If you’re thinking of trying therapy, you might’ve already noticed the surprising amount of types available. Though some approaches work best for specific conditions, others can help with a range of issues.

In therapy, you’ll work with a trained mental health professional. What you’ll do in each appointment depends on the preferred methods of your therapist and the issues you’re looking to address.

You can expect to spend some time discussing how challenging situations, emotions, and behaviors affect your life.

This will likely involve working through some negative events or distressing thoughts. It may be difficult in the moment, but the end result is usually a happier, more fulfilling life.

Here’s a look at the four most common types of therapy and the subtypes associated with them. Understanding the different philosophies behind each type of therapy can help you figure out which approach is best for you.

Psychodynamic therapy developed from psychoanalysis, a long-term approach to mental health treatment.

In psychoanalysis, you can expect to talk about anything on your mind to uncover patterns in thoughts or behavior that might be contributing to distress. It’s also common to talk about your childhood and past, along with recurring dreams or fantasies you might have.

How it works

In psychodynamic therapy, you’ll work with a therapist to explore the connection between your unconscious mind and your actions. This involves examining your emotions, relationships, and thought patterns.

Psychodynamic therapy can be a longer-term approach to mental health treatment, compared to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other types of therapy. Traditional psychoanalysis is an intensive form of treatment that people can go to for years.

Research suggests many people continue to improve, even after they complete psychodynamic therapy.

what it’s good for

Psychodynamic therapy may be a good choice for addressing:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • eating disorders
  • somatic symptoms
  • substance use disorder
  • a variety of other conditions

Behavioral therapy is a focused, action-oriented approach to mental health treatment.

According to behavioral theory, certain behaviors develop from things you learned in your past. Some of these behaviors might affect your life negatively or cause distress.

Behavioral therapy can help you change your behavioral responses.

How it works

In behavioral therapy, you won’t spend much time talking about unconscious reasons for your behavior or working through emotional difficulties.

Instead, you’ll focus on ways to change behavioral reactions and patterns that cause distress.

Subtypes of behavioral therapy

There are many subtypes of behavioral therapy, including:

  • Systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization combines relaxation exercises with gradual exposure to something you fear. This can help you slowly get used to replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a relaxation response.
  • Aversion therapy. In aversion therapy, you learn to associate the behavior you want to change with something that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant in some way. This association may help you stop the behavior.
  • Flooding. This is similar to systematic desensitization, but it involves facing your fears directly from the start, rather than gradually. If you have a phobia of dogs, for example, the first exposure step might be sitting in a room of friendly, playful dogs. With systematic desensitization, on the other hand, your first exposure step might be looking at pictures of dogs.
what it’s good for

Behavioral therapy may be a good option for addressing:

  • anxiety
  • phobias
  • substance use disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • oppositional and defiant behaviors
  • behavioral issues that result from communication difficulties or emotional challenges

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term approach to mental health treatment. It’s similar to behavioral therapy, but it also addresses unhelpful thought patterns or problematic thoughts.

The idea behind CBT is that certain feelings or beliefs you have about yourself, or situations in your life can lead to distress.

This distress may contribute to mental health issues, occur alongside them, or develop as a complication of other mental health issues.

How it works

In CBT sessions, you’ll work on identifying patterns and learning more about how they might negatively affect you.

With your therapist’s guidance, you’ll explore ways to replace negative thought patterns or behaviors with ones that are more helpful and accurate.

Like behavioral therapy, CBT doesn’t spend much time addressing past events. Instead, it focuses on addressing existing symptoms and making changes.

CBT often involves homework or practice outside the therapy session.

For example, you might keep track of negative thoughts or things that trouble you between sessions in a journal. This practice helps to reinforce what you learn in therapy and apply your new skills to everyday situations.

