Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is a form of treatment provided by psychologists and other licensed mental health professionals which aims to improve emotional, physical, and interpersonal health. Research shows that talk therapy is helpful for those diagnosed with one or more mental health conditions. Talk therapy can also be helpful for people who are experiencing general emotional distress and those who are trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Over the past several decades, the decision to pursue therapy has become more commonplace. Still, many adults, particularly at various crossroads in their lives, become curious about how therapy may help while remaining reluctant to attend their first session. It’s not uncommon for a person to begin therapy and reveal that they’ve contemplated seeking help for years. Unfortunately, their mental health concerns may have become more severe and possibly more difficult to treat, and their relationships have typically been impacted as well.
The reasons for a person’s emotional reluctance to pursue therapy are often multifaceted. For example, if an individual grew up in an environment in which it was generally unsafe to experience and express emotion, they might feel uneasy with intimacy and have a difficult time sharing the full spectrum of their emotions with others - both in therapy and in their personal lives. Furthermore, they may have been taught and subsequently internalized the message that it’s a sign of “weakness” to reach out for emotional support. Adding complexity to the backdrop of a person’s lived experience, mental health concerns themselves can play a powerful role in a person’s fear of seeking help (anxiety) and in one’s diminishing hope of being able to change their emotional landscape (depression).
While the reasons for a person’s hesitation to pursue psychotherapy can be varied, it’s also true that many people simply have a vague understanding of how therapy can help. There are different forms of treatment and some have been shown to be more helpful for certain presenting concerns. That being said, most effective forms of psychotherapy offer some or all of the following benefits:
1. Increases Clarity: Participating in therapy can help a person unearth and clarify their emotions and desires. While introspection and solitary activities like journaling can increase clarity, we all have blind spots. It can be powerful to seek clarity with the help of others. While family and friends can do this to some extent, a psychologist is trained in the art of listening - to the spoken and the unspoken. Psychologists are also trained to develop a keen understanding of the ways in which we try, sometimes with remarkable skill, to hide our deepest truths from others and even from ourselves. Furthermore, psychologists are trained to consider the context, including each person’s mental health at any given moment in time, and to use this awareness to guide when and how to best discuss potential blind spots with someone. In other words, psychologists can share observations with clients in a way that doesn't put clients at risk of emotional injury and helps them know and trust that their psychologist is on their team.
Increasing clarity of our emotions and desires has both short and long term benefits. Regarding short-term benefits, research on affect labeling consistently shows that being able to accurately identify and label emotions (which are often overlapping and nuanced, making this harder than it sounds) can make them less overwhelming and therefore easier to manage. Of course, responding to emotions wisely has long-term benefits as well, particularly within our relationships. Another long-term benefit of clarity is being able to pursue our most honest sense of what will increase meaning and joy in our lives. It’s hard to pursue a new relationship, a new job, a new anything, if we first aren’t clear about what we want and, more importantly, why we want it.
2. Provides Empathic Feedback: Participating in therapy can increase our awareness of how we come across to others and what’s it’s like for others to be in a relationship with us. Psychologists are often trained in interpersonal process therapy and use of self, which helps them pay attention to their own thoughts and feelings about the therapeutic relationship and cultivate an instinct about when and how to share those thoughts and feelings with clients. This is a remarkable opportunity for growth considering that the unspoken understanding in many relationships, particularly our most casual relationships, is that it’s better to keep the peace than risk being honest. This is not to say that psychologists only share difficult interpersonal feedback with clients. In fact, it’s common for a psychologist to share that, contrary to how the client views himself or believes he is viewed by others, she has a high regard for him. This too, can be incredibly healing for many clients to hear. There can be an added layer of trust when we hear positive feedback from a therapist whose only desire is to be honest and helpful.
