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Definition of Psychotherapy

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

A prominent British medical advisory body has recently published the outcome of an in-depth study concluding that therapy proved far more successful in treating a range of mental health problems than medication. The report has been well received internationally and may represent something of a turning point in the way world health authorities view mental health and behavioral issues.

However, for those involved in or close to the metal health profession, the study does not come as any kind of surprise.  Practitioners have long argued that medication is prescribed far too readily to treat issues and problems that could be successfully dealt with in therapy; this is especially pertinent in the US where some Doctors have even been accused of putting the profit margins of pharma companies above the needs of their patients.

It may therefore be that the time has finally come for therapy. With that in mind, today we are going to take a look at exactly what is meant by psychotherapy, how it works, and its benefits.

What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy (often referred to simply as ‘therapy’) is the general term used to describe the treatment of psychological disorders or mental health issues using a range of psychological techniques. Psychotherapy uses mostly verbal methods to encourage patients to explore and address their problems with a trained psychotherapist.

There are a wide variety of psychotherapy techniques available, and the approach used varies depending on the individual therapist and patient needs. However, almost all approaches involve establishing a therapeutic relationship and creating a dialogue to try to help the patient overcome the problematic thought patterns, feelings or behaviours.

Note that unlike psychiatry, psychotherapy does not involve the prescription of medication.

How Does Psychotherapy Work?

According to the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, therapy works by ‘helping patients to re-examine and re-tell their personal stories’.

Each discipline within therapy works slightly differently; however all of them rely on establishing and refining a successful ‘speaker and listener’ dynamic between the patient(s) and the therapist. In a typical session a psychotherapist will either direct the patient to answer specific questions or to speak freely about a given topic.

The discourse could focus on something very specific to the problems at hand such as “why are you stressed at work?” or it could be more ambiguous – for example, the classic “how do you feel about your Mother?”.

Types of Psychotherapy

There are several different types of therapy and several disciplines, approaches or techniques within it.

“Types” of therapy include individual (one on one) sessions, group therapy, family therapy, teen therapy, couples therapy and marriage counseling.

Some of the more prominent examples of psychotherapy include;

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy goal oriented therapy that helps patients manage symptoms by addressing behavioral patterns. CBT does not always address the underlying causes of behavioural issues.

Behavioral Therapy – although less prominent than it once was, this approach draws upon theories of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning to help patients change the identified problematic behaviors.

Mindfulness Based Therapywidely used to address addiction problems by helping patients learn how to be “present”. This is often used to treat addiction issues.

Psychoanalytic Therapy – perhaps the “classic” stereotypical example of psychotherapy, modern psychoanalysis was in part developed by Sigmund Frued. Its practice entails delving into a patient’s thoughts and past experiences to identify unconscious feelings, thoughts or even buried memories that may influence behaviour.

Humanistic Therapy – Originating in the 1950’s, this approach to therapy is focused on helping patients improve themselves and realise their potential. This approach has heavily influenced the growing (but unregulated) self actualisation and “life coach” industry.

Psychotherapy Techniques

In order to conduct a successful psychotherapy session, a therapist will employ a range of different techniques. These include;

  • Relating: The simple practice of ensuring that a patient feels both heard and understood. Whilst relating does not mean a therapist has to confirm or actively agree with a patient, it does include respecting the patient’s self-esteem and being kind. “Tough love” and “truth bombs” are not techniques a psycotherapist will employ.
  • Exploring: Paying close attention to what a patient says in terms of both the content of their speech and their use of language. However, a good therapist is equally attentive to what is not being said and crucially to body language.
  • Explaining: Whilst a therapist acts primarily as a listener, they do enter the discourse with reflections and ideas. This can include inviting a client to reflect on how cognitive biases might be shaping both a session and the client’s general thinking.

Psychotherapy vs. Counseling

Counselling and psychotherapy are both examples of “talking therapies” and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are in reality quite different. Counselling tends to focus on alleviating more immediate issues whereas psychotherapy seeks to identify and address the underlying causes of mental health or behavioral problems.

Counselling is sometimes viewed as being more pragmatic and can deliver excellent results for “rough period” problems such as work related stress or grief.  Psychotherapy however can help with much deeper and serious problems.

Crucially, it takes nearly twice as long to qualify as a psychotherapist than it does as a counsellor which should give you some indication of the level depth differences between the two.

Benefits of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can be used to treat depression, anxiety or even dissociative disorders. It is also used to help with stress, addiction, trauma or relationship problems. Whilst psychotherapy cannot always “cure” a problem, it can help a patient to live with it better.

This could mean helping a patient learn how to de-escalate a panic attack, improving their general mood, or helping them to find solutions for damaging relationship patterns.

Whilst most of the benefits are thought, mood and feeling based, a lot of patients also report improved general health as a result of successfully undertaking psychotherapy.

Commonly, patients who have undergone psychotherapy report the following improvements in their life;

  • Enhanced communication & interpersonal skills.
  • Healthier thought patterns and an increased awareness of negative thought patterns.
  • Extra insight or understanding about their lives.
  • Improved coping strategies for stress management.
  • The ability to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Final Thoughts on Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy has been successfully used to treat a wide range of clinical conditions and has helped many patients to target problematic behavioural and thought patterns. 

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, struggling to get over a break up or maybe drinking too much, psychotherapy can help.