What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is essentially a form of treatment that involves talking to a therapist about your thoughts and feelings. Unlike other medical treatments, psychotherapy is based on the collaborative relationship between an individual and a psychologist.

How does psychotherapy work?

The psychotherapist uses clinical methods that are based on established psychological principles and research to help you make changes in your life. You work together to identify the root causes of the problems and change the thought and behavior patterns that stop you from healthy living and feeling your best.

Is there evidence that psychotherapy works?

The evidence for the efficacy of psychological treatment is indisputable. An average person receiving psychotherapy does better than 79% of those who do not! In some cases, it is preferable to have a combination of medication and psychotherapy particularly for psychotic and chronic disorders, and in other cases such as Eating Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, psychotherapy is found to be superior to medication. The benefits of therapy continue even after therapy is completed as people use what they have learned in therapy to cope with life stress and thrive in their daily living.

Are all types of psychotherapy effective?

For a type of psychotherapy to be effective, it has to be designed to be therapeutic, delivered by a competent therapist, have a psychological theory and uses therapeutic actions that lead to healthy and helpful changes in your life.

Each type of psychotherapy has its own theory about why we think and feel the way we do and how it's best to help you. They provide an explanation for your distress and helps you understand what you can do to improve your situation.

Broadly speaking, there are two main theory traditions that started in America and Europe.

  • In America, therapists focused on how behaviour and thought patterns affect how we feel, and so developed therapies to help us change our behaviour and thoughts to help us improve how we feel. This includes talking treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
  • In Europe, therapists were interested in the reasons why we think and feel things, and developed therapies to help us understand our thoughts and feelings, and so be better able to cope with them. This includes talking treatments like psychodynamic therapy.

The most important aspect of effective therapy is that you and the psychotherapist work together to help you reach your goals in therapy. Psychotherapy is not one-sided where you sit and receive advice, but you are working together to achieve your goals in therapy.

What are some examples of effective treatments for mental health problems?

Some examples include:

  • Depression
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
    • Emotion-Focused Therapy
    • Short-Term Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Bipolar Disorder
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
    • Family Focused Therapy
    • Psychoeducation
  • Anorexia Nervosa
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
    • Family-based Treatment
  • Bulimia Nervosa
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
    • Family-based Treatment
    • Interpersonal Therapy
    • Healthy Weight Program
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
    • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
    • Schema-focused Therapy
  • Substance abuse
    • Motivational Interviewing
    • Seeking Safety
    • Friends Care

To find out more information about the efficacy and mechanisms of psychotherapy:

Barsaglini, A., Sartori, G., Benetti, S., Pettersson-Yeo, W., & Mechelli, A. (2014). The effects of psychotherapy on brain function: A systematic and critical review. Progress in neurobiology, 114, 1-14.

Cuijpers, P., Sijbrandij, M., Koole, S. L., Andersson, G., Beekman, A. T., & Reynolds, C. F. (2013). The efficacy of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy in treating depressive and anxiety disorders: a meta‐analysis of direct comparisons. World psychiatry, 12(2), 137-148.

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses.Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427-440.

Huhn, M., Tardy, M., Spineli, L. M., Kissling, W., Förstl, H., Pitschel-Walz, G., Leucht, C., Samara, M., Dold, M., Davis, M. & Leucht, S. (2014). Efficacy of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for adult psychiatric disorders: a systematic overview of meta-analyses. JAMA psychiatry, 71(6), 706-715.

Kazdin, A. E. (2007). Mediators and mechanisms of change in psychotherapy research. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 3, 1-27.

Lehto, S. M., Tolmunen, T., Joensuu, M., Saarinen, P. I., Valkonen-Korhonen, M., Vanninen, R., Tiihonen, J., Kuikka, J. & Lehtonen, J. (2008). Changes in midbrain serotonin transporter availability in atypically depressed subjects after oneyear of psychotherapy. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 32(1), 229-237.

Linden, D. E. J. (2006). How psychotherapy changes the brain–the contribution of functional neuroimaging. Molecular psychiatry, 11(6), 528-538.


Adapted from:

©Mind UK, September 2016—understanding-psychotherapy.aspx—psychological-treatments