The 5 Types Of Therapy & Choosing The Right One For You

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said “You’re perfect the way you are … and you could use a little improvement.” This sentiment is not only funny, it’s quite true if you think about it. Right now is exactly as it should be. Where you are in life, in this moment, is perfect. There is always something for you to learn here. You are perfectly positioned for your next big thing, to grow and improve in some way.

It’s also been said that everyone could stand to be in therapy, and to me this too is an interesting proposition. We all come from somewhere, we all have a story… How much of that story contributes to our success? And our downfalls? Do we even understand how and why we are where we are in life? If we did understand, how much of it would we change?

If you have received a mental health diagnosis, or you think you need professional assistance to better support your mental health, congratulations! You are on your way. Life is meeting you in the perfect place to lead into better things. You might be wondering what approaches to therapy are out there these days, and the short answer is “a lot”. But essentially they all fall under 5 basic types, and we’ll look at those more closely here. 

Your Easy Guide To The 5 Types Of Therapy

Psychodynamic Therapy/Psychoanalysis

How it works

This approach is centered on discovering the unconscious meaning behind problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is the original talk therapy. Expect to work closely with your therapist as you learn more about yourself, examining in detail your thought patterns, emotions, and relationships. 

Psychodynamic therapy is a longer-term approach than some others. For many people it goes on for years. The great news is that a lot of research points to continued improvement after treatment is complete. It’s so effective it even works when you’re not working it.

What it’s best for

Because of its in-depth nature, psychodynamic therapy may be a good choice for addressing a wide variety of concerns:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • somatic issues
  • eating disorders
  • substance abuse

Behavioral Therapy

How it works

Behavioral therapy is a detailed study of how our behaviors are learned. This approach comes from an understanding that we are constantly learning in life, particularly as children, and that all of our behaviors, normal and abnormal, are learned. So they can therefore be unlearned.

This modality says that through some effort we can get over the things that trigger us. Through careful and repeated exposure to things like the causes of our anxiety, or our phobias, theoretically we can unlearn the root of our fear, causing a new and different reaction to stimuli.

Behavioral therapy is not talk therapy, it’s action-oriented. It focuses on changing the patterns and behavioral reactions that cause problems in our lives. 

Behavioral therapy has several subtypes like:

  • Systematic desensitization, which combines relaxation exercises with slow exposure to something the patient fears. 
  • Aversion therapy, learning to associate a behavior you want to change with something that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. 
  • Flooding, which is something like systematic desensitization, but it involves directly facing fears from the get-go. If you have a phobia of water, flooding would have you jumping directly into a pool. Systematic desensitization would have you dangling your feet in the water.

What it’s best for

Behavioral therapy may be a good option for addressing mental health concerns that involve deeply emotional reactions to certain stimuli, like:

  • anxiety
  • Phobias of various types
  • substance abuse
  • ADHD
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • defiant, violent, and oppositional behaviors
  • behavioral issues resulting from emotional challenges

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

How it works

Thoughts become things, and that’s the premise behind cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapists who practice this modality look at the correlation between dysfunctional thinking and dysfunctional behaviors or emotions. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy tells us that when we change our thoughts, we change our world. Limiting beliefs about ourselves and our lives can not only lead to distress, they can go on to manifest in new mental health issues or exacerbate existing ones.

CBT involves learning more about the patterns that play out in your life, and how they may be negatively impacting you. It then works to restructure thoughts and behaviors so they’re more helpful. There isn’t much talk therapy involved, it’s more oriented toward changing behaviors to alleviate symptoms.

Where psychodynamic therapy is more of a long game, and things are hashed out in the therapist’s office, with CBT you may be asked to keep a journal on certain things or otherwise track your thoughts and behaviors on your own. This can be helpful for some, in becoming more self-aware.

What it’s best for

It’s worth noting that many therapists have good luck when combining pharmaceutical intervention with cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT may also be a good option for addressing:

  • mood disorders
  • anxiety and phobias
  • eating disorders
  • substance abuse
  • OCD
  • insomnia
  • certain aspects of schizophrenia

Humanistic Therapy

How it works

This modality works to highlight the human capacity for making rational choices, and developing their maximum potential, while being mindful and respectful of others. It looks at how your worldview impacts your choices, always aware that you’re the best person to understand your experiences in life and therefore your needs. 

Three types of humanistic therapy are particularly influential:

  • Client-centered therapy, which puts the therapist in the back seat, offering guidance and support as needed.
  • Gestalt therapy, which emphasizes the importance of staying present and accepting responsibility for yourself.
  • Existential therapy, which focuses on the search for meaning in life, free will, and self-determination.

Humanistic therapists emphasize authenticity, and being your true self in the world. They work to help you better understand and articulate what you’re experiencing, offering guidance without telling you what to think. In this way humanistic therapy is very accepting. Even if a therapist may disagree with you, the intent is “unconditional positive regard”… their job is to support, not judge. Expect to do most of the talking, and to be heard and understood.

What it’s best for

Thanks to the unconditional positive regard which is largely unique to humanistic therapy, it’s particularly useful for:

  • self-esteem issues
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • emotional effects of chronic health issues
  • trauma
  • depression
  • relationship issues
  • substance abuse

Integrative/Holistic Therapy

As you can see from this list, there are a variety of approaches to be explored, and that’s why many therapists don’t stick with just one modality. A holistic approach means taking the whole human into account, with all their history, tendencies, proclivities, oddities, etc., and creating a plan that’s tailored to them and what their goals are.

This may mean sticking with one type of therapy, or utilizing several types of therapy. Any way to care for yourself the right way is … well … the right way. So choose a therapist who resonates with you. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a therapist, and assessing the many different avenues to explore for your care:

  • What issues are you trying to address? If you don’t know exactly what they are, that’s OK, it’s as good of an answer as any.
  • Are there specific traits you’re looking for in a therapist? For example, someone with the same gender as you, a therapist who is also a dietician, or someone of a certain age group or ethnic background.
  • How much can you afford to spend per session? Be honest and realistic so you don’t get in over your head and quit because it’s too expensive. Do you need someone offering sliding-scale prices or payment plans?
  • Schedule-wise, when will therapy make the most sense for you? Do you need someone who works on a specific day of the week? Online? A therapist with nighttime sessions?

Therapy can be hard

I have written before about making changes in life, and the after effects of changing the habits that are ingrained in us. Therapy falls into the category of Things That Have Potential Blowback.

So it’s important to be aware that this process can (and perhaps should) be uncomfortable. It can feel totally strange, nerve-wracking, opening up to someone about things that have been bottled up for so long. It can be hard to let someone in; not only is there a process of trust building that’s happening, but you’re doing something that’s very new to you, which is changing you on a chemical level. It can be a lot. 

Maybe the best thing you can do is just know that it might do that, make you uncomfortable, and try to throw you off track. All you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing. Keep going, keep doing the work. At some point, like anything that becomes a habit, it will get less weird.

We’ve looked at the 5 main types of mental health therapy, but within each of these are often many subsets, with slight changes here and there to the method. So dig into it a little if none of these quite speak to you but they’re close. 

And don’t forget about group therapy, couples therapy, art therapy, music therapy, and a dozen more types of therapy that are less well known.

Bottom line:

Being in therapy doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Therapy has a weird stigma about it that needs to go the way of the dodo. Plenty of “perfectly normal” people see a therapist on a weekly basis, or otherwise are consistently keeping tabs on their mental health. It’s just basic self-care: You’re partnering with yourself in building a better life, one that’s specifically made for you, free of the limiting beliefs that have kept you stuck in the past. I don’t know what could be more right and beautiful than that.


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