What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is an English word of Greek origin, deriving from Ancient Greek ‘psyche’ meaning ‘breath, spirit, soul’ and ‘therapia’ meaning ‘healing, medical treatment’.

Where does psychotherapy come from?

Sigmund FreudThe person most commonly associated with the inception of psychotherapy is probably Sigmund Freud.  Freud developed a theory of the unconscious mind and the phenomena of repression.  He created the methodology of psychoanalysis in which he would dialogue with his patients.  Freud used free association and dream analysis in order to access unconscious material.  While some of his theories on the importance of early sexual experiences including the famous ‘Oedipus complex’ are controversial, his work and that of his followers have informed many of the approaches that followed.

While Freud’s contribution is certainly important the roots of psychotherapy go far deeper than the late 1800s.  People have followed the vocation of healing the soul for as long as there have been communities.  Looked at in this way the early psychotherapists may have been called alchemists, healers, witches, or shamans.

How do psychotherapists compare with other contemporary mental health professionals?

There are many routes to becoming a healer.  Depending upon which road a person started down they may end up with a different professional label, but claiming to treat the same set of issues.

According to the UK council for psychotherapy:

  • Psychiatrists are qualified medical doctors, specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They can prescribe psychiatric medication.
  • Psychologists are social scientists who study behaviour and mental processes. Some work in research, education and commercial fields. Psychologists provide, administer and interpret psychological tests and assessments.
  • Clinical psychologists undergo specialist postgraduate training to qualify in psychological – or ‘talking’ – therapies. They are not medical doctors and do not prescribe drugs. Clinical psychologists work in similar ways to psychotherapists, although they may use a variety of methods including psychometric tests, interviews and direct observation of behaviour to assess clients and decide on therapy options.
  • Counsellors can practice after receiving relatively short training, although some have many years of experience.  It is generally accepted that counsellors provide shorter-term therapy.
  • UKCP member psychotherapists (I’m one of these) undergo a four-year, postgraduate, in-depth and experiential training in how to work with a variety of people with a wide range of emotional distress, mental health issues and difficulties. Psychotherapists are trained in one or more of the psychotherapy modalities.

What is the best form of psychotherapy for me?

There are 30 different types of psychotherapy listed on the UKCP site.  In addition to the more well known ones such as psychoanalysis, existential psychotherapy, NLP, and CBT the list also includes art therapy, body psychotherapy, dance movement therapy, and family therapy.

With all this choice it can be difficult to know which form of psychotherapy is right for you.  In many cases a therapist may have started their training in a particular way of working but then been influenced by many other perspectives – bringing all this experience together into a personal style.  My suggestion would be to find a psychotherapist you get a good vibe off first and then to take a look at the kinds of training they have had.  The only real way of finding out is to have a few sessions and to trust your instincts.  It is very common for people to try out a number of different therapists before one clicks.

My relationship with psychotherapy

I have never experienced much benefit from simply talking about my problems – I’ve got friends who can listen to me talk about stuff I already know.  A particular low point was seeing a fully qualified psychotherapist who said ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you’ … as if that would make any difference to me.  Happily most of my experiences have been MUCH more positive and have helped me move through some intense issues that I had previously taken for granted.

I used to like therapists who approached therapy in a somewhat rational way … rather like the way a mechanic fixes a car or a developer programmes a computer.  This appealed to my scientific mind and it seemed effective at clearing issues that I was able to put a clear label on.  Now I prefer to work with healers who have an ability to sense the unseen and work in a more energetic or spiritual way.  This would have been way too hippy for me before but now it seems better at getting to the deepest held stuff … things that may have their roots from before I was even born.  Often these people do not call themselves psychotherapists.  Sometimes they do.

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