Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/16/2021
If you’re considering therapy and have no idea where to start, think about what you hope to get out of the experience. When you have a goal in mind, it’s easier to narrow down the options.
There are dozens of different types of therapy, and while many of them have the same underlying goal or purpose, they may have a different way of achieving it. Some types of therapy work best for specific conditions, and others are a little more general.
No matter what type of therapy you choose, you can expect to spend time talking to your therapist about your life and the challenges you’re facing. You’ll work through challenging situations, negative emotions and distressing thoughts to find a way to cope and, in the end, live a happier and more fulfilling life.
Below, we’ve taken a look at some of the most common types of therapy including what they are and how they work to help you choose the best option to suit your needs.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes five different approaches to counseling: psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, humanistic therapy and integrative or holistic therapy.
Within these five major categories are a variety of more specialized approaches. We’ve narrowed down the extensive list to the top nine types of therapy to help you understand what options are available and how they work.
Here are the top nine different types of therapy:
This type of therapy is derived from psychoanalysis, which was developed in the late nineteenth century. Psychoanalysis is based on the theory that unconscious conflicts are at the heart of psychological issues and bringing these unconscious conflicts into conscious awareness may help resolve symptoms. The origins of psychoanalysis can be traced back to Sigmund Freud.
Psychodynamic therapy is based on the principles of psychoanalysis and is an in-depth form of talk therapy. This form of therapy involves recognizing, acknowledging and overcoming negative feelings and repressed emotions to improve the patient’s relationship with himself, with others and with the world around him.
Though psychodynamic therapy is still closely identified with the theories of Sigmund Freud, it has been affected over the years by changes in psychodynamic theory and modern cognitive behavioral therapy approaches. Studies regarding the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy yield mixed results but largely support the efficacy of this approach.
Behavioral therapies focus on replacing negative behaviors with positive ones. There are many different techniques that fall under the umbrella of behavioral therapy including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and systematic desensitization.
Ivan Pavlov is one of the founders of behavioral theory. Though the bulk of his early research focused on the physiology of digestion, his studies led him to the science of conditioned reflexes. You may be familiar with his famous experiment that involved teaching dogs to associate the sound of a dinner bell with food. In doing so, he conditioned the dogs to drool when they heard the bell.
The basis of behavioral theory is that certain behaviors develop from things you’ve learned in your past and that behavioral therapy can help you change your responses to those behaviors. It involves general behavioral principles like reinforcement and punishment to facilitate healthy behavioral change. Behavioral therapy is often used for alcohol abuse disorders.
A form of behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan for the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD). In fact, it remains the only empirically supported treatment for the condition.
Dialectical behavior therapy is based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. Not only has it been shown to be effective for BPD, but research supports its efficacy for other psychiatric disorders such as substance abuse, mood and eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traditionally, this form of therapy is divided into four components: skills training, individual psychotherapy, telephone consultation, and team therapist consultation. In combination, these components help teach the patient behavioral skills designed to target symptoms. Examples of these skills include emotion regulation, mindfulness, and distress tolerance.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another form of behavioral therapy often used to treat mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders. This form of therapy focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
CBT is sometimes described as a short-term, skills-focused treatment aimed at changing a patient’s negative emotional response by altering their thoughts, behaviors, or both. The origins of CBT can be traced back to B.F. Skinner and his work with classical conditioning.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, your therapist will help you identify negative thought patterns and understand how they affect your emotions and behaviors. Together, you’ll explore ways to change or replace those negative thoughts and patterns with ones that are more constructive.
Similar to behavioral therapy, CBT doesn’t focus on the past but on existing symptoms in order to make a positive and lasting change.
Cognitive therapy evolved from behavioral therapy and it focuses on changing the patient’s cognitions as a means of changing his emotions and behaviors. Two of the founding fathers of cognitive therapy were Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.
