Types of Therapy for Mental Health

Overview of Approaches, Types, and How They're Used

Making the decision to start therapy is a big, personal step toward prioritizing mental health and improving overall well-being. Whether considering therapy for the first time or returning to get some support, it can be overwhelming to determine which type is the best fit. At its core, therapy provides a safe and nonjudgmental environment where patients can identify problems and goals and work collaboratively with a therapist to achieve them.

This article discusses the five major approaches to therapy, their subtypes, and how they work.

Anonymous photo of two women during group psychotherapy for people with depression

KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

A counselor or therapist is a professional with training in treating mental health conditions and concerns. This can include various mental health diagnoses, including but not limited to:

Additionally, therapists are knowledgeable in treating relationship problems, self-esteem, anger management, or simply helping people manage daily stressors.

The priority in therapy is always the safety and well-being of the patient. A therapist may utilize various methods to help their patients develop healthy thinking and behavior patterns, enhance interpersonal relationships, and cope with difficult emotions and situations.

Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Therapies

Psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud, is one of the oldest treatment methods. In this approach, the primary focus is on uncovering and examining meaningful events or patterns from the past that may be influencing a person’s current state.

Freud believed that incidents from childhood, or thoughts and feelings lying below the surface, are the root of current unhealthy behaviors. Once unearthed, the priority becomes working to process the unconscious thoughts and feelings to change behavior. There have been many developments and advancements in psychoanalytical approaches since Freud.

While some may find this form of therapy beneficial due to deep exploration, psychoanalysis can be a significant time investment for patients.

Interpersonal Therapy

In an interpersonal therapeutic approach, the patient and therapist work together not only to identify the patient's diagnosis, but to examine it within the context of their lives and experiences. Through conducting an inventory of experiences, the patient can begin to understand patterns and significant events in their lives and relationships.

Strengthening relationships and establishing and deepening support systems are key in this type of therapy.

Interpersonal therapy can be effective for individuals living with mood disorders, such as depression.

Mentalization Therapy

Mentalizing refers to a person’s capacity to distinguish between their emotions and the feelings of others. This process can also help patients understand how their emotions are connected to their actions.

Mentalization therapy is most commonly implemented with patients who are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, as a way to increase awareness of thoughts, emotions, and improve interpersonal functioning.

Family Therapy

Family counseling tackles problems that occur within the family system. This type of therapy can help family members give voice to issues, gain an understanding of each other and how the issue impacts them as a unit, and create plans to resolve issues.

This method of therapy can help families learn to communicate and support each other, improve day-to-day interactions, and manage issues by taking action.

When to Seek Family Therapy

Some examples of when a family might want to reach out to a family counselor include:

  • If a child is having a behavioral health issue
  • If a family member is managing a mental or physical health condition, like a drug addiction or eating disorder
  • If the family is going through a divorce
  • If the family is grieving the loss of a loved one

Group Therapy

Group therapy is typically facilitated by one or two clinicians and may have up to 15 participating patients. This format is great for support groups, developing skills, or education about specific topics (e.g., substance use, grief, stress management).

Group therapy provides an atmosphere of emotional safety and connects people who may be experiencing similar challenges. Group members are often able to learn and receive support from both the therapist and each other.

Group therapy can be advantageous for people who need a more cost-effective way to get treatment.

Play Therapy

Play therapy can be a directive or non-directive expressive form of therapy that helps children cultivate communication and interpersonal skills. This can be helpful as children may not be able to express their emotional concerns directly through words.

In play therapy, children work closely with a therapist—who may be an active participant or an observer—to examine how a child expresses and manages themselves. This approach can enhance a child’s social skills and ability to communicate with others.

EDMR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that can help people heal after distressing or traumatic events. A therapist who utilizes EMDR will help the patient access stressful or difficult memories by pairing them with external stimuli, such as eye movement or tapping.

EMDR incorporates aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Research demonstrates that patients can create new associations during this process, which can help decrease psychological distress and improve their level of functioning.

