Psychotherapy: Definition, History, Goals, Approaches, and Manners

Psychotherapy is the use of psychological methods, particularly when based on regular personal interaction, to help a person change and overcome problems in the desired way, it aims to improve the well-being and mental health of an individual, to resolve or mitigate problematic behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts or emotions, and to improve relationships and social skills.

There are over a thousand different techniques of psychotherapy, some of which are minor variations, while others are based on very different conceptions of psychology, ethics, or techniques. Most involve one-on-one sessions between the client and the therapist, but some are conducted with groups, including families.

Psychotherapists can be mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists or professional counselors, they can come from a variety of other backgrounds, and depending on the jurisdiction they can be legally regulated, voluntarily regulated or not regulated.

History of Psychotherapy

It can be said that psychotherapy has been practiced through the ages, as doctors, philosophers, spiritual practitioners and people in general used psychological methods to heal others.

The treatment of emotional or psychological problems can be traced back to ancient times, the ancient Greeks were the first to identify mental illness as a medical condition. Although their understanding of the nature of mental illness was not always correct (for example, they believed that hysteria affected only women due to a wandering uterus), and their treatments were quite unusual.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages saw the return of a belief in the supernatural as a cause of mental illness and the use of torture to elicit confessions of demonic possession. However, some doctors began to support the use of psychotherapy, Paracelsus (1493-1541) advocated psychotherapy for the treatment of the insane.

Although there were scattered references to the value of “talking” in the treatment of emotional problems, the English psychiatrist Walter Cooper Dendy first introduced the term “psychotherapist” in 1853, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis at the beginning of the century and made Profound contributions to the field with his descriptions of unconscious infantile sexuality, the use of dreams, and his model of the human mind.

Freud’s work with neurotic patients led him to believe that mental illness was the result of holding thoughts or memories in the unconscious. Treatment, primarily listening to the patient and providing interpretations, would bring these memories to the fore and thus lessen symptoms.

Around the 1950s, the growth of American psychology led to new, more active therapies that involved the psychotherapeutic process. The practice of behavioral psychology borrowed principles from animal psychology to treat emotional and behavioral problems, over the years, behavior therapy has been enhanced to include an emphasis on the person’s thoughts and feelings.

The next great style of psychotherapy developed not as a result of new ideas, but because of financial problems. Traditionally, psychotherapy was a long progression, often with years of treatment, as it became more widely available, a shorter form of treatment was emphasized. This trend was fueled by the advent of managed care insurance plans and limitations on coverage for mental health issues. Today, virtually all therapeutic modalities offer some type of brief therapy designed to help the person deal with specific problems.


Approaches to psychotherapy

A theory of psychotherapy acts as a roadmap for psychologists: it guides them through the process of understanding clients and their problems and developing solutions. Psychotherapy approaches fall into five broad categories:

Psychodynamic therapies

The Psychodynamic therapy focuses on changing behaviors, feelings and thoughts troubled to discover their meanings and unconscious motivations. Psychoanalytically oriented therapies are characterized by a close working association between the therapist and the patient, patients learn about themselves by exploring their interactions in the therapeutic relationship, although psychoanalysis is closely identified with Sigmund Freud, it has been expanded and modified from its first formulations.

Behavior therapy

This approach focuses on the role of learning in the development of normal and abnormal behaviors.

Ivan Pavlov made important contributions to behavior therapy by discovering classical conditioning or associative learning, Pavlov’s famous dogs, for example, started drooling when they heard his dinner bell, because they associated sound with food.

In classical conditioning , a therapist can help a client with a phobia through repeated exposure to whatever causes anxiety.

Another important thinker was EL Thorndike, who discovered operant conditioning .  This type of learning relies on rewards and punishments to shape people’s behavior, many variations have developed since the advent of behavior therapy in the 1950s. One variation is cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses both in thoughts as well as behaviors.

Cognitive therapy

Emphasize what people think rather than what they do. Cognitive therapists believe that it is dysfunctional thinking that leads to dysfunctional emotions or behaviors, by changing their thoughts, people can change how they feel and what they do. Leading figures in cognitive therapy include Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. Read full article on: Cognitive therapy

Humanistic therapy

This approach emphasizes the ability of people to make rational decisions and develop their full potential, concern and respect for others are also important issues. Read full article from: Humanist Therapy

Humanist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Buber, and Søren Kierkegaard influenced this type of therapy. Three types of humanistic therapy are especially influential:

The therapy focuses on the client rejects the idea of therapists as authorities on internal experiences of their customers. Instead, therapists help clients change by emphasizing their concern, care, and interest.

The Gestalt therapy emphasizes what he calls “organic holism” the importance of being aware of the here and now and accept responsibility for oneself.

The Existential therapy focuses on free will, self – determination and the search for meaning.

