If you’ve ever looked at a psychologist’s profile, you’ve probably seen them mention the type of therapy they do. You might have seen terms such as CBT, psychodynamic therapy or schema therapy and wondered what they were talking about. Trying to understand what a therapeutic approach is and decide which one is right for you can feel hard for someone new to therapy.
What is a therapeutic approach?
Put simply, a therapeutic approach is a way for the psychologist to describe what is happening in your life and what therapy should look like. Approaches vary in how much they focus on the past vs the present, if there are any between session tasks, and the role the psychologist takes in session.
For example, let’s say someone is feeling anxious about an upcoming meeting at work. The anxiety has reached a point where they are unable to sleep most nights, and feel sick even thinking about the meeting. How would different therapists try and help this person?
A Cognitive Behavioural Therapist
If that person saw a psychologist practicing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the psychologist would probably focus on the person’s thoughts and beliefs about the upcoming meeting. Does the person think they will lose their job if the meeting doesn’t go well? Are they convinced that everyone else in the meeting will think they are incompetent? It is possible some of these thoughts are unrealistic, and examining these beliefs in more detail to help understand this would be helpful. The psychologist might also help them with exercises for when they are feeling anxious, such as relaxation or breathing exercises.
A Psychodynamic Therapist
A psychologist using a psychodynamic approach might be more interested in what has happened in the person’s past and how the current situation might reflect certain patterns they have when interacting with the world. Do they have a history of reacting to situations with anxiety? Is the upcoming meeting triggering some pattern that they learnt in childhood? Are there other things in their life that are causing them anxiety that they are ignoring? By coming to a richer understanding of themselves and their life the client will be able to deal with situations like this more effectively.
So how do I decide what therapeutic approach is right for me?
Interestingly, research has shown that a range of different therapies can be effective, with no clear evidence that any approach is better. In fact, the most important thing for effective therapy is finding a therapist that you connect with. Research consistently shows that how well you feel understood and supported by your therapist is the number one predictor of how effective the therapy will be. If you feel you and your psychologist are making progress and the concepts they introduce make sense, then their therapeutic approach is right for you.
However, if you feel that the things you are doing in session don’t make sense, or that you are focusing on the wrong things, you can also raise this with your psychologist. Most psychologists know more than one therapeutic approach and would be happy to try something different with you. Good therapy should be an equal partnership between you and your psychologist, not someone telling you what to do.