What Is Psychotherapy? Definition And Techniques

By: Nadia Khan

Updated November 12, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Definition Of Psychotherapy:

When an individual engages the services of a therapist, counselor or psychologist to talk through and seek help for any personality, psychological or behavioral problems, 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” and is an umbrella term used to encompass a variety of treatments and techniques designed to treat and improve mental health. Some common issues and illnesses that can be successfully treated using psychotherapy are:

  • Addiction and alcoholism
  • Coping with loss, grief
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Family issues
  • Sexuality
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, etc.

Therapy can be used on its own to treat a disorder, or it can go on hand in hand with medications. While medication provides a band-aid effect by providing instant relief or solution, psychotherapy digs deeper to eradicate the problem or provide a more lasting solution. This is because therapy is designed to understand the emotions, the behaviors, the past and the patterns of an illness so that they can be addressed and resolved. By teaching the patient coping techniques and skills, the therapist helps the individual regain control over their emotions and their life.

Psychotherapy Format:

Depending on the type of help and assistance an individual needs and the illness they are struggling with, psychotherapy sessions 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

A patient receives individual one-on-one counseling with his / her therapist to overcome and treat mental illness, a disorder or a personal obstacle. Therapy and counseling aren’t just used to treat mental illness; people often get professional help to deal with grief, the end of a relationship, help with self-esteem or any number of things. This type of therapy has proven to be very successful as it allows the patient to confront their issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

2. Group Therapy

Therapy that is conducted in a group setting with anywhere from three, four members to more. Group therapy creates a safe, judgement free environment where people can share common experiences and thus have a better understanding of their struggles. They can draw strength from each other’s successes and know they are not alone in what they are going through. It is a particularly successful form of therapy for people struggling with an addiction or coping with grief.

3. Couples Therapy

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It is mainly designed as a therapy session for two people who are in a relationship and who are going through some conflict or problems. Traditionally it has been used by married people or couples who are in a romantic relationship. However, over time the definition of couple’s therapy is evolving to include any two people in a relationship of some sort who are experiencing interpersonal problems, for example, a mother and daughter, two friends, etc. The focus in this type of therapy is improving communication between the two individuals and allowing them to see and understand things from different viewpoints.

4. Family Therapy

The concept of Family Therapy is based on the belief having familial support and understanding increases the effectiveness and success of a patient’s treatment. It also provides a comfortable setting where families can openly discuss the struggles they are going through or experiencing as a result of the issue at hand. This type of therapy can be especially useful if there is abuse in the family or if someone is struggling with a mental disorder or addiction as this can have an effect on everyone involved.

A successful treatment plan for an individual may include a combination of this. The therapist may determine that in addition to the individual therapy, an important part of the treatment process for the patient involves counseling with their spouse and family therapy with the children or parents, etc.

For example, a Veteran who has returned home from serving overseas is now suffering from PTSD. To cope with the PTSD they begin to drink heavily or suffer from depression and anxiety, and this affects not only how they function in their daily life but has an enormous impact on their relationship with their spouse, children, parents, etc.

Psychotherapy Techniques:

One of the most important aspects of psychotherapy is the relationship between the therapist and the patient, for psychotherapy to be successful there needs to be trust, cooperation and good communication between all parties involved as well as a clear understanding that they are working towards a common.

Because psychotherapy is based almost entirely on talking, communication is key, and the therapist works with the patient to get to the root cause of their problem. Over several sessions, the therapist and the patient establish a relationship and talk about a number of different things, which enables the therapist to understand the patient’s background, the issues they are facing and the barriers to achieving happiness. Once these things have been established, through the use of various techniques the therapist works to help the patient come to terms with and move beyond their mental handicap so they can experience life to their fullest potential.

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According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-05), there are approximately four hundred types of psychological disorders and diseases. Many of these can be successfully treated through psychotherapy. While there is a wide array of types of psychotherapy, the four most popular forms used widely by psychologists around the world are Cognitive Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, Behavioural Therapy, and Psychodynamic Therapy.

Some popular psychotherapy techniques used by mental health professionals are:

  1. Thought Records – the therapist encourages the patient to write out both sides of a negative thought or experience they had. This allows the patient to analyze the outcome of a decision or a thought in a rationale, balanced manner instead of jumping to conclusions and feeling the world is turned against them. For example, if a patient had a fight with their wife, instead of assuming his wife hates him or is having an affair, writing everything out objectively puts things in perspective and may help him get to the root cause of the argument, which could be as mundane as him not taking out the trash when asked to do so.
  2. Happy Activities – this is a very effective technique in treating and overcoming depression. The patient is instructed to set aside time on a daily, weekly basis for a pleasurable activity. Anything healthy that brings the joy that the patient has not done in a while or would normally never do. Doing these activities increases the positive emotions, gives the patient motivation to get through the day and over time helps them develop happier feelings.
  3. Behavioral Experiments – allows the patient to test their beliefs about themselves or things around them, get results, reflect on the outcome and revisit their initial belief. For instance, an individual may believe that if they walk under a ladder, they will meet with an accident. The therapist will encourage them to walk under a ladder as an experiment, and it will allow the patient to see their belief was unfounded or without merit.
  4. Imagery Exposure – forces the patient to relive and focus on a negative experience or memory and go through it over and over again in as much detail as possible until the memory no longer gives them anxiety or causes stress. The idea is to remove the power of the negative experience so it cannot act as a trigger for future experiences and allow the person to cope with it healthily.

It is important to note that no one fix psychotherapy solution works for every kind of disorder or illness, nor is one type or technique of psychotherapy better than another. A successful treatment 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 from family and friends, the individual’s personal goals and motivation and in some cases medication.

How Do You Know You Need Help?

You might be aware that you’re going through a rough patch or coping with some difficulties, most people usually are, but very few people take active steps to seek help. More often than not, we try to plough through our troubles by thinking everything will eventually get better.

But what’s important to realize is that the most trivial or simplest of problems can snowball over time into something bigger or unmanageable. And if you are already dealing with a history of depression or other illness, the smallest problem can be a trigger and have a very negative impact on your mental wellbeing. This impact can last for months, years and even decades and spiral your life out of control.

How can you tell whether you need professional help or not? You might feel it subconsciously but not know for sure. Some signs and symptoms to watch out for can include but are not limited to:

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  • Experiencing feelings of helplessness, depression or isolation;
  • 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 before;
  • You find your problems keep getting worse no matter what you do to fix them or control them;
  • Experiencing feelings of suicide or being preoccupied with the idea of death;
  • Your behavior and emotions are negatively impacting your relationship with others;
  • Developing a dependence on drugs or alcohol to cope or if a pre-existing dependence/addiction exists it gets worse and increases.

If any or all of these symptoms feel familiar to you, chances are you may be struggling with a mental health issue. It could be something as simple as a mild case of depression or something more serious. Regardless of what it might be, it might be time to consider getting some professional help.

Because it can sometimes be hard to gauge how our actions are impacting others, it’s also a good idea to lend credence and listen to any concerns expressed by family and friends with an open mind. If your loved ones are telling you or encouraging you to speak to a professional or get some counseling and therapy they probably have a reason for doing so.

The hardest step for treatment and recovery is acknowledging there is a problem and being willing to get help. But remember that most mental illnesses and disorders can be managed and treated successfully through psychotherapy without medical or biological intervention. Speak to your family doctor or a medical professional at a clinic and set up an appointment with a therapist so you can start leading your best life.


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