Therapeutic approaches

Different Types of Psychotherapy Explained

If you want help managing anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, but don’t know where to begin, you’re not alone. The world of psychotherapy can seem vast and confusing to those new to it. A wide range of therapeutic approaches exists, yet no single type is right for everyone.

To help you get familiar with the different therapeutic approaches, here’s a quick guide to four of the most widely-practiced forms.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented therapy that focuses on the link between our thoughts (cognition) and our actions (behavior). It is intended to help people change thought patterns that cause unhealthy, unproductive, or incapacitating behavior.

Psychotherapists often use this approach with people suffering from anxiety, depression, stress, or phobias. It’s also popular among people seeking to overcome harmful habits and addictions, such as smoking, overeating, or gambling.

During CBT sessions, you work with your therapist to learn how to recognize persistent negative thoughts or beliefs and respond to them more productively. For example, if you have the habit of thinking: “I’m terrible at everything” whenever you make a mistake, CBT is designed to help you notice this thought, identify alternative thoughts (e.g., “Mistakes don’t make me terrible; they make me human”), and choose a more realistic way to view the situation (e.g., “Although I made this mistake, I do many things correctly and now I have learned from this error”). It’s believed that making these positive shifts in your thoughts will lead to a positive change in your behavior.

Note that CBT does have a homework component—follow up occurs during sessions. 

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy emphasizes how certain life events and relationships, both past and present, affect your current feelings, relationships, and choices. Its goal is to help you acknowledge and understand negative feelings and repressed emotions so you can resolve internal psychological conflicts, and improve life experiences, self-esteem, and relationships. This approach is a popular treatment for people who are depressed.

A psychodynamic therapist will encourage you to speak openly about a range of issues to help you to uncover different memories, experiences, or dreams that helped shape your life. In particular, you will explore the reasons why you have taken certain adverse decisions or actions in the past to help you avoid making similar unfavorable choices in the future. You can also use this new understanding of yourself to resolve current problematic situations and enhance relationships.

Psychodynamic therapy may sometimes be an effective short-term therapy, but it often takes a year or longer to obtain enduring benefits.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) treatment is a form of cognitive behavior therapy. Its primary aim is to give people the skills to regulate their emotions, handle stress in a healthy manner, and improve relationships, and live mindfully. Originally developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder, DBT is now used to treat a variety of mental conditions and is believed to be especially helpful for people with seemingly uncontrollable, intense negative emotions or those who may incline toward self-harm.

DBT differs from CBT in that it teaches you that your experiences are real and shows how to accept yourself, even with your unique challenges and life experiences.  The treatment usually consists of both one-on-one sessions with a psychotherapist and therapist-led group sessions where the participants develop and practice skills and behaviors needed for a more manageable daily life. In both situations, DBT patients learn how to label emotions, handle angry feelings and navigate conflict without giving into impulsive tendencies, and develop awareness of their feelings during the present moment.

Like CBT, DBT also has a homework component. DBT is ideally done both in groups and in individually sessions simultaneously. People generally find this mixture quite helpful. 

Humanistic/Experiential Therapy

Unlike behavioral-based therapies, humanistic/experiential therapy focuses on a person’s individual nature rather than the collection of behaviors that make up a specific psychological category. The therapy’s holistic approach emphasizes the whole person, especially their positive behaviors and their ability to grow, heal and find self-actualization through self-exploration. People with depression, anxiety and panic disorders, and low self-esteem often seek this approach.

Humanistic therapy consists of two popular techniques: Gestalt therapy and client-centered therapy. Gestalt therapy helps people to center on “here and now” feelings and experiences rather than their perception of the root causes of those feelings. Your therapist will help you explore feelings and experiences through creative and experiential techniques, such as guided re-enactments, role-playing, exaggerated movement, and other exercises. The goal is to arouse emotions in different situations, allowing the person being treated to become aware of and understand those emotions as they happen.

Client-or person-centered therapy centers on the idea that people are capable of deciding for themselves the psychological areas they want to explore and know best how to go about it. Known as a “non-directive” form of therapy, the therapist does not guide the client toward any particular direction or outcome but creates a supportive environment for clients as they investigate their identity, feelings, experiences or emotions. You can expect your therapist to listen to your point of view with empathy, warmth, respect, and non-judgment, and to encourage your growth and self-realization.