What Is Psychotherapy?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated July 28, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Psychotherapy is a common treatment or method of support that can be used to address various concerns and help people move through their lives in a way that’s beneficial for their emotional, psychological, and social health. Individual, group, couples, and family therapy can be common psychotherapy formats, and popular psychotherapy techniques can include cognitive reframing, roleplaying, behavioral experiments, and mindfulness activities. To discover which types of psychotherapy may be most beneficial for you, you may wish to consult with a licensed therapist, either in person or online.

Definition Of Psychotherapy

When an individual engages the services of a therapist, counselor, or psychologist to talk through and address psychological concerns, this is commonly defined as psychotherapy. 

When an individual person is receiving treatment or is undergoing psychotherapy, they are engaging with mental health professionals such as licensed professional counselors, licensed social workers, or marriage and family therapists to address mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder or trauma-related disorders. It is typically thought of as a psychological treatment based on talking and is often called talk therapy or simply therapy. This form of therapy can be practiced both in person and online.

Psychotherapy is an umbrella term that can encompass a variety of methods and techniques designed to treat and improve mental health. Statistics from 2019 found that 9.5% of adults in the United States had received mental health treatment in the form of therapy over the prior year. Common concerns that one might address in therapy can include:

  • Coping with loss or change; grief
  • Trauma
  • Family issues
  • Life stress
  • Substance use disorders*
  • Relationships or social problems
  • Eating disorders**
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders

*Please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-(800)-662-4357 if you or someone else in your life is struggling with a substance use disorder or might be.

**If you or someone you know is or might be living with an eating disorder, please contact NEDA at 1-800-931-2237 or visit their website for information and resources.

Therapy, including animal assisted therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy, can be an intensive form of mental health services for individuals with trauma related disorders or other mental disorders. Communication skills and coping strategies may be developed during therapy sessions, either individually or in a group. Therapy can be used on its own or alongside medication. If medication is necessary, a person may see a psychiatrist or their general physician to prescribe medications, while other mental health professionals such as psychiatric nurses may offer supportive therapy.

For some concerns, a combination of medication and therapy can be one of the most effective routes of treatment. Everyone is unique, and it’s important to note that different treatment options may be most effective for different people. Always consult with your doctor before you start, stop, or change a medication regimen.

Psychotherapy Techniques & Formats

Depending on the type of help an individual is seeking and what they want to address in sessions, psychotherapy can be conducted in a variety of formats. The therapist, along with the patient, may decide on the format best suited to the patient's needs.

  1. Individual Therapy

In individual therapy, a patient usually receives one-on-one counseling with their therapist to address the concern(s) that they’re seeing the provider for, whether that’s stress, emotional distress, panic disorder, depression, substance use disorder, or something else.

It can be important to note that therapy and counseling aren't only used to treat a mental illness; people often get professional help to cope with and move through grief, the end of a relationship, self-esteem issues, or any number of other matters that might occur in a person’s life. 

Your therapist will likely get to know you deeply on a one-on-one basis, and what you say in therapy is typically privileged. Therapy can be a safe space to talk about the topics you might not want to discuss with other people. You and your psychotherapist might work and brainstorm together in a collaborative process with a high success rate. A strong client-therapist relationship (i.e., working with a therapist you trust and feel comfortable with) can be one of the biggest predictors of success in therapy.

  1. Group Therapy

Group therapy is generally conducted in a group setting. Individuals in the group may draw strength and alternate perspectives from each other's challenges and successes and know they are not alone in what they are experiencing. 

Research shows that group therapy can be highly effective for many concerns, exceeding expectations for issues including, but not limited to, various eating disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia (and related disorders), major depressive disorder, substance use disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more.

  1. Couples Therapy

Different Psychotherapy Approaches Can Work For Different People.

Couples therapy is mainly designed as a therapy modality for those who are in a relationship and may be experiencing conflict or want to prevent problems from arising in the future. Various types of couples therapy can be highly successful and may lead to better relationship outcomes, such as a higher likelihood of staying together, improved individual mental health, and enhanced coping methods.

  1. Family Therapy

Several different approaches can be used in family therapy, many of which are highly successful. This type of therapy can help with family conflict, communication, understanding one another, personal mental health conditions, and more.

Sometimes, a person may see more than one therapist and may attend other therapies in more than one format. Therapy could be once a week, twice a week, once every two weeks, or of a different frequency, depending on a person’s needs. 

For example, a person could see a therapist weekly for a period of time, then determine at a certain point that every other week would be a better fit. Alternatively, they could go through a patch where they have more to address or need extra support and decide to see their therapist more frequently.

Techniques Used In Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, including individual and group therapy, aims to treat mental health conditions such as trauma-related disorders and depression. The psychotherapy definition encompasses symptom relief, and techniques used in psychotherapy can help achieve mental well-being goals. The modality or approach a therapist uses will depend on what a person needs to work on.

