What's Talk Therapy? How It Can Help

Medically reviewed by April Brewer
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Over 41.7 million American adults saw a therapist in 2021, and the number is growing. With talk therapy being one of the most effective and widely used forms of psychotherapy, many options are available to individuals seeking support. Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality disorders can have serious symptoms that may benefit from talk therapy. However, you can also visit a traditional therapist for any reason, and it is not limited to those with a diagnosis.  

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Psychotherapy aims to lessen the effects of symptoms of a mental health condition or challenges experienced by clients through talk therapy sessions where they can freely express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a safe and productive atmosphere. Often, these therapists offer worksheets, homework assignments, activities, and emotional support. With hundreds of therapeutic modalities available to choose from, understanding the benefits of approaches to psychotherapy can help you make an informed decision for your therapist or other licensed mental health professional and your care.

What is the definition of talk therapy?

Therapy is a treatment used to address mental health concerns and self-improvement. Psychotherapy involves what was once called "the talking cure" and is now called talk therapy. Through these talking therapies, psychologists verbally apply scientifically validated procedures and strategies that have been proven effective through peer-reviewed studies to help people develop healthier, more effective habits. It allows psychologists to work collaboratively with clients who experience emotional distress by talking through their mental health conditions. As a client, you may be asked to do homework outside of your sessions, as well—such as following along with a self-help workbook.

There are several different approaches to this kind of talk therapy, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive therapy
  • Humanistic therapy
  • Gestalt therapy
  • Holistic or integrative therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy

Behavioral therapy

Behavioral therapy is one form of talk therapy that focuses on addressing and reducing unwanted or unhelpful behavioral patterns that can contribute to mental health issues. Classical conditioning, also known as associative learning, is often addressed in behavior therapy. Some forms of substance abuse therapy fall under the umbrella of behavioral therapy, as addiction can involve a variety of unhealthy behavior patterns.

Classical conditioning involves training oneself (with the help of a trained professional) to partake in wanted behaviors through cues like a clicker sound. Desensitizing is a form of classical conditioning where a traditional counselor may aid a patient with a specific phobia or fear through repeated and controlled exposure to safe situations that provoke the fear. Operant conditioning is another method of talking counseling that relies on rewards and consequences to curb behaviors. 

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular and effective form of talking therapy for many centered on the core belief that changing your thoughts can change how you feel and act. CBT focuses on identifying unwanted thought patterns, determining the patterns affected by them, and then changing those patterns into positive ones through talking therapy. CBT is often used to treat anxiety and treat depression, among other mental health conditions with potentially severe symptoms.

In a traditional talk therapy session like this, people may feel in control of their reactions, no matter the stimuli. Cognitive therapists believe that dysfunctional thinking leads to dysfunctional emotions or behaviors. By changing this thinking, clients can change their outlook and reduce distress from many challenges and troubling emotions.

The American Psychological Association suggests that completing homework is often an emphasis of receiving CBT therapies. There's strong empirical evidence for the impact of CBT, as it's widely considered the gold standard of today's therapeutic approaches. However, like any type of therapy, CBT is a tool that may not benefit everyone. 

Humanistic therapy

Humanistic therapy is a type of talk therapy emphasizing a client's capacity to make rational decisions and take steps for progress to develop to their maximum potential. Other themes of humanistic therapy are concern for others and a sense of respect for the community. Three types of humanistic counseling include client-centered psychotherapy, Gestalt psychotherapy, and existential psychotherapy.

Integrative or holistic therapy

Holistic or integrative psychotherapy combines many different forms into one, involving an all-encompassing treatment plan. Using different methods and approaches, a counselor can tailor a treatment plan to each client, whether they’re simply feeling anxious or experiencing severe psychological symptoms. This type of therapy can be helpful for those who wish to work on multiple facets of their lives, such as learning coping strategies, developing healthier relationship patterns, and enhancing their interpersonal skills with family members and others.

Psychoanalysis therapies and psychodynamic therapy

Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic approaches attempt to address troublesome behaviors, thoughts, and feelings through the self-discovery of unconscious meanings, past experiences, and motivations. More specifically, psychoanalytic talk therapy treatment plans consist of a tight working relationship between the therapist and the client. This can make a significant difference in the therapy process.

Clients can explore their underlying motivations, thoughts, dreams, and ideas through the therapeutic relationship using these therapies. In an overview, psychotherapy in the form of psychoanalysis was coined by psychologist Sigmund Freud and is considered the birth of talk therapy. 

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What can talk therapy with a licensed mental health professional treat? 