3. Facilitates Corrective Emotional and Interpersonal Experiences: We don’t learn how to cope with emotions or how to be in healthy relationships by ourselves. We learn these skills from our earliest and most significant interpersonal experiences. Early relationships impact the landscape of our brains and our ability to regulate emotions later in life. Interpersonal traumas that occur later in life can also have a lasting impact on a person’s ability to trust, particularly if the trauma experienced in adulthood mirrors traumas experienced earlier in life. Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for a person’s earliest and most significant relationships to teach them that emotions make others uncomfortable or even aggressive, or that they may be exploited or abandoned after expressing emotion. As Brenee Brown has written, “a social wound needs a social balm.” Therapy is, above all else, a relationship one develops with someone over time. A good therapeutic relationship provides both safety and boundaries. It can improve the social and emotional wounds that may have become so familiar to the person seeking therapy that they are only vaguely felt, but most certainly continue to impact their current and future relationships.
4. Provides Evidence-based Strategies: As mentioned earlier, therapists are trained in “the art of listening.” While there is an art to listening, there are also specific skills a psychologist uses to help a client explore in one direction over another. Furthermore, when a psychologist casually directs a person to explore in a particular direction, that choice is guided by a scientifically informed understanding about the most effective way to address the client’s presenting concern. For example, a psychologist might follow up on a client’s comment about her self-esteem while ignoring, at least momentarily, a comment about a significant other. This may be because the psychologist is attempting to help a patient address feelings of worthlessness which the psychologist believes is ultimately driving the conflict within the client’s relationship. The psychologist then uses evidence-based treatments to target the client’s internal feelings of worthlessness. Essentially, there is often much more intentionality behind therapeutic conversations than is realized. A good therapist does this seamlessly, giving the illusion that you’re having a casual conversation, while also helping you feel like you're moving through and toward something in a way that talking with a friend or family member doesn’t.
While psychologists use their education and training to influence listening and guiding skills (they how of therapy), they also use their training to develop treatment plans (the what of therapy). As noted earlier, there are various forms of therapy and some have been shown to be more helpful for certain presenting concerns. A good psychologist is aware of the research and the evidence-based practices for the presenting concerns she treats in therapy. A good psychologist is also willing to consider new research, even if it seems to contradict what was previously taught. New science is always emerging and that applies to the science of psychology as well.
5. Improves Self-Efficacy and Confidence: Contrary to popular belief, psychologists generally don’t give advice. Furthermore, the goals of therapy are often internal as opposed to external. Said another way, therapy is less about changing circumstances and more about learning the role we play in our circumstances and how we might want to adjust how we respond and cope. Therapy then, is a way to cultivate skills that are applicable beyond one particular struggle. Over time, this increases a person’s confidence to handle whatever may come their way. It’s true that good therapy fosters a healthy connection with the therapist as well as with significant others. It’s equally true that good therapy increases a person’s self-efficacy, autonomy, and sense of personal freedom.
6. Promotes Internal, Long-lasting Change: It’s well-known that psychotropic medications can alter the brain in such a way that symptoms of mental distress decline, often significantly so. Less well-known is that therapy too has been shown to alter brain structure and chemistry. Interactions with others, therapists included, can have a powerful impact on our neurobiology which obviously impacts how we feel and relate to others. Psychologists can also help clients identify how their unique emotional hurdles may be contributing to unhealthy behaviors and, with that context in mind, provide guidance on evidenced-based strategies that can help clients develop new, healthier habits.
Talk therapy is not a one size-fits all treatment; again, certain approaches may be better suited for certain concerns. There are also risks in therapy, as there are with any other form a treatment a person might pursue. For example, sometimes a person’s symptoms might feel more intense before they feel better. Also, since therapy impacts the individual seeking support, it can also impact that individual’s relationships. While this often means improved communication, it might also include frustration from others when the person in therapy learns skills to be assertive or maintain healthy boundaries. Working with a skilled psychologist can help reduce the chances of “side effects” and offer support along the way. At the end of the day, good therapy, with a good therapist, is likely to help a person clarify their most intimate and meaningful goals and take positive steps toward long-lasting change.
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