What Is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is a form of treatment aimed at relieving emotional distress and mental health problems. Provided by any of a variety of trained professionals—psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or licensed counselors—it involves talking about, examining, and gaining insight into difficulties faced by individuals, couples, or families.

There is a wide array of modalities that therapists employ, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, systems-based therapy, and more. Many therapists use a combination of approaches, all of which have as their goal relief of suffering and achievement of healthy functioning in the present and the future.

Each modality utilizes specific techniques and identifies specific outcomes. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, involves identifying and challenging distortions in thinking and irrational thought patterns that create emotional distress, while psychodynamic therapy aims to identify unconscious processes that influence behavior and contribute to real-world challenges. Some modes of therapy were originally developed to treat specific conditions—dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), for example, for borderline personality disorder—but have since been found helpful for an array of other conditions.

Most therapies in wide use have been well-tested and found effective. As with all trained professionals, individual therapists may add their own flourishes to established treatment protocols. Though therapy can sometimes be difficult to seek out—especially for those of low-income or with inadequate insurance—many who have found a supportive therapist report that the experience has been beneficial for their mental health and overall well-being.

Should You Go to Therapy?

The decision to begin psychotherapy can be a challenging one. Some worry that needing therapy is a sign that they are deeply flawed or "cazy," while others fear the potential embarrassment of revealing their innermost thoughts to a stranger.

In general, the thoughts and worries that plague individuals are surprisingly common, and many who start therapy later find that their initial fears about the process were overblown. Still, since therapy requires a certain amount of commitment, the decision to start therapy shouldn’t be made lightly. It’s important to spend time securing insurance coverage, researching potential therapists, and finding the right match.

How to Find the Right Therapist

There are countless compassionate and effective therapists in the world—but not every single therapist is the best person to help every individual seeking treatment. Though it can be frustrating for patients and professionals alike, finding the right therapist is usually a process of trial and error.

Studies show that the relationship between client and therapist makes a significant contribution to the effectiveness of treatment. That, of course, doesn't mean that therapy is always easy. Patients can expect to have assumptions and thought patterns challenged, and changing dysfunctional behavior takes thought and effort, especially at first.

There are some qualities all patients should seek in a therapist—such as empathy and the ability to maintain strong boundaries. A therapist’s preferred modality may be an important factor as well.

As with every profession, there are some therapists who are not well-equipped to treat anyone. Any patient whose therapist treats them with disrespect or disregards their concerns should find a new one as soon as possible.

Is Therapy Working?

During the first few sessions of therapy, it’s common to wonder whether the process is working. Some patients report feeling worse or more emotionally “raw” than they did before they started treatment. While such feelings are common, if they persist, they may be a sign that therapy isn’t working as well as it could.

At the very least, patients should feel understood by their therapist. They should also expect their therapist to periodically review treatment progress with them.

Patients should feel empowered to discuss with their therapist any concerns that they have about the therapy or therapeutic process. Questions should always be welcomed by a therapist. Honesty is an important component of the therapy process, and it can help the therapist address the client’s challenges or recommend another professional who may be a better fit.

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