What is Psychotherapy?
By Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D.
Essentially, psychotherapy is considered to be a scientific approach to problem solving. Amazingly, there are more than 150 different psychotherapeutic approaches. The psychotherapeutic approach provides the underlying structure by which a therapist organizes and plans coherently how to best help someone resolve a problem. All forms of psychotherapy have the intention of helping someone resolve a problem but different types of therapy approach this task very differently. Finding the right approach can be a bit overwhelming for the average person looking for help with a particular problem.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a very specific type of psychotherapy. Arguably, it is not necessarily the best approach for every person and every problem but…it is a highly effective approach for people looking for therapy that focuses on rapid change for specific goals. CBT is much more than simply attentively listening and providing support. Skillful listening is always an important part of therapy but there is more that is required to help someone recover from anxiety, depression, a bad marriage, or a habit that is negatively affecting their life. CBT focuses on the use of specific techniques to help an individual change his or her life.
Traditional talk therapy places a large emphasis on the past and providing insight into it. CBT looks at the past but places an emphasis on making changes in the present. An analogy sometimes used is that when driving, a rear view mirror is useful but you want to place most of your focus on the road in front of you. The goal of CBT is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are contributing to a person’s problem so that the person experiences life differently. CBT focuses on the thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes of a person and how these relate to the person’s behavior. The focus is on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behavior and how the three are irrevocably intertwined. Negative, dysfunctional thinking affects a person’s mood, sense of self, behavior and physical well-being. CBT techniques are aimed at moving a person’s thoughts from dysfunctional to realistic which inevitably affects the way they feel and behave.
A thought records is one of the most commonly used techniques used in CBT to help individuals: 1) identify a negative thought, 2) identify the emotion associated with the thought, 3) identify the distortion in the thought, 4) reframe the thought more realistically without the distortion, and 5) identify the change in emotion as a result of the reframe.
Homework between sessions is an essential element of this approach. It is virtually impossible to change your life or learn new skills without practice. If you were learning how to play the guitar, you would expect to practice between lessons would you not?
If you are considering psychotherapy, it is always a good idea to ask what approach the therapist uses to ensure it is a good fit for you. CBT is a more structured, goal oriented approach that tends to be shorter in duration than more traditional talk therapy.