Exploring therapy can be daunting. There are many factors to consider, including cost and finding a therapist you’re comfortable with. It can also be hard to determine which of the many types of therapy might be helpful and well suited to your needs.
So we’ve laid out five common therapy types (or “modalities”) in simple, broad strokes, as a way to help you determine which one might be a good fit for you. (Keep in mind that these numerous varieties of therapy rarely exist in a vacuum — therapists blend elements of different methods according to their patients’ needs.)
If you think therapy might be right for you, talk to your primary care provider about your concerns and your mental health goals — think of your primary care provider as a first stop in taking care of your mental health, because the mind and the body are connected in countless ways. Your primary care provider can recommend or refer you to a therapist, discuss other treatments such as medications, and help you understand what types of mental health services your insurance provider will cover.
Psychodynamic therapy is built on the belief that past experiences influence present actions. A form of talk therapy, this method involves exploring a person’s past to discover the roots of their emotional, behavioral, or social struggles. This is the most dramatized form of therapy (think of movie characters on couches recounting their childhoods), and it has been helpful for many people. The American Psychological Association (APA) credits psychodynamic therapy with the pillars of “self-reflection and self-examination” and reports that the treatment’s positive effects often continue after sessions end. Psychology Today notes the broad spectrum of issues that psychodynamic therapy can effectively address, including depression, eating disorders, social anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Behavioral therapy provides definite steps toward practical changes in decision-making. There are several types of behavioral therapy, all of which are action-oriented, are relatively short-term, and address specific problems. Common methods of behavioral therapists include classical and operant conditioning, which link certain behaviors or reactions to specific positive or negative consequences in order to influence change. This therapy type does not emphasize self-exploration, but it can help modify habits, reactions, and other behavioral patterns. This branch of treatment can help address a wide array of issues, including addiction, certain personality disorders, phobias, and more.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (commonly shortened to CBT) aims to change destructive thought patterns. CBT functions in part on the principle that negative and spiraling thoughts can snowball into psychological distress. Treatment focuses on how to alter the inner dialogues that cause that distress. CBT is a subset of behavioral therapy, and it focuses on action — emphasizing patient responsibility and providing coping tools that must be practiced outside of formal sessions. A foundational idea of CBT is that when a person is able to revise negative thought patterns, they can change harmful behaviors at their source. The new, positive thought processes then flow into healthier behavior and cognitive function. CBT is commonly used to treat a variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as to provide general strategies for coping with stress and negative thought loops.
“Dialectical” describes the logical discussion of two opposing ideas. In the context of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), the goal is to find a healthy balance of “acceptance” and “change.” According to an article from the medical journal Psychiatry, DBT’s commitment to harmonizing these two forces is its primary trait. Practicing acceptance of oneself while simultaneously changing negative patterns can be a tricky business. The Center for Behavioral Technology at the University of Washington outlines four main skills associated with DBT: mindfulness and distress tolerance (acceptance), and interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation (change). These skills equip patients to live in the moment and handle hardships when circumstances are beyond their control, as well as to supplement shortcomings in processing negative emotions and confidently navigating relationships. Originally developed as a treatment for people with suicidal thoughts, DBT has developed into a structured program commonly used to address a wide variety of issues, including bipolar disorder.
Humanistic therapy emphasizes the uniqueness of individual experience and each person’s capacity for growth and fulfillment. The Center For Substance Abuse Treatment cites the key ideas behind humanistic therapy as “acceptance” and “growth,” both of which are pursued through self-exploration. The approach is not framed as addressing diseases or disorders, but rather as an effort to make authentic choices. This framework emerges from the belief that psychological burdens arise from choices that defy one’s true self. Psychology Today explains that this positive talk therapy method places patient and therapist on equal ground in an environment of support and exploration. This holistic journey incorporates elements of other therapeutic techniques in order to gain a deep understanding of a person’s worldview and values. Authentic choices can then flow freely from secure self-knowledge. Problems often treated in humanistic therapy include substance abuse and addiction and low self-esteem.
Improving and sustaining mental health is not easy. But you don’t have to do it alone. Carbon Health believes in caring for the whole person — body, mind, and spirit — and we’re here to help you do just that. If you have questions about taking care of your mental health, you can make a virtual appointment to talk to a healthcare provider via carbonhealth.com or through the Carbon Health app (virtual mental health appointments are also currently available to California residents).
If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self-harm, seek emergency medical care or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time, day or night, for free and confidential support, at 1-800-273-8255.