Everything To Know About Therapy

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therapist during talk therapy session

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Psychotherapy—also known as talk therapy or just therapy—is a form of mental health treatment designed to help you process your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Therapy is helpful in the treatment of mental health conditions, trauma, and life stressors and can help those who are looking to change their thought patterns, improve relationships, or overcome fears.

Research shows that therapy is effective. In fact, brain scans show that therapy results in similar changes as medication does to support people with mental health conditions. In some cases, therapy can also be more effective than medication, especially when treating conditions like specific phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Experts estimate that 75% of people who go to therapy benefit from it.

Purpose and Goals

Therapy is designed to provide a supportive environment to talk openly with a licensed mental health professional who is neutral, non-judgemental, educated about a variety of mental health issues, and culturally competent. Therapy comes in a variety of forms: individual, couples, family, and group. Therapy has been shown to effectively treat mental health conditions, foster healing, and improve overall well-being.

If you’re seeking therapy, you can learn how to:

  • Identify harmful thoughts and find ways to challenge them 
  • Learn new ways to problem-solve
  • Improve your social and communication skills
  • Practice mindfulness or breathing techniques
  • Change your reaction to stressful or fear-provoking events
  • Monitor your emotions and behaviors
  • Engage in stress management activities
  • Accept that tough life situations can happen and you can still live a fulfilling life despite these difficulties

Who Should Seek Therapy

There are a wide variety of reasons why someone might seek therapy, ranging from short-term stress management during a major life transition to long-term care for mental health conditions. Therapy can help you better manage the following:

  • Emotional stress
  • Trauma
  • Relationship problems
  • Job loss
  • Death or grief
  • Changes in sleep habits or appetite
  • Low energy
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Irritability
  • Excessive worry
  • Depressive moods
  • Anxious thoughts
  • Ongoing hopelessness
  • Coping with the diagnosis of a physical illness (whether for yourself or a loved one)
  • Living with a mental health condition
  • Supporting someone else with mental health concerns

Types of Therapy

There is a wide range of therapy approaches that a mental health professional can use—each of which can be tailored to what you individually need. The following treatment approaches are the most common types of therapy that mental health professionals use.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The most researched form of modern therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy combines the practices of behavior therapy and cognitive therapy. Behavior therapy focuses on the ways in which people learn behaviors and how these behaviors are either reinforced or punished. Cognitive therapy focuses on how unproductive thought patterns can affect behaviors and emotions.

CBT combines these approaches and is based on the belief that your thoughts and behaviors can affect your overall well-being. If your therapist uses CBT, their goal is to help you identify negative or harmful thought patterns and behaviors and challenge you to gradually change them.

During your sessions, your therapist will help you identify negative thinking and problematic behaviors and help you understand why you may be engaging in them. They can educate you on problem-solving skills, self-reflection activities, relaxation techniques, and stress management tips to help you disengage from harmful practices.

It's also common for your therapist to assign you homework in between sessions to help apply the skills you learn in therapy to the real world. Over time, the goal is to help you engage in healthier thinking and greater awareness about your behaviors.

CBT can help treat a variety of mental health conditions, including:

CBT has been expanded greatly in recent decades. Subtypes of CBT include:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy: Focuses on developing your ability to accept distressing thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, take personal responsibility, and then change actions.
  • Exposure therapy: Helps you identify what’s causing your anxiety or fear and engage in techniques to manage these thoughts effectively.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy: Involves learning how to accept difficult emotions instead of avoiding or denying these feelings

Psychodynamic therapy

Focused on a close working relationship between the therapist and client (you), psychodynamic therapy is based on the work of Sigmund Freud, but has grown and changed over time. Psychodynamic theory posits that childhood experiences and unconscious thoughts and feelings can influence your behaviors, feelings, and thoughts.

There are many versions of psychodynamic therapy, including:

  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Most often used to treat depression, interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a short-term method that helps you express emotions and communicate effectively.
  • Mentalization-based therapy (MBT): Commonly used to treat people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), mentalization-based therapy (MBT) focuses on your relationship with your therapist to help you develop empathy and process inner thoughts and feelings. MBT is generally a long-term and less structured therapy option.

