What Therapy Is Right for Me?

Get the help you need with our guide to the best treatments.

Posted Aug 23, 2019

Alyssa Morris, used with permission
Source: Alyssa Morris, used with permission

This guest post was contributed by Alyssa Morris, a graduate student in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program. 

So, you need a little extra support right now. Just recognizing that fact is a huge step, so props for seeking help. While looking for the right therapist can seem overwhelming, don’t sweat—this post is here to help.

Did you know that there are actually a number of different kinds of psychotherapy? Depending on the problems you’re facing, you might benefit from one therapy more than the next, and it can be helpful to look for a therapist who is knowledgeable in an approach that will help you.

Some therapy approaches are particularly well-validated, which means that controlled treatment studies have found them to be effective. To get you started, we’ve broken down it down by a few common reasons why people seek therapy.

Annie’s Anxiety

Annie has always struggled with anxiety, but she has always seemed to manage OK. Lately, however, she feels like she’s constantly worrying about things, and it’s really starting to interfere with her day-to-day activities. She thinks it might be time to start seeing a therapist, and she’s right!

If this resonates with you, or you’re experiencing debilitating anxiety about something specific (e.g., you’re avoiding social situations, you panic before presentations, or you rely on elaborate routines—like counting or touching specific objects—to calm you down), then you might benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, as it’s commonly called.

CBT is a type of therapy that helps to identify and address the links between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Using this modality, a therapist will help you reassess unhelpful thoughts that are contributing to your anxiety. Another type of therapy that may be an option is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, which is aimed at increasing your ability to tolerate challenging feelings. ACT also focuses on your individual values, with the goal of moving your life in a “valued direction.”

Both of these therapy approaches often incorporate a technique known as exposure therapy. In this type of therapy, you construct a ladder of situations you’re avoiding—anything from driving on the highway to showing up alone to a party—and work with a therapist to face those fears. Exposure sounds tough but can be tremendously effective, since it helps beat the “avoidance” habit, like the one keeping Annie from tackling her daily life. 

Pixabay, Creative Commons license
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons license

Greg’s Grief

Greg is an elderly man who just lost his wife of 48 years. He misses her immensely, is frequently tearful, and is so overwhelmed by sadness that he often doesn’t get out of bed until the afternoon.

It’s normal to feel sad after a loss; however, if your grief is getting in the way of your ability to perform your usual activities, or you just feel like you need additional support, you could benefit from Interpersonal Therapy (IPT). IPT is time-limited, meaning that you can expect your therapist to indicate a specific number of sessions you’ll work together to achieve your goals.

In IPT therapy, you will focus on unpacking your emotions and talking about your relationships with others in your life, with the aim of shoring up your social support resources. To reduce stigma, depression is treated as an illness, rather than something that is the patient’s fault. And IPT does not just work well for the elderly: It has been shown effective in treating (and even preventing!) postpartum depression and other forms of depression at different times across the lifespan.

Desmond’s Depression

Desmond is a freshman in college. While he was excited to start his education at the university he’s always dreamed of attending, he’s been feeling extremely moody. He always feels exhausted, never wants to go out with friends, and has started skipping classes. Signs point to depression, and Desmond would benefit from a number of different therapies.

If you are feeling depressed like Desmond, you might benefit from Behavioral Activation (BA). Behavioral activation, which can be included as a component of CBT or as a stand-alone treatment, uses a “fake it ‘till you make it” approach. A therapist taking a behavioral activation approach will help you identify patterns and understand why you’re avoiding certain activities (e.g., Desmond and his therapist would talk about why he’s not spending time with friend or attending classes). The therapist guides you in targeting those behaviors (e.g., Desmond would commit to going to a social event even if he didn’t feel like it) and tracking your activities and moods.

When depressed, people often find that their daily lives are no longer rewarding. This approach helps clients to rewire their daily routines and thoughts, creating more opportunities to feel better. However, this is not the only treatment option for depression. Many people find CBT (as we discussed in Annie’s case) and IPT (Greg’s case) to be very helpful!

Tommy’s Trauma

Tommy just got back from a six-month deployment with the army. While on duty, he was in active combat and injured an enemy soldier. Tommy is having flashbacks about this event and feels extensive guilt.

Tommy, as well as anyone else experiencing symptoms of PTSD, which can be sparked from a number of different experience (e.g., experiencing assault or sexual violence, being in a car accident, witnessing a violent death, terrorist attacks), can benefit from Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). CPT works by helping individuals better understand their emotions about the trauma, in part by helping them to share their story of the trauma and work through it with the help of a therapist. This helps take away some of the power of memories and flashbacks. At the end of this therapy, some individuals even feel that the trauma they experienced contributed to their individual growth.

If any of these cases resonated with you, consider asking for a therapist who is knowledgeable in one of the therapeutic methods we’ve talked about. If you’re in the beginning stages of finding a therapist, you might check the directory on Psychology Today, which allows you to refine your search by “Types of Therapy.” 

If you’ve been referred to someone already, ask them about their therapeutic approach and how they see it aligns with your needs. Many therapists are knowledgeable in a number of different methods and are trained on how to choose the most appropriate approach for each individual and his or her presenting problems. No matter what, don’t be afraid to ask about their approach!

Not everyone’s issue will look like those we’ve outlined above. Each individual’s story is different, and the therapies we’ve talked about can work for a variety of problems. So even if your story is different, therapy can still help you.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and if you wouldn’t treat a stomach bug with cold medicine, then you shouldn’t treat depression with trauma treatment. Make sure you find the therapy that is right for your needs!