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Psychotherapy is a set of techniques intended to improve mental health, emotional or behavioral issues in individuals, who are often called "clients". These issues often make it hard for people to manage their lives and achieve their goals. Psychotherapy is aimed at these problems, and solves them via a number of different approaches and techniques; commonly psychotherapy involves a therapist and client(s), who discuss their issues in an effort to discover what they are and how they can manage them. Because sensitive topics are often discussed during psychotherapy, therapists are expected, and usually legally bound, to respect patient privacy and client confidentiality.

General description


Given that psychotherapy is a kind of treatment restricted mostly to verbal exchanges, practitioners do not have to be medically qualified. In most countries, however, psychotherapists must be trained, certified and licensed with a range of different licensing schemes and qualification requirements in place around the world. Psychotherapists may be psychologists, social workers, trained nurses, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, or professionals of other mental health disciplines. Psychiatrists' training focuses on the prescription of medicines, with some training in psychotherapy. Psychologists have special training in mental health assessment and research in addition to psychotherapy. Social workers have special training in mental health assessment and treatment as well as linking patients to community and institutional resources.

Recent trends in drug development to treat chemical imbalances have led to a more wide spread use of pharmaceuticals in conjunction with psychotherapy by medically qualified mental health nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, and in some states prescribing psychologists . While having benefits for patients with ailments such as bipolar disorder, impulse problems, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, drugs of late have begun to be used as a 'quick fix' and are gaining less favor in the therapeutic community.

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There are at least five main systems of psychotherapy:

  • psychodynamic,
  • cognitive
  • humanistic/supportive
  • behaviorism
  • Brief counseling


For a comprehensive view of the different kinds of psychotherapies, see the List of psychotherapies. For a view of the development of psychotherapy see the Timeline of Psychotherapy history Most psychotherapies are either direct descendants of psychoanalysis, or their founders started out in areas of psychoanalysis before developing their own theories. Therefore, when describing the history of psychotherapy, most traditionally start with Freud.


Although there are some bodies of thought in psychology without Sigmund Freud in their legacy, most can be traced back to his work starting in the 1880s in Vienna. Trained as a neurologist, Freud began noticing neurological problems in patients that had no biological basis. Seeing blindness, paralysis and anorexia with no apparent physical cause, he looked towards the mind for answers. Finding some evidence that those who were mentally ill could exhibit physical symptoms, he discovered colleagues and teachers who were equally perplexed and interested in such matters like Josef Breuer and Jean-Martin Charcot.

Freud opened up a private practice in 1886 until 1896 that mostly treated women who showed symptoms of hysteria (which, at that time, was very loosely defined). Using such techniques as dream interpretation, free association, transference and analysis of the id, ego and superego, his colleagues developed a system of psychotherapy termed 'psychoanalysis'. Students and colleagues of his such as Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and Carl Jung became psychoanalysts themselves, and formed their own differentiating systems of psychotherapy. These were all later termed under a more broad label of 'psychodynamic', meaning anything that involved the psyche's conscious/unconscious influence on external relationships and the self. Psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are considered to be particularly effective at treating certain mental disorders, such as personality disorders and mood disorders.

Current psychodynamic approaches continue to develop and change. Contemporary Freudian approaches usually retain Freud's emphasis on sexuality, aggression, and mental conflict, and often prefer insight-oriented, uncovering psychotherapy to more supportive techniques. Contemporary Freudians, for the most part, continue to believe that psychotherapy is most effective when it leads to increased self-knowledge on the part of the patient. Other current psychodynamic approaches -such as object-relational and self-psychological approaches- prefer techniques designed to change the patient's habitual patterns of living by building an especially authentic or supportive relationship with the analyst that is believed to help the patient learn new ways of relating to others and to life in general.

The psychoanalytic community has recently begun to put extensive effort into researching the efficacy and process of psychoanalytic treatment.


As psychoanalysis and its influence spread throughout the world in the early 1900s, other ideas were brewing. Aaron T. Beck, following schooling at Brown University and Yale Medical School developed his own form of psychotherapy known as cognitive therapy in the 1940s. Similarly Albert Ellis, a student at Columbia University developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). The spectrum that soon became cognitive therapy involves some common features. These included short, structured and present focused therapy aimed at changing a person's distorted thinking. Being oriented towards symptom-relief, collaborative empiricism and modifying peoples core beliefs, this is often the preferred method of treatment for depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and phobias. This method of treatment is known for having been more extensively researched than most other types of psychotherapy.


Another body of thought in psychotherapy started in the 1950s with Carl Rogers. Rogers, who went Columbia University just like Albert Ellis, actually made off with a PhD much earlier than he while simultaneously becoming interested in existentialism, the works of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs. By the early 1930s he had finished his doctoral work and had brought Person centered psychotherapy into mainstream focus. Rogers' basic tenets were unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and empathic understanding, with each demonstrated by the counselor. According to Rogers, these tenets were both necessary and sufficient to create a relationship conducive to enhancing the client's psychological well being, by enabling the client to fully experience themselves. Inspired by Rogers, others followed his mode of thinking like Fritz and Laura Perls in the creation of Gestalt therapy. Later these fields of psychotherapy would become what is known as humanistic psychotherapy today.


The rudiments of behavioral counseling begin in the 1920's, however it's comprehensive form did not emerge until the 1950's and 1960's. The primary contributors were Joseph Wolpe in South Africa, M.B. Shipiro and Hans Eyseneck in Britain, and B.F. Skinner in the United States.

