Psychotherapy — also called just plain therapy, talk therapy, or counseling — is a process focused on helping you heal and learn more constructive ways to deal with the problems or issues within your life. It can also be a supportive process when going through a difficult period or under increased stress, such as starting a new career or going through a divorce.

Generally psychotherapy is recommended whenever a person is grappling with a life, relationship or work issue or a specific mental health concern, and these issues are causing the individual a great deal of pain or upset for longer than a few days. There are exceptions to this general rule, but for the most part, there is no harm in going into therapy even if you’re not entirely certain you would benefit from it.

Millions of people visit a psychotherapist every year, and most research shows that people who do so benefit from the interaction. Most therapists will also be honest with you if they believe you won’t benefit or, in their opinion, don’t need psychotherapy.

Modern psychotherapy differs significantly from the Hollywood version. Typically, most people see their therapist once a week for 50 minutes. For medication-only appointments, sessions will be with a psychiatric nurse or psychiatrist and tend to last only 15 to 20 minutes. These medication appointments tend to be scheduled once per month or once every six weeks.

Psychotherapy is usually time-limited and focuses on specific goals you want to accomplish.

Psychotherapy, in most cases, tends to focus on problem solving and is goal-oriented. At the onset of treatment, you and your therapist will decide upon which specific changes you’d like to make in your life. These goals will often be broken down into smaller attainable objectives and put into a formal treatment plan.

Therapists today work on and focus on helping you to achieve those goals through weekly therapy sessions. This is done simply through talking and discussing techniques that the therapist can suggest that may help you better navigate those difficult areas within your life. Often psychotherapy will help teach people about their disorder, too, and suggest additional coping mechanisms that the person may find more effective.

Therapy today is most-often short-term and lasts less than a year. Common mental disorders — such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD, and the like — can be successfully treated within this time frame, sometimes with a combination of psychotherapy and medications.

Learn more: Best Online Therapy Services to Try

Psychotherapy is most successful when the individual enters therapy on their own and has a strong desire to change. If you don’t want to change, change will be slow in coming. Change means altering those aspects of your life that aren’t working for you any longer, or are contributing to your problems or ongoing issues. It is also best to keep an open mind while in psychotherapy, and be willing to try out new things that ordinarily you may not do. Psychotherapy is often about challenging one’s existing set of beliefs and often, one’s very self. It is most successful when a person is able and willing to try to do this in a safe and supportive environment.

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Can an individual and therapist have a relationship outside of therapy?

Generally not and it is usually not recommended. Psychotherapy is meant to be a one-way street. The therapist knows a great deal about the patient but the patient does not know intimate details about the therapist. Because of this, the therapist often seems to have a greater power or influence over the individual, which could result in abuse or deception.

This does not mean that one cannot have any contact with the therapist outside of the therapy situation. This is especially true in small towns where social contact may be inevitable. However, it is generally not a good idea to seek therapy from someone you know personally or with whom you may have another relationship (e.g., business interest, friendship). In fact, the ethics of most professions prohibit their members from engaging in these types of relationships.

Does therapy involve physical touch?

The use of touch varies. Some therapists may pat or hug a patient as a sign of support or comfort (ONLY with the patient’s prior consent). However, physical touch is powerful and should never be sexualized. Kissing, excessive touching and sexual activity have no place in legitimate forms of therapy. While almost all therapists are ethical, a small minority exploits their patients. Any therapy involving inappropriate sexual behavior should be discontinued and the therapist should be reported to the state’s licensing board.

Is it okay for therapists and patients to date?

Dating or any sexual contact between a therapist and patient is always inappropriate. This includes seeking therapy from someone with whom you have been involved, with whom you had an intimate relationship with in the past, dating during therapy or starting a relationship after therapy has ended. Many states have specific statutes regarding this behavior.

Will my therapist be angry if I switch to another practitioner?

The answer to this question should be no. Therapists are professionals who should have the best interest of their patient at heart. Any decision to switch therapists should be explored with the therapist. If your therapist gets touchy or angry at your decision, you can take comfort in the fact that you have made the right decision.

Which is better, therapy or medication?

Both medication and therapy have been shown to be effective in treating mental illness. The type of treatment used depends on the nature of the problem. Generally, medication is often prescribed for conditions known to have strong biological components, such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or panic disorder.

Research suggests that use of medication and psychotherapy together may be the best approach, especially for more severe conditions. The medication offers relief from symptoms, and psychotherapy enables the individual to gain knowledge about her condition and how to handle it. This combined approach offers the fastest, longest-lasting treatment.

Should I see a male or female therapist?

Individuals often wonder if they would do better with a male or female therapist. Research on therapist traits and therapy outcome has failed to identify any relationship between the two. Factors such as warmth and empathy are much more related to outcome than therapist gender. However, the nature of your particular problem as well as your own preferences may lead you to seek out a male or female therapist. For example, a woman who was sexually abused by her father may feel more comfortable working with a woman therapist.