• Finding a therapist can be complicated by some of the names – EMDR, CBT, ACT, DBT etc.

  • Psychotherapist Dr Ana Mootoosamy has a rough guide for simplifying the types of therapy

  • We have therapists and counsellors available here

As psychotherapists, we need to hold our hands up and admit that we need to be better at explaining what psychotherapy is to clients. You know what is going to happen at a hospital, GP or dentist appointment, but psychotherapy can be shrouded in a bit of mystery – and on top of this, there seem to be as many types of therapy as there are days in the year.

So let’s jump right in and explore the different options – very very roughly, there are two different kinds of therapy that it is important to distinguish between:

  • Therapy that offers skills and techniques
  • Therapy that is developmental

This article is not about what type of therapy is better or worse – what is right for one person might be wrong for another, and they require different skill sets from the therapist. This article is for information to help you determine what you think you like the sound of.

1. Therapy that offers skills and techniques

This is the type of therapy that usually has acronyms – CBT, DBT, ACT etc. It is the type of therapy that is most abundantly available on the NHS, and can be performed by someone like a counsellor, clinical psychologist or even a coach. It is usually short-term – for example, it is standard practice for six sessions of CBT to be offered for people who use NHS talking therapy services.

Because it is so short, there is very limited time to deeply explore the inner life of the patient. What happens is that you will tell the therapist what you feel you need help with, and the therapist usually gives you a technique that will help you cope with the problem. The various acronyms are about the different problems that they are treating; for example, CBT might be appropriate for stress, while DBT might be used for someone with another diagnosis.

The philosophical roots of this type of therapy lie in Stoicism – this type of therapy can even be achieved via a self-help book or an app – in fact, the NHS has resources for self-guided CBT. When people talk about therapy one day being replaced by AI, it is this type of therapy they are talking about.

2. Therapy that is developmental

Developmental therapy is called psychoanalytic or psychodynamic, though many of the humanistic schools come into this as well. This type of therapy is usually considered to be deep and rich – it is a thorough exploration of the inner world – there is an inherent understanding that everyone’s lives are different, and what causes me anxiety might be different to what causes you anxiety. This means we might require very different solution to each other, even though we have the same ‘problem’. In a way, it could also be described as ‘tailored’ or ‘individualised’ therapy, as it is not a ‘one size fits all’ type of therapy. (In pop culture, this is the type of therapy that is usually evoked, even if it is not correctly depicted!)

It is a developmental type of therapy, because the entirety of a person’s existence is considered – from what happened before they were born, to their childhood, up to the present day, and how the cumulative effect of these events over the course of a person’s development contribute to someone’s anxiety, stress, trauma, fears, worries, panic etc. 

Because it is a deep exploration, it is usually a much longer course of therapy than the ‘skills and techniques’ style of therapy. With the developmental style of therapy, symptom relief will come and the person will find that they have the resources within themselves to find a solution to their ‘problem’, which is worked out during the therapy. The philosophical roots of this style of therapy lie in Freud, Plato, Schopenhauer, and Indian philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism), and even in existentialists such as Sartre. You will find people talk about the importance of the relationship between patient and psychotherapist in this type of therapy, which is makes it unlikely to be replaceable by AI or a self-help book.

What is the right kind of therapy for me?

In summary, if you see a therapy has an acronym (e.g. CBT), then you will usually find that therapy is short-term or has a specific structure to the sessions, and you will more likely be provided with techniques to cope with your symptoms. If it is psychoanalytic or psychodynamic, it will usually be a deeper exploration of your life, that will allow you to come to your solution.

In terms of what the right kind of therapy is for you, this is a very personal choice and it depends on what you feel is right for you at this point in your life. If you are looking for something more solution-focused in the short-term, then CBT might be helpful, if you are looking for something more holistic, then psychoanalysis might feel better for you.

Many practitioners may have trained in more than one type of therapy – you can always ask them about this and what it means for how they work when you contact them. 

Dr Ana Mootoosamy is a verified Welldoing therapist in London and online

Further reading

Deciding on therapy: a leap of faith?

Which type of therapy is right for me?

EMDR helped me recover after a breakdown

7 ways art therapy has helped me

How CBT changed my relationship to my body