What Is Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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It can be challenging to define therapy. The word therapy is often used in a variety of settings, from medical treatments to speech therapy and physical therapy. However, in the context of mental health, the definition of therapy typically refers to psychotherapy, or talk therapy, rather than other forms of support like speech therapy.

Psychotherapy involves meeting with a professional to discuss and improve your mental health through various professional strategies. What is a psychotherapist? Therapists may be trained to practice many different types of therapy. The therapist meaning is a licensed mental health professional that helps clients cope with their emotions, behavior, and thinking. During therapy sessions, they can guide clients toward insight and advice about changing thought processes and behaviors to improve mental health and reduce unwanted symptoms. As part of the BetterHelp therapeutic process, anyone can attend therapy sessions, whether or not they have a mental health condition.

When some people think of psychotherapy, they may envision a client lying on a couch and venting about their problems while a therapist takes notes, only looking up to ask questions like, "And how does that make you feel?" However, there are many types of therapy, and the process can look unique based on the therapist and client's needs and preferences. In this article, we’ll dive into the definition of therapy.

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Who needs therapy?

Just as those with a physical illness or disease seek medical treatment, those living with mental disorders often seek treatment through talk therapy and other types of therapies. However, therapy can also be beneficial for those who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for any psychiatric disorder. For example, many find it helpful to discuss their feelings, goals, and habits in a safe and understanding environment. Additionally, certain types of counseling, such as relationship therapy, couples therapy, or family therapy, can be helpful for those navigating interpersonal conflict. Even light therapy can be an effective form of treatment for certain mental health disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder.

Some individuals may be reluctant to seek therapy because of the stigma surrounding mental health. Though one in every six people in the United States saw a therapist for the first time in 2020, it is estimated that 47% of American citizens still see therapy as a sign of weakness, which can be an inaccurate and harmful stigma.

50% of Americans are diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point, and therapy can be a valuable resource that effectively reduces symptoms, teaches people about healthy coping mechanisms, and promotes overall emotional health.

Rather than being a sign of weakness, seeking help can be a sign of courage, self-awareness, and strength. It can empower you to gain insight and learn new skills that improve your mental health and life in general.

Types of therapy

Below are a few of the most common forms of therapy. When looking for a provider, ask which type of therapy they are trained in, as some therapists may not have training in every modality. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular form of therapy that works to identify negative thoughts and feelings and replace them with healthier ones. CBT is typically used as a short-term therapy to help clients reach a place where they can catch and reframe negative thoughts and behaviors on their own, without the aid of a therapist. It's one of the most common types of talk therapy and is generally considered the gold standard of psychotherapy

CBT can be helpful for the treatment of mental health disorders like anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more. Please note that CBT generally differs from cognitive therapy.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of talk therapy that can be helpful for people experiencing intense emotions. It is a subtype of CBT that focuses on self-acceptance, safety, and reducing the likelihood of self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. 

DBT is often effective for people with borderline personality disorder and suicidal thoughts. However, studies also show its effectiveness for substance use disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Through DBT, clients may learn mindfulness skills, improve relationships, and learn to tolerate extreme emotional distress. 

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Emotion-focused therapy (EFT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy may not be a good therapy for everyone, and some prefer other therapeutic approaches. Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is a type of therapy focused on emotions, and it may be particularly effective in addressing eating disorderstrauma, childhood abuse, and depression. In the case of generalized anxiety disorder, EFT may be more effective than CBT for some people. 

Practitioners of EFT propose that emotions drive behavior. They may believe targeting and adapting emotions to achieve long-term therapeutic change is the most effective. EFT therapists often provide a safe space for clients to express emotions and evaluate their values fully. They might provide validation and support along with behavioral suggestions.   

Play therapy

Play therapy is an evidence-based therapy often used with children to find meaning through play. Individuals who experience trauma or adverse childhood experiences may also find play therapy helpful.  

During sessions, the therapist might use prompts like music, art, dance, and storytelling to allow a child to express themselves. Play therapy may be a good option for people of any age who are non-verbal or have trouble expressing themselves verbally. 

Group therapy

Group therapy is a type of talk therapy where several clients meet with a therapist to discuss concerns or challenges. Group therapy enables clients to learn from each other and support others with similar challenges. At first, group therapy may sound intimidating, but many people find it helpful to attend sessions even if they decide not to tell during the session.   

Family therapy

Family therapy is a type of solution-focused talk therapy that brings together families to discuss issues of familial concern. A family therapist can help families navigate difficult situations or heal from trauma. Family therapy often focuses on helping clients develop communication skills, improve interpersonal relationships, and resolve conflict.

Mindfulness-based CBT 

Mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy can be helpful for people who experience recurring bouts of depression, anxiety, or unhappiness. Therapists can help clients learn to practice mindfulness meditation and use CBT techniques to address challenging thoughts and emotions. 

Types of therapists

While there are many different types of therapy, there are also many different types of providers that offer counseling, including the following: 

Counselors 

Counselors are professionals trained to provide support in school, hospital, university, and military settings. They may also work in compartmentalized practices. Counselors are typically licensed therapists, though they may not be able to provide the same support as psychologists or psychiatrists.

Social workers 

Licensed social workers complete graduate training in social work to receive their MSW (Master of Social Work) or LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) degree. They often work with individuals to help find solutions for a wide array of challenges with psychotherapy, and they may be able to connect individuals with local resources.

Psychologists

Psychologists are professionals who have attended graduate school and received their Ph.D., PsyD, or EdD in psychology. They may work as therapists, professors, or researchers in psychology. 

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are doctors who have gone to medical school and thus can provide some forms of medical treatment. Because of their medical training, this type of therapist can prescribe medicine, and they often work with patients to provide a combination of talk therapy and pharmaceutical treatment. Some psychiatrists do not offer therapy, and some offer diagnostic testing along with medication management. 

If a counselor, social worker, or psychologist suspects a client may benefit from psychiatric drugs, they may refer their patient to a psychiatrist. Prescription drug therapies often require close oversight by a psychiatrist, so it’s not uncommon for a patient to see a licensed therapist as well as a psychiatrist.

Finding a suitable option 

When determining what type of therapy you hope to try and what kind of professional you want to meet with, you might also consider attending in-person or online counseling. 

In-person therapy may be a beneficial option if you do not have a stable internet connection or have insurance that covers in-person therapy and prefer connecting with a therapist in person. Online therapy may be preferable if:

  • You do not wish to commute to sessions 

  • You have a stable internet connection

  • You feel more comfortable attending therapy from home 

  • In-person therapists near you do not have availability, or there are not many options available to you 

  • Online therapy is more affordable for you 

Research supports that in-person and online therapy are comparable in their effectiveness. However, a 2020 review of 17 studies found that online cognitive behavioral therapy may be more effective at addressing depression. 

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Takeaway

The most effective type of therapy for you may depend on your mental health challenges, personal preferences, and life history. You can try different types of therapy to find the one that works for you. Online CBT may be more effective than in-person CBT at addressing depression, and it may be a more appealing option for you if you find it challenging to speak openly about your feelings. If you're interested in trying online therapy, consider a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers phone, video, and live chat sessions with a licensed therapist, and you can sign up within a few minutes and be matched with a therapist in around 24 to 48 hours. 

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