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What are the different approaches to psychotherapy?

What does a psychotherapist do?

A psychotherapist will help someone who is having mental health difficulties find psychological help. What this means is that the therapist, through the relationship with the person they are working with, will try to change the way the person sees themselves, their situation, and their relationships. This process can take many forms, but the common denominator is that healing happens through a therapeutic relationship versus medicine or other medical interventions.

Two hands touching
All approaches to psychotherapy have the intent to heal and do no harm

Techniques therapists might use in counseling and psychotherapy

There are more treatment approaches than I can fit within the scope of this post. While I’ll try to paint a broad picture of the many categories and the theories and research behind them, each particular treatment approach likely has various branches and subgroups that won’t be covered here—it would be as difficult and lengthy as detailing the differences in musical subgenres.


Experiential psychotherapy focuses on the experiences that happen during the session. This means focusing on feelings and emotions and being guided past psychological defenses that keep you from experiencing certain emotions. Emotions provide important information and a vitality to life; experiential therapy helps bring these to consciousness.

Psychoanalytic and Psychodynamic

Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic models have their roots in the theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Many of Freud’s ideas aren’t used in treatment, though, and almost all of modern psychoanalytic treatment wouldn’t be recognizable to the originator. There’s a long history of this type of treatment that influences how practically all therapists conceptualize how humans think and feel.

This treatment focuses on the therapist trying to help you understand yourself better. The therapist will want to explore the relationships you have with your family and significant others as well as significant events in your past. The therapist will look at how the two of you interact and try to provide insight into how old patterns may be interfering in your present life. This approach explores what has meaning for you and helps to expand the range of emotional experience. This style of treatment is very deep and broad philosophically. There are many different approaches used by those who fall under this umbrella of treatment, but they all have in common the use of certain psychoanalytic concepts and techniques.

Behavioral and Cognitive

Those who practice this type of therapy typically focus on looking at thought patterns and how to change them. Goals are typically related to changing specific behaviors. Do you get angry every time you drive? A cognitive behaviorist will try to examine the process—when you start getting angry, how it gets triggered or escalates—and how to change that process. This approach also focuses on examining untrue beliefs about oneself and the world and how they affect feelings and behaviors. Timelines are short-term compared to many other techniques.

Existential and Humanistic

Existential and humanistic approaches deal with fundamental aspects of being human. Many times, this involves finding meaning and purpose in our lives. These approaches also deal with our mortality and making the most of our time on earth. Through this approach, we seek to have more enriched lives, living with purpose, and seeking meaningful connection with those around us.


This approach centers on how the scientific community currently understands the functioning of the brain. The neuropsychotherapist still helps the client deal with presenting problems using fundamental counseling approaches, but they also help the client understand how the brain works and ways to leverage that to try to remedy problems. A neuroscientific approach can be thought of as an add-on to other treatments since it still depends on using counseling techniques from other models.


There are very few purists in the field of psychotherapy. What I mean by that is that most therapists are influenced by many models and theories. This is what is known as an integrated, or eclectic, approach. If a therapist lists many treatment approaches, they’re using an eclectic treatment approach. If a therapist says they use an integrated or eclectic approach, they should still be able to articulate the different models they use and why. Someone who can’t tell you the details of the models they’ve integrated and how they use them might not be clear in what they’re doing. Be wary of someone using an integrated or eclectic approach who doesn’t have a clear answer to the question, “Please tell me what models you’ve integrated and how you use them.”

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