What Exactly Does a Psychotherapist Do?

Reviewed on 11/12/2020

What exactly does a psychotherapist do?

A psychotherapist helps people cope with and overcome mental health problems.
A psychotherapist helps people cope with and overcome mental health problems.

A psychotherapist or therapist is a trained professional who assists people with various mental health conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, bipolar disorder, negative behavior patterns, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other debilitating feelings. Psychotherapy is also called talk therapy and can help treat challenges and symptoms associated with mental health and emotional conditions by helping a person understand their repressed feelings, hence equipping them to face new challenges both in the present and future. Psychotherapists are nonjudgmental and compassionate. They are specifically trained to carefully listen and analyze the psychological needs of their patients and help them accordingly.

Psychotherapy is similar to counselling and the two can overlap. Psychotherapy is deeper and addresses the underlying causes of the problems, as well as helps the person solve them. There are different licenses held by professionals who practice psychotherapy, including social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health nurse practitioners. Although each of them may have different approaches in treating psychological difficulties, many mental health conditions may involve a team of various mental health professionals. This is especially true for more serious conditions such as addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder with suicidal tendencies. In many cases, based on the mental health condition, patients require psychotherapy and medication. Healthy lifestyle improvements, such as regular exercise, adequate rest and other specific activities recommended by the psychotherapist also play an important role in the recovery process and overall well-being.

In general, psychotherapists act as a guide toward helping their patients understand their condition and feelings, cope with daily life and manage their mental health to be able to function normally. This includes maintaining relationships and performing adequately at work or school, thus improving their quality of life. The time taken for patients to feel better varies based on their primary diagnosis, their support system and the patients themselves. Some patients feel better after a few sessions, whereas some may need years or lifelong sessions of psychotherapy to manage their mental health. To see positive results, patients ultimately need to understand they have a problem, recognize the need for change and follow the treatment plan advised by the specialist. About 75% of people who have undergone psychotherapy have been shown to benefit from it.

Psychotherapy and medication: In many cases, based on the mental health condition, patients require psychotherapy and medication. For many mental health disorders, medication has proven to be more useful than psychotherapy. In other cases, patients benefit more from a combination of medication and psychotherapy than from either one alone.

How are psychotherapy sessions conducted?

Psychotherapy may be conducted for an individual, a family, a couple or in a group setting for both children and adults. The number of sessions, frequency and duration of sessions are determined by the psychotherapist based on patients’ conditions and their progress. Sessions may be once a week or several times a week. It may be short-term (a few sessions) to deal with immediate issues or long-term (months to years) to deal with longstanding and complex issues. 

What are the types of psychotherapy?

There are several different types of psychotherapy. The psychotherapist would advise the appropriate therapy or a combination of various therapies for an individual based on their condition. Psychotherapy may be used in combination with medication and/or other therapies.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people identify and change thinking traps (thinking and behavior patterns that could be harmful and/or ineffective), replacing them with beneficial thoughts and functional behaviors. It can help a person understand their current problems and how to solve them by learning and practicing and new skills. CBT may be used in various disorders, such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy: This is a type of CBT that helps regulate emotions. It is usually used to treat people with long-term suicidal thoughts and those with borderline personality disorder, eating disorders or PTSD. Patients are taught new skills to help take responsibility and change unhealthy or disruptive behavior patterns. It usually involves both individual and group therapy.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT is a short-term treatment. It helps patients understand their underlying interpersonal issues such as unresolved grief, changes in social life or work and relationship conflicts that could be troublesome. It can help people develop healthy ways to express emotions, improve communication and solve conflicts.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: This therapy is based on the concept that behavior and mental health is influenced by past childhood experiences and inappropriate repetitive thoughts or feelings that the patient is not conscious of. Patients are helped by addressing these issues, improving self-awareness and changing old patterns.
  • Psychoanalysis: This is a more intensive type of psychodynamic therapy. Sessions are typically conducted at more frequent intervals than other therapies (three or more sessions a week).
  • Supportive therapy: The psychotherapist guides and encourages patients to develop their own resources by helping them improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety, improve coping mechanisms and improve social and community functioning. Supportive psychotherapy helps patients deal with underlying issues associated with their mental health conditions that would help them manage their mental health on their own for the rest of their lives.

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References
Medscape Medical Reference

American Psychiatric Association


American Psychological Association


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