Feeling overwhelmed with life? Experiencing anxiety? Struggling with your mental health can be scary, especially when you don’t know where to turn or how to begin working on improving yourself.
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Talking to a trained mental health professional can help. And depending on what you’d like to accomplish during your sessions, there are a variety of different therapies.
Psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, discusses the most common types of therapy and what might work best for you.
What is psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can help those with mental disorders or emotional difficulties. It can lessen symptoms and help individuals function better in their everyday lives.
This kind of therapy is often used in combination with medication or other therapies.
The National Institute of Mental Health says 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental, behavioral or emotional disorders, but less than half have received any mental health services in the past year.
Consider therapy if:
- You have trouble managing stress.
- You consistently feel overwhelmed or exhausted.
- You have persistent problems you can’t solve on your own.
- You feel depressed or disinterested in life.
- You have anxiety.
Common types of psychotherapy
There are several types of therapy. A mental health professional may combine different aspects of different types to best meet the needs of the individual seeking treatment.
Therapists use this approach to help people identify unconscious beliefs that can impact their mood and behavior — many times stemming from their childhood. For example, someone who was disciplined as a child for any grade below an A might have an unconscious belief that they will be punished for anything less than perfect.
“The goal is to increase insight into whatever kind of unconscious material might be driving behavior in order to promote some kind of change through the person understanding themselves and why they do certain things,” says Dr. Potter.
This is a good option for those who have problems with self-esteem, self-confidence and self-expression. It can also help those who have depression and anxiety.
A contrast to psychodynamic therapy, behavioral therapy focuses on the present. There’s less focus on why a behavior started and more emphasis on the barriers to changing it and why that behavior is being rewarded.
“We want to reinforce desired behaviors that we want to increase,” says Dr. Potter. “And then we want to have consequences for undesired behaviors.
Used often with children, it establishes rewards for things like making their bed and removes privileges for things like acting out.
Some subsets of behavioral therapy include:
- Systematic desensitization: This practice slowly introduces exposure to something you might fear like spiders.
- Aversion therapy: The idea here is to create consequences for behaviors that you want to stop like biting your nails.
- Flooding: A more direct approach to dealing with phobias, this practice places you in a situation where you’re confronted with your fear or phobia so you can process all your feelings at once.
Behavioral therapy is good for dealing with phobias, substance use disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy combines some of the principles of behavioral therapy with the theory that our thoughts, feeling or behaviors are all connected and influence each other.
“So if we think differently or if we act differently, we could likely feel differently,” says Dr. Potter. “And sometimes our feelings are going to also influence how we think and act.”
A lot of CBT involves talking with your therapist about your thought process about any situations you’d like to discuss. Your therapist will ask what you were thinking and how it made you feel.
“It’s really trying to identify and shift patterns of thinking that might be problematic or inaccurate,” says Dr. Potter.
The goal is to replace harmful or negative thought patterns or behaviors with ones that helpful and positive.
People with mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders and OCD might find CBT helpful.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
Originally developed as a specific treatment for borderline personality disorder, this type of therapy focuses on developing skills to cope with challenging situations. “Dialectical” simply means a logical discussion of ideas and opinions, and the goal is to learn how to deal with and accept difficult emotions,” she says.
“It’s used to treat disorders that have a lot of emotional dysfunction,” says Dr. Potter. “It helps people develop mindfulness, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness skills. It helps them regulate negative emotions and have healthier relationships.”
Dialectical behavioral therapy is useful for people who are having suicidal thoughts and other self-destructive behaviors.
Focusing on people’s strengths, humanistic therapy can help people achieve their goals and feel more satisfied in life. It focuses less on treating symptoms and problems.
“You will usually focus on self-discovery and self-acceptance,” says Dr. Potter. “It could be really helpful for someone who is doing OK in life but wants to grow.”
Sessions are less structured than other therapies and are good for those who want to discuss existential issues or big picture issues. It can help you understand your worldview and develop true-self acceptance.
Anyone dealing with self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression or anxiety might find humanistic therapy beneficial.
How to decide what’s best for you
To help find the best type of therapy for you, Dr. Potter suggests starting out with what problems or issues you’d like to discuss.
- What do I want to change?
- What is getting in the way of me making that change?
- How much structure do I want in my sessions?
“For example, if you know you have a compulsive behavior like gambling or overeating, then you might want to seek out a behavioral therapist,” she says.
It’s also important to note that many mental health professionals use an integrative approach, meaning they are trained in a variety of therapies and will often use multiple approaches into their patient’s treatment.
Ask any potential therapists the following questions to help make the best decision:
- Are you licensed?
- Do you have experience treating people with similar problems?
- How do you think that I can get better?
- What kind of approaches do you use for problems like this?
“If you have a sense that something is wrong and you don’t know how to fix it, then therapy is a good option,” says Dr. Potter.