EDMR for Trauma

EMDR has been effective in helping veterans reduce PTSD symptoms, as well as demonstrating improvement in symptoms with people who have experienced other kinds of trauma. EMDR should only be performed with a licensed and certified professional due to the sensitive nature of revisiting trauma.

Behavior Therapy

The field of behaviorism suggests that people can change their behavior through focusing on what can be observed and the use of proper reinforcements. Therapists can help patients evaluate behaviors that are not serving them, but have been reinforced by factors throughout their life.

By naming a target behavior and exploring how they would like the behavior to change, patients and clinicians can develop a plan that allows the patient to improve negative or unhelpful behaviors, while picking up new techniques to support them in creating sustainable change.

Classical Conditioning

In a famous experiment conducted by Ivan Pavlov, dogs were conditioned to associate the sound of a bell with food. This demonstrates the essence of classical conditioning.

Human beings can also make associations between two stimuli when they are paired, which leads to a learned response. These responses can be adaptive (positive) or maladaptive (negative).

Because the association between stimuli can change, therapists can work with patients to form different mental relationships with the stimuli, such as ones that elicit a relaxation response instead of a fear-based response. This type of learning association can be applied to phobias, anxiety, and fear.

Operant Conditioning

This behavioral approach is centered around the notion of reinforcement. A person’s behavior can be influenced one way or another by the resulting consequences.

For instance, if a child is given a reward every time they clean their room, they may repeat the behavior because they have learned that the activity will be followed by positive reinforcement. Alternately, a lack of reinforcement or an unwanted consequence can cause a decrease in a certain behavior.

A therapist can apply these principles when working with a child to reinforce wanted behaviors and extinguish unwanted behaviors.

Desensitizing

People who experience fear-based responses to a trigger may engage in avoidant behavior, because they have learned that they are unsafe in certain situations or events.

Densensitizing is the manner through which a person can change their relationship with fear, anxiety, and safety in relation to a situation or event.

Eventually, patients recognize that they are safe and can manage strong emotions. Desensitizing can be especially effective with anxiety and phobias.

Densensitizing Strategies

When drawing on this approach, a therapist can teach relaxation strategies like deep breathing, grounding, or body scanning and progressive muscle relaxation to decrease tension. Gradual exposure to the distressing situation or event through imagery changes the association between the trigger and the response.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular form of psychotherapy that combines cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy to form a more holistic approach.

CBT teaches patients to recognize and challenge unhelpful or irrational thoughts that may influence their emotions and behaviors. The emphasis is on understanding the connection between thoughts, emotions, and actions, and developing a more balanced perspective and response.

During sessions, patients are able to practice and hone new skills, as well as apply them outside of sessions through tracking or monitoring their thoughts and behaviors.

Disorders Treated With CBT

CBT is an evidence-based treatment that is effective with a variety of diagnoses, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, stress management, interpersonal issues, and more.

There are few subtypes of CBT, which include dialectical behavioral therapy, rational emotive therapy, exposure therapy, and mindfulness-based therapy.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Developed in the 1980s, this type of therapy teaches skills that improve emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. It also incorporates mindfulness.

As the standard treatment for people with borderline personality disorder, patients are taught how to identify and accept their emotions and behaviors, self-validate, distinguish themselves and their experiences from others, and manage emotional distress or discomfort.

This treatment approach emphasizes expanding the skills in a person’s toolbox to help them navigate their thoughts, emotions, and relationships.

Rational Emotive Therapy

Rational emotive therapy prioritizes recognizing and challenging dysfunctional thought patterns. A principle of this treatment is the idea that how a person views and interprets events can shape their emotions and behavior.

Therapists utilizing this approach aim to help patients replace irrational thoughts with rational thoughts, which can help them to better evaluate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is an evidence-based treatment geared toward showing patients that their fears can be managed. Upon identifying situations or events that cause psychological distress, the therapist and patient work together to prioritize coping skills patients can use as needed, as well as creating a plan to slowly begin exposing the patient to different levels or aspects of the trigger.