Behavioral counseling approaches rely on principles of operant conditioning, classical conditioning and social learning theory. Behaviorism is often based on the philosophy of behaviorism. According to behaviorism, counseling should only focus on behaviors that are observable and measurable, rather than cognitions. Note that B. F. Skinner was awarded Humanist of the Year Award in 1972 by the American Humanist Association, indicating that behavioral counseling is considered compatible with humanistic philosophy as well (Epstein, 1997).

The behavioral counselor may use operant conditioning techniques contingency contracts, self-management, shaping, behavioral momentum, token economies, response cost, and biofeedback. For social learning theory techniques, counselors may use modeling, behavior practice groups, and role playing. Often classical conditioning techniques are the treatment of choice for phobias and fetishes, and include techniques of systematic desensitization, flooding, counterconditioning, and aversive conditioning. Sometimes hypnosis is used to achieve relaxation as well.

Additionally, behavioral counseling has been effective in treating eating disorders. Behavioral counseling is the most scientifically validated approach because of its emphasis measurable and observable results. Increasingly, counselors and researchers are incorporating behavior modification techniques with other approaches (eclectic or multimodal approaches), and develop behavioral definitions to measure psychological constructs such as depression, anxiety or anger (Thompson, Rudolph, & Henderson, 2004).

Brief counseling

Brief Counseling can make use of any of the above psychotherapeutic approaches, but it also may involve specific techniques that have been shown to provide rapid relief for large numbers of people. Among these approaches are Narrative Therapy and Solution-focused Therapy. These practices help clients to identify those occasions when their stated problem(s) are less dominant in their lives.

Typically brief counseling can take from one to five sessions. Employee Assistance Programs are geared to provide brief assessments and interventions that often fulfill the clients' needs in just a few sessions. It is also not unusual for a community mental health center to offer Brief Counseling to all new clients in order to encourage greater self-reliance and to discourage dependence on a therapist. In such a context, self-help groups also play a role in aiding ongoing improvements in functioning.

Well-known writers/practitioners of brief counseling techniques are Bill O'Hanlon, Insoo Kim Berg, Michael White, and Steven DeShazer.

Schools and approaches

Psychoanalysis was the earliest form of psychotherapy, but many other theories and techniques are also now used by psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, personal growth facilitators and social workers. Techniques for group therapy have been developed.

While behaviour is often a target of the work, many approaches value working with feelings and thoughts. This is especially true of the psychodynamic schools of psychotherapy, which today include Jungian therapy and Psychodrama as well as the psychoanalytic schools. Other approaches focus on the link between the mind and body and try to access deeper levels of the psyche through manipulation of the physical body. Examples are Rolfing, Pulsing and postural integration.

A distinction can also be made between those psychotherapies that employ a medical model and those that employ a humanistic model. In the medical model the client is seen as unwell and the therapist employs their skill to help them back to health. In the humanistic model the therapist facilitates learning in the individual and the clients own natural process draws them to a fuller understanding of themselves. An example would be gestalt therapy.

Some psychodynamic practitioners distinguish between more uncovering and more supportive psychotherapy. Uncovering psychotherapy emphasizes facilitating clients' insight into the roots of their difficulties. The best-known example of an uncovering psychotherapy is classical psychoanalysis. Supportive psychotherapy, by contrast, stresses strengthening clients' defenses and often providing encouragement and advice. Depending on the client's personality, a more supportive or more uncovering approach may be optimal.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is particularly common where the mode of psychotherapy is dictated by the demands of insurance companies who wish to see a financially limited commitment.

A computer program called ELIZA has been built to perform an automated and extremely simplified version of Rogerian psychotherapy.

There is considerable controversy over which form of psychotherapy is most effective, and more specifically, which types of therapy are optimal for treating which sorts of problems. Psychotherapy outcome research -in which the effectiveness of psychotherapy is measured by questionnaires given to patients before, during, and after treatment- has had difficulty distinguishing between the different types of therapy. Many psychotherapists believe that the nuances of psychotherapy cannot be captured by this type of research, and prefer to rely on their own clinical experiences and conceptual arguments to support the type of treatment they practice.

Research has clearly shown, however, that the quality of the relationship between therapist and patient is a crucial predictor of psychotherapy outcome. In light of this finding, some have argued that the type of psychotherapy by which a patient is treated is much less important than the patient's rapport with the therapist. Accordingly, most contemporary schools of psychotherapy focus on the healing power of the therapeutic relationship.

Important publications in psychoanalysis & psychotherapy

There is much to suggest that the passage of time alone contributes significantly to psycho-social healing. After a difficult, triggering personal event, the context of the friendly support of friends, peers, and family members; clergical contacts; and personal reading, research, and independent coping are all likely contributors to improvement. Contemporary use of simple questionnaires to report on personal function and feeling cannot be easily isolated from a variety of other valuable, more accessible, and less expensive tools that have been in place long before psychotherapy or psycho-active pharmaceuticals.


Psychodynamic schools Anthony Bateman, Dennis Brown, Jonathan Pedder Introduction to Psychotherapy: An Outline of Psychodynamic Principles and Practice; Routledge; ISBN 0415205697; June 2000

Bateman, A. & Holmes J. Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory and Practice; Routledge; ISBN 0415107393; 1995

Humanistic schools John Rowan; Ordinary Ecstasy: Brunner-Routledge; ISBN 0415236320; March 2001

General Thomson, C.L, Rudolph L.B., & Henderson, D. (2004). Counseling children. (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Thompson.

Behavioral Epstein, R. (1997) Skinner as self-manager. Journal of applied behavior analysis. 30, 545-569. Retrieved from the world wide web on June 2, 2005 from

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Psychotherapy".

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