Gestalt Therapy

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Gestalt therapy is a therapeutic technique that often focuses on the individual in the present moment and may aid in various mental health concerns. The gestalt therapy process typically incorporates a person-centered form of guidance and other therapeutic techniques such as dream work and creative expression. By engaging in self-reflection and other experiential exercises, the person can accept responsibility for their current circumstances and move forward in an empowered way. When we move beyond the past, we may be able to find peace in the present and enrich our interactions in the world around us.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Focus on the present and become more self-aware

What is Gestalt therapy?

Gestalt therapy and its theoretical orientation center around the present moment. Participants of this therapy may learn to tune into their own self, release the past, and engage with each moment as it comes. Instead of focusing on past experiences or the future, this therapy may focus on the here and now. 

Gestalt therapy is often a client-centered approach, focusing on self-awareness and eliminating negative thought patterns and negative emotions. 

Approaches in psychology, such as psychoanalysis and other disciplines rooted in Freudianism, may focus on how our past impacts our present state. People working with therapists who practice these methods may spend a lot of time discussing and analyzing things that happened in the past.  

However, when working with a Gestalt therapist, the goal may be to reflect on the person's present life to increase personal awareness and personal growth. 

A brief history of this therapy

Gestalt therapy was developed by Laura Perls, Paul Goodman, and Fritz Perls as a part of the behavioral sciences in the 1940s. In the 1950s, the team released a book outlining this wellness approach. 

Gestalt therapy and Gestalt psychology were the results of research into various systems, including Eastern religions, the physics of the world, and systems theory. As a result, aspects of present Gestalt therapy may be unique. 

Since its inception, the Gestalt approach has become increasingly popular, spreading among multiple demographics across the globe. Now, it's an effective form of therapy with Gestalt institutes situated in many major cities.

The word "gestalt" is a German word that means "shape/form" or "whole." In other words, the gestalt approach focuses on the entirety of a person. The founders believed we must look at humans as a whole, not as segmented parts, and that experience influences perception. 

Gestalt therapy emphasizes how the whole person feels at any given moment so that they can relieve internal issues unresolved tension, and unfinished business. It may teach therapists and patients the phenomenological method of awareness and argue that the paradoxical theory of change applies to society as a whole rather than the individuals within it.

According to Perls, Goodman, and Perls, emotions can only be resolved if they are discussed in the present. The release of emotions, internally and externally, is one way that participants might heal with this type of therapy. 

Instead of focusing on achievement and meeting expectations, we may learn to understand ourselves and our desires. This understanding can build confidence and alleviate stress, which may lead to improved mental health and a better understanding of our emotional and physical selves. 

Mental health conditions that may benefit from Gestalt therapy

This therapy may benefit individuals with a variety of mental health challenges. Connecting with a therapist to discuss Gestalt techniques may help you explore whether this method of therapeutic care would be effective for you. Gestalt therapy is another form of existential therapy (based on existential theory); both focus on self-awareness. The approach is not for everyone, but it can be an effective option for working on self-awareness.

The therapeutic relationship between the Gestalt therapist and the client can help patients find their sense of self and deal with various mental health conditions. Below are some mental health challenges, examples, and situations that may benefit from Gestalt therapy.

Anxiety and depression

Gestalt therapy may be a beneficial approach for conquering anxiety and depression. When historical issues are acknowledged and released, peace and healing may be found in the present. According to a 2019 study, Gestalt therapy can be a "useful treatment" for anxiety disorders and indicated "turning points during therapy."

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also see significant benefits from Gestalt therapy. The American Psychological Association states that this therapy can help us focus on the "here and now" and how we "make contact with the world." 

PTSD may cause you to focus on the past and cause you to experience flashbacks, potentially leading to panic attacks or other distressing symptoms. In this case, a Gestalt therapist may help you ground yourself in the here and now or work on mindfulness practices to manage traumatic stress and assist in the healing process. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Self-esteem

When you experience low self-esteem, it may lead you to lack confidence, and you may find it difficult to acknowledge your self-worth. In some cases, you may lack the tools of self-awareness to do so. Therapists will observe a client's body language, verbal expressions, and behavior to help them identify the core issues causing low self-esteem. Gestalt therapy can promote acceptance, which may be a powerful tool for boosting self-esteem and increasing self-awareness.