This form of therapy focuses on the patient’s thoughts rather than his behaviors. It’s based on the theory that dysfunctional thinking triggers dysfunctional emotions and behaviors. To follow that line of thinking, cognitive therapy focuses on changing the patient’s thoughts in order to change his emotions and actions.
Cognitive therapy has been widely used to treat cognitive impairment, including dementia. Originally developed in the late 1960s, cognitive therapy influenced the development of cognitive behavioral therapy which, in addition to changing thought processes, utilizes behavioral techniques.
As you might guess from the name, humanistic therapy is focused on the individual. Philosophers Jean-Paul Sarte, Martin Buber and Soren Kierkegaard had an influential role in developing this type of therapy, which aims at helping the patient become the best version of himself.
One of the core beliefs behind this type of therapy is that humans are inherently good and, given the chance, will make the right choices. There are three primary types of humanistic therapy: gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy and existential therapy.
Gestalt therapy was developed by Frederick S. Perls and focuses on examining the patient’s life at the current moment. This form of therapy may involve techniques like reenactment and role play to explore how past events influence present thoughts and emotion.
Client-centered therapy is based on the idea that criticism and disapproval from others results in emotional distress. Originally developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s, this form of therapy involves the use of techniques like congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard to give the patient the opportunity to open up and express himself without judgment. This type of therapy is often used to treat addiction and substance abuse.
Finally, existential therapy is a philosophical approach to treatment that focuses on the human condition as a whole, not just the patient’s experiences. It shares many traits with humanistic therapy and may involve helping the client find philosophical meaning in their own life and in the world around them.
Eye movement and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) was developed in the 1990s and, while it has been clinically validated, the mechanism of its action is not completely understood. This form of therapy was developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro when she noticed that certain eye movements reduced the intensity of disturbing thoughts.
EMDR therapy involves a certain sequence of phases paired with eye movements to help the client process unresolved memories and heal from them. It is commonly used to help patients recover from trauma and other upsetting life experiences including anxiety, depression, panic disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is commonly used to treat mood disorders. The goal is to improve the patient’s interpersonal relationships and social functioning in order to resolve symptoms. IPT involves specific strategies to achieve four goals: enhancing social support, decreasing interpersonal stress, facilitating emotional processing and improving interpersonal skills.
IPT is typically time-limited, with treatment lasting 12 to 16 weeks and broken up into three phases. During the initial phase, the therapist identifies the target diagnosis and facilitates the gathering of the patient’s interpersonal inventory. From there, the therapist leads the patient through various strategies to explore and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
As the name suggests, group therapy is administered in a group, usually five to fifteen patients. Group therapy is often targeted toward a specific issue such as depression, social anxiety or substance abuse. This form of therapy provides benefits individual therapy might not. The group may become a support network for the patient and the act of listening to and talking to others may help the patient put his own problems into perspective.
With so many options out there, it can be difficult to choose just one type of therapy to focus on. The best place to start may be with your healthcare provider. If your healthcare provider has given you a mental health diagnosis, they may have suggestions based on your needs.
Just remember the choice is ultimately yours to make.
Many therapists will use a combination of approaches and different techniques to create an experience that works for you. If you find you don’t like one approach, don’t hesitate to try another, but give each approach time to work before giving up.
Regardless which type of therapy you choose, be prepared to experience some challenges.
Talking about your mental health symptoms and your personal thoughts and feelings with a stranger can be difficult, but you may find it gets better with time and practice. Just remember your counselor is an objective bystander — it’s their job to help you, not judge you.
Also keep in mind that success in therapy has a lot to do with the relationship you form with your therapist. If you don’t feel like you’re forming a trusting connection with your counselor, seek out a new therapist. It could take several tries to find the right therapist.
If you’re still not sure which type of therapy is best for you, talk to your healthcare provider or healthcare provider. Given a little bit of information about what you’re struggling with and what you hope to accomplish, your healthcare provider may be able to provide some insight to help you make your choice.
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