Talk therapy can be used for various mental health conditions, symptoms, states, and challenges, including the following mental health disorders: 

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Stress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 
  • Phobias
  • Bipolar disorder and other mood disorders
  • Relationship challenges and conflict
  • Body image challenges
  • Borderline personality disorder and other personality disorders
  • Social anxiety disorder & physical feelings of other anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Life transition challenges
  • Loss and grief 

Finding a suitable talk therapist can allow you to receive positive feedback as you work to change thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. You may also use counseling to process a past event or receive validation and emotional support. With the correct mental health professional, a treatment plan can be tailored to focus on the mental health services you seek to address any of these mental health conditions or any other common mental health problems in your life. Please consult your primary care physician before starting, changing, or stopping any medication or medical treatment. In addition, please seek immediate help if you are engaging in self-harm. Mental health emergencies may require in-person treatment that involves the help of psychiatric nurses and doctors.

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please know that help is available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, 24/7, at 988.

How the different types of talk therapy work

Talk therapy has proven effective in treating various mental health conditions and life challenges. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) endorses this kind of therapy as a practical and popular approach for many concerns. Below are a few benefits you might find by working with a therapist.  

Long-term therapy talk results on mental health

Many individuals find that the skills learned in psychological therapy can span many years and offer long-term results. When you develop a talk therapy treatment plan with your therapist, you aren't only addressing present behaviors and concerns but also developing behavioral skills that may help you in future situations. You can continue to turn back to the skills learned in therapy anytime during your life. 

What's social guidance in therapy? 

Talk-centered therapy may benefit your social interactions and relationships. As you talk to your therapist, you may understand yourself better and feel you can understand those around you without immediately developing unwanted thoughts or behaviors. By removing the process of attributing unwanted thoughts to those around you, you may inhibit those thoughts from remaining in your mind, creating positive changes in your social life.

The physical improvements

Severe psychological distress can cause symptoms that manifest themselves in a physical form, such as painful or unpleasant sensations. Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD can have physical symptoms like stomach upset, chronic pain, headaches, and more. By starting a plan with your talk therapist, you can find healthy ways to reduce symptoms affecting your sleep and overall well-being.

Therapy techniques to avoid self-remedies 

Therapy may help clients ignore or reduce the urge to seek relief through unhealthy behaviors like substance use or risky spending. The desire to look for alternative methods for release can be replaced with a healthy treatment plan. Therapists teach clients new behaviors to lean on when experiencing difficult memories, feelings, or thoughts. Some holistic treatments therapists may use in the treatment process are breathing exercises, exposure therapy, meditation, and mindfulness. Mindfulness and deep breathing have been found effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. 

Where do I find a therapist or other mental health professional?

Talk therapists and professionals that hold sessions in a group setting can be found both in-person and online. When researching which mode of therapy works best for you or your family member, keep your symptoms and goals in mind, knowing that you have counseling options available virtually if you face barriers in person. If you're unsure which type of therapy you want to try, consider scheduling your first session with a therapist or finding someone who offers integrative therapy. Below are a few methods of finding a talk therapist. 

Talk with friends and family

Asking those close to you may be a first step when looking for the best therapist for you. Many people see a therapist, and reducing mental health stigma by openly discussing it can be beneficial. You may find that those you love have practical recommendations for therapy in your area. 

Do an online search

Starting a communicative relationship with potential therapists can allow you to get comfortable with potential candidates while discovering their approach to treatment. How a therapist speaks over the phone may indicate how they offer support. You can also check their reviews online through psychologist directories or their Google business page. 

Ask your primary care doctor

Many individuals have a primary care physician that they go to for medical care and check-ups. These providers may also be able to offer a referral to a mental health professional in your area that is covered by your health insurance.

Try internet counseling for a mental health condition or challenge

Many studies have confirmed the efficacy of online therapy for treating various mental health conditions. Both younger and older adults reported improvements in their depression symptoms, for example, when they took part in an online therapy intervention.

Online therapy platforms can open up the world to individuals looking to try therapy services or other psychological therapies to address mental health problems. No matter the unhelpful patterns, difficult life events, or other mental health problems, you can find someone who specializes in your area of concern. Online therapy can also help with a language divide. An individual who is seeking talking treatment in the UK and wants someone who is fluent in British sign language can reach out to their local NHS and with video consultation can find a therapist to speak to, no matter where they live. 

Online therapy (which includes talk services) can offer affordability and flexibility for many clients. It is best to avoid sites that offer free counseling, but you can find trusted online platforms that offer sliding scale payments and lower prices than in-person therapy. You can also quickly change your therapist if you don't find your first option suitable. Through a platform like BetterHelp, you can vastly network of over 30,000 licensed mental health professionals and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, along with unlimited messaging. 

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Takeaway

Although the positive effects of talk therapy can be long-lasting, completing the suggested number of sessions your therapist thinks may be beneficial could be integral to lasting recovery through this type of treatment. Without willingness, dedication, and a goal, symptoms may persist. However, therapists are available to guide you, and you're not alone in making a change. Your therapist can support you in each step you take for as long as you need. Consider contacting a talk therapist if you'd like to gain further insight into the process and get started.

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