While there can be a wide array of psychotherapy methods, among the most popular are cognitive therapy, interpersonal therapy, behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapy.

Some popular psychotherapy techniques used by mental health professionals are:

  1. Cognitive Reframing – This is a technique where you might take maladaptive, negative, or otherwise unsupportive thoughts and reframe them. It is frequently used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
  2. Roleplaying – Using this technique, the patient and therapist may act out future or past real-world scenarios as a way of working through various concerns. Therapeutic roleplaying can be used for phobias, social anxiety, and other mental health issues. The empty chair technique is often considered a widely used roleplay method.
  3. Behavioral Experiments – These are usually centered around gathering information to allow the patient to test their beliefs about themselves or things around them, get results, reflect on the outcome, and revisit their initial belief to assess its accuracy.
  4. Mindfulness Activities – Mindfulness can be used frequently in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and other therapeutic modalities. Breathing exercises, body scanning, affirmations, radical acceptance, and meditation are all ways that a person might integrate mindfulness into their life.

Different techniques may work for different people, even when it comes to working through similar concerns. While the above practices are often used among psychotherapists, there are so many activities and techniques that can be used in psychotherapy that it’s nearly impossible to identify them all. The success of treating mental health conditions such as depression and achieving mental well being through psychotherapy depends on a combination of factors. Psychotherapy experience symptom relief is influenced by a positive client-therapist relationship, support from family and friends, personal goals, and motivation. A successful treatment or care regime may involve a variety of techniques.


How Do You Know When It’s Time To Seek Treatment?

You might be aware that you're going through a rough patch or coping with some difficulties. Some people know when they’re going through a tough time or could benefit from someone to talk to, but many do not seek care. However, not seeking help when you need it can have negative consequences. It is essential to recognize that even minor concerns in life can accumulate over time and develop into something more significant or even unmanageable. Seeking help from mental health professionals can help treat depression and prevent smaller issues from becoming more serious.

Somesigns that psychotherapy could be advantageous to you can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Experiencing feelings of helplessness, sadness, or isolation from other people
  • Stress that is affecting your life, relationships, or mental or physical health
  • Symptoms of any mental health condition, whether diagnosed or suspected
  • Difficulty in familial, romantic, or friend relationships
  • Feeling a lack of interest in others or things you used to enjoy previously
  • Finding that you are having a hard time getting through your day or finishing tasks that used to come easily
  • Actions and/or emotions that are negatively impacting your relationship with others
  • Feelings of overwhelm

While these can be all common reasons to seek therapy, you can go to psychotherapy to talk about nearly anything. If there’s something that could make you more comfortable in a psychotherapy setting, such as a therapist with a specific area of expertise, it is something you may ask about or look for when seeking a provider to work with.

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Different Psychotherapy Approaches Can Work For Different People.

How To Get Started With Psychotherapy

Finding a psychotherapist to work with is often the first step to starting psychotherapy. While insurance can help cover the cost, having health insurance may not always be a requirement to see a therapist. There may be low-income services available near you, including on-campus resources if you are a student. You can find a therapist by:

  • Making an appointment with your medical doctor and requesting a referral to a mental health therapist.
  • If you have insurance, calling your insurance company and asking who they cover near you. Some health insurance companies will also have a website that lets you search for therapists or counselors with various search filters, such as proximity to your zip code or specific expertise.
  • Using an online therapist directory or directly searching the web for a provider in your area.

You could also sign up for an online therapy platform, which may allow you to match with and start seeing a psychotherapist quickly and easily. Many online therapy platforms offer affordable plans for psychotherapy, even without insurance, and use various formats, like individual and couples therapy. At the end of the day, what matters most may be finding the care that works best for you.

Available Psychotherapy Via Online Platforms

There are a few unique advantages to online therapy. Online therapy can encompass a variety of formats, such as CTB, DBT, couples therapy, eye-movement desensitization therapy for trauma and PTSD, and more. 

Research has found that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy for treating a variety of conditions and concerns, including depression, PTSD, anxiety, and more. Part of its effectiveness, according to studies, is owed to removing some of the barriers that can be in place with traditional therapy. If you lack transportation, cannot leave your home, or don’t have health insurance, it can still be possible to get professional and affordable care from your home or wherever you have an internet connection.


Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can be considered an umbrella term that encompasses a range of therapies and techniques, including individual therapy, CBT, family therapy, support therapy, and more. Whether you are experiencing anxiety, depression, grief, life changes, relationship troubles, trauma, or just about anything else, rest assured that there may be a therapist and therapy technique that can help. Important factors to consider may include your individual preferences in a therapist, the degree of comfortability and trust that you feel with them, their availability, and the types of therapy techniques that they offer. Online therapy may be an option for you if traditional therapy does not meet your needs or preferences.

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