How does psychotherapy help mental health problems?

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be very helpful for people with mental illness. By discussing your symptoms and the distress and problems they cause with a professional, you gain insight into yourself. You learn how to manage your symptoms and cope with the problems mental illness can cause. Talking may also help the symptoms be less severe or even go away.

Roy Huggins

There are a number of ways in which psychotherapy, aka "talk therapy," can help with mental health problems. The bread and butter of psychotherapy is the "counseling" aspect, which in my use of the word means the forming of a good relationship with your therapist and getting a strong sense of empathy and understanding from the therapist in the ways that he or she talks to you. This aspect of psychotherapy is known to reduce overall anxiety levels to varying degrees, which reduces stress and possibly has other positive impacts on the client's condition. From there, the way in which psychotherapy helps can vary depending on the client's needs and the therapist's approach.

  • Another very commonly used approach is to help a client "process" their thoughts and experiences. The mind can get "stuck" on things which we ignore or stuff away. Verbalizing these experiences, thoughts and feelings with a trained therapist can create the necessary processing experience that allows your mind to do things such as sort out the meanings associated with the experiences, once again reducing anxiety and stress. Sometimes processing is accomplished through non-verbal means such as body-based work, visualization work or experiential methods like speaking to significant others in an empty chair.
  • Similar to processing is exploring for insight. By talking through thoughts, feelings and experiences a client may learn things about him or herself that weren't understood before. The new insight may lead to useful behavior changes or may be therapeutic itself. Insight is very useful to some clients but for others it's mostly useful in conjunction with other techniques.
  • A third commonly used technique is behavior and thought modification. This includes talking about the ways clients think about their problems and what kinds of behaviors they exhibit in daily life, then coming up with plans for changing those thoughts and behaviors to healthier ones. Recently this approach has often been coupled with mindfulness meditation work, because the approach requires a high level of self-understanding and control.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways pschotherapy can help with mental health problems, but it does cover a lot of the day-to-day work in psychotherapy.

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    Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.