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We all go through periods of emotional distress. For some people, the problems are short term, and no treatment is needed.

But for others, participating in talk therapy can make a significant difference in how they feel and possibly change their outlook on life.

Whether you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, coping with a medical illness, or feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed, it might be time to consider talk therapy.

Talk therapy, which is also known as psychotherapy, is what mental health professionals use to communicate with their patients. The purpose of talk therapy is to help people identify issues that cause emotional distress.

For some people, these issues are complex and may result in a diagnosis of a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

But for others, talk therapy may simply serve as a safe place to discuss feelings and emotions triggered by daily stressors, a medical illness, relationship issues, grief and loss, or the impact of a specific trauma.

Once the issues are identified, a therapist will help you understand how these stressors are affecting your life and work to develop strategies and solutions to help decrease the severity of the symptoms.

In general, a talk therapy session lasts about an hour, often 50 minutes. How often you go to therapy and how long you continue depend on the severity of symptoms and the treatment plan your therapist develops.

Initially, you may expect to attend therapy once a week. While this may seem like a major commitment, attending weekly sessions gives you the chance to develop a relationship with your therapist and adjust to the process.

The frequency of sessions may change to bimonthly as you develop coping strategies and begin showing signs of improvement.

Highlights

  • Talk therapy teaches you new and helpful ways of coping with distress and its impact on your life.
  • It can help you find healing from anxiety, depression, trauma, and other mental health-related symptoms, conditions, and issues.
  • Psychotherapy gives you the chance to talk to someone who’s trustworthy and unbiased about your mental health issues.
  • It can positively impact your life and your lived experience.
  • It may reduce long-term risks of mental health conditions.

Drawbacks

  • It may feel uncomfortable talking with a stranger about your deepest feelings and emotions.
  • It can take time to see progress or results of treatment.
  • Sessions may not be covered by insurance.
  • Talk therapy can feel like a major time commitment.

Choosing the right therapist is just part of the equation. You’ll also want to read up on the different approaches to talk therapy. The good news? There are a lot of options, which means you’ll likely find one that works for you.

There are five broad categories of psychotherapy, according to the American Psychological Association. These approaches include:

  • Behavioral therapy. The goal of behavioral therapy is to reduce or eliminate unhealthy behaviors by addressing them and also reinforcing positive behaviors.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapists who use CBT help clients recognize negative or unhelpful thought and behavioral patterns.
  • Humanistic therapy. There are three subtypes within humanistic therapy: client-centered therapy, Gestalt therapy, and existential therapy.
  • Psychodynamic therapy. This approach takes a dive into the unconscious meanings and motivations of your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. In psychodynamic therapy, a trusting relationship between the therapist and the client is ideally developed. Some people will refer to this as “talk therapy.”
  • Holistic or integrative therapy. Rather than focusing on one style, therapists who use an integrative style of therapy blend elements from different theories to create a style that meets their client’s needs.

Mental health professionals use certain styles of talk therapy when treating specific conditions like anxiety or depression, which are the most common mental health conditions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques, is the most frequently used approach for treating anxiety disorders.

CBT emphasizes the important role of thinking in how we feel and what we do. CBT is often used to treat depression as well.

Psychodynamic therapy and interpersonal therapy are also commonly used to treat anxiety and depression.

Tips for finding a therapist

If you’re ready to make an appointment with a therapist, but you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips and resources to help you locate a mental health expert in your community or online.

  • Ask your doctor for a recommendation.
  • Consult a local mental health facility.
  • Ask family and friends for recommendations.

Online locators allow you to search for a therapist based on your location.

Online talk therapy sites and apps (teletherapy) allow you to receive therapy in the comfort of your home.

The short answer is yes — talk therapy works.

However, the success or effectiveness of psychotherapy relies on your willingness to be open to the process and be honest about what you’re feeling. It also depends on the dynamic of the patient-therapist relationship.

Mental health experts support the use of psychotherapy in treating various conditions, and research also supports its use.

A 2015 review found that CBT is by far the most consistently supported psychotherapeutic option in the treatment of anxiety disorders. This explains why it’s also the most recommended.

A 2018 study found that early treatments with talk therapy can reduce long-term risks for serious mental health conditions in people experiencing bereavement.

With the increasing popularity of online therapy, or teletherapy, many people wonder if this type of talk therapy is effective.

Results from a 2014 study found that online treatment was just as effective as face-to-face treatment for depression. Another 2014 study reports that online CBT was both cost effective and led to a reduction in anxiety symptoms.

Finding a therapist may feel like a daunting task. However, there are a number of ways you can find a mental health professional who’s a good fit for you, including:

  • asking trusted friends and family members for referrals
  • asking your primary healthcare professional for a referral
  • looking through your insurance plan’s provider network if you want to go through insurance (you can also do a search online to see reviews from other clients)
  • reaching out to available resources, like a campus counseling center if you’re a student, or a worship center if you’d like to find a therapist associated with your chosen faith
  • searching online databases via reputable mental health organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
  • seeking help through a national association, network, or helpline related to your condition, such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or the National Center for PTSD
  • trying out a teletherapy platform like BetterHelp or Talkspace, which will have you fill out a questionnaire and match you with a therapist or counselor
Questions to ask a potential therapist

Most therapists have comprehensive websites that detail their qualifications and experience. But you’ll get a better feel for their personality and style if you talk with them.

Some mental health professionals offer a free “get to know you” session that allows potential clients to ask questions. But if this is not an option, you can request a phone consultation.

Here are some questions to consider asking a potential therapist:

  • What is your professional training and education? This should include degrees, certifications, and professional affiliations.
  • What is your experience? Ask about years working in the profession, settings, age of clients, and conditions treated.
  • What is your approach to psychotherapy? How does this influence treatment?
  • What do you expect from me?
  • How often do you schedule appointments?
  • How much does treatment cost?
  • Do you specialize in the area in which I’m looking for support?

What is traditional talk therapy?

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is the practice of speaking with a mental health professional to communicate and work through mental health conditions and circumstances.

What are the types of talk therapy?

The main types of talk therapy include:

What does talk therapy consist of?

Depending on the type of therapy, you may work with a therapist to:

  • identify issues in your life that are causing you distress
  • work through behaviors that are negatively impacting your life
  • discuss feelings and emotions that are caused by stress, relationships, trauma, or a major change

Typically, a session lasts between 50 minutes and 1 hour, and occurs weekly or biweekly.

Do you need a diagnosis for therapy?

You don’t need a diagnosis to begin therapy. However, in order for insurance to cover therapy appointments, you may need your therapist to provide a diagnosis or reasons for treatment.

We all experience emotional distress at some point. The good news is talk therapy is a proven method of treatment to help reduce symptoms and learn new ways of coping. Plus, it’s open to anyone.

Take some time to research different mental health professionals in your area or consider teletherapy. And remember to ask questions before you settle on a therapist. This is a relationship that requires patience, communication, and trust.