Different approaches to psychotherapy

Psychologists generally draw on one or more theories of psychotherapy.

A theory of psychotherapy acts as a roadmap for psychologists: It guides them through the process of understanding clients and their problems and developing solutions.

Approaches to psychotherapy fall into five broad categories:

  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies. This approach focuses on changing problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivations. Psychoanalytically oriented therapies are characterized by a close working partnership between therapist and patient. Patients learn about themselves by exploring their interactions in the therapeutic relationship. While psychoanalysis is closely identified with Sigmund Freud, it has been extended and modified since his early formulations. Psychoanalytic therapies have a strong research base confirming their efficacy.

  • Behavior therapy. This approach focuses on learning's role in developing both normal and abnormal behaviors.

    • Ivan Pavlov made important contributions to behavior therapy by discovering classical conditioning, or associative learning. Pavlov's famous dogs, for example, began drooling when they heard their dinner bell, because they associated the sound with food.

    • "Desensitizing" is classical conditioning in action: A therapist might help a client with a phobia through repeated exposure to whatever it is that causes anxiety.

    • Another important thinker was E.L. Thorndike, who discovered operant conditioning. This type of learning relies on rewards and punishments to shape people's behavior.

    • Several variations have developed since behavior therapy's emergence in the 1950s. One variation is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on both thoughts and behaviors.

  • Cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy emphasizes what people think rather than what they do.

    • Cognitive therapists believe that it's dysfunctional thinking that leads to dysfunctional emotions or behaviors. By changing their thoughts, people can change how they feel and what they do.

    • Major figures in cognitive therapy include Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.

  • Humanistic therapy. This approach emphasizes people's capacity to make rational choices and develop to their maximum potential. Concern and respect for others are also important themes.

    • Humanistic philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Buber and Søren Kierkegaard influenced this type of therapy.

    • Three types of humanistic therapy are especially influential. Client-centered therapy rejects the idea of therapists as authorities on their clients' inner experiences. Instead, therapists help clients change by emphasizing their concern, care and interest.

    • Gestalt therapy emphasizes what it calls "organismic holism," the importance of being aware of the here and now and accepting responsibility for yourself.

    • Existential therapy focuses on free will, self-determination and the search for meaning.

  • Integrative or holistic therapy. Many therapists don't tie themselves to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client's needs.

Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology