Psychotherapy Research, Articles & Resources

Lisa A. Koosis
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy encompasses a wide range of mental health interventions in which an individual learns to identify and change negative or ineffective behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. It’s often referred to as talk therapy because it’s a collaborative treatment that involves a dialogue between a mental health practitioner and a patient.

Psychotherapy may be used alongside other treatment options to alleviate symptoms associated with substance abuse or diagnosed mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. In some cases, it may replace the use of medication. However, further treatment may also be helpful for individuals who need help coping with specific issues, such as: (1)

  • Irrational fears
  • Sexual problems
  • Frequent irritability
  • Unhealthy reactions to situations
  • Relationship or interpersonal problems
  • A chronic or life-threatening illness
  • Self-defeating thoughts
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worry, and discouragement
  • Bothersome symptoms that appear to have no underlying physical cause, such as appetite changes or difficulty sleeping
  • Supporting a loved one who’s been diagnosed with a mental health condition

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What Is a Psychotherapist?

Psychotherapists are licensed mental health professionals who work with individuals, couples, families, or groups to help them handle diagnosed mental health issues or cope with life challenges. These trained counselors help patients face traumas, fears, and other emotional problems, so they can have a well-adjusted, fulfilling life. (2)

Psychotherapists hold either a master’s or doctoral degree, which can be an MSW, a CMHC, an MFT, a PhD, a PsyD, an MD, or a DO. (3) They‘re also subject to licensing requirements, which vary by state. Typically, they may only provide treatment in a state in which they’re licensed to practice. (4)

Most psychotherapists fall into one of the following categories: (5)

  • Psychologists: Licensed psychologists typically have a doctorate in psychology or a related field. They’re trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions.
  • Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors. Like psychologists, they can evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. However, they can also prescribe medications and may address issues that involve imbalances in brain chemistry.
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioners: These medical professionals often work under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist. They may evaluate and treat mental health conditions. Depending on the state, they may also prescribe certain medications.
  • Social workers: Clinical social workers are trained to use therapeutic techniques to help individuals cope with mental health issues. They may also provide advocacy and case management services, as needed.

Some psychotherapists may specialize in psychoanalysis, which is a more in-depth type of psychotherapy. Practitioners in any of the above categories may become psychoanalysts. (6)

What Does Psychotherapy Do?

Psychotherapy may help patients who've been diagnosed with a mental health condition, as well as those who need help dealing with the stresses of a specific event or daily life. Through in-depth conversations with their therapists, patients engaging in psychotherapy may learn about aspects of their mental health, such as their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and moods.

In doing so, they can potentially identify problematic thoughts and behaviors and replace them with healthier ones. Consequently, individuals receiving psychotherapy may take away more effective coping skills and ultimately become better equipped to respond to challenging situations. (7)

Psychotherapy may be short-term to help the patient cope with a specific situation. In other cases, the intervention may continue for months, years, or indefinitely. In most cases, the dialogue between a psychotherapist and their patient is confidential. However, therapists may break confidentiality to report situations in which they believe there’s the potential for harm to the patient or another individual. (8)

What Is Psychotherapy Treatment?

The type of psychotherapy a patient receives depends on their diagnosis, personal situation, and individual preferences. Treatment typically involves a conversation between a trained, licensed mental health practitioner and the patient. Therapists may also provide psychotherapy treatment to couples, families, or groups of patients connected by a similar thread.

Although the type of therapy may vary, the treatment process often involves the following components: (9)

  • Information gathering: During the first session, a psychotherapist typically gathers information about the patient, such as their goals and what brought them to therapy. The therapist will likely explain what type of therapy they offer and answer any questions the patient has.
  • Goal setting: With the help of their therapist, individuals typically set their own goals. The therapist then helps uncover healthy ways the patient can accomplish them.
  • Dialogue: Psychotherapy occurs through a conversation between the patient and their therapist. This dialogue may involve questioning negative thoughts, confronting personal issues, and talking about the feelings that arise.
  • Homework: Many therapists assign homework, which often includes actionable steps to take, such as writing a letter to someone or looking for triggers that lead to negative thoughts or behaviors.

What Is the Goal of Psychotherapy?

Often, the primary goal of psychotherapy is to reduce psychological distress experienced by patients. However, patients often set their own treatment goals. These individual objectives can vary widely, depending on a patient’s diagnosis, the severity of their condition, and their personal situation.

Common psychotherapy goals include: (10)

  • Reducing or eliminating the intake of harmful substances, such as alcohol or cigarettes
  • Improving performance at work or school
  • Reducing interpersonal conflicts
  • Losing weight
  • Embarking on a creative pursuit, such as starting a blog
  • Meeting financial goals, such as paying off debt or saving money
  • Finding healthy and appropriate ways to handle anger

Types of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can take several forms, depending on the therapist and the patient's needs. Common types of psychotherapy include: (11)

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Mental health professionals may use CBT for individuals diagnosed with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-based conditions. Therapy typically involves replacing ineffective or harmful thoughts and/or behaviors with healthier ones.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: The theory behind this treatment is that childhood experiences and inappropriate, unconscious thought patterns affect a person’s behaviors and psychological well-being. Therapy focuses on building self-awareness and changing problematic patterns. Psychoanalysis falls under this umbrella.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Mental health professionals often use this short-term therapy to treat depression. IPT helps patients identify and understand troublesome interpersonal issues, such as conflicts with loved ones or unresolved grief. Participants typically learn how to improve communication and express emotion in a healthy way, so they can better relate to others.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): Psychotherapists may use DBT to treat individuals with eating disorders, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and people experiencing recurring suicidal thoughts. Patients learn how to regulate their emotions, so they can change unhealthy or disruptive behaviors.
  • Supportive therapy: During supportive therapy, therapists help patients find and develop unique personal resources. Supportive therapy may be used to help reduce anxiety, improve social functioning, and find healthy coping mechanisms.

Therapists may also use variations or blends of these common therapies. Supplemental therapies, such as play therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and creative arts therapy, may be used alongside these common treatments.

How To Find a Good Psychotherapist

Finding a good psychotherapist is crucial to the success of treatment. To find potential matches, begin by:

  • Searching online
  • Asking friends or family members for recommendations
  • Getting a referral from a family physician or other trusted healthcare professional
  • Contacting a local or state mental health organization
  • Visiting the websites of national advocacy organizations

Consider factors such as affordability, location, insurance coverage, and the availability of telehealth appointments before making a decision. For many individuals, having chemistry with a mental health provider is also an important factor. (12)

Before making an appointment, it may also be helpful to interview potential therapists to see if they're a good fit. Individuals who have health insurance coverage should check with their plan to make sure the therapist they’ve chosen participates with their policy. It’s also important to remember that if a chosen therapist doesn’t work out, other choices are available.