionals and prospective patients.
What Is Psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, aims to help people recognize and change unhealthy behaviors, thinking patterns, and feelings. It involves the use of various verbal techniques, ranging from conversations to role-playing to guided visualization. These techniques can treat an array of mental health conditions and help people manage emotional challenges.
Some common types of problems addressed in psychotherapy include:
- Clinical depression
- Loss, grief, and bereavement
- Divorce and family problems
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior
- Anger and aggression
- Addictions and substance abuse
- Military and veterans’ issues
- Health, illness, and medical issues
- Borderline personality disorder
- Panic disorders
Psychotherapy can help patients overcome or manage symptoms that interfere with their happiness and ability to fully function. Through psychotherapy, patients may also learn new coping mechanisms that enable them to heal from trauma and respond to it in healthy ways.
Psychiatrists may prescribe medication alongside psychotherapy treatment. Medication in combination with psychotherapy may provide additional relief to patients dealing with troubling symptoms.
Mental health professionals conduct psychotherapy with children and adults of all ages in individual, family, couple, and group settings. Psychotherapy may entail only a few sessions, but can often require regular sessions over a period of months or even years when addressing complex or deeply rooted issues.
The frequency and duration of psychotherapy depend on factors such as the severity and nature of a patient’s mental health condition. Typically, psychotherapy takes place on an outpatient basis and involves visits to a private practitioner’s office or a mental health clinic. Mental health professionals may also offer remote sessions via telehealth.
In a crisis or acute mental health situations, patients may receive psychotherapy in inpatient settings such as hospitals, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, and eating disorder facilities.
Those receiving psychotherapy can expect the feelings, thoughts, and experiences they share to remain confidential.
What Are the Different Types of Psychotherapy?
Mental health professionals use many types of psychotherapy. In contemporary psychotherapy, mental health providers may select strategies from different therapeutic models to best respond to the needs of each patient. Patients sometimes prefer one type of psychotherapy over another, and this may also determine the type of treatment they receive.
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Mental health professionals apply different therapeutic approaches based on the needs of each patient. The following types of psychotherapy are among the most common, according to Cleveland Clinic, Psychology Today, Verywell Mind, and WebMD: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Humanistic Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, and Holistic Therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mental health professionals help patients analyze how their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings affect their well-being. It also helps patients determine if their manner of acting, thinking, and feeling are useful and realistic.
Over a series of sessions (typically five to 20), CBT practitioners work with patients to:
- Identify primary challenges, concerns, and symptoms
- Uncover unhealthy behaviors, thoughts, and feelings contributing to distress
- Develop strategies to address and change problematic behaviors, thoughts, and feelings
CBT can empower patients to recognize and then replace destructive and ineffective thinking patterns and behaviors with healthier ones. Psychotherapy can help patients develop more positive attitudes about themselves and the world. It can also help patients adopt ways of responding to stress and pain that improve their well-being.
Uses for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Research has shown that CBT can effectively treat a variety of mental health conditions, in particular anxiety disorders and depression. CBT teaches patients how to interrupt invasive worrying thoughts and feelings of sadness. This often helps people better manage and sometimes overcome their anxiety and depression.
Other issues CBT can help treat include:
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavioral therapy is a form of CBT designed to help patients replace self-destructive behaviors with more productive tools for coping. Like CBT, dialectical behavioral therapy strives to help patients develop the skills they need to adopt healthier patterns of behaving, thinking, and feeling.
What makes DBT unique is its emphasis on using awareness of the self and others, alongside mindful attention to the present moment, as ways to help patients better manage their distress and pain.
In DBT, patients learn to feel intense emotions without acting out in impulsive and destructive ways. They also learn to recognize, label, and then adjust their emotions and disruptive behaviors.
The stages of DBT include:
- Treating life-threatening behavior to stabilize the patient
- Safely exploring traumatic histories to help patients process their pain rather than bury it
- Setting goals to improve patient relationships and promote stability
- Building upon learned skills to increase happiness and capacity for growth
Uses for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
DBT may help patients who haven’t found success with other forms of psychotherapy. Specifically, research has shown DBT to be effective in helping patients with borderline personality disorder engage in fewer self-harming behaviors and negative emotions.
Mental health professionals also use DBT to treat:
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Chronic suicidal behavior
- Substance use disorder
Its focus on teaching people healthy ways to cope with intense emotions makes DBT particularly effective when treating conditions that tend to result from unhealthy attempts to control intense and distressing feelings.
Humanistic therapy focuses on helping patients harness their own individual strengths to heal and grow. Mental health professionals practicing this type of psychotherapy may use approaches such as the following.