Integrative or holistic therapy

Many therapists do not relate to any one approach. Instead, they combine elements of different approaches and tailor their treatment according to the needs of each client. Read full article on: Integrative or Holistic Therapy 

Goals of psychotherapy

  • Daily activities:  Improve daily activities and be calmer.
  • Family relationships: Improve the family relationship with the spouse and other family members.
  • Perceptual functions: improve awareness, self-esteem, mood and clear thinking.
  • Performance strategies:  Improve emotions, behavior, try to be safe and well-being.
  • Manage: Discomfort or distress.
  • Perception:  Improves sensitivity, thoughts and expectations of reality.
  • Encourage grief:  Grief and the expression of feelings help to minimize internal suffering.
  • Improves response to medications
  • Good sleep:  Sleep helps improve behavior, self-esteem, and mood.

Indications for psychotherapy

The most common psychological disorder associated with chronic pain is depression, anxiety, and sleep disorder. Thirty percent of chronic pain patients suffer from depression, psychotherapy is routinely recommended for many other psychiatric illnesses.

After the psychiatric disorder, they are treated with psychotherapy:

List of psychotherapeutic manners

Psychodynamic or psychoanalytic


It is a highly influential method of treating mental disorders, shaped by psychoanalytic theory, which emphasizes unconscious mental processes and is sometimes described as “deep psychology.” Read more information on psychoanalysis.

Lacanian psychoanalysis

Lacan and psychoanalysis are practically synonymous today, Jacques Lacan expanded Freud’s developments in psychology and psychoanalysis. Complete content of Lacanian psychoanalysis . (Required item)

Kleinian psychoanalysis

It is the name given to the school of psychoanalytic theory that has developed around the work of the psychoanalyst  Melanie Klein (1882-1960). Read more on Kleinian psychoanalysis . (Required item)

Analytical psychology

It is a theory of mind that emphasizes the importance of integrity for each individual, as in traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, analytical psychology suggests that early experiences are very important in personality development. At the same time, however, it emphasizes the importance of the present, including the role that cultural changes and archetypes (or underlying universal symbols) play in individual psychology. By bringing together an understanding of individual experience with an acknowledgment of the role played by broader truths and experiences, analytical psychology hopes to work toward an integrated human consciousness. Complete information in analytical psychology . (Required item)

Terapia adleriana

It is a short-term, goal-oriented and positive psychodynamic therapy, based on the theories of Alfred Adler, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, who focused much of his research on feelings of inferiority versus superiority, discouragement and a sense of belonging in the context of the community itself and society in general. According to Adler, feelings of inferiority can result in neurotic behavior but, in the right context, they can also be used as motivation to strive for greater success. Read more about Adlerian therapy . (Required item)

Behavioral and cognitive-behavioral

Behavioral psychology

It is an approach in psychology that studies observable behavior, emphasizing the role that conditioning plays in influencing a person’s thoughts and actions. Complete content of behavioral psychology.

Behavioral engineering

It is the practical and precise application of scientific knowledge for the development, improvement and management techniques of establishment, maintenance or modification of human behavior. Read more in Behavioral Engineering . (Required item)

Behavior modification

It refers to the techniques used to try to decrease or increase a particular type of behavior or reaction. This may sound very technical, but we all use it very frequently, parents use it to teach their children right and wrong, therapists use it to promote healthy behaviors in their patients, animal trainers use it to develop obedience between a pet and its owner, we even use it in our relationships with friends and significant others. Our responses to them teach them what we like and what we don’t like. Read the full Behavior Modification content . (Required item)

Contextual therapy

It is a form of non-directive therapy that, by promoting mutual understanding and trust, fosters dialogue between family members and thus makes change possible. Complete information in:  contextual therapy . (Required item)

Behavioral therapy

A general term for the types of therapy that treat mental health disorders, this form of therapy seeks to identify and help change potentially self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. It works on the idea that all behaviors are learned and that unhealthy behaviors can be changed, the focus of treatment is usually on current problems and how to change them. Read more about:  behavioral therapy. 

Cognitive Analytical Therapy

It is a type of therapy that combines ideas from analytical psychology with those of cognitive therapy. By analyzing past events and experiences, therapy seeks to understand why a person feels, thinks, and behaves the way they do, before helping them solve problems and develop new ways of coping. Complete information on analytical cognitive therapy . (Required item)

Cognitive behavioral therapy

It is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and increases happiness by modifying dysfunctional thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which investigates childhood wounds to get to the root causes of conflict, this therapy focuses on solutions, encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive behavior patterns. Read more on cognitive behavioral therapy .

