What Are the Types of Therapy?

10 minutes Written by Mental Health Match & Reviewed by C. Adamo, PhD

Therapists use a variety of therapeutic approaches to help people heal, understand and cope. Since Sigmund Freud established the first forms of modern psychotherapy in the beginning of the last century, the practice continues to mature to meet a diverse range of cultural, generational and individual experiences.

Some therapies focus on thoughts, some on emotions, some on bodily feelings. Some focus on our everyday thoughts and actions, while others focus on patterns that motivate us unconsciously. This guide will help you understand the most popular talk therapy approaches used by therapists on Mental Health Match, most of whom use a combination of therapeutic approaches to support their clients. 

If you’re wondering which therapy is right for you, the answer is probably a blend. Mental Health Match was built to help everyone find the therapist who’s right for them. Our matching tool is designed to understand your needs, goals and wishes and then match you to therapists accordingly.

While it’s helpful and empowering to be informed when choosing a therapist, know that it’s also your therapist’s job not only to tailor their approach to best help you but to provide you with the information you need to understand how they are working to help you. They can even help you find someone who is a better fit if their approach is not working for you. 

Psychodynamic Therapies

Psychodynamic therapy is what’s most traditionally associated with the idea of therapy. It helps to surface the subconscious thoughts and feelings that have a big impact on your life. Usually these patterns were learned in childhood when your brain was (quite literally) growing and developing. Therefore, psychodynamic therapies will often explore early experiences, memories and caregiver relationships.

Psychodynamic therapy helps you better understand yourself and how you experience the world, as our learned patterns and reactions function below the surface of the way we operate in the day-to-day.

Techniques of psychodynamic therapies can include dream analysis and free association to create awareness of subconscious ideas, but not always. Many therapists blend psychodynamic techniques in their practice, as childhood experiences inevitably shape who we become as adults.

It can take time to build a trusting relationship in which these subconscious influences can come to the surface, so psychodynamic therapy relationships are often long-term and can last for months or years. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapies

Cognitive Behavioral Therapies have become increasingly popular recently. All forms of these therapies focus on your conscious thoughts and how your thinking influences your mood and behaviors. The goal of these therapies is to create a more grounded outlook in life through developing more balanced, helpful patterns of thinking. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapies can be short-term in nature and often focus on solving problems or realizing new goals. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps you identify unhelpful ways of thinking and replace destructive thoughts with more positive, helpful ones. For example, you may think, I’m always messing things up. CBT will help you realize how that thought is incorrect and harmful, and teach you to replace it with a more reasonable, compassionate thought, such as “I’m allowed to make mistakes” or “I am doing the best I can.”

CBT can involve homework or activities to do between therapy sessions, such as tracking your moods and the thoughts that correspond to them.  

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is rooted in the principles of CBT but helps people be more mindful, live in the moment, and regulate their emotions. DBT is a form of CBT that is helpful particularly for people who have very strong emotions or who often see things in black and white. 

In DBT, you learn to be more aware of strong emotional responses, develop skills to better tolerate distressing situations, and practice ways to regulate really strong emotions. 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps you make peace with distressing emotions and thoughts. Sometimes people numb, ignore, avoid, or fight to replace tough emotions like sadness, grief, doubt, and shame, but just end up creating more distress in the process. 

ACT teaches you to acknowledge and observe these feelings and move toward accepting them and the insights they provide. Once accepted, the emotional intensity behind strong feelings decreases and becomes less overwhelming. For many people, behavioral change and realizing goals requires a first step of better accepting the full range of your emotions. 

Somatic Therapies

Somatic therapies incorporate new neuroscience research into traditional talk therapies. They use research about how the mind’s thoughts and emotions influence the body’s physical sensations and vice versa. 

Many of these therapies are useful for treating trauma, which can influence our nervous system long after a traumatic experience. In many somatic therapies, you don’t need to talk about trauma, so these therapies can be useful if you are too overwhelmed by an experience to discuss it. 

Somatic therapies can also provide healing and relief for people who have not found improvement through talk therapy. However, unlike talk therapy, somatic therapies often work best for people who have a specific or many traumatic experience to address.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is based on a theory that your brain stores memories of normal and traumatic events in different ways. Memories of traumatic events can get stored in ways where your brain does not recognize that the danger is over and that you are now safe. Thus, remembering the traumatic experience or having a new experience that reinforces the trauma can activate your nervous system as if the threat still exists, leading to flight-fight-freeze instincts that occur when your body is activated and alert in the face of danger.