Implemented with individuals grappling with anxiety, phobias, trauma, panic attacks, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms, patients practice restructuring their thoughts about the situation or events, managing feelings of fear, anxiety, or panic, all while seeing that they are safe and can cope with distress as it arises.

Mindfulness-Based Therapy

This method is rooted in meditative practices and may incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy. It emphasizes mindfulness, or the ability to be aware and in the present.

Therapists can teach patients to tap into thoughts and feelings as they arise. Patients are able to gain perspective and put space between themselves and negative thoughts. Research demonstrates that mindfulness-based techniques are instrumental for decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness-based therapy techniques may include:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Visualization
  • Guided imagery

Cognitive Therapy

This type of therapy stems from behavioral therapy. It focuses on the relationship between thoughts and feelings. When patients are able to detect dysfunctional or irrational thoughts and transform them into balanced thoughts, there is a significant emotional impact that can lead to healthier responses.

Adopting strategies to change thinking patterns is the focus here. This treatment approach is effective and can be used with patients who experience depression, anxiety, or phobias. Cognitive therapy may be combined with behavior therapy, which can provide a more comprehensive experience for patients.

Humanistic Therapy

From this approach to therapy, the patient is viewed as a whole and individual person. In examining their choices and behavior, therapists can aid patients in recognizing their strengths, capacity to take responsibility for themselves and their lives, and work toward evolving into a fuller version of themselves.

Part of this process is investigating how patients view the world and themselves within the world. Examining these connections keeps patients focused on the here and now and allows them to become active participants in their lives.

Existential Therapy

Through the exploration of a patient's personal experiences, therapists can help a patient to identify and create meaning in their life. Awareness and personal responsibility are emphasized in an existential approach.

In existential therapy, pain, suffering, anxiety, and free will are all recognized as aspects of life. Patients are encouraged to be flexible in their thinking and adaptive in how they meet what life throws their way. Ultimately, patients learn acceptance and to be accountable for themselves.

Person-Centered Therapy

Also referred to as client-centered therapy, this approach prioritizes helping patients achieve personal growth and create change in their lives. Patients are viewed as the experts on themselves, and therapists empower patients to make choices that align with their goals.

The therapist meets the patient where they are in their journey with authenticity, empathy, and unconditional positive regard, utilizing non-directive techniques. Supporting patients in harnessing their inner strength and reach the best possible version of themselves is the goal of this therapy.

Gestalt Therapy

This therapeutic approach encourages patients to be present and evaluate the here and now. Gestalt therapy is not concerned with the past, but more about how patients are impacted presently.

A therapist utilizing this approach may work with patients on cultivating a sense of acceptance, awareness, and responsibility for where they are in their lives. How a person perceives and understands themselves and their life is valuable in this form of therapy, as it can shape how humans view and interact with the world.

Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is a brief therapy that helps people better identify, experience, and manage their emotions more flexibly. Centered in the here and now, EFT works to pinpoint problems, identify changes that can occur in the present, and helps individuals learn to have healthier interactions going forward.

EFT for Individuals

In addition to being beneficial for couples and families, EFT is effective in the treatment of depression and trauma for individuals. One study indicated that EFT decreased symptoms of depression in couples where one member of the couple was struggling with depression.

Integrative or Holistic Therapy

Instead of utilizing one treatment method, some therapists will tailor their therapeutic approach to the needs of the patient by introducing strategies and methods from two or more types of therapy.

In this approach, the patient and their concerns are viewed through a holistic lens, and interventions are selected to help patients achieve more meaningful results in therapy.

For instance, a therapist may utilize cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients identify, challenge, and develop healthier thinking patterns, while also applying techniques from a mindfulness-based approach to assist patients with managing stress or emotional discomfort.

