When someone says they’re in therapy, you might get an idea in your head of them lying on a couch talking about their childhood to a therapist with tiny glasses taking notes. But the reality is that therapy is 1000% different than it was back in the days of Freud, and there are countless different techniques that the therapist may use.
Many therapists incorporate a variety of techniques into sessions, depending on what the client needs. But if you’re the client and you’ve never heard of any of these techniques or don’t have any preference, the therapist may just use what they prefer. These techniques can make therapy experiences completely different, so it’s important to have a basic idea of what you’re looking for!
These are a few of the most common techniques, or types, of therapy that you might run into.
CBT is short for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it’s been very popular for several years now. I would bet that the vast majority of therapists, at least in the U.S., use elements of CBT. It revolves around the concept that what we think affects how we feel, which in turn affects what we do.
It can be really helpful, as it helps you distinguish your thoughts, feelings, and actions, which usually run together for all of us. One critique of CBT is that it can feel a bit judgmental, as you end up frequently labeling your thoughts as negative or wrong. If the client and therapist are not vigilant about taking a non-judgmental stance, it’s easy to end up thinking you are wrong at your core, and not just your thoughts.
It’s great for anyone who does well with therapy homework, as CBT lends itself to a lot of skill-based practices and tasks. If you enjoy practicing skills in between sessions, or learn better through homework, CBT will probably work well. It’s also good for anyone who is struggling to “get out of their head” whether that’s emotional or mental. If your inner critic is working overtime, give CBT a chance.
DBT stands for Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It was created in the 1970s by Marsha Linehan, and its primarily used to treat those with Borderline Personality Disorder. That being said, I think it’s really helpful for any struggling with managing an extreme range of emotions, or anyone struggling with self-harm. I also think the skills taught in DBT are helpful for literally everyone to some extent.
DBT therapy is often done in a group, and tends to be very effective that way. DBT is best when it is the sole focus of the therapy, so you’ll typically hear about DBT groups rather than groups that involve a little DBT here and there. Many people engage in a DBT group along with separate individual therapy sessions.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing… huh? Basically, it takes some science and makes it useful for therapy, specifically the science that says traumatic memories tend to be less stressful when they’re processed correctly in the brain, split between both hemispheres. Traumatic memories are often stored in one specific place in the brain and keep themselves at the forefront, tormenting the person with the memories.
EMDR helps people process their memories, so that particularly difficult memories don't cause them as much distress in the here and now. It involves bilateral stimulation- making both sides of the brain work at the same time- while talking about the trauma. This process helps get those memories into safer places, and gives the person more relief.
EMDR is hugely popular these days, and everyone is saying they perform EMDR. If you’re interested, look for a therapist who has been trained through an EMDRIA (EMDR International Association) approved program. Otherwise you might end up feeling like you’re getting poorly performed hypnosis.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is often known as SFBT (are you starting to see that psychology loves acronyms?). SFBT’s focus is, unsurprisingly, on solutions. It’s not about your history, childhood, and it’s often not even focused on decreasing symptoms of mental illness. Rather, it’s focused on increasing symptoms of wellness, as well as finding and implementing solutions to the main stressors in your life.
SFBT is great when you want to tackle a specific problem, or if you’re financially limited on how many sessions you can attend. There’s a principle behind SFBT that every session could be the last one, so the therapist will work with you to identify the most important topic and help you identify quality “take-homes” to address on your own. Working with an SFBT therapist can help you cultivate critical skills to then get through difficult circumstances on your own.
ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Like SFBT, ACT doesn’t really focus on problem solving. Instead, ACT clinicians teach mindfulness, values identification, and other skills to help you shift your way of thinking about your physical or psychological pain. It focuses on the spectrum of human experience, instead of “problem” vs. “normal.”
ACT has been shown to be helpful for individuals experiencing chronic pain, psychosis, chronic depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse. I think anyone suffering from a chronic condition could benefit from ACT, as it provides tools you can utilize whether there’s a realistic “cure” for your condition or not.
The Gottman Method
The Gottman Method was designed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, and is most often used for couples, although they do have a method for parents and children. With Gottman therapy, you will typically participate in a fairly structured curriculum designed to work through common issues that are the root of most perpetual relationship conflicts. Throughout the sessions, the common thread is to build trust and commitment to your partner.
The Gottman Method is, unsurprisingly, great for couples. I believe this method is helpful for a wide variety of couples and their concerns. At the end of the day, most couple conflicts aren’t as unique or complicated as the couple may think, and the Gottman Method addresses that. They also have a high success rate compared to many other couples’ therapy methods.
Adlerian therapy is goal-oriented, humanistic, and psychodynamic in approach, and was developed by Alfred Adler. Adlerian therapy focuses on the individual within their specific context and community, making it an excellent choice for cultural sensitivity. The process of Adlerian therapy often begins with an assessment of your early life and birth order, as Adler believed that many of our neurotic and problematic behaviors began in childhood. Essentially, Adler would say that your family was your first community, and that affects every community you interact with now, even in adulthood.
Adlerian therapy also focuses on gaining insight and changing perspective, which then leads to making most positive choices. Adlerian therapists typically offer encouraging, strengths-based interactions with their clients, and focus on the client’s specific goals.
Narrative therapy is about telling your story. The idea is that storytelling has always been a key part of human beings, including human connection, and that telling, and owning, your story can be highly beneficial and therapeutic. It's also about more deeply processing and understanding your own story, and how that affects your life and relationships.
EFT stands for Emotion Focused Therapy. The main idea of EFT is that emotions are the key to our identity. When we lack self-awareness, emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand or express emotions, harm can happen to ourselves and to others.
EFT also says that emotions can be an important guide to decision making. So learning to understand, learn from, and channel your emotions are all important in EFT therapy.
Culturally Focused & Culturally Competent
Like faith-based therapies, many therapists integrate cultural competency into other theories they subscribe to. However, there is a difference between having a general sense of cultural competency and specializing in certain culturally focused concerns.
A few examples could be therapists who specialize in working with the LGBTQ+ community (and there are many specialty groups within this large community), or immigrants, or particular ethnic groups, or polyamorous couples, or something quite broad such as men's or women's issues.
To Wrap Up
Although there are countless more types of therapy (I didn’t even touch dozens of them!), I hope that getting an idea of some of the more common ones can be helpful. Like I mentioned at the very beginning, many therapists use an integrated approach of several techniques, depending on what you need as a client and what the situation calls for. If you’re interested in meeting with a therapist who uses a specific method, Psychology Today is a great place to start searching for someone in your area.