EMDR combines recalling a traumatic experience with bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, which allow your body to reprocess and restore the traumatic memories. When it works, EMDR can help your body realize the threat is over, freeing you from the panic, stress, fear, and anger you previously experienced.  

Somatic Experiencing

Similar to EMDR, Somatic Experiencing recognizes that the body can get stuck in its flight-fight-freeze response to trauma. When this occurs, the body becomes dysregulated, leading to feelings of panic, fear, and stress even when the threat has passed. 

Somatic Experiencing helps you learn tolerance for distressing sensations and then move toward calming and relaxing them. This can help you become more comfortable recalling and processing through traumatic memories, and ultimately help your body realize that it is now safe. 

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback, in which your brain waves are tracked and feedback is provided to you either visually or auditorily. In this way, you can become more aware of when your nervous system is in an aroused state and when it is in a calm state. 

Through this awareness, you can start to become more aware of your brain’s states and ultimately learn to recreate the desired state when you are faced with various stimuli. You can thus learn to induce calm when you previously reacted with agitation. 

Expressive Arts Therapies

Sometimes, it can be difficult to put into words what you are feeling or experiencing. Expressive arts therapies offer different ways to express yourself beyond just words alone. These therapies are great for both kids and adults and they don’t require creative skills to be effective. Just through the act of creation and expression, you can create new understanding and healing. 

Expressive arts therapies include:

  • (Visual) art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Dance therapy

Humanistic Therapies

Humanistic therapies focus on an individual’s agency to make change in their lives, which is different from therapeutic approaches that focus on the subconscious or neurobiological processes. Humanistic therapies often foster personal growth and insight while nurturing strengths and positive traits.

Person-Centered Therapy

Person-centered therapy, also known as client-centered therapy or Rogerian therapy, positions the client as the expert. Therapists who practice this approach often encourage the client to direct the discussion, while the therapist acts as a compassionate facilitator to support the process of self-discovery. Person-centered therapy can be particularly helpful when you want to discuss your culture of the cultural context of your experiences.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative Therapy focuses on the story you tell about yourself and your life. We all have many stories about our lives, relationships, heritage, and experiences. As we live our lives, we begin to craft a self-image and identity based on those stories. This dominant story becomes our focus, shaping our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to fit that story. 

For example, you may tell a story that you are unlovable or an outsider. As time goes on, this story becomes stronger, crowding out memories of times when people showed you love and appreciation. Ultimately, this story starts to define how you see yourself and how you react to different situations. 

In narrative therapy, you bring awareness to the stories you tell about your life and then start to ‘rewrite’ those stories in more accurate, uplifting, and helpful ways. 

Existential Therapy

Existential therapy combines elements of philosophy and psychology to help people navigate complex parts of human existence, such as finding meaning in life and relating to death and mortality. Existential therapy helps you accept some anxiety about existence and then use that comfort with uncertainty to figure out how you want to find purpose in life. 

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

EFT understands that emotions often convey insight and information about a person’s needs and attachment style. Thus, EFT helps people cultivate awareness of emotions and use that awareness to better understand how to meet one’s needs. In EFT, you’ll learn to use emotions as guides, determine which emotions are helpful or unhelpful in various situations, and take action based on what your emotions are telling you. 

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt Therapy helps you focus on the present and how you’re feeling in the moment, rather than how you think you should be feeling based on past experiences. This can help you develop greater awareness of your emotions. In Gestalt Therapy, you may often roleplay or recreate interactions and focus on your emotional reaction to those recreations. As you learn greater awareness of your emotions, you can learn to take responsibility for them and develop skills to satisfy your own needs. 

Internal Family Systems (IFS)

IFS suggests that you have multiple sub-personalities that make up your mental system. These sub-personalities contain parts that feel painful emotions such as anger and shame, parts that try to prevent painful emotions, and parts that try to extinguish painful emotions when they occur. These parts are often in conflict with each other, and the goal of the IFS is to create awareness of these parts and develop more balance and harmony between them. 

Eclectic Therapy

Therapists are often trained in many different approaches and draw upon various techniques to suit the specific needs and personality of their clients. When therapists say they practice an ‘Eclectic’ approach, they mean they combine some of the above ideas into their treatment based on what they think will be best for the client. If a therapist practices eclectic therapy, a good question to ask them is how and what of the above types of therapy do they utilize?

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C. Adamo, PhD

Written by Mental Health Match & Reviewed by C. Adamo, PhD

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