- Client-Centered: This approach encourages patients to direct the therapy process according to their current concerns, with the assumption that patients are the experts of their own lives and challenges. During sessions, practitioners interact with patients as equal partners, communicating empathy and unconditional positive regard toward them.
- Gestalt: Instead of focusing on the events leading up to a patient’s emotions, gestalt therapy concentrates on a patient’s feelings in the here and now. Gestalt sessions emphasize the patient’s responsibility to help themselves. Sessions also focus on helping patients find balance and personal growth.
- Existential: This humanistic approach helps patients explore what brings meaning into their lives. Sessions focus on the patient’s strengths and capacity to make rational decisions. They also stress the patient’s ability to recreate themselves in response to life changes.
Uses for Humanistic Therapy
Humanistic therapy’s emphasis on the present makes it effective for treating conditions such as anxiety. Its focus on a patient’s positive attributes and capacity for growth also means it can serve as a useful tool for addressing self-esteem issues.
Since humanistic therapy helps patients find new purpose and meaning in their lives, it may also prove effective when treating:
- Personality disorders
In psychodynamic therapy, patients explore past experiences to uncover repressed emotions and to understand how events from the past influence their current behaviors, feelings, and relationships.
Gaining this greater awareness can help patients improve their experience of life and interpersonal relationships.
During psychodynamic therapy sessions, patients speak freely about whatever comes to mind, reflecting upon their desires, fears, worries, and hopes. This enables patients to:
- Identify patterns of behavior in their relationships
- Gain a better understanding of their emotions
- Learn how to express their feelings in healthy ways
Psychodynamic therapy aims to improve self-worth, eliminate mental illness symptoms, and enable patients to put their talents and abilities to better use.
Uses for Psychodynamic Therapy
Mental health professionals may use psychodynamic therapy to treat a range of conditions, including:
- Psychological distress
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Eating disorders
Additionally, research has shown that psychodynamic therapy can effectively treat children and adolescents with trauma, anxiety disorder, and emotional disorders.
Holistic therapy is a type of psychotherapy that takes into account mental, physical, and spiritual factors when working with patients. It combines traditional treatments, such as talk therapy, with less conventional components like meditation, hypnosis, and breathwork.
Using various strategies, practitioners of holistic therapy help patients gain insights into how connections between body, mind, and spirit can impact their mental health.
These strategies often promote relaxation and mindfulness. Additionally, some overlap with practices associated with complementary and alternative medicine, including:
- Guided imagery
- Tai chi
Alongside these techniques, practitioners of holistic therapy also incorporate elements from CBT and person-centered humanistic therapy for a patient’s treatment.
Uses for Holistic Therapy
Holistic therapy’s whole-person approach can make it especially effective for addressing issues that impact several areas of a patient’s life, such as:
- Work-related problems
- Family problems
- Emotional difficulties
Additionally, the use of practices proven to reduce anxiety in holistic therapy, such as yoga and meditation, can make it an effective treatment for stress and addiction.
Resources for Choosing the Right Therapeutic Technique for Different Mental Health Needs
Individuals interested in learning more about the correlation between certain treatment scenarios and therapeutic types can find a wealth of resources online.
- The American Counseling Association has compiled a list of mental health resources for mental health practitioners, including links to toolkits, articles, hotline services, and online courses on various mental health topics.
- Therapist Aid allows visitors to search for various types of content, including worksheets, videos, and guides on a range of topics related to types of psychotherapy and mental health conditions.
- Psychology Tools offers free access to hundreds of information handouts, exercises, and worksheets to help mental health professionals enhance the therapy they provide. Paid plans provide access to additional resources, including treatment guides and workbooks, and the ability to electronically share materials with clients.
- The National Institute of Mental Health provides a wealth of information on mental health research, facts, statistics, treatments, and therapies, as well as assistance in finding treatment.
- PsychCentral connects visitors to articles, podcasts, information about psychiatric medications, quizzes to help identify mental health conditions, resources for finding therapists, and more.
Benefits of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy can change the brain, rewiring neural systems that allow for improved brain function. Better functioning brains can make it easier for people to improve their mental health.
The majority of people who receive psychotherapy experience notable benefits. In addition to improved well-being, psychotherapy can help people free themselves of long- and short-term symptoms that interfere with their happiness. Many patients find psychotherapy brings them great relief and transforms their lives.
Consider the following benefits of psychotherapy.
Improved Behaviors and Thinking Patterns
Negative thoughts and behaviors can make emotional difficulties worse, leading to and exacerbating mental health issues. Techniques used in therapy such as cognitive restructuring — a strategy that helps patients recognize cognitive distortions and then question the benefits of holding onto them — can greatly impact a person’s ability to embrace healthier ways of behaving and thinking.
