What is Psychotherapy?

What is psychotherapy

This article will explore some of the most common questions that people have about psychotherapy. Terms such as “therapy,” “counseling,” and “psychotherapy” are used so frequently that many people  have a general sense of what they mean but are not sure of the details. Sadly, there is often a slightly embarrassed tone patients will have asking these questions, as if they should already know the answer. There are no bad questions, however, and no shame in not-knowing. In this blog we will talk about what exactly is meant by the term psychotherapy, as well as a number of other related questions: what is a therapist versus a psychotherapist; what are the benefits of psychotherapy; how does psychotherapy work; review common forms of psychotherapy, and how does a person find a good therapist.  

Psychotherapy is the process of a patient meeting with a mental health professional to improve or enhance psychological well-being. Although lay people and other professionals also can provide emotional and psychological support, psychotherapy is provided exclusively by people who have graduate level training in psychology, working with thoughts/behaviors, and identifying mental illnessPsychotherapist is a broad, umbrella term used to describe these professionals. After completing graduate school and receiving many hours of post-graduate supervision, they can become “licensed psychotherapists, who have the ability to work without supervision and can bill therapy sessions to health insurance plans. This process takes roughly two years of full-time practice. In addition to having advanced training, psychotherapists are also bound by ethical and professional standards set forth by state licensing boards and professional organizations.    

What is the difference between a therapist and a psychotherapist?

The terms “therapist” and “psychotherapist” are often used interchangeably, but “therapist” is a general term for any professional who provides treatment for injuries, disorders, disease, or specific needs. There are many different kinds of therapists, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, massage therapists, and speech therapists, to name only a few.  A “psychotherapist” is a specific type of trained therapist who practices various types of talk therapy, focused on understanding and resolving emotional difficulties and mental health problems

There are also further distinctions between different types of trained psychotherapist, which often leads to questions, such as “what’s the difference between a psychologist, a counselor, and a psychotherapist?”. Here is a brief list of various types of mental health professionals covered under this umbrella term:

      • Clinical Psychologist: A person who has a doctoral degree in psychology. In addition to providing therapyclinical psychologists can also be found in a wide variety of settings, including providing psychological testing, teaching, engaging in psychological research, and forensics. There is also a further distinction between someone who is a clinical psychologist and a licensed clinical psychologist, the latter being a professional with a doctorate who has completed a set number of supervised hours and passed a licensing exam.

      • Psychiatrist: A person who is a medical doctor and who went to a residency program to specialize in psychiatry. Although some psychiatrists provide psychotherapy, most psychiatrists focus exclusively on working with clients around issues related to medication. 

      • Counselor (LPC/LCPC): Generally speaking, “counselor” is a general term that can be used interchangeably with “psychotherapist.” However, there is an official designation for “Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)” for an individual who has obtained a masters degree in psychology or counseling and completed an initial exam. Once they have completed their supervised hours and passed their second exam, they  become fully licensed and have the designation, “Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)”.

      • Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): Although there are many different types of psychotherapists who provide couples or family therapy, there is a specific designation of Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), for a professionals who have completed specialized training, supervision, and exams in this area.

      • Clinical Social Worker (LSW/LSCW): Much like “counselor,” the term “social worker,” is a broad umbrella for many types of social work professionals, many of whom have little or no training in psychotherapyClinical social workers have, like all the professionals above, additional training and education in  psychotherapy techniques.  Licensed social workers have a masters degree, but who have not completed their supervised hours of practice. A licensed clinical social worker has completed their post-graduate training and passed a licensing exam.

    • Psychoanalyst: A licensed professional, of any designation, who has received advanced training and supervision in psychoanalysis, which is its own distinct type of therapy, famously started by Sigmund Freud. It is a rare designation at this time.

    The breakdown of who provides psychotherapy in the US is roughly:

        • 60% Clinical Social Workers

        • 35% Licensed Counselors and Licensed Psychologists

        • 5% Psychiatrists

      What are the benefits of Psychotherapy?

