We all experience “down days” when life looks anything but rosy. But when those days become weeks or even months, it may be time to seek help. Whether it’s anxiety, burnout, stress, or a more serious mental health issue, therapy may be just what the doctor ordered to help you find your footing when life seems out of control. Continue reading to learn more about the benefits of therapy and explore the most popular types of therapy.
Don’t think therapy is for you or someone you know? Think again. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in America experience some type of mental health disorder and one in 20 suffers from a serious mental illness. (55) Everyday mental health problems can include anxiety (affecting 19% of adults), relationship issues, substance abuse, and even loneliness. (1)(33)(35)(55) Serious mental illness includes bipolar disorder, major depression, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Whether minor or major, these illnesses can impair a person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis. (13) If something triggers distress or interferes with your daily life or relationships, therapy may help.
Did you know? Only about 44% of people with mental health issues seek help. (34)
What is therapy?
Therapy—or more specifically psychotherapy—in one form or another can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. (32) But modern talk therapy has much more familiar roots. Considered the “father of psychotherapy,” Sigmund Freud was one of the first, and likely the most famous, doctors to employ talk therapy to treat patients with mental and emotional problems. (48) Since Freud’s groundbreaking work in the early 19th century, talk therapy has become standard practice in the world of psychology. Today, psychotherapy helps millions of people learn how to deal with a broad range of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties so they can increase their sense of well-being and function better in the world. (53)
During a therapy session, a therapist will use one or more types of scientifically-validated therapies to help the patient work through their problems. (53) The most common forms of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, couples or family therapy, and group therapy. (41)
The importance of therapy in mental health
According to the National Institutes of Health, a mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and causes distress and difficulty functioning. (21) Therapy can provide a safe, empathetic, and non-judgmental space in which to deal with psychological or emotional issues. (26) These problems can be classified as major, moderate, or mild. However, when most people think of therapy, they typically think of its benefits for major or long-term psychological problems such as:
- Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and phobias
- Eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia
- Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder
- Personality disorders such as antisocial behavior, borderline personality disorder, and narcissism
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including trauma from mental and/or physical abuse or wartime experience
- Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia (33)
But the benefits of therapy can improve the lives of people with mild-to-moderate forms of mental health issues. A therapist might be useful if you find yourself struggling with any of the following:
- Addiction, such as drug, food, and internet/smartphone addiction (12)(30)(31)
- Anger and aggression management (27)
- Family problems (45)
- Grief (23)
- Relationship issues (6)
- Serious illness (44)(54)
Why therapy is good for everyone
Whether your mental health is terrific, mediocre, or severe, interfering with your ability to function on a frequent basis, therapy can help. In addition to helping those with serious mental illness, psychotherapy can provide a safe space to talk about everything from grief to family problems to the inability to forgive. If you’re going through a difficult time—like a tough breakup or the transition into retirement—talk therapy can help you deal with it. (4)
Therapy can also boost well-being by helping to improve self-confidence, cultivate resilience, and clarify goals. By focusing on personal growth, well-being therapy may benefit anyone looking to optimize their life. (14)
Historically, however, therapy has been stigmatized, and that has prevented many people from seeking out this useful type of treatment. (39) Fortunately, professional and Olympic athletes like Kevin Love, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles are speaking out about their own struggles and the importance of mental health. (15) This may help to ease the stigma surrounding mental health issues and open the door to a wider acceptance of therapy for everyone.
Did you know? The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that about 75% of people who embark on therapy experience at least some benefit. (49)
Types of therapy
There are numerous types of psychotherapy, each with its own benefits. Here are six of the most popular.
1. Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses talk therapy to explore the relationship between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This can help to identify unhealthy or self-destructive patterns so that the patient and therapist can work to reduce or eliminate them. (51) Studies show that it can be helpful for those with:
- Anxiety (9)(25)(50)
- Depression (8)(36)
- Eating disorders (28)
- Insomnia (8)(42)
- OCD (9)(38)
- Panic disorder (37)(40)
- PTSD (5)(16)
- Substance abuse (43)
2. Dialectical behavioral therapy
This type of therapy was originally developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder who were chronically suicidal. (29)(50) Today its use has expanded to help people develop new coping skills and find a balance between acceptance and change in their lives. One randomized controlled trial found that dialectical behavioral therapy was also effective for those with eating disorders. (41)
3. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has been found to help those suffering from PTSD. During this type of therapy, a person is asked to recall disturbing memories and images while simultaneously focusing on eye movements, finger tapping, or another kind of external stimulus. The person is then asked to focus on any new associations or sensations and make a positive statement about the traumatic memory. The process is then repeated with the inclusion of the positive statement. This type of therapy is designed to desensitize the negative aspects of the traumatic memory. (41) Studies suggest that EMDR may be better suited than CBT for treating PTSD. (11)
4. Family and couples therapy
All families and couples experience bumps along the road. By counseling all family members involved, therapy can improve communication, address any behavioral or substance issues, enhance coping skills, and provide support. (2) One meta-analysis in the journal Family Process reported that families experiencing challenges with behavior or substance abuse can benefit from structured family therapy to a greater degree than using other types of therapy. (18) Another study published in the journal Psychotherapy suggests that couples therapy is effective for resolving conflict or distress the couple is experiencing. (19)
5. Group therapy
Group therapy is often used for those dealing with addiction, anxiety, depression, LGBTQ issues, loss, OCD, or a serious illness. (17)(52) During a group session, which is led by a trained therapist, a small group of people experiencing similar challenges can share their experiences and support one another. An analysis of 42 studies that appeared in Psychotherapy Research found that group therapy provided better results than standard treatment for mood disorders. (22) When combined with CBT, group therapy has been shown to be particularly effective for addiction and OCD. (24)(46)
6. Interpersonal therapy
This type of therapy focuses on a person’s relationships with others and is used to improve social strategies for people experiencing depression or social isolation. (41) One study involving 162 new moms suffering from postpartum depression found that 12 weeks of interpersonal therapy—with or without antidepressant medication—improved the participant’s mood and social adjustment. (37)
How to find a therapist
There are several resources to help you find a therapist in your area. The APA suggests starting your search at the Psychologist Locator or the National Register of Health Service Psychologists if you live in the U.S. (20) Individuals living in Canada can check out Good Therapy.org for a comprehensive listing of Canadian therapists, counselors, and psychologists. Prefer online sessions? There are a growing number of online resources that provide web-based, text, and/or phone or video telehealth services. Research suggests that this type of therapy is just as effective as face-to-face therapy for anxiety and depression. (3)(7)
Whichever style of therapy fits your comfort zone, the APA recommends asking a few key questions before beginning therapy:
- Is the therapist licensed?
- Is the therapist experienced in dealing with your specific problem?
- What kind of therapy does the therapist specialize in?
- Is the therapy covered by your health insurance? If so, are there limits to the number of sessions covered by your insurance? (20)
The bottom line
The benefits of therapy can be observed in supporting a wide range of mental health issues. Just remember, not every type of therapy works for every person or every situation. Whether you opt for in-person, online, or telehealth sessions, it’s important that you trust your therapist and feel comfortable with them. Once you do find a good fit, keep in mind that therapy may take time before you see improvement.
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