What Is Therapy and Will It Work?

Therapy — sometimes called psychotherapy, talk therapy, or counseling — is meeting with a trained professional to take care of your mental and emotional health. A therapist or counselor can provide advice about—or insights into—feelings and experiences that are confusing or causing stress, and they can create a treatment plan for mental health conditions.

There is a common misconception that therapy is only for people who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, but people go to therapy for all sorts of reasons. 

  • To discuss their lives and emotional ups and downs
  • To work out conflicts
  • To heal from trauma 
  • To improve their interpersonal skills
  • To be supported through a difficult experience, like a loved one’s death
  • To have a safe space to talk with someone who is not a part of their personal life 

If you are struggling with an experience, feelings, or a mental health condition—or if you just want someone you can talk to about everything on your mind—therapists can be an amazing tool to help you become emotionally stronger and learn coping tools you can use for the rest of your life. 

Common Types of Therapy

Therapy can be done one on one, as a couple or family, or in group settings where there is a common goal. Group therapy, for example, can be facilitated for a group of people working through issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or grief.

There are many types of therapy, and many of them have different purposes, such as healing from trauma, changing behaviors, or recovering from addiction. Below are some of the most common types of therapy and what they are typically used to treat.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This type of therapy is usually short-term and focused on problem-solving, changing thoughts and behaviors, and learning better strategies for dealing with difficult situations.

Mindful-Based Cognitive Therapy

A modified version of CBT, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy incorporates mindfulness practices to help people effectively handle negative behavioral patterns and prevent mental health issues like depression from worsening or relapsing.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

In dialectical behavioral therapy, people work on developing skills for dealing with painful emotions and relationships through practicing mindfulness, stress tolerance, emotional regulation, and effective interpersonal communication.

What’s the Difference Between Therapy and Talking to a Friend?

You may be asking yourself, “Why do I need therapy when I can just talk to my friends?” Having a strong support network of friends to lean on when you’re having a tough time is important, but your loved ones fill a different role than a therapist does. A trained mental health professional can provide a more specialized kind of support, especially if you are dealing with a mental health condition. Below are some ways in which talking to a therapist differs from talking to your friends.

  • Training: A therapist has gone through specialized training to recognize and treat emotional distress and mental health conditions. A friend can be a good listener, but they do not have the training needed to help you sort through all the mental and emotional complexities that result from trauma, prolonged stress, or unhealthy patterns of behavior.
  • Confidentiality: We hope the friends we confide in will respect our privacy, but the only time confidentiality is guaranteed is when we speak to a licensed therapist. Therapists are held to legal and professional standards to protect all information discussed in sessions, unless there is a risk of harm to yourself or others.
  • Objectivity: When we get advice from our friends, their opinions come from their involvement in our lives and their shared experiences with us. Therapists can offer an outside perspective and help us think through different points of view.
  • Attention: A healthy friendship is a two-way street: You each express your feelings and talk about your issues. It’s important to spend equal time and attention on each person in a friendship, but a therapist’s job is to pay full attention to you. It would be unfair to ask a friend not to talk about their problems, but there are professional boundaries in place that prevent therapists from sharing their personal issues with you. A therapist can help you focus on more complicated issues that need full attention.

How to Find a Therapist

If you’re ready to seek therapy but don’t know where to start, make a list of what you want. First, think about why you want to go to therapy. Knowing what issues you want to address can lead you to a therapist who specializes in the areas you want to work on.

Referrals are a great way to find a therapist. You can ask your friends or family members if they see a therapist and what their experience has been like. If you’re in school, consider going to a school counselor to find out about on-campus options, as well as outside referrals. If you’re working, some employers offer employee-assistance programs that provide outside counseling. You can also ask your medical doctor for a referral list.

There are some logistics to consider when looking for a therapist, including cost, location, timing, and meeting space. Therapy sessions are typically about an hour long and can happen in person, over the phone, or through teletherapy.

Another important consideration is whether you want a therapist who shares your cultural background. Find out how that can help and ways to find a culturally competent therapist

Importantly, you want to find a therapist you feel comfortable with. It may take talking with a few therapists on the phone or in an introductory session  to find one you click with. That’s totally normal. Therapy is about attending to your needs, so it’s important to find the right fit.

What to Expect From Therapy

Once you have found a therapist you feel comfortable with, you will work together to define your treatment goals, or what you expect to get out of therapy

Whether you meet the goals you’ve set together depends on a number of things, some of which may be out of your control, such as cost, location, and other logistics. But there is an important piece that is within your control: commitment to your own growth. Successful therapy is not only supported by a good, trained therapist, but it’s also accomplished with cooperation and investment from you.

You’re Not Alone

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Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.