Humanistic therapy

Humanistic therapy is based on the premise that people are capable of making rational choices and growing to their full potential. There are four main types of humanistic therapy:

  • Client-centered: Focuses on the therapist demonstrating interest, care, and concern for you
  • Gestalt: Believes in the importance of staying in the present and taking personal responsibility for your actions
  • Existential: Based on the values of free will, self-determination, or a search for meaning
  • Experiential: Concentrates on your symptoms and deeper life experiences

Supportive therapy

Supportive therapy is generally used to help alleviate emotional distress for daily life stressors. Your therapist will provide guidance, encouragement, and reassurance to build your self-esteem and improve your coping skills. This type of therapy is not intended to dive deeper into the source of your distress or make significant changes to your thoughts and behaviors.

Holistic therapy

Some therapists may take a holistic approach, which means that they blend aspects of different types of therapy according to what each person needs. For example, a therapist working with a child may combine play therapy with talk therapy to learn more about their needs and keep them engaged in sessions. Holistic therapy also commonly pairs psychotherapy with animal therapy and creative arts therapy.

How to Find the Right Therapist

When looking for a therapist, it’s critical to find someone who understands who you are and your needs. Keep in mind: it’s OK if the first person you find (or tenth) isn’t the right fit for you.

If you’re looking for a therapist that works for you, you may want to:

  • Check with your insurance company to find providers in your network
  • Talk to your primary care provider and see if they can refer you to a mental health professional on-site or off-site from your usual clinic or medical office
  • Visit a local community health center, as they often provide behavioral health care
  • Ask about your benefits through your workplace employee assistance program (EAP)
  • Search online directories that let you filter for the types of therapy and therapist you're looking for
  • Ask friends and family if they have a therapist they recommend

The Right Match

Once you identify a potential therapist, the first step is to set up an introductory conversation with them. They will likely ask you why you’re seeking therapy and propose a treatment plan to meet your needs. Through this process, you can gauge if it’s the right fit for you as well.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you feel comfortable with them?
  • Do they understand you culturally?
  • Are they able to prescribe medications?
  • Do they practice the type of therapy that you're looking for?
  • Do they have expertise in treating your condition or stressors?

The most important thing is to find someone who will validate you, create a safe space to discuss your concerns, and find a treatment plan that's in your best interest.


As you conduct your search, you may see that therapists can hold a wide range of credentials, or letters after their name designating their certifications. These credentials identify the scope in which they can practice.

Someone with an MD or DO is a psychiatrist who is focused on prescribing medications. Psychologists typically have a PhD or PsyD (or other related doctorate degree) and have significant research and clinical experience in mental health conditions. A licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), and licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) are all qualified to practice therapy as well.


Finally, it's important to ask about the cost of therapy. If you have insurance, it’s a good idea to find a provider who is in-network if possible—as this will likely make it less expensive for you to attend sessions.

Some providers may not participate in insurance at all, but can provide you with a bill to seek reimbursement for some portion from your insurance company. Others might offer a sliding scale, which means they charge different costs for therapy depending on your income. If you're a student enrolled at a college or university, your student health center or behavioral center may also provide therapy sessions for free or at a low cost.

For financial assistance, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers grants that you can apply for here. There are also state and city financial assistance programs available across the U.S. that you may search for based on your location.

What To Expect

Because treatment plans are tailored to each person’s needs, one person’s experience with therapy might look very different from another’s. However, you should expect to:

  • Dedicate some time each week for a session: You can expect to meet with your therapist weekly for 30 to 50 minutes. Depending on your needs, you may see them longer, or more or less frequently. Therapy can last anywhere from a few sessions to years, depending on the purpose of treatment.
  • Be engaged to make progress: Therapy isn’t easy. You may be expected to be open and honest about issues that deeply upset you. You might discover things about yourself that you wish you could change. It might take some time to trust your therapist, and they also might ask you to do homework in between sessions. Sticking to your treatment plan and being open with your therapist will yield the best results.

A Quick Review

Therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, as well as helping resolve short-term issues such as relationship or work problems, grief, or emotional stress associated with daily life. Treatment plans and approaches can be tailored to each person’s needs. Finding the right match for your therapist is important, as is being open and adherent to your individualized treatment plan. 

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8 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Psychotherapies.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. What is Psychotherapy?

  3. American Psychological Association. Psychotherapy.

  4. American Psychological Association. Different approaches to psychotherapy.

  5. David D, Cristea I, Hofmann SG. Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:4. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00004

  6. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Psychotherapy.

  7. American Psychological Association. Humanistic therapy.

  8. American Psychological Association. Supportive psychotherapy.

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