Strengthened Bonds with Family
Psychotherapy can bolster familial bonds by helping patients gain insights into their feelings and those of family members. This can increase empathy and encourage family members to give each other more support. In psychotherapy, patients learn to problem-solve, which can help them resolve conflicts with their loved ones in more peaceable and loving ways.
Additionally, psychotherapy teaches patients to set boundaries for themselves. Clear boundaries help achieve balance in relationships and create emotional safety, which can promote feelings of love and intimacy.
Boosted Communication Skills
In psychotherapy, patients learn various listening techniques that can help them navigate difficult conversations and build trust with others. During psychotherapy, patients also get a lot of practice expressing themselves. They may participate in role-playing or other activities that allow them to receive feedback about how they communicate. This gives individuals a chance to learn how to effectively speak up for themselves and communicate their thoughts and feelings in productive and noninflammatory ways.
Reduced Medical Issues
Poor mental health can compromise the immune system, making individuals more vulnerable to illness and disease. In fact, numerous studies have found links between mental health conditions and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, and even cancer. A healthy psychological state, on the other hand, can reduce health risks such as heart attacks and strokes. It can also minimize sleeping problems, which tend to exacerbate mental health issues.
Improved Satisfaction in Work and Life
Psychotherapy often teaches patients techniques that help them reframe the way they see the world. Patients learn to shift how they look at people and situations to eliminate negative distortions that contribute to the patient’s dissatisfaction and unhappiness with their relationships, job, and life circumstances.
What Are Psychotherapeutic Interventions?
Psychotherapeutic interventions are the various strategies and techniques used to treat mental health conditions. Along with choosing the appropriate type of psychotherapy, it’s important that mental health professionals apply the right intervention strategies to achieve the best possible results for their patients.
Consider the following patient categories and the different intervention strategies associated with them.
Individual Child and Adolescent Interventions
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that almost a third of teenagers experience poor mental health, and 1 in 6 children have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. Fortunately, many psychotherapeutic interventions are effective when applied to children and adolescents.
- Family therapy brings all family members together in a therapy session to work through conflicts and other issues possibly contributing to the child or adolescent’s poor mental health. Family therapy can also provide support and understanding to children and adolescents with mental health conditions.
- Individual work can include using psychotherapy such as CBT for adolescents and play therapy for children. Play therapy engages young patients in activities they enjoy such as dancing or painting. Through play activities, mental health professionals help the children express their feelings.
- Parenting interventions involve sessions that teach parents important skills they can use to help their children and teens experiencing mental health issues. For example, parent training in behavior management aims to equip parents with the tools to support children and teens with ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders.
- Group work with children and adolescents brings a small number of young patients together for a therapy session. Typically, the patients are experiencing similar symptoms or mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or disordered eating. Mental health professionals guide the patients in group conversations and learning designed to help them practice communication skills learned in individual therapy, connect with peers, and feel supported.
Individual Adult Interventions
In addition to the various types of psychotherapy described above, other common psychotherapeutic interventions for individual adults include:
- Interpersonal therapy can help people address problematic interpersonal issues, such as unresolved grief and interpersonal conflicts. It typically involves structured sessions over 12 to 16 weeks that focus on improving a patient’s ability to build intimacy, trust, and empathy in their interpersonal relationships. Sessions concentrate on addressing the patient’s current relationships, identifying key problem areas, and developing solutions.
- Behavioral activation, often used as a treatment for depression and substance abuse, deliberately engages patients in activities or behaviors that make them feel good. This can help activate a more positive state of mind and disrupt cycles of negative feelings. Behavioral activation may also involve replacing negative behaviors or activities that cause stress with beneficial ones that relieve stress.
- Social skills training can help individuals with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder, as well as conditions such as social anxiety disorder. The training starts by identifying social skills deficits a patient may have due to their condition. Then, mental health professionals break down individual social skills into parts, invite patients to practice those skills through role-playing, and provide feedback and encouragement.
Mental health professionals use a variety of psychotherapeutic interventions to help families address their conflicts and improve communication. These interventions often employ techniques found in the various types of psychotherapy used for individuals, such as mindfulness exercises and cognitive reframing. Common family interventions include the following.
- Transgenerational family therapy focuses on the different roles of family members across generations. Mental health professionals guide conversations that examine how parents and children have responded to problems and conflicts in the past and present. Through these examinations, families can gain insights into their patterns of behavior and develop new, healthier strategies and break negative cycles.
- Structural family therapy works to build an understanding of a family’s structure in order to strengthen and improve family relationships. In therapy sessions, mental health professionals help family members examine how they interact with one another. This involves helping them identify family hierarchies, roles, and boundaries. After clarifying the family’s structure, the therapy focuses on restructuring unhealthy roles and dynamics and setting appropriate boundaries.