Subtypes of CBT

There are also some subtypes of CBT, such as:

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT uses CBT skills, but it prioritizes acceptance and emotional regulation. You can expect to work on developing skills to cope with distressing or challenging situations. You may also learn how to accept and deal with difficult emotions when they arise. DBT was originally created to treat borderline personality disorder.
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). REBT helps you learn how to challenge irrational beliefs that contribute to emotional distress or other issues. The idea behind rational emotive therapy is that replacing irrational thoughts with more rational ones can improve your well-being.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT is one of the newest subtypes of CBT. It is a mindfulness-based practice that focuses on accepting negative emotions rather than trying to suppress them and learning to diffuse from unhelpful thoughts.
What it’s good for

CBT may be a good option for addressing:

  • mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder
  • anxiety and phobias
  • eating disorders
  • substance use disorders
  • OCD
  • insomnia
  • some symptoms of schizophrenia

CBT can also be very helpful for certain conditions when combined with medication.

Humanistic therapy is an approach that looks at how your worldview affects the choices you make, especially choices that cause distress. It’s based on the belief that you’re the best person to understand your experiences and needs.

Humanistic therapists work to help you better understand what you’re experiencing, offering guidance and support without interpreting your feelings for you.

How it works

Your therapist will help you work toward the goal of living your most fulfilling life, largely by enabling you to be your true self. You’ll spend time exploring ways to grow and increase self-acceptance along with discussing the issues you’re dealing with.

Another important principle in humanistic therapy is unconditional positive regard.

This simply means your therapist will accept you, even if they disagree with you on some things. Humanistic therapy is particularly useful for coping with negative judgement (perceived or real) from others.

Generally, you’ll be the one directing the session. Your therapist will step in when needed, but otherwise they’ll be actively listening to you, occasionally asking questions to ensure they understand what you’re saying.

Subtypes of humanistic therapy

Humanistic approaches to therapy include:

  • Existential therapy. In this philosophical approach to treatment, you’ll consider concepts such as responsibility for your choices and your freedom to make choices. You might spend time talking about what certain parts of your life mean to you and how you might find greater meaning in life.
  • Person-centered therapy. This approach works from the belief that emotional distress can result when others criticize you or show disapproval for your choices or actions. This can make self-acceptance and growth difficult. Therapists offer acceptance, empathy, and guidance as you work on personal growth and positive change.
  • Gestalt therapy. With this approach, you’ll look at unresolved issues, such as relationship and family conflicts, considering how they affect your emotional well-being. Gestalt therapy focuses on the present moment and often involves role-playing or acting out scenarios with movement or visualization.
what it’s good for

Humanistic therapy can be useful for addressing:

  • self-esteem issues
  • difficulty coping with chronic health concerns
  • effects of trauma
  • depression
  • relationship issues
  • substance use disorder
  • feelings of worthlessness or being lost in life

With so many options, it can feel overwhelming to commit to a specific kind of therapy. If you receive a mental health diagnosis from a healthcare professional, they may have some recommendations based on your needs.

Ultimately, the choice is yours. Keep in mind that many therapists use a combination of techniques from different types of therapy. It’s also perfectly acceptable to try one approach, find that it doesn’t work for you, and try a different type.

Therapy can be difficult, regardless of the approach you choose. You might feel uncomfortable or nervous about discussing mental health symptoms and personal thoughts with a stranger. This often gets easier with time.

Whether you’re having a difficult time in life or have a mental health issue that causes serious distress, your therapist is trained to help without judgment. If you don’t feel they are, seek out a new therapist.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider looking through the American Psychological Association’s database of therapists in your area. Most list the types of therapy they offer.

As you contact potential therapists, keep a few things in mind:

  • What issues do you want to address? These can be specific or vague.
  • Are there any specific traits you’d like in a therapist? For example, are you more comfortable with someone who shares your gender?
  • How much can you realistically afford to spend per session? Do you want someone who offers sliding-scale prices or payment plans?
  • Where will therapy fit into your schedule? Do you need a therapist who can see you on a specific day of the week? Or someone who has nighttime sessions?

Remember, it’s OK to change therapists or therapy types if one isn’t working for you. Keep trying until you find someone who feels right to you.

Online therapy options

Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.

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