Getty/Inside Creative House

Relationship troubles

Gestalt therapy may be an efficient way for individuals to navigate relationship challenges. Together or individually, couples may heal their relationship by accepting and releasing the past and staying in the present moment. 

By staying in the present, with the help of a Gestalt therapist, a couple may move forward with their relationship healthily and positively and benefit from personal growth in the process.  

The techniques of this therapy

There are a few standard techniques that your Gestalt therapist may utilize during treatment. 

Asking questions 

In Gestalt therapy, the therapist may ask the client questions, especially about the present. You might hear the therapist ask, "What's going on right now?" or "How do you feel about this issue right now?" 

These questions encourage the client to accept personal responsibility and become aware of their feelings and emotions attached to the experience.

Establishing the habit of tuning in and being conscious of a person's current experiences is often an integral emphasis of this therapy.

Role-playing

Gestalt therapy often values empathy as a way to understand the interactions between people. When we role-play and embody someone else through experiments like enactment, we may learn to feel more empathy toward them.

Like role-playing, this practice may guide you to confront someone in a hypothetical scenario. It values self-expression and internal work because those traits may benefit external relationships.

Bodywork

In Gestalt therapy, a therapist may have you engage in bodywork. The therapist may recommend that you become physically active, dance, or do another form of movement in addition to their therapy sessions with you. Movement may be effective in helping patients find the balance and the wholeness to grow.

Dream working

Dreams have long been an enigma in the psychological world, and every practice may approach them differently. A Gestalt view believes dreams can provide important information about our inner life.

Gestalt therapists may have different approaches, and the practice might be customized for each participant based on their personality and goals. Depending on your needs, you may want to find a support group, different therapies, or research on these subjects alongside therapy. 

Other Gestalt therapy concepts

Gestalt therapy often utilizes the principles of wholeness and awareness to promote well-being. It can be a client-centered therapy, which may be highly effective for multiple mental health issues. 

Additionally, this practice focuses on the concepts of wholeness and awareness so the client can feel more "complete" in their day-to-day life.

Wholeness

Gestalt therapy looks at an individual as a whole person. A Gestalt therapist may believe that unhappiness occurs when your mind and body are disconnected. Hence, it aims to unify and increase awareness of these disparate elements. Being whole may allow you to increase your self-awareness. 

Awareness

Gestalt therapy practitioners often believe that awareness fails when we're preoccupied with the past or have low self-esteem. These concerns might be addressed through observation and learning to tune in to the environment. 

Listening and concentration exercises introduced by a Gestalt therapist can be essential elements of greater awareness. Overall, this practice may help you conclude past business so that you can turn your gaze toward the present.

Getty/AnnaStills
Focus on the present and become more self-aware

Trying Gestalt therapy 

Regarding various therapeutic approaches, some therapists may have a more rigid scientific view, while others may be more mindful. This practice is often a psychological and emotional practice that has been effective for many clients, including children. Mindfulness and self-actualization are considered principles of mental health through this therapy. 

Gestalt techniques can be a highly subjective experience, so discussing this technique with a therapist may be a beneficial place to start. This type of therapy is a form of mental health therapy that can be offered through an in-person or online counselor. Some individuals feel the safest speaking to a professional from home, as Gestalt therapy sessions can be an emotional experience.

Internet-based therapy is often a convenient method for approaching mental health challenges. A study from the World Psychiatry Association (WAP) found that is typically more affordable than in-person therapy as clients don't need to travel for appointments. 

Overall, Gestalt therapy can be wonderfully effective in alleviating stress or various mental health problems while teaching participants how to live contentedly in the present.

Takeaway

There are many ways you might decide to work with a therapist. Some of these methods involve talking, such as group or individual therapies or drug therapy. Other approaches may rely on body language and other nonverbal communication skills. Gestalt therapy is one such approach that incorporates physical experiences, such as movement and body awareness, into the process. 

Empirical evidence supports the efficacy of this practice,  particularly when it comes to treating anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders. Studies have also shown that Gestalt therapy can help improve women's self-efficacy, and increase their self-awareness and understanding of themselves and others. 

If you're ready to focus more on the present moment and start seeing yourself in a new light, consider reaching out to your primary care doctor for a referral or use an online search. It is important to do your research and find someone you trust and feel comfortable with. If you experience mental distress, anxiety, or another condition, you may choose to sign up for an online platform such as BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. 

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started