Rational Emotional Behavioral Therapy

It is a short-term form of psychotherapy that helps you identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, questions the rationality of those feelings, and replaces them with healthier, more productive beliefs. It focuses primarily on the present tense to help you understand how unhealthy thoughts and beliefs create emotional distress which, in turn, leads to unhealthy actions and behaviors that interfere with your current life goals. Complete content of rational emotive behavioral therapy . (Required item)

Humanist-experiential or existential-phenomenological

Humanistic psychology

It is a psychological perspective that rose to prominence in the mid-20th century in response to the limitations of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and BF Skinner’s behaviorism, with its roots stretching from Socrates to the Renaissance, this approach emphasizes the inherent drive of the individuals toward self-actualization, the process of realizing and expressing their own abilities and creativity. Read more about humanistic psychology . (Required item)

Therapy focused on the client.

Also known as person-centered therapy, it is a non-directive form of talk therapy developed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers during the 1940s and 1950s. Learn more about client-centered therapy .


It is a decades-long psychotherapeutic approach developed by Viktor Frankl. The driving force behind logotherapy is the idea that human beings are more motivated by the search for meaning, indicating that the meaning of life is the biggest question on our minds and the biggest stressor on our psyche. Read more on logotherapy .

transpersonal psychology

Its objective is to improve the study of mind-body relationships, consciousness and spirituality, it is the study of human growth and development from a perspective that delves into the inner soul. Complete content of transpersonal psychology

Terapia figure

It is a client-centered approach to psychotherapy that helps clients focus on the present and understand what is actually happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience. Through the gestalt process, clients learn to become more aware of how their own negative thought patterns and behaviors block true self-awareness and make them unhappy. Read more on Gestalt psychology.

Transactional analysis

It is a widely recognized form of modern psychology that involves a set of practical conceptual tools designed to promote personal growth and change. It is considered a fundamental therapy for well-being and to help people reach their full potential in all aspects of life. Read more about:  transactional analysis . (Required item)

Existential therapy

It is a unique form of psychotherapy that seeks to explore difficulties from a philosophical perspective, rather than taking a technique-based approach, focusing on the human condition as a whole, existential therapy applauds human capabilities and encourages people to embrace responsibility for your successes. Complete information on existential therapy


It is an experimental form of therapy, it allows those in treatment to explore problems through methods of action (dramatic actions). This approach incorporates role play and group dynamics to help people gain greater perspective on emotional concerns, conflict, or other areas of difficulty in a safe and trustworthy environment. Read more in psychodrama .

Constructionist and systemic

Family therapy

Also called family counseling, it is a form of treatment designed to address specific problems that affect the health and functioning of a family. It can be used to help a family through a difficult time, a major transition, or mental or behavioral health problems in family members. Read more about family therapy . 

Family structural therapy

It is a method of psychotherapy developed by Salvador Minuchin that addresses the problems of functioning within a family. Structural family therapists strive to enter or ‘join’ the family system in therapy to understand the invisible rules that govern its functioning, map relationships between family members or between subsets of the family, and ultimately disrupt dysfunctional relationships within the family, making it stabilize in healthier patterns. Complete information on structural family therapy . (Required item)

Solution-focused brief therapy

Also called solution development practice therapy, it was developed by Steve de Shazer (1940-2005) and his colleagues in the late 1970s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As the name implies, it focuses on the future, it focuses on solutions and not the problems that led clients to seek therapy. Read more in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy . (Required item)

Systemic therapy

Seeks to understand the individual in relation to others, rather than in isolation. The individual is considered part of a larger unit or system, for example, a couple, a family, an organization or a community. Complete content of systemic therapy  . (Required item)


Cognitive processing therapy

It is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that is found to be effective in treating post-traumatic disorder, which may make you think very differently about yourself and your environment. Read more about cognitive processing therapy. (Required item)


It is the theory that we learn most effectively through experience. In Jean Piaget’s research on child development, she said that play is important for children to create new conclusions about their world. Educators like Montessori, who supported the theory, believed that a child’s hands-on experiences increased their ability to learn. Complete information on constructivism . 


Comprehensive psychology

It is a comprehensive approach to understanding human experience and behavior. It is a systematic inquiry into who we are and how we live as human beings, one that takes into account and makes use of the widest possible range of knowledge available so that we can clearly understand and effectively address the challenges we face as individuals and as a community. species. Read more in integral psychology . (Required item)


It is a therapeutic approach that is derived from psychoanalysis, it was developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, who, unlike Freud, believed in a more inclusive concept of humanity, one that integrated spiritual and also psychological elements. Psychosynthesis explores and supports the ways in which people harmonize various aspects of their personal selves to grow and develop. Read more information on psychosynthesis. 

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Hello, how are you? My name is Georgia Tarrant, and I am a clinical psychologist. In everyday life, professional obligations seem to predominate over our personal life. It's as if work takes up more and more of the time we'd love to devote to our love life, our family, or even a moment of leisure.