Psychotherapy

An Overview of Psychotherapy

Mental health—and the human nature and experience that shape it—are the domain of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counseling, is the practice of addressing mental health issues with a trained therapist.[1]

The most prominent form of psychotherapy is psychoanalysis, which focuses on the application of psychoanalytic theory as a method of treatment between a trained professional and a client. Psychoanalytic theory rests on the following key principles:

  • That each individual is unique
  • That there are factors outside of a person’s awareness—unconscious thoughts, feelings and experiences—that influence his thoughts and actions
  • That the past has a direct role in shaping the present
  • That human beings are consistently developing throughout their lives

By explaining human motivation, behavior, development and experience, psychoanalysis addresses psychological problems and help patients live a more successful life. By tracing a patient’s patterns and assumptions back to their early stages, psychoanalysts help patients explore how unconscious factors shape current relationships, patterns, emotions and behaviors. In the process, patients discover the underlying causes of their experiences as they explore, uncover and re-experience memories and impressions with their analysts.[2]

Brief History

A Viennese neurologist named Sigmund Freud pioneered psychoanalysis. Working directly with patients at the turn of the 20th century, he began to explore the role of the unconscious in the mental experience. He emphasized the importance of a dynamic exploration of the patient’s inner life under the expert guidance of a trained psychoanalyst. The results, he believed, would lead to a more complete understanding of oneself and the resolution of abnormal functioning and experiences. “Look into the depths of your own soul and learn first to know yourself,” he said, “then you will understand why this illness was bound to come upon you and perhaps you will thenceforth avoid falling ill.”[3]

Freud spawned a community of psychoanalysts who developed his theory extensively in the 20th century. His peers, successors and critics evolved the psychoanalytic method and enhanced his theory through clinical observations and further study of patients and events.

A rich and vibrant community of therapists, experts, scientists, patients and students has developed around psychoanalysis. Its principles and methods have helped define and enhance psychotherapy. They have also had far-reaching effects beyond psychotherapy: Psychoanalytic theory has informed the fields of history, sociology, and education, among others, and offered a novel and practical insight into human nature, its development and its effects.

Disciplines, Approaches and Techniques

Several schools of psychotherapy have emerged over the past century. Each discipline addresses different aspects of human nature and uses distinct therapeutic methods. These differentiated approaches, and the practitioners who apply them, aim to generate unique benefits for particular pathologies and patients.

While these disciplines differ from one another, they share many fundamental techniques—most notably, the use of spoken conversation (also known as “talk”) to explore the patient’s psychology. All psychotherapy is based on a structured exchange between a therapist and a patient, although disciplines can differ in their conception of the therapist’s role, objective and approach.

Prominent schools of psychotherapy include:

  • Psychoanalysis, which has spawned multiple sub-disciplines, including
  • Self psychology, which deepens the therapist’s empathy with the patient and describes the fundamental human needs for healthy development[4]
  • Analytical psychology (also known as Jungian psychology), which aims for the attainment of the self through individuation, or psychological integration[5]
  • Object relations theory, which emphasizes interpersonal relations in the family, particularly between mother and child[6]
  • Interpersonal psychoanalysis, which focuses on the patient as a social being whose relationships with caregivers, family, significant others, society and culture shape his mental experience[7]
  • Relational psychoanalysis, which focuses on the deeply engrained patterns of one’s interpersonal relationships[8]
  • Ego psychology, which holds that people have an innate capacity to function adaptively[9]
  • Gestalt therapy, which explores the phenomenological method of awareness, in which perceiving, feeling, and acting are distinguished from interpreting and reshuffling preexisting attitudes[10]
  • Positive psychotherapy, which is founded on the premise that man’s human nature is intrinsically good and that each person possesses four fundamental abilities: mental, social, spiritual, and physical[11]
  • Group psychotherapy, in which an intimate group of people meets and discusses its experiences with a professionally trained therapist to help themselves and one another[12]
  • Behavioral therapy, which addresses how changes in behavior can lead to changes in one’s experience, and emphasizes positive and socially reinforcing activities[13]
  • Hypnotherapy, which uses guided relaxation, intense concentration, and focused attention to achieve a heightened state of awareness to help achieve therapeutic benefits[14]

Many disciplines of psychotherapy exist, and sub-disciplines and differentiated methods continue to emerge as the field of psychotherapy evolves.

Benefits of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can generate real and significant benefits for patients. The techniques of psychotherapy and the critical relationship between patient and analyst have the ability to address key challenges and improve a patient’s quality of life.

The benefits of psychotherapy include:

  • A reduction in emotional suffering, including stress, anxiety, and depression[15]
  • A new and illuminating perspective on current problems and situations[16]
  • Improved ability to cope with the side effects of medication[17]
  • Increased openness, transparency and empathy
  • A more complete and nuanced understanding of oneself and one’s relation to others and the world
  • Improved relationships with oneself, others, and society
  • A manageable, attainable, goal-oriented approach to addressing emotional suffering[18]
  • A safe and supportive environment in which to explore and resolve psychological issues[19]

As a theory of human nature, as a method of treatment and as a community of practitioners, psychotherapy has advanced our understanding of the human condition and offers a profound approach to the important work of self-knowledge and self-improvement.


  • [1] Mayo Clinic Staff. "Psychotherapy." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 01 Sept. 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/psychotherapy/MY00186>.
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  • [11] "Positive Psychotherapy." Positive Psychotherapy. GoodTherapy.org, 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.goodtherapy.org/Positive_Psychotherapy.html>.
  • [12] "Group Works." Group Works! Information about Group Psychotherapy. American Group Psychotherapy Association, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.groupsinc.org/group/consumersguide2000.html>.
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  • [16] Nazario, Brunilda. "Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy) for Depression Treatment." WebMD. WebMD, 2 May 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/treatment-resistant-depression-psychotherapy?page=2>.
  • [17] Nazario, Brunilda. "Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy) for Depression Treatment." WebMD. WebMD, 2 May 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/treatment-resistant-depression-psychotherapy?page=2>.
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