What is psychotherapy?

Do you ever feel too overwhelmed to deal with your problems? Have you experienced some form of trauma that has seriously affected your life? If so, you're not alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year more than a quarter of North American adults experience depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness. Others need help coping with a serious illness, losing weight or stopping smoking. Still others struggle to cope with relationship troubles, job loss, the death of a loved one, stress, substance abuse or haunting memories of a past trauma. And these problems can often become debilitating.

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
— C. J. Jung

A psychotherapist can help you work through such problems. Through psychotherapy, therapists help people of all ages live happier, healthier and more productive lives.

In psychotherapy, the therapist applies scientifically validated procedures to help people develop healthier, more effective habits. There are several approaches to psychotherapy —  including cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal and other kinds of talk therapy — that help individuals work through their problems.

Psychotherapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a therapist. Grounded in dialogue, it provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. You and your therapist will work together to identify and change the thought and behavior patterns that are keeping you from feeling your best.

By the time you’re done, you will not only have solved the problem that brought you in, but you will have learned new skills so you can better cope with whatever challenges arise in the future.

When should you consider psychotherapy?

Because of the many misconceptions about psychotherapy, you may be reluctant to try it out. Even if you know the realities instead of the myths, you may feel nervous about trying it yourself.

Overcoming that nervousness is worth it. That’s because any time your quality of life isn’t what you want it to be, psychotherapy can help.

Some people seek psychotherapy because they have felt depressed, anxious or angry for a long time. Others may want help for a chronic illness that is interfering with their emotional or physical well-being. Still others may have short-term problems they need help navigating. They may be going through a divorce, facing an empty nest, feeling overwhelmed by a new job or grieving a family member's death, for example.

Signs that you could benefit from therapy include:

  • You feel an overwhelming, prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness.
  • Your problems don't seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends.
  • You find it difficult to concentrate on work assignments or to carry out other everyday activities.
  • You worry excessively, expect the worst or are constantly on edge.
  • Your actions, such as drinking too much alcohol, using drugs or being aggressive, are harming you or others.

What are the different kinds of psychotherapy?

There are many different approaches to psychotherapy. Psychotherapists generally draw on one or more of these. Each theoretical perspective acts as a roadmap to help the therapist understand their clients and their problems and develop solutions.

The kind of treatment you receive will depend on a variety of factors: current psychological research, your practicioner’s theoretical orientation and what works best for your situation.

Your therapist’s theoretical perspective will affect what goes on in his or her office. Psychotherapists who use cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, have a practical approach to treatment. Your therapist might ask you to tackle certain tasks designed to help you develop more effective coping skills. This approach often involves homework assignments. Your therapist might ask you to gather more information, such as logging your reactions to a particular situation as they occur. Or your therapist might want you to practice new skills between sessions, such as asking someone with an elevator phobia to practice pushing elevator buttons. You might also have reading assignments so you can learn more about a particular topic.

In contrast, psychoanalytic and humanistic approaches typically focus more on talking than doing. You might spend your sessions discussing your early experiences to help you and your psychotherapist better understand the root causes of your current problems.

Your psychotherapist may combine elements from several styles of psychotherapy. In fact, most therapists don’t tie themselves to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client’s needs.

The main thing to know is whether your psychotherapist has expertise in the area you need help with and whether your psychotherapist feels he or she can help you.


Psychoeducation teaches trauma survivors about different psychological processes and their effects. The therapist may explain that what the person is feeling and doing is typical of reactions that other survivors also describe. Understanding that these reactions are normal may help the person feel less isolated. The therapist may explain the short-term and long-term effects of trauma and how trauma can affect the body, emotions and development. The therapist may also give the client information about abuse and neglect. The therapist provides information throughout therapy, depending on what the client and therapist are discussing and dealing with at the time.

Adapted from