      Some of the benefits of psychotherapy include:

      1.  Overcome and treat mental health conditions: Countless studies have shown psychotherapy to be an effective way to improve a wide variety of mental health conditions including depression; anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorderbipolar disorder, and many others. Additionally, while psychiatric medications are an important part of treating many mental disorders, the presence of psychotherapy will oftentimes greatly amplify the positive impact of the medicine.  
      2. Greater self-awareness: Through providing a safe space to explore past eventstherapy helps patients identify patterns of thought, emotions, interpersonal style, and behavior. Through this insight, clients are better able to both navigate current problemsfamily issues, and overcome past experiences that may be holding them back and develop new ways of thinking and coping.
      3. Improved resilience: Through the process of working with a therapistclients learn to explore new strategies to better navigate adversity and stress. This process, over time, can lead to an improved resilience in how people relate to adversity and achieve greater coping skills.
      4. Greater sense of well-being: In addition to helping people overcome clinical disorders, psychotherapy can help individuals, including those functioning at an already high level, gain a greater sense of overall well-being.
      5. Physical health improvements: Numerous studies suggest that psychotherapy has a positive impact, not just on peoples’ emotions and relationships, but also on their physical health.  Therapy appears to have the ability to help decrease stress hormones, increase immune system response, improves sleep, and also reduces isolation.

      Admittedly, the benefits of psychotherapy can vary greatly, depending on a wide variety of factors including the type of therapy, the experiences of the clinician, and most of all, individual differences in personality style and character.

      Does Psychotherapy Work?

      Yes. Psychotherapy clearly works. Although everyone responds differently, there is no doubt, based on countless studies, that psychotherapy has a demonstrable positive impact on the lives of many people.

      The most important factor in whether therapy will work is finding a psychotherapist with whom you feel comfortable. Having a good, open relationship with a psychotherapist is actually more important factor than their educational background or what type of therapy they perform.

      Types of Psychotherapy (List types with short description of each)

      There are many different types of psychotherapy, but some of the more common types include:

      1. Psychodynamic psychotherapyPsychodynamic therapy is a type of therapy, strongly influenced by early psychoanalytic theory, which helps individuals gain insight into patterns of thoughts and behaviors, with an appreciation that these things are often influenced by our unconscious. Psychotherapy sessions will focus on the person’s current life and goals, but also invite an understanding of how our upbringing and childhood experiences can impact the ways we view ourselves and the world.  There are many sub-forms of psychodynamic therapy including object relations theory, ego psychology, self psychology, and relational psychotherapy.
      2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a well-known type of therapy that also helps individuals recognize and change negative patterns of thought and behavior that may be causing problems. Unlike psychodynamic therapy, there is less focus on past experience and the unconscious. Instead, there is an exploration of common forms of thinking such as “cognitive distortions,” which are closely associated with disorders such as depression and anxiety. Through an identification of these patterns and learning how to work with cognitive distortions, unhealthy behaviors are  more likely to stop unhealthy behavior and increase positive feeling. Unlike psychodynamic therapyCBT might entail step-by-step instruction and even homework. CBT can be seen as a merger of both cognitive therapy (which focuses on patterns of thought) and behavioral therapy (which focuses on patterns of behavior).
      3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is a type of psychotherapy that aims to help individuals develop psychological flexibility and live a meaningful life. Regarded as an offshoot of CBT and influenced by mindfulness, rather than trying to eliminate or control “cognitive distortions,” ACT encourages individuals to accept thoughts and feelings. Rather than trying to control thoughts, which is essentially impossible, clients are encouraged to focus on doing things aligned with their personal values. Techniques used in ACT include mindfulness, values clarification, and a skill known as cognitive defusion.
      4. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP): SP is a type of therapy that explores the connection between the body and the mind, recognizing that thoughts or words alone may not heal deeply rooted feelings or experiences. SP is often used to help individuals overcome the negative effects of trauma by exploring how the body holds onto these traumatic memories and sensations. A variety of techniques are used, including mindfulness and body awareness, so that individuals can learn to regulate their emotional states and overcome past experience.
      5. Mindfulness-based PsychotherapyMindfulness-based psychotherapy integrates mindfulness techniques into traditional talk therapy. Broadly speaking, this therapy helps individuals develop present-moment awareness and cultivate a non-judgmental, accepting awareness towards their thoughts and feelings. By increasing this specific type of self-awareness, the sense of distress that people feel is naturally reduced, as they are no longer stuck in a cycle of obsessing over the past or fearing the future. Additionally, through this process individuals can learn to identify and change previously unconscious negative patterns of thought and behavior
      6.  Internal Family Systems (IFS): Internal family systems works within a framework that people are made up of multiple selves or multiple “parts.” In addition to “parts”, IFS maintains that everyone also has within them a “Self,” which contains a number of positive traits including kindness, courage, curiosity, clarity, connection, and others. The goal of therapy is to help patients gain greater access to this Self energy, and from that place, and work directly with parts to help them find greater peace and/or integration and cooperation with others parts. IFS is its own therapy, but shares similarities with a number of other techniques, such as inner child work and active imagination. 
      7. “Eclectic”: The truth is that every clinician borrows from these different formats and theories. Frankly, during individual sessions the therapist may not be consciously thinking about clinical theory at all, much like a musician doesn’t focus on theory during a performance. Rather than being focused on theory in a session, therapist and client are likely more concerned with the specific situation at hand and/or reaching the common goal of many peoples’ treatment plan, oftentimes phrased as simply as, “I want to feel better” or “I want better self-esteem“.    

