The five different approaches to psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is used to help people come to terms with emotional problems and mental health issues by supporting them to talk about, and understand, the reasons they think and act the way they do. This is done with the help of a trained therapist and may be done alone, in a group or with significant persons in a patient’s life. There are five widely accepted approaches used by people working in psychotherapy jobs.


This approach looks at the behaviour the patient finds challenging and tries to discover hidden or unconscious reasons for it. This requires a close partnership between therapist and patient as the latter uses conversations, discussions and explorations with the professional to unravel their deepest thoughts and worries. This method is often connected to Sigmund Freud but his founding theories have been significantly expanded since his early work.

Behaviour therapy

This method considers behaviour as a form of learning and is built on the theories of Ivan Pavlov. Using his ideas a therapist might help a client to tackle a difficult “learned” behaviour, such as a phobia, by regularly exposing them to the thing that causes them anxiety. Also in this stable is cognitive-behavioural therapy, which looks at ways of thinking, as well as behaviours.

Cognitive therapy

This form of talking therapy has a singular focus on what people think, rather than what they do. Therapists of this discipline believe that dysfunctional thoughts are at the root of actions or behaviours that make people unhappy. This involves the patient again working in close collaboration with the therapist, but this time to develop coping skills for identifying distorted thinking and applying new understandings to the way they relate to others. Practitioners of note in this area are Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.

Humanistic therapy

This type of client-centered therapy builds on the idea that the therapist has no authority in the process of treatment; instead their role is to help the patient become aware of the here and now and accept responsibility for themselves. This form of “organismic holism” requires the practitioner to emphasise their concern, care and interest in their patient while focusing on developing their free will and self-determination to allow them to reach their maximum potential. These types of ideas are often attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Integrative or holistic therapy

The final approach to consider is one that uses all of the above in combination. This integrative method allows professionals to blend elements from all of the established approaches to provide treatment that’s tailored to the individual needs of their patient.

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