What is Psychotherapy?


Every healthy individual can feel, think and act. The interaction of these functions will often determine how much happiness or how much pain a person experiences in life.  The term psychotherapy can be defined as the communication process between a person trained to evaluate and suggest changes in an individual (i.e., a mental health counselor, a social worker, or a psychologist) and a person who attends the consultation (i.e., the patient or client).  The main purpose of psychotherapy is to offer a better quality of life to the person.  How?  By helping produce change in his or her thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

There are many schools of thought and therapy interventions (over 450) that seek to reduce the emotional pain of those who are struggling.  However, the following five interventions are particularly common among mental health professionals:

1) Cognitive therapy seeks to help patients change their thinking and the perception of their problems.  Cognitive therapists encourage patients to modify their beliefs, to identify any distorted thoughts, and to relate to others in different ways.  Cognitive therapy was pioneered by Aaron Beck.

2) Behavioral therapy tries to help a person to change behaviors or actions that have negative consequences for the individual’s life.  This kind of therapy is not concerned with the psychoanalytic state of the individual: it is based upon the principles of classical conditioning developed by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and operant conditioning developed by B. F. Skinner.

3) Cognitive behavioral therapy is a combination of the first two.  If the patient is able to change his/her thinking, consequently he/she will be able to change his/her behavior.

4) Humanist psychology contains several perspectives, but the best known is that of Carl Rogers, called person-centered therapy.  The therapist, with respect and acceptance, believes that the person has the ability to change by himself or herself.  Rogers believes that the therapist must empathize (enter the world of the client to understand the situation) to help make a difference.

5) Social constructionist philosophy includes solution focus brief therapy (SFBT).  In SFBT, which draws heavily on social constructionist philosophy, the therapist helps the clients identify their strengths and achievements and tries not to focus on their weaknesses.  The client is invited to explore and imagine how he/she wants to live their life in the future.  Some common questions therapists ask are: What will you notice around you that lets you know that a change or a miracle has happened in your life?  What will you see?  What will you hear?  What will you feel inside yourself?  How will you be different?

Today, it is uncommon for mental health professionals to use only one therapeutic approach.  Usually, they use a more eclectic approach, meaning that the therapist integrates several psychological theories and techniques, depending on the problem or the diagnosis of the patient.  In addition, the therapist should select an approach with which the client or patient feels comfortable and responds positively to the therapeutic relationship.

Although psychoanalysis started many years ago (around 1896) with the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis is not widely used nowadays.  Few therapists utilize a couch for the patient to lie down and try to analyze the subconscious for months or even years.  In addition, there are not many insurance companies that would be willing to pay for this kind of therapy.  However, we must give credit to Freud as he was the pioneer in this field, and his ideas led to the development of different schools of psychological thought.

However, how effective is psychotherapy?  Does it really work?  Some people who have had the opportunity to work with a therapist might say no.  Others may say their lives have improved significantly.  To achieve positive results, it is important that the individual receiving the treatment is motivated to do so.  Many studies show very favorable results in people who received psychotherapy, especially when their level of motivation and interest was acceptable.

Although some may assert that therapy is for weak people, such an assertion is false. On the contrary, seeking help is a sign of strength.  Therapy assists the individual to redirect his/her life and helps them to find solutions to challenging situations that otherwise may spiral out of control.


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