By Nadia Khan|Updated July 11, 2022

Psychotherapy is a common treatment or method of support 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. What exactly does psychotherapy refer to? And how does psychotherapy work? Below, we’ll go over the definition, outline therapeutic techniques, and seeing psychotherapy providers.

Definition Of Psychotherapy

When an individual engages the services of a therapist, counselor, or psychologist to talk through and address personality, mood, or other psychological concerns, this is defined as psychotherapy. It is a psychological treatment that is based on talking and is commonly referred to as "talk therapy" or simply "therapy." This form of therapy can be practiced as both in person therapy and online therapy

Psychotherapy is an umbrella term used to 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. So, if you’re considering it, you aren’t alone. Common concerns that one might address in therapy include:

  • Coping with loss, 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 can be used on its own or alongside medication. If a person, working with their mental health provider, wishes to take medication in conjunction with or independent of therapy, they may see a psychiatrist or their general physician for medication management. For some concerns, a combination of medication and therapy is seen as one of the most effective routes of treatment. Everyone is unique, and it’s important to note that different treatment options will work best for different people. Always consult with your doctor before you start, stop, or change a medication regimen.

Psychotherapy 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, will decide on the format best suited to the patient's needs.

1. Individual Therapy

In individual therapy, a patient receives one-on-one counseling with their therapist to address the concern(s) that they’re seeing the provider for, whether that’s stress, depression, substance use disorder, or something else. It’s just you and your therapist or counselor in the room.
It’s important to note that therapy and counseling aren't just used to treat mental illnesses; 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 show up in a person’s life. Your therapist gets to know you on a one-on-one basis, and what you say in therapy stays with them. It’s a safe space to talk about what you might not want to discuss with other people. You and your psychotherapist work and brainstorm together. It’s a collaborative process, and the success rate is high. A strong client-therapist relationship (i.e., working with a therapist you trust and feel comfortable with) is one of the biggest predictors of success in therapy.

2. Group Therapy

This is therapy that is conducted in a group setting. Typically, there will be 3-4 members or more that attend group on a regular basis. Group therapy creates a safe, judgement-free environment where people can share common experiences. They can draw strength from each other's successes and know they are not alone in what they are going through. Research shows that group therapy is 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.

3. Couples Therapy

what is psychotherapy?

Different Psychotherapy Techniques Work For Different People

Couples therapy is mainly designed as a therapy modality for those who are in a relationship and may be going through some conflict or want to prevent problems from arising in the future. The focus in this type of therapy is improving communication between the members of a relationship and allowing them to see and understand things from different viewpoints. You can troubleshoot what is and isn’t working with your partner, share your feelings, and more. Various types of couples therapy are highly successful and can lead to better relationship outcomes (a higher likelihood of staying together, improved individual mental health, enhanced coping methods, etc.).

4. Family Therapy

Family therapy is a type of psychotherapy where, typically, multiple family members attend sessions together on a regular basis. There are a number of different approaches or techniques that can be used in family therapy, many of which are highly successful. It can help with family conflict, communication, understanding one another, personal mental health conditions, and more.

Sometimes, a person will see more than one therapist and may attend therapy in more than one format. For example, a person may go to individual therapy, where they work with a provider one on one, and see another therapist for family therapy with their family members. Therapy could be once a week, twice a week, once every two weeks, or of a different frequency, depending on a person’s needs. If applicable, a person can usually start seeing their therapist more or less often. 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 start seeing a therapist more often.

Techniques That Are Used

The techniques used in psychotherapy depend largely on what modality or approach a therapist uses and what you are there to work on. While there’s a wide array of psychotherapy methods, among the most popular or widely used 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 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 role-playing can be used for phobias, social anxiety, and a number of other mental health issues. The empty chair technique is a widely used role-play method.
  3. Behavioral experiments – These allow the patient to test their beliefs about themselves or things around them, get results, reflect on the outcome, and revisit their initial belief.
  4. Mindfulness activities – Mindfulness is used frequently in dialectical behavioral therapy and other therapeutic modalities. Breathing exercises, body scans, affirmations, radical acceptance, and meditation are all ways that a person might integrate mindfulness into their life.
It is important to note that different techniques work for different people, even when it comes to working through the same concerns. While the above practices are used among psychotherapists often, there are so many activities and techniques that can be used in psychotherapy that it’s nearly impossible to identify them all. A successful treatment or care regime will often come about as a result of a combination of various techniques and factors, including the client-therapist relationship, a strong external support system of family and friends, the individual's personal goals and motivations, and so on.

