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What are the Different Theories of Psychotherapy?

By E. Reeder
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Psychotherapy itself is a broad and general term that encompasses a multitude of different theories and orientations. A therapist may choose to operate from only one of these theories or to combine different theoretical approaches when using psychotherapy with clients. Some of the most common theories of psychotherapy include psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, gestalt therapy, and behavior therapy. Other theories include rational emotive therapy and experiential therapy.

Developed by Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis was one of the first theories of psychotherapy. Various components of this method involve analyzing free associations made by clients to certain words or stimuli and seeking to identify transference and counter transference of clients' emotional problems onto others. Examining problems from clients' childhood and how they may affect their present behaviors and feelings, and attempting to determine clues to the problems of clients by analyzing their dreams may also be practiced. Modern psychotherapy, while different from psychoanalysis, in many ways originated from it.

One goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to assist clients in identifying dysfunctional, unrealistic or distorted thinking that they may have. The next goal is to help clients change their behavior after the realization that their thinking is flawed. According to cognitive behavioral theory, thoughts cause feelings and behaviors, so it is advantageous to help clients beginning with their thoughts first, which will then help to improve their feelings and actions.

The underlying idea behind gestalt therapy is that it is only advantageous for a therapist to analyze the whole client, and not merely parts, since the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. This type of therapy attempts to examine and improve the whole being by helping clients to become more aware of themselves, their environment, and the present. The ultimate goal of this therapy is to help clients feel whole and complete in the present so that they can begin to and continue to lead happy and healthy lives, physically and mentally.

Another one of the main theories of psychotherapy is behavior therapy, also called behavior modification therapy. This method seeks to decrease or eliminate problem or undesirable behaviors in patients by rewarding desired behavior and providing unwanted consequences for undesirable behavior. This therapy can potentially be used for a wide range of behaviors, from decreasing or eliminating smoking to helping a client with a fear of spiders gradually reduce her or his fear of them.

The goal of rational emotive therapy is to help clients see the rationality or irrationality behind their emotions or beliefs. This can then translate into increased positive emotions and actions and decreased negative emotions and actions. Through this therapy, for example, a client may gain understanding that his irrational beliefs over a tragic event are leading him to endure negative emotions in an unhealthy manner. This therapy could help that client to deal with his beliefs and negative emotions in a healthy way and thereby increase coping skills and happiness.

Experiential therapy relies on spoken communication and role-playing to help the client reenact past and present stressful life situations. By reenacting the situation, sometimes in a more positive way than was previously experienced, clients can then begin to visualize and think of the event or interaction in a more positive manner. Clients may develop improved coping skills and more effective solutions to problems through this therapy.

While there are other methods, models, and theories of psychotherapy, these are some of the main theories from which clinicians draw. Some of these methods may also be used with groups or families instead of only with individual clients. A widely varied but potentially effective therapy, psychotherapy can be used to help patients deal with stress, life changes, low self-esteem, and a multitude of other difficulties. It can also help treat diagnosable disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic depression, anxiety, and even various phobias. A truly effective psychotherapist chooses the approach that he or she thinks will work for each individual patient, tailoring the therapy to meet the needs of individuals and, if needed, using a variety of theoretical approaches.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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