Over the years, the word “therapy” has become synonymous with an image of a therapist in a chair, peering over glasses as they take notes and nod periodically in response to a patient, supine on a couch, disclosing all of their deepest dreams and fears. In reality, there are many different kinds of therapies, and most of them look very different from that stereotypical image. However, when the average American hears the term “therapy,” talk therapy is most likely what comes to mind.
So what is talk therapy? Just as the name implies, talking is at the core of talk therapy. Quite simply, talk therapy is a practice in which a patient explores their feelings by talking about them. There are several types and schools of talk therapies under the larger umbrella of talk therapy, including group therapy, but all embrace the importance of speaking about one’s feelings in order to better understand them and uncover potential paths forward.
How Does Talk Therapy Work?
Therapy skeptics may wonder what the point of talking about your feelings with a stranger is when you could just seek out a trusted friend, family member, or mentor. While talking with the people you love is undoubtedly one of life’s joys, our loved ones aren’t always capable of handling our burdens. Not only are they not trained on what to say and how to react, but because they know us it’s often difficult to separate the person they know — us — from their own phobias, traumas, or mental health struggles. What’s more, we all have our own problems and it can be difficult to make space for other people’s, no matter how much we love them.
This is where a professional licensed therapist comes in. To a therapist, we are a blank slate — they only know what we tell them. Talk therapists are trained specifically to help us navigate our problems and identify patterns so that we are better equipped to find solutions.
While there is no one type of therapy or length of time that will be right for every person, some patients will see a therapist for a brief amount of time in order to work through a specific life issue, such as a divorce or loss of a loved one. Others will see their therapists on a regular basis for years. It’s all about what feels right for the patient and for the therapist.
A single therapy session normally lasts from 50 minutes to an hour. Some types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may follow an agenda at each session, while other types don’t follow any specific pattern. These unstructured sessions can feel more like a conversation, with the patient determining what they’d like to talk about from session to session.
Talk therapy can help a person deal with a wide spectrum of issues, including:
- Eating disorders
- Relationship issues
- Anger management
- Bipolar disorder
Different Types of Talk Therapy
Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, branches out in many different directions, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), psychodynamic therapy, humanistic therapy, and more. Most of these types of therapies are available in both individual and group settings. Here’s a brief overview of these therapies.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is dedicated to changing negative thought patterns by addressing our behavioral responses to uncomfortable situations. It’s a structured form of treatment, where the therapist directs sessions and guides the patient’s progress along a specific treatment path. Cognitive behavioral therapy typically occurs within a prescribed amount of time, usually a little more than 12 sessions. This therapy is best for those seeking solutions and ways to concretely change their behavior.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT tailored to help people cope with interpersonal issues. It was developed in the 1980s specifically to help patients struggling with personality disorders. It combines the practices of cognitive behavioral therapy with meditation and a focus on relationships. Dialectical behavioral therapy aims to help patients overcome their negative thought patterns by allowing them to hold multiple perspectives of their issues all at once.
Psychodynamic therapy emerges from the teachings of Sigmund Freud, although it has evolved since its early form. This type of therapy focuses on examining a person’s past experiences to better understand and interpret present behaviors and emotions. Because of the extensive self-reflection involved, psychodynamic therapy can take longer than some other forms of therapy.
Humanistic therapy approaches include client-centered and existential therapy and addresses problems by inspecting multiple angles of a person’s life. For example, one may unpack a particular issue by examining thoughts, actions, relationships, and physical feelings. These types of therapies tend to allow the client to shape their sessions and also may delve more deeply into existential questions and the meaning of one’s life.
Talk Therapy vs. Medication Therapy
Of course, talk therapy is not the only treatment option available for mental health issues. There’s no shortage of pharmaceutical treatments available, such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills.
Some in the mental health community believe that negative thought patterns are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Others think that these thought patterns are heavily influenced by a person’s environment and experiences. What’s the right answer?
Both theories are likely true. For most people suffering from severe depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders, medication can be greatly beneficial, especially for helping to curb physical side effects. However, the best results tend to come from a combination of talk therapy and medication. The smartest course of action is to consult a licensed mental health professional to discuss the various options.
How to Find a Therapist Specialized in Talk Therapy
You’ve decided you’re interested in exploring talk therapy more — congratulations! I wish I could say the hard part is over, but in all honesty, finding a therapist who’s right for you is a big part of the therapy journey. It could take a few practice sessions with different therapists before you find someone you really click with. Don’t worry if it takes a little while — it’s important to trust your instincts!
Where to start? Here are a few steps to follow to smooth the process:
1. Identify the type of talk therapy approach that sounds right for you
Once you’ve researched and decided which talk therapy feels right for you, you will be able to narrow your search to providers who specialize in this type of therapy.
2. Gather recommendations
Chances are, you know someone who’s in therapy or has been in the past. If you feel comfortable, ask them for recommendations. If these counselors aren’t covered by your insurance provider, feel free to reach out anyway — many therapists are willing to take a look at your list of providers who are covered to give their own recommendations.
3. Get in touch
Once you have a list of names, reach out via phone or email to schedule a consultation. Most therapists provide a free consultation phone call or in-person session to talk through your therapy goals and to see whether you’ll be a match.
4. Trust your gut
During your consultation or your first session, ask yourself whether you feel truly comfortable with the therapist. Are they listening to you? Are they asking the right questions? Do you feel supported and valued?
Don’t be afraid to be clear about what you’re looking for from therapy — you’re investing time, effort, and money into this process, and it’s important to be upfront and clear about your expectations from the start. If a therapist seems funny and warm, but their advice doesn’t resonate with you, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere — remember, this is a professional, and not a strictly personal relationship. The opposite can also be true — it’s just important that you feel a connection with your therapist and that they’re helping you make progress toward your goals
5. Check out alternative therapy options, such as online counseling or group therapy
Meeting a therapist in person isn’t your only treatment option. If you’re hesitant to travel, wary because of COVID, or are looking for a more flexible therapy option, check out services like Talkspace, which offer various choices for remote text or video counseling. Group therapy is another great option, especially if you’re looking to build your interpersonal skills. Most therapists can recommend groups in your area that specialize in focusing on different issues, such as anxiety, eating disorders, or grief.
No matter why you’re seeking counseling, talk therapy can likely help. As long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort involved in this work of self-reflection and excavation, the rewards are rich.