A Glossary of Therapy Terms

Published on: 08 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
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If you’re not familiar with therapy, the various terms of its vocabulary can be confusing, which means they don’t always translate well to our everyday life. Unfortunately, sometimes these terms sound so confusing that they make people put off getting the treatment they need.

Key Terms in Mental Health Treatment

A comprehensive glossary would bore you to tears, but it’s nice to have a basic grasp of the common ideas — especially if you’re thinking of starting therapy yourself. Here are a few definitions to get you started:


The term diagnosis is a label to identify a defined condition. Mental health diagnoses are based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which classifies the specific criteria required to describe each diagnosis.

Treatment Plan

A treatment plan is simply a written plan detailing specific treatment goals. These goals include a description of the symptoms to be improved, the therapist’s methods to address them, and how you’ll measure progress.

Mental Status Exam

If your mental health professional refers to a mental status exam, you can expect a brief assessment to determine the impact of mental health symptoms through direct questions and therapist observations. In it, the therapist will evaluate your memory, clarity of thinking, emotional state, risk of harm, and intellectual functioning. This exam can help with diagnosis and treatment planning.

Psychological Testing

Psychological testing refers to a more thorough examination performed by a psychologist, with structured tests to measure specific traits. The examiner may inspect intelligence, academic ability, job skills, personality traits, or specific symptoms like distractibility or anxiety. These evaluations yield specific numbers to determine your strengths and needs.

Evidence-Based Intervention

Evidence-based intervention refers to any (psychotherapeutic) intervention with a solid research base showing it works. Since the body of psychotherapy research has grown over time, it’s gotten easier to assure that a strategy is valid and clinically proven to be effective.

Discharge or Termination

Discharge or termination refers to the ending procedures of therapy. The client-therapist relationship plays a significant role in the experience of therapy, and therefore it’s essential to plan the end of care carefully. Proper termination procedures reduce negative experiences for the client and prepare them for difficult feelings that accompany this transition.

Therapeutic Orientation

Therapeutic orientation is the type of therapy or theoretical approach a therapist uses. There are numerous types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy, interpersonal therapy, and many more. These therapeutic approaches are based on different theories about what causes mental health issues and typically include unique, defined treatment strategies. Some types of therapy provide better treatment for certain diagnoses, so it’s good to know if a therapist’s training fits your needs.


Personality or personality traits describe a person’s general style of interpreting and responding to their environment. Personality encapsulates traits like your stress tolerance, assumptions you tend to make, and how you handle relationships. Personality describes how you typically think and feel about the world around you and your place in it.


Simply put, cognition is thinking. Therapists can analyze your overall thought patterns to understand how best to help you. They also help you better understand metacognition, which is thinking about your thinking. By understanding and identifying your typical interpretations of a given situation, you can better challenge assumptions when they work against you.


Your mood is defined by a set of emotions or feelings, such as joy, despair, contentment, or anger. Mood reflects both current feelings and a general pattern of emotions over a period of time. For example, it’s one thing to have a bad day, but if you struggle with a lasting bout of sadness or irritability, you may be dealing with an overall depressed mood.


Affect is the physical expression of feelings. Mood is what you feel inside, your affect is what you project outside with facial expressions and nonverbal cues. Certain mental health conditions influence your affect, so it helps therapists get a better overall picture of a person’s current functioning.


Hallucinations are a perceptual experience that occurs in the absence of a real stimulus. The person hears, sees, tastes, smells, or feels things that aren’t really there. Hallucinations can indicate serious medical and psychological conditions. Therefore, although hallucinations are rare, a therapist will usually ask if you’ve had them.


Delusions are fixed beliefs that are highly unlikely to be real. For example, someone might believe aliens are talking to them through their TV news, or that they have special powers to predict the future. Delusions are another potential sign of serious illness, so therapists routinely assess for these.

If you’re hesitant to get involved with mental health services because the lingo is unfamiliar, don’t worry, it’s a learning process for all. Just like any other expert in a field, it’s easy for therapists to forget that the terms they use daily aren’t common knowledge. Still, good therapists want you to understand the process, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about any terms you don’t know.

This is just a short list to get you started if you’re new to therapy. For an excellent comprehensive glossary, check out the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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