Therapy [psychotherapy] is the process of working with a licensed therapist to develop positive thinking and coping skills and treat mental health issues such as mental illness and trauma. Answering the question of “What is therapy?,” however, goes far beyond this basic definition.
The definition of psychotherapy depends on the therapist, type of therapy and time period. By exploring these three factors and their combinations, we defined what therapy was, what it is and what it might become. These pieces form the complete definition.
By reading a thorough answer to “What is therapy?,” you should be able to pick which part of therapy and which kind of therapist is most appealing to you. Understanding what therapy is could be the first step toward trying something that will help you live a happier life.
How Do Therapists Define What Therapy Is?
Every therapist defines therapy in at least a slightly different way. By looking at the aspects they stress, you can see a more detailed picture of what therapy is and whether the therapist’s approach aligns with your goals.
Here are some definitions we gathered by surveying our therapists at Talkspace and reaching outside our network:
- A commitment to yourself and to opening yourself up to someone else; being willing to trust someone enough to let them into your life and learn from each other — Alaina Brubaker, Talkspace Therapist
- A way of changing your perspective on how to handle a situation — Noor Pinna, Talkspace Therapist
- A communication process of increasing clarification and understanding pertinent to specific experiences related to such terms as discomfort, dissatisfaction, disappointment, discontent, disenchantment, and other dispositions that are perceived as problematic — Ken Fields, Talkspace Therapist
- A dynamic process that occurs in a safe and contained relational frame wherein destructive patterns of being are identified and replaced with healthy and productive ones — Paul Hokemeyer, Marriage and Family Therapist
- Empathy, a nonjudgmental attitude and the creation of a safe space in which nothing the client wants to explore is off-limits and everything is on the metaphorical table — Kristen Martinez, LGBT Therapist
- Learning how to overcome your personal or relational struggles by developing long-term tools — Jennine Estes, Marriage and Family Therapist
- The art and science of engineering self-improvement and growth in clients via a strong therapeutic relationship and evidenced-based therapies — Michael Zito, Therapist, Ph.D.
- Helping clients break free of old ideas, patterns and wounds that are restricting their happiness and contentment; coaching them through life passages, teaching skills and techniques for self-awareness, relationships and success — Tina B. Tessina, Therapist, Ph.D.
What Is Therapy (Based on Each Type)?
If you asked a psychoanalytic therapist to define psychotherapy, the answer would be a far cry from one a cognitive behavioral therapist would offer.
All forms of psychotherapy exist to improve clients’ mental health, but the definition for each type stresses a different primary purpose. The best type for you will be the definition that most closely resembles your reasons for considering going to therapy.
If there isn’t any one type that appeals to you or seems like enough to help you, consider a therapist who uses multiple approaches or does not identify with a single approach.
Note: The following list includes the most widely practiced types of therapy. A complete list would be too long.
Client-Centered Therapy: you determine the course of the session; the therapist helps build self-esteem and problem-solving abilities but does not guide the session
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT]: challenging negative patterns about yourself and the world to alter unwanted behaviors or treat disorders such as depression
Dialectical Behavior Therapy [DBT]: stressing acceptance and change while learning behavioral skills (mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation) that help clients enhance motivation, overcome challenges, improve mental health or treat a disorder (often borderline personality disorder)
Existential Therapy: working with a therapist to find meaning in life and confront the “givens” of human existence: isolation, meaninglessness, mortality and freedom
Family-Focused Therapy [FFT]: working with family members and a therapist to understand how their behavior impacts your bipolar disorder or overall mental health
Gestalt Therapy: gaining an awareness of emotions and behaviors in the present rather than focusing on the past; improving self-awareness and personal responsibility
Interpersonal Therapy [IPT]: improving communication patterns, relational abilities and the way you see yourself to better manage and express emotions, treat mental illnesses such as depression and improve mental health
Psychodynamic Therapy: understanding the influence of the past and subconscious processes on present behavior
What Was Therapy Before Freud?
To fully understand what something is, you need to explore its past, present and possible future. This timeline will give you a richer understanding of what psychotherapy is and how it evolved.
Before Freud and other early psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt, philosophy was the closest thing to therapy. It was the only field that explored human behavior and mental health.
“Psychology is an offshoot of philosophy,” psychologist Bart Rossi told Talkspace.
Rossi cited schools of philosophy such as rationalism and empiricism. He also said philosophers including Immanuel Kant contributed to the development of therapy.
One of the best examples of philosophy informing psychotherapy is existential therapy, which is derived from existential philosophy. Existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, who shaped the field of modern existential therapy, said existential philosophers such as Nietzsche inspired his work.
What Was Therapy During Freud’s Time and the 20th Century?
Because Freud was a psychiatrist, early psychotherapy was mostly about reducing symptoms. It followed a medical model rather than the wellness/medical model we see today. Therapy was for “patients” with diagnosable mental illnesses, not “clients” who see a therapist for various reasons.
“I think in the past, therapy was centered around ‘fixing’ what was ‘wrong’ with people,” said therapist Kristen Martinez. “Certain people thought they were the healthy ones, and psychotherapy focused on getting ‘unhealthy’ people to be healthy like them.”
What Is Therapy Now?
Modern psychotherapy tends to balance a wellness and medical model. Therapists want to reduce symptoms in people dealing with mental illness, but they focus more on the person.
CBT changed the definition of therapy, according to Rossi. It is now more behavior-focused and does not use the dynamic approach as often.
The advent of online therapy has also appended what therapy is. Although earlier definitions of therapy did not explicitly describe it as occurring only in-person, it needed to happen in an office because the Internet did not exist.
Earlier definitions also implied therapy could only take place in “sessions” where the therapist and client scheduled a meeting or phone call. Because of technology and approaches such as the asynchronous texting Talkspace offers, therapy does not require sessions.
What Will Therapy Become?
The basic definition of therapy seems here to stay, but there are trends that will expand the answer to the question of what therapy is.
Here are some trends that might evolve the definition of psychotherapy:
- More technological advances in online therapy
- Virtual reality
- Integration of medical care
- More focus on the therapeutic relationship
- More cultural consideration
- New CBT approaches
Now that we’ve discussed what therapy is, take a moment to think about what it can do for you. The titular question is also an opportunity to improve your mental health and live a happier life.