Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author, educational consultant, and speaker focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial policy Medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD Updated on November 26, 2019
Psychotherapy is a general term that is 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 tackle specific or general problems such as a particular mental illness or a source of life stress.
Depending on the approach used by the therapist, a wide range of techniques and strategies can be used. However, 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 viewed as a distinct profession in its own right, but many different types of professionals engage in psychotherapy regularly. Such individuals include clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, social workers, mental health counselors, and psychiatric nurses.
Types of Psychotherapy
When many people hear the word psychotherapy, they immediately imagine a patient lying on a couch talking while a therapist sits in a nearby chair jotting down thoughts on a yellow notepad. There are actually a variety of techniques and practices used in psychotherapy. The exact method used in each situation can vary based upon a variety of factors, including the training and background of the therapist, the preferences of the client, and the exact nature of the client’s current problem.
Some of the major approaches to psychotherapy include:
Psychoanalytic Therapy: While psychotherapy was practiced in various forms as far back as the time of the Ancient Greeks, it received its formal start when Sigmund Freud began using talk therapy to work with patients. Some of the techniques commonly used by Freud included the analysis of transference, dream interpretation, and free association. This psychoanalytic approach involves delving into a patient’s thoughts and past experiences to seek out unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories that may influence behavior.
Behavioral Therapy: When behaviorism became a more prominent school of thought during the early part of the twentieth-century, techniques such as different types of conditioning began to play an important role in psychotherapy. While behaviorism may not be as dominant as it once was, many of its methods are still very popular today. Behavioral therapy often uses classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning to help clients alter problematic behaviors.
Humanistic Therapy: Starting in the 1950s, the school of thought known as humanistic psychology began to have an influence on psychotherapy. The humanist psychologist Carl Rogers developed an approach known as client-centered therapy, which focused on the therapist showing unconditional positive regard to the client. Today, aspects of this approach remain widely used. The humanistic approach to psychotherapy focuses on helping people maximize their potential. Such approaches tend to stress the importance of self-exploration, free will, and self-actualization.
Cognitive Therapy: The cognitive revolution of the 1960s also had a major impact on the practice of psychotherapy, as psychologists began to increasingly focus on how human thought processes influence behavior and functioning. Cognitive therapy is centered on the idea that our thoughts have a powerful influence on our mental well-being. For example, if you tend to see the negative aspects of every situation, you will probably have a more pessimistic outlook and a gloomier overall mood. The goal of cognitive therapy is to identify the cognitive distortions that lead to this type of thinking and replace such thoughts with more realistic and positive ones. By doing so, people are able to improve their moods and overall well-being.
Cognitive-behavioral Therapy: The approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps patients understand the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviors. CBT is commonly used to treat a wide range of disorders including phobias, addiction, depression, and anxiety. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that involves cognitive and behavioral techniques to change negative thoughts and maladaptive behaviors. This approach involves changing the underlying thoughts that contribute to distress and modifying the problematic behaviors that result from these thoughts.
Formats of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy can also take a number of different formats depending on the style of the therapist and the needs of the patient. A few that you might encounter include:
- Individual therapy, which involves working one-on-one with a psychotherapist.
- Couples therapy, which involves a therapist working with a couple to help improve how the two function in their relationship.
- Family therapy, which centers on improving the dynamic within families and can include multiple individuals within a family unit.
- Group therapy, which involves a small group of individuals who share a common goal. This approach allows members of the group to offer and receive support from others, as well as practice new behaviors within a supportive and receptive group.