What Is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is the practice of spending time with a trained professional—usually a psychologist, a social worker, or a licensed counselor—to help diagnose and treat mental and emotional problems, to talk through everyday difficulties, or to seek advice as a couple.

Psychotherapy (often just referred to as therapy) can be conducted using a variety of modalities, including cognitive behavioral therapypsychodynamic therapy, and others. Many therapists use a combination of different approaches.

Each modality utilizes particular techniques and focuses on certain outcomes. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, involves identifying and challenging cognitive distortions and irrational thought patterns, while psychodynamic therapy aims to identify unconscious conflicts or repressed memories that may be contributing to real-world challenges. Some modes of therapy were specifically designed to treat certain conditions—borderline personality disorder, in the case of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)—but can be applied to other disorders or challenges as well.

Though therapy can be difficult to seek out—especially for low-income patients or those with inadequate insurance—many who have found a supportive therapist report that the experience has been beneficial for their mental health and overall well-being.

Should You Go to Therapy?

The decision to begin psychotherapy can be a challenging one. Some worry that needing therapy makes them “crazy,” while others fear the potential embarrassment of revealing their innermost thoughts to a stranger.

These thoughts are often surprisingly common, and many who start therapy later find that their initial fears about the process were overblown. Still, since therapy requires a certain amount of commitment, the decision to start therapy shouldn’t be made lightly. It’s important to spend time securing insurance coverage, researching potential therapists, and finding the right match.

How to Find the Right Therapist

There are countless compassionate, effective therapists in the world—but that doesn’t mean that every single therapist will be able to help every person who is seeking treatment. Though it can be frustrating for patients and professionals alike, finding the right therapist is usually a process of trial and error.

Certain qualities—such as empathy and the ability to maintain strong boundaries—are important for patients to seek. A therapist’s preferred modality can make a big difference as well.

Of course, there are some therapists who aren’t well-equipped to treat anyone; any patient whose therapist treats them with disrespect or disregards their concerns should find a new one as soon as possible.

Is Therapy Working?

During the first few sessions of therapy, it’s common to wonder if the process is working. Some patients report feeling worse or more emotionally “raw” than they did before they started treatment. While these feelings are common, if they persist, they may be a sign that therapy isn’t working as well as it could.

Patients should feel empowered to discuss any doubts that they have with their therapist. Honesty is an important component of the therapy process, and it may be possible for the therapist to adapt to the client’s challenges or recommend another professional who may be a better fit. Ultimately, 

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