Psychotherapy is a general term for treating mental health problems by talking with a psychotherapist, psychologist or other mental health provider. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your needs, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Psychotherapy helps you learn how to take control of your life and respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills. There are many types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach. The type of psychotherapy that's right for you depends on your individual situation.
Why it's done
Psychotherapy can be helpful in treating most mental health problems, including:
Anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder
Attention issues, such as ADHD
Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or dependent personality disorder
Developmental Disorders (Autism Spectrum Disorder)
Not everyone who benefits from psychotherapy is diagnosed with a mental illness. Psychotherapy can help with a number of life's stresses and conflicts that can affect anyone. For example, it may help you:
Resolve conflicts with your partner or someone else in your life
Relieve anxiety or stress due to work or other situations
Cope with major life changes, such as divorce, the death of a loved one or the loss of a job
Learn to manage unhealthy reactions, such as road rage or passive-aggressive behavior
Come to terms with an ongoing or serious physical health problem, such as diabetes, cancer or long-term (chronic) pain
Recover from physical or sexual abuse or witnessing violence
Cope with sexual problems, whether they're due to a physical or psychological cause
Sleep better, if you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep (insomnia)
Psychotherapy and Medication
Psychotherapy can be used in combination with medication to treat mental health conditions. In some circumstances medication may be clearly useful and in others psychotherapy may be the best option. Healthy lifestyle improvements, such as good nutrition, regular exercise and adequate sleep, can be important in supporting recovery and overall wellness.
Does Psychotherapy Work?
Research shows that most people who receive psychotherapy experience symptom relief and are better able to function in their lives. About 75 percent of people who enter psychotherapy show some benefit from it. Psychotherapy has been shown to improve emotions and behaviors and to be linked with positive changes in the brain and body. The benefits also include fewer sick days, less disability, fewer medical problems, and increased work satisfaction.
With the use of brain imaging techniques researchers have been able to see changes in the brain after a person has undergone psychotherapy. Numerous studies have identified brain changes in people with mental illness (including depression, panic disorder, PTSD and other conditions) as a result of undergoing psychotherapy. In most cases the brain changes resulting from psychotherapy were similar to changes resulting from medication.
To help get the most out of psychotherapy, approach the therapy as a collaborative effort, be open and honest, and follow your agreed upon plan for treatment. Follow through with any assignments between sessions, such as writing in a journal or practicing what you’ve talked about.
Types of Psychotherapy
Mental health professionals use several types of therapy. The choice of therapy type depends on the patient’s particular illness and circumstances and the therapist’s expertise and training. Therapists may combine elements from different approaches to best meet the needs of the person receiving treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people identify and change thinking and behavior patterns that are harmful or ineffective, replacing them with more accurate thoughts and functional behaviors. It can help a person focus on current problems and how to solve them. It often involves practicing new skills in the “real world.” CBT can be helpful in treating a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, trauma related disorders, and eating disorders. For example, CBT can help a person with depression recognize and change negative thought patterns or behaviors that are contributing to the depression.
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a short-term form of treatment. It helps patients understand underlying interpersonal issues that are troublesome, like unresolved grief, changes in social or work roles, conflicts with significant others, and problems relating to others. It can help people learn healthy ways to express emotions and ways to improve communication and how they relate to others. It is most often used to treat depression.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of CBT that helps regulate emotions. It is often used to treat people with chronic suicidal thoughts and people with borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and PTSD. It teaches new skills to help people take personal responsibility to change unhealthy or disruptive behavior. It involves both individual and group therapy.
Psychodynamic therapy is based on the idea that behavior and mental well-being are influenced by childhood experiences and inappropriate repetitive thoughts or feelings that are unconscious (outside of the person’s awareness). A person works with the therapist to improve self-awareness and to change old patterns so he/she can more fully take charge of his/her life.
Psychoanalysis is a more intensive form of psychodynamic therapy. Sessions are typically conducted three or more times a week.
Supportive therapy uses guidance and encouragement to help patients develop their own resources. It helps build self-esteem, reduce anxiety, strengthen coping mechanisms, and improve social and community functioning. Supportive psychotherapy helps patients deal with issues related to their mental health conditions which in turn affect the rest of their lives.
Additional therapies sometimes used in combination with psychotherapy include:
Animal-assisted therapy – working with dogs, horses or other animals to bring comfort, help with communication and help cope with trauma
Creative arts therapy – use of art, dance, drama, music and poetry therapies
Play therapy – to help children identify and talk about their emotions and feelings
Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies
Marriage counseling, also called couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy. Marriage counseling helps couples of all types recognize and resolve conflicts and improve their relationships. Through marriage counseling, you can make thoughtful decisions about rebuilding and strengthening your relationship or going your separate ways. Marriage counseling is often provided by licensed therapists known as marriage and family therapists. These therapists have graduate or postgraduate degrees — and many choose to become credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Marriage counseling is often short term. Marriage counseling typically includes both partners, but sometimes one partner chooses to work with a therapist alone. The specific treatment plan depends on the situation.
Family therapy can help you improve troubled relationships with your partner, children or other family members. You may address specific issues such as marital or financial problems, conflict between parents and children, or the impact of substance abuse or a mental illness on the entire family. Your family may pursue family therapy along with other types of mental health treatment, especially if one of you has a mental illness or addiction that also requires additional therapy or rehabilitation treatment. For example, family therapy can help family members cope if a relative has a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia — but the person who has schizophrenia should continue with his or her individualized treatment plan, which may include medications, one-on-one therapy or other treatment. In the case of addiction, the family can attend family therapy while the person who has an addiction participates in residential treatment. Sometimes the family may participate in family therapy even if the person with an addiction hasn't sought out his or her own treatment. Family therapy can be useful in any family situation that causes stress, grief, anger or conflict. It can help you and your family members understand one another better and learn coping skills to bring you closer together.