Basic Psychology Words To Learn

Updated January 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Like other medical fields, psychology can have certain terms that repeat based on context. For non-specialists, specific terminology may feel confusing. However, many terms used in psychology are also used in everyday life. Knowing the following terms may help you communicate thoughts and feelings or find support from a psychologist. 

Empower Yourself By Learning How To Discuss Mental Health

Mental Health

"Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices." –U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mental health is a term that may describe one's overall psychological well-being. Everyone's mental health can be different. Try not to compare your experience to someone else's to gauge your mental health. Often, talking to a psychologist or learning about healthy behaviors can help you understand how mentally healthy you are. 

Several factors might impact an individual's mental health status, including life experiences, physiology, genetics, and more. It could signify a mental health condition or stress if you struggle to cope positively with your emotions or experiences for an extended time.

Caring for mental health can be similar to caring for physical health. At times, certain activities, like exercise, may benefit both. Some hereditary factors can determine mental health. For example, some mental health conditions may have a genetic component, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. 

Mental health can also be affected by lifestyle factors. Engaging in healthy behaviors like stress reduction techniques, setting healthy boundaries, and seeking therapy can be beneficial. Avoiding unhealthy behaviors like using substances, yelling at others, or withdrawing might also benefit your mental health. 

Like physical health, your mental health may fluctuate. At times, mental health challenges are situational. For example, feeling stressed by an exam or going through a breakup may not last forever. Other times, mental health challenges can be lasting, and you may need professional guidance or treatment. 

Common mental health conditions include: 

  • Depression 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) 

  • Bipolar Disorder

  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) 

Often, conditions are treated using psychotherapy with the support of a licensed psychologist or medication with the guidance of a medical doctor or psychiatrist. 

Psychologists And Psychiatrists

"Psychologists examine the relationships between brain function and behavior, and the environment and behavior, applying what they learn to illuminate our understanding and improve the world around us." –The American Psychological Association.

"Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders." –The American Psychiatric Association.


Psychologists and psychiatrists are professionals within the mental health field. While there is some overlap in their duties, there are several differences. Psychologists are doctorate-level professionals who focus on behavior and perceptions related to mental health. 

Some psychologists may spend their careers focused on research advancement in a particular specialty area of psychology. Other psychologists might concentrate on psychotherapy and help clients with emotional and mental challenges. People who meet with psychologists for mental health may learn more about their emotions and how they can improve their mental health.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who attend medical school, have a medical residency, and can prescribe medications and perform diagnostic testing. Psychiatrists are trained in medicine and may incorporate the biological processes that impact mental health in their work. People who meet with psychiatrists for mental health may learn about their emotions and behavior and receive treatment like medication. Some psychiatrists do not offer psychotherapy. 

Mental health can be comprised of a combination of mental and behavioral factors. People may choose to meet with a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or both to manage their mental health.


"Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health." – U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Stress can be a popular topic in mental health and encompasses mental, emotional, and biological responses to life events. Some life stressors might be more common responses to life events. However, prolonged or heightened stress can contribute to mental health problems, and learning to manage and cope with stress may be beneficial. 

Prolonged stress, or stress that arises without an apparent cause, could signify anxiety. A traumatic event can cause a stress-related condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the past, many thought that only combat veterans could develop PTSD. While veterans can develop PTSD, researchers now know that anyone can experience PTSD after traumatic events like violent crime, natural disasters, poverty, and abuse.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Anxiety And Depression

"It's a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety. But you may experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming. If it's an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling." – Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

"Losing a loved one, getting fired from a job, going through a divorce, and other difficult situations can lead a person to feel sad, lonely, and scared. These feelings are normal reactions to life's stressors. Most people feel low and sad at times. However, in the case of individuals who are diagnosed with depression as a psychiatric disorder, the manifestations of the low mood are much more severe, and they tend to persist." – ADAA.

Anxiety and depression are often commonly mentioned in mental health, and many people may experience them throughout their lives. While feeling sad or fearful can be normal and healthy, experiencing these emotions for prolonged periods, with extreme intensity, or without an apparent reason can signify a mental health condition. To be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, an individual may meet clinical criteria evaluated by a mental health professional.

While you don't need to have anxiety or depression to talk with a psychologist or psychiatrist about your mental health, you may need a diagnosis for your health insurance to cover your visits. You may also need an official diagnosis to get prescriptions to manage your condition.

If you're worried about feelings of anxiety or depression persisting for several weeks, tell your primary care provider. They may refer you to a provider who accepts your insurance or can offer care specific to your symptoms. 


"…taking the time and effort to get an accurate diagnosis will help determine the appropriate treatment. The more information you have, the more you will be prepared to work with your mental health professional in understanding what your symptoms may represent." –Mayo Clinic.

Receiving a diagnosis can feel scary, comforting, confusing, or cause mixed emotions. How you feel about a diagnosis can be a personal experience and may vary based on the individual. A diagnosis is often a formal way of identifying one's needs and providing a foundation for treatment. 

Depending on the condition, psychologists and psychiatrists might approach diagnosis through lab tests or in-depth assessments. You can find the criteria for diagnosing many mental health conditions in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Empower Yourself By Learning How To Discuss Mental Health


The term therapy, in psychology, often refers to treatment overseen by a mental health professional to manage a range of topics from relationships to stress or mental health conditions to mental health symptoms. Someone does not necessarily need to have a diagnosis to attend therapy. However, some providers may require it for insurance purposes. 

Many people are familiar with the terms psychotherapy and talk therapy. The psychotherapeutic intervention may involve meeting with a psychologist to talk through your thoughts and feelings to learn how to approach complex thoughts, feelings, or situations, in healthier and more productive ways.

Therapy exists in several modalities. You can often find therapists for individuals, couples, families, or groups. In addition, therapy can encompass alternative modalities, such as: 

  • Equine therapy (horse therapy)

  • Pet-assisted therapy 

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Reiki or energy healing

  • Spiritual or religious therapy

  • Play therapy

  • Music or art therapy

The term "therapy" might also be used to refer to treatment with medications or support from a psychiatrist. 

How To Find Therapy 

One potential benefit of becoming familiar with psychology terminology is that it may help one assess their mental health and potentially navigate treatment options. If you believe you are struggling with mental health, reaching out to a mental health professional may be valuable.

If a chaotic schedule or concerns about finances make it difficult for you to seek mental health help in your community, consider exploring how you can meet with a licensed counselor remotely and safely through online counseling on a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples. 

With online therapy, you may speak with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home. You can also message your therapist at any time, which may be helpful if you're navigating symptoms of a mental health condition throughout the day. One study explored how online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) affected symptoms of depression and anxiety. Researchers found that participants experienced significant reductions in symptoms over time, leading them to conclude that online therapy can lead to sustainable improvements, similar to traditional in-person counseling. 


Utilizing the proper terminology in psychology can help you become familiar with topics you might encounter when talking to a psychologist or discussing mental health with a family or friend. If you're interested in trying mental health counseling to learn more about the world of psychology, consider reaching out to a therapist to get started.

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