Holistic therapy can be supportive to patients managing anxiety, depression, trauma, or stress.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The connection between animals and humans can create a sense of calm and safety. Exposure to animals can enhance psychological well-being, specifically decreasing anger and stress, improving social interactions, or help soothe people who have been affected by trauma.

Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to help individuals develop and strengthen their social skills, as animal-assisted therapy teaches people about empathy and bonding.

Different kinds of animals may be used in animal-assisted therapy, including dogs and horses.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is an integrative form of therapy that involves working with different artistic mediums to facilitate self-expression.

Art therapy employs creative activities such as:

  • Drawing
  • Sculpting
  • Painting
  • Movement

This self-expression can be significant when helping patients to cultivate a deeper sense of self or heal from events in their lives. It can also enhance cognitive and motor skills.

Art therapy can be applied with a variety of populations including children, adults, and group settings.

Summary

There are many forms of therapy that can treat specific mental health diagnoses and symptoms. You might consider going to therapy if you are looking to navigate daily stressors, work through a problem, improve your relationships, cope with a traumatic event, or notice new or worsening symptoms of a mental health disorder. Having a sense of your needs, personal goals, and what you hope to get out of therapy are essential as you explore options.

A Word From Verywell

It's a significant and meaningful decision to prioritize your mental health. Selecting a type of therapy and finding a therapist who is knowledgeable, empathetic, compassionate, and trained in a method to meet your specific needs can make all the difference. Conducting research regarding types of therapy suitable to your needs, level of education and expertise in a clinician, and their approach can help you make an informed choice for your care. In the end, you know yourself, your concerns, and the direction you hope to move in the best.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many forms of therapy are there?

    Dozens of forms of therapy are practiced by therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Types of therapy generally fall under the five main approaches:

    • Psychodynamic
    • Cognitive
    • Behavioral
    • Humanistic
    • Integrative

    There are several evidence-based forms of therapy, meaning there is research to support the efficacy of different methods in treating specific mental health issues.

  • How can therapy be performed?

    Therapy can be performed in an individual, group, marital, or family setting. Each form has its advantages. Individual therapy provides a safe and open atmosphere for clients to explore problems or concerns and learn a healthy way to address and manage them. Group therapy offers a supportive environment where patients can develop a skill, receive education on a specific issue, or receive encouragement from others who may be facing a similar issue. In marital therapy, couples can explore and resolve concerns in their relationships. Family therapy examines the dynamics and relationships within families and seeks to strengthen connections.

  • What kind of therapy is best?

    Evaluating several factors may aid in choosing the best type of therapy. First, identifying the problem or need may provide some insight into the type of therapy. For example, if someone is struggling with depression, cognitive behavioral therapy may be a good fit. Considering what kind of mental health professional may be best-suited to help is also important. With technological advances in the mental health field, another factor worth considering might be whether in-person therapy or telehealth sessions would be best.

    Conducting research and setting up consultations with providers to ask questions about their education, training, scope of work, specializations, and treatment approaches can provide insight into whether a counselor feels like the right match.

  • How much does therapy cost?

    Though it's an investment, therapy can be costly. The good news is that depending on what’s available to you, there may be options. People with health insurance may be able to receive therapy at a lower cost. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if your company offers this, can potentially cover a certain number of sessions.

    For people without insurance, some therapists offer a sliding fee scale or low-cost therapy, meaning the price you pay for a session is based on your income. Group therapy can be an effective low-cost option depending on the concern.

    Other factors that might influence the cost of therapy include geographical location and the type of professional you are seeing. Locating providers in rural areas may be more difficult, so people may find themselves covering the cost of travel and the cost of services. Telehealth can be advantageous in these circumstances.

    Seeing a psychiatrist will undoubtedly cost more than seeing a psychologist or therapist due to education and training. Speaking with a therapist about your situation, needs, and their rates can give you a better idea of how much they may charge per session and how many sessions they anticipate you need to make progress.

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