Couples hoping to navigate their differences and build intimacy can also benefit from psychotherapeutic interventions. Couples therapy can provide a safe space for couples to open up about their fears, frustrations, and desires. Frequently used techniques used in couples therapy include the following.
- Discernment therapy can help couples who are uncertain about whether they should stay together gain clarity about the future of their relationship. The therapy involves a limited number of sessions in which couples consider what led them to consider a separation, how they’ve tried to repair their relationship, and the best times they’ve shared together.
- Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) helps couples develop trust and form stronger bonds by teaching them to better regulate their emotional responses to one another. In this type of therapy, couples discuss problematic events in their relationships and then explore what underlying feelings may have contributed to those events. EFT focuses on identifying harmful patterns that can interfere with couple bonding.
Group interventions can help people address a range of issues, including phobias, substance abuse, grief, and cultural trauma. By bringing people experiencing similar challenges together, group therapy helps individuals feel less alone in their struggles. This approach to psychotherapy also provides the benefit of interpersonal learning.
- Psychoeducational groups typically focus on a specific issue or condition such as rage, eating disorders, or anxiety. Members learn about their conditions and are taught new coping strategies.
- Skills development groups introduce members to skills that can help them alter their behaviors and thinking and make healthy choices. These groups may also teach members about their conditions.
- Cognitive behavioral groups help members reframe mindsets and beliefs that contribute to their destructive behaviors. This often involves identifying situations that trigger them to act out and then coming up with strategies to manage these situations differently.
- Support groups bring together people coping with major life changes, such as divorce, death, and terminal illness. Members share their experiences and offer each other support, feedback, and acceptance.
- Interpersonal process groups invite members to express their emotions and explore interpersonal dynamics in the group to increase self-awareness about how they form relationships and negative patterns they may have in this regard. Members learn new ways of interacting that they can apply to their relationships outside of the group.
How to Choose a Psychotherapist
Finding the right psychotherapist is a significant step in a person’s journey toward achieving their mental health goals. By keeping in mind some key considerations, prospective patients can select a psychotherapist that’s a good match.
- Health insurance coverage and in-network providers: Some insurance plans cover only a limited number of psychotherapy sessions, which may affect the type of psychotherapy an individual pursues. Additionally, prospective patients may not have the financial resources to pay for an out-of-network psychotherapist, so it’s important to know which providers are in-network.
- Database and local resource consultation: Individuals seeking therapy can consult databases to locate licensed psychotherapists by ZIP code.
- Organizations addressing key mental health issues: People needing therapy for specific mental health concerns may want to connect with organizations specializing in that area. For example, organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the National Center for PTSD both have search tools that help people find therapists specializing in these conditions.
- Personal goals: When looking for a therapist, individuals need to factor in their goals for therapy. If someone thinks they may need medication, they should seek out a practitioner licensed to write prescriptions. If individuals want a specific type of therapy shown to be most effective for their condition, they should select a therapist with expertise in that area.
- Teletherapy: Exploring the option of online psychotherapy may expand a person’s options when choosing a therapist because it eliminates some of the barriers created by distance.
Questions to Ask a Psychotherapist
Before deciding on a psychotherapist, patients should ask several key questions. These questions can help ensure a proper fit with regard to expectations, needs, and practical issues.
- How long is each session?
- What will the session be like?
- Is medication a possibility?
- Does the therapist affirm personal characteristics?
- Is insurance accepted?
- Is online therapy an option?
- How are cancellations handled?
- Is after-hours therapy available for crises?
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When choosing a psychotherapist, it’s crucial they provide solutions that align with a patient’s needs on a therapeutic and practical level. The following inquiries can help patients make the right determination, according to Psychology Today: How long is each session? What will the session be like? Is medication a possibility? Does the therapist affirm personal characteristics? Is insurance accepted? Is online therapy an option? How are cancellations handled? Is after-hours therapy available for crises?
Psychotherapy Can Make a Crucial Difference
Whether providing individuals relief from clinical depression, helping families replace dysfunctional patterns with healthy ones, or empowering people with severe mental illnesses to cope with their conditions, psychotherapy can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
Not only can the various types of psychotherapy improve people’s mental health, they can also lead to improved physical health and overall well-being. For these reasons, it’s important patients take the time to do their due diligence to ensure the therapist they choose is the right fit.
Cleveland Clinic, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Psychology Today, Humanistic Therapy
Psychology Today, Psychodynamic Therapy
Psychology Today, “20 Questions to Ask Your New Therapist”
Verywell Mind, “What Is Holistic Therapy?”