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5 Common Types Of Therapy (And How To Choose One That Works For You)

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Like many millennials before me, I too have used Google in lieu of a proper therapist. But a recent query — a simple, “What are the most common types of therapy?” — actually raised more questions than answers. As countless therapeutic approaches flooded the search results page in a fraction of a second, I realized that the field was far more complex than meets the eye.

Allison Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, manager of behavioral health at Central DuPage Hospital, and Lesli A. Johnson, MFT, validated my suspicions. “A therapist will likely use a variety of tools derived from different types of therapy, also known as modalities,” Johnsen told TZR. “We essentially have a toolbox of strategies we can pull from, depending on what the client is working on.”

Finding the modality that works best for you is part and parcel of the entire experience. “Therapy is an investment in your future well-being,” adds Johnson. “It’s important to research different kinds of therapy, and even ask for referrals from people who have experienced symptom relief.”

While patient-client relationship is vitally important, educating yourself on the different kinds of therapy can help narrow the convoluted search for a therapist — and ensure you're getting the best care for your needs. To help you get a running start, ahead, five common approaches to kickstart your research: cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, trauma therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapy.

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Common Types Of Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the “most common type of therapy, no doubt,” says Johnsen. “It’s about getting a read on your internal monologue, building cognitive awareness, and realizing what your thoughts are doing to your mental state. It’s about asking yourself, ‘Are these thoughts helping me or hurting me?’”

Similar to mindfulness therapy, which incorporates mindfulness practices such as meditation and breathing exercises, CBT is also about keeping patients present-focused and thinking about what’s in their control. “It can even be helpful to ask yourself, ‘What’s inside my control and what’s outside my control?’ and direct your attention and effort accordingly,” Johnsen adds. “I think it’s really important for everyone to understand and be aware of their cognition; your thoughts affect everything you do.”

Common Types Of Therapy: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT was developed for people who experience extreme emotional responses to certain situations. “It’s essentially about learning how to think in a way that calms you down in moments of crisis,” explains Johnsen. “The goal is to center yourself so that you can get back to rational thought and behavior more quickly. Eventually, you should be able to catch yourself and learn to curb overreaction before it occurs.”

DBT is a “gold standard” in treating conditions like borderline personality disorder (a chronic behavior pattern that may include mood instability, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and self-injury) and histrionic personality disorder (which entails constant attention-seeking, emotional overreaction, and seductive behavior) but can be used to treat anyone who experiences over-reactivity in certain scenarios. “It’s an in-the-moment technique that a person can use to regulate super-strong emotions, and get to a place where those emotions are bearable and surmountable.”

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Common Types Of Therapy: Trauma Therapy

As the name would suggest, trauma therapy was designed for people who have experienced past trauma in their lives, big or small. “It could be one major event, like a car accident, or multiple small events,” explains Johnsen. “It’s often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and can help war veterans or sexual assault survivors find relief. It can help bring subconscious closure to a traumatic event, so the patient is no longer trip-wired and constantly reliving the memory.”

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a common treatment within the trauma therapy modality. It’s a physical tool in which the therapist will use eye movements, tapping, or tones to target unprocessed traumatic memories and help the patient process and store them. “When a traumatic event occurs or something happens that is perceived by an individual as traumatic, the memories often become stored in the brain and nervous system in a maladaptive way — they are frozen rather than processed,” explains Johnson, who specializes in EMDR. “Bi-lateral stimulation activates the brain's information processing system and the old memories can be digested or reprocessed and stored in an adaptive way. A person can then look back on an event without being triggered.”

Common Types Of Therapy: Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy hails from the Freudian days and looks specifically at the family of origin for answers to current problems. “You’re essentially looking at someone’s past to explore what might be causing current behavior and patterns that people aren’t necessarily aware of,” explains Johnsen. “There are responses we adopt in childhood, and they’re still present when we get to adulthood. Most therapists that you see on TV are psychodynamic.”

She notes that experiences like parental divorce, bullying, alcoholism, chronic illness, and more can all shape your responses and coping mechanisms in childhood, which can then follow you into adulthood. “It’s really helpful for patients to see that their behaviors now were responses they adopted as kids because they had no control over the situation they were in,” Johnsen adds. “It illuminates the ‘why’ behind certain behaviors and gives patients an opportunity to change them.”

Common Types Of Therapy: Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy is about the doctor-patient relationship serving as a corrective experience for the client. It’s ideally suited to people who are trying to work through poor or challenging relationships, whether with their spouse, parents, or friends. “The therapist needs to exhibit true unconditional positive regard for their client — it’s important not to be judgmental and to express genuine interest in their lives,” explains Johnsen. “Experiencing true rapport, even to just have someone say, ‘Wow, I can see why you think that way,’ can be corrective for some people.” This type of therapy allows patients to play out their thought processes and experiences with another person without fear of conflict or judgement. “This can help the client recognize some unhealthy patterns and improve their relationships with others.”