Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Most psychotherapy takes place with a licensed and trained mental health care professional and a patient meeting one on one or with other patients in a group setting.

Someone might seek out psychotherapy for different reasons:

  • You might be dealing with severe or long-term stress from a job or family situation, the loss of a loved one, or relationship or other family issues. Or you may have symptoms with no physical explanation: changes in sleep or appetite, low energy, a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that you once enjoyed, persistent irritability, or a sense of discouragement or hopelessness that won’t go away.
  • A health professional may suspect or have diagnosed a condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress or other disorder and recommended psychotherapy as a first treatment or to go along with medication.
  • You may be seeking treatment for a family member or child who has been diagnosed with a condition affecting mental health and for whom a health professional has recommended treatment.

An exam by your primary care practitioner can ensure there is nothing in your overall health that would explain your or a loved one’s symptoms.

Psychotherapy and Other Treatments

Psychotherapy can be an alternative to medication or can be used along with other treatment options, such as medications. Choosing the right treatment plan should be based on a person's individual needs and medical situation and under a mental health professional’s care.

Even when medications relieve symptoms, psychotherapy and other interventions can help a person address specific issues. These might include self-defeating ways of thinking, fears, problems with interactions with other people, or dealing with situations at home and at school or with employment.

What are the different types of psychotherapy?

Many kinds of psychotherapy exist. There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. In addition, some therapies have been scientifically tested more than others. Some people may have a treatment plan that includes only one type of psychotherapy. Others receive treatment that includes elements of several different types. The kind of psychotherapy a person receives depends on his or her needs.

Some forms of psychotherapy include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Family-Focused Therapy (FFT)
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)
  • Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents

Elements of Psychotherapy

A variety of different kinds of psychotherapies and interventions have been shown to be effective for specific disorders. Psychotherapists may use one primary approach, or incorporate different elements depending on their training, the condition being treated, and the needs of the person receiving treatment.

Here are examples of the elements that psychotherapies can include:

  • Helping a person become aware of ways of thinking that may be automatic but are inaccurate and harmful. (An example might be someone who has a low opinion of his or her own abilities.) The therapist helps the person find ways to question these thoughts, understand how they affect emotions and behavior, and try ways to change self-defeating patterns. This approach is central to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Identifying ways to cope with stress.
  • Examining in depth a person’s interactions with others and offering guidance with social and communication skills, if needed.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness techniques.
  • Exposure therapy for people with anxiety disorders. In exposure therapy, a person spends brief periods, in a supportive environment, learning to tolerate the distress certain items, ideas, or imagined scenes cause. Over time the fear associated with these things dissipates.
  • Tracking emotions and activities and the impact of each on the other.
  • Safety planning can include helping a person recognize warning signs, and thinking about coping strategies, such as contacting friends, family, or emergency personnel.
  • Supportive counseling to help a person explore troubling issues and provide emotional support.

Reference: National Institute of Mental Health

Last updated May 2017

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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