      These are just a few of the many types of psychotherapy available. The specific type of therapy that is most effective for an individual depends on their unique needs and circumstances. The form of professional help matters less, in general, than a good fit with the therapist and a general sense of receiving emotional support

      How do I find a good psychotherapist?

      As noted above, finding a good psychotherapist can take some time and effort, but is the most important thing in whether therapy will be successful:

      1. Ask for recommendations: Ask friends, family members, or healthcare professionals for recommendations. Although they may not be able to refer their own therapist, as they might be a conflict of interest, they may help you find like-minded clinicians, often at the same practice. If you know someone who has had a positive experience with a psychotherapist, ask them for their contact information and whether they would recommend them.
      2. Check online:  It is hard to get a sense of a therapist online, but searching google or other online directories, such as Psychology Today, can be a good place to start. These directories often allow you to search for therapists by location, specialty, and insurance, which can greatly help you narrow down the options. 
      3. Consider the therapist’s approach: If you are interested  Different therapists have different approaches to therapy, so it’s important to find one whose approach resonates with you. You can often find this information on the therapist’s website or online profile.
      4. “Shop Around”: It is perfectly acceptable for a person to meet with more than one therapist initially to see who will be a good fit. If you do this, however, you should be open with the therapists that you are meeting a number of people. Although change in therapy comes gradually, the first psychotherapy session is often enough to determine whether you resonate with a particular person or not.
      5. “Pick someone you like”:  As noted earlier, the most important factor in whether therapy will be beneficial is forming a good relationship between patient and therapistClients obviously don’t have to be best friends with their therapist, but you need to find someone with whom you feel comfortable and who you feel understands you well. It is hard to know who you will connect with prior to actually having a session, so it is completely permissible to meet with a number of therapists until you find the right fit.

      When you are ready, call 773-414-4577 or click here to book an appointment online.

      Related Articles


      Although we’ve seen a recent interest in and increase of media coverage of sexual harassment and assault, all forms of sexual violence, including workplace sexual

      Read More »


      There’s no question that having a baby is a life-changing experience. While the expectation may be that you should be joyfully and effortlessly bonding with

      Read More »


      One type of therapy we use is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. CBT is the process of working through unhealthy patterns and replacing them

      Read More »