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 end up receiving care. More often than not, we try to plow through our troubles by thinking everything will eventually get better. But not seeking help when you need it can have negative consequences. It’s important to understand that even smaller concerns in your life can snowball over time into something bigger or unmanageable. So, how can you tell when it’s time to seek professional help?

Some signs that psychotherapy could be advantageous to you 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.

Of course, these are only some reasons you might start psychotherapy. 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 an LGBTQIA+ affirming psychotherapist or a therapist with a specific area of expertise, it is very likely out there and is something you can ask about or look for when seeking a provider to work with.

Different Psychotherapy Techniques Work For Different People

How To Start

Finding a psychotherapist to work with is the first step to starting psychotherapy. While insurance can help cover the cost, having health insurance isn’t 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.
  • Using an online therapist directory or directly searching the web for a provider in your area.

You can also sign up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, which allows you to match with and start seeing a psychotherapist quickly and easily. Many online therapy platforms offer affordable plans for psychotherapy and use various formats, like individual and couples therapy. At the end of the day, what matters most is that you find the care that works best for you.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are the techniques used in psychotherapy?

There are a number of different approaches to psychotherapy, but among the most prominent are psychoanalysis, behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, humanistic therapy, and holistic therapy.

What is the definition of psychotherapy?

The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology definition of psychotherapy is “any psychological service provided by a trained professional that primarily uses forms of communication and interaction to assess, diagnose, and treat dysfunctional emotional reactions, ways of thinking, and behavior patterns.” This is why psychotherapy is considered a broad term; many forms of therapy fall underneath it, and while many share similarities, they can differ substantially.

What are the four main types?

As far as therapy formats go, you may encounter individual, family, group, or couples therapy. For general types or approaches, most forms of psychotherapy exist under one of the following categories: psychodynamic therapy, humanistic therapy, cognitive or behavior therapy, and integrative therapy.

What type is best for anxiety?

In general, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used of the forms of psychotherapy for treating anxiety. Research by mental health professionals has shown CBT is effective in treating those with a panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, as well as generalized anxiety disorder. Evidence-based variants of cognitive-behavioral therapy, such as group therapy or dialectical behavior therapy, are also effective at helping to treat certain conditions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that often operates in the short term to help a person overcome challenging thoughts or situations, though it can be conducted on an extensive basis if beneficial or desired.

What happens in a psychotherapy session?

Psychotherapy should feel like a safe environment. When you start therapy, you’ll typically go over your goals with the therapist and talk about why you’re there, what made you decide to start seeing them, and what you hope to change or address. Your therapist will ask questions and offer feedback, support, or suggestions when needed. For example, if you attend psychotherapy for social anxiety, you might talk about an upcoming social event and work with your therapist to address the thoughts and symptoms that come up for you. During the next session, you might talk about how it went and how you feel about it. In time, you’ll discover what works for you and what doesn’t as far as things like coping skills and communication go; and because you’ll develop tools that work, symptoms can become more manageable. You can address new concerns that might arise, too. Typically, you’ll have space to share what you want to share.

What exactly does a psychotherapist do?

A psychotherapist uses talk therapy to treat individuals for emotional issues, mental illness, mental health disorders, and mental health problems. Psychotherapists can be psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, mental health counselors, or social workers. The treatment plan and number of sessions an individual is to attend with a psychotherapist depends on what the individual is looking to get out of the experience. 

What are some examples of psychotherapy?

There are many different types of psychotherapy some of which include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and the different types of CBT, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), psychoanalysis, interpersonal psychotherapy, supportive psychotherapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. The effectiveness of these types of psychotherapy depends on how open and honest you are with the therapist as well as the type of therapist you are seeing. For example, family therapists will be most effective for familial related issues rather than personal issues. 

What disorders can be treated with psychotherapy?

SInce there are many different types of psychotherapy, psychotherapy can help most mental health conditions including anxiety disorders (such as OCD), panic disorders (such as posttraumatic stress disorder), mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder), personality disorder, and life changes (such as death of a family member or divorce). The psychotherapy treatment approach and overall effectiveness of psychotherapy depend on what an individual is hoping to accomplish and the overall well being of the individual seeking out psychotherapy.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
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.