Trying to figure out what type of therapy to try? Here's a guide to common types of therapy to help steer you toward the best mode of treatment for you.

By Real Simple Editors
Updated February 05, 2020
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When it comes to therapy, one size definitely doesn’t fit all—although it may seem impossible to differentiate between the many available types of therapy. Because no matter what kind of therapy you seek, it's true that certain therapy practices are standard.

For example, in many modalities of psychotherapy, you can expect to sit across from a therapist, who will ask direct questions to get to the root of what’s bothering you. But rather than having you attempt to figure out solutions on your own while you share your problems (though that does occasionally happen), your therapist may make specific suggestions for new ways to think and behave to help you feel happier and more in control.

“There’s a real emphasis on collaboration between the patient and the therapist,” says Stanley Berman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at William James College, in Newton, Massachusetts.

That said, though many types of therapy may follow a somewhat recognizable blueprint, the specific therapist you choose can also make a difference in your experience. “A good fit between therapist and patient is a strong predictor of success,” says psychiatrist and psycho­analyst Andrew Gerber, MD, PhD, the medical director and CEO of the Austen Riggs Center, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who studies treatment efficacy. You should feel comfortable with your therapist, but you don’t need to be best friends, Dr. Gerber adds.

As a rule of thumb, before booking your first session, always ask a potential therapist if they have experience treating your specific problem. Nothing beats a personal referral, but since many people prefer to keep their therapy experience private, referrals may be hard to get from friends and colleagues. Ask your doctor for a recommendation, or contact your health insurance company for a list of mental health providers in your network. And be ready to make a few calls before finding a match (the process of finding a great therapist for you, specifically, is often compared to dating).

But beyond working with the right person, you need first to figure out the best type of therapy for you—and there are many to choose from. Starting with a therapy method that’s proven to treat the issue you’re dealing with will ultimately increase your odds of getting better. Here's an explainer of the most common and effective types of therapy, and the mental health issues they’re most helpful for.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): to deal with negative thoughts or to break a habit.

CBT centers on changing attitudes and behavior by focusing on false thoughts and the beliefs behind them. Research shows that it’s effective for most mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety.

Seek the help of: A psychologist (PhD or PsyD), a licensed clinical social worker (MSW), or a licensed professional counselor (MA, MS, or PhD) trained in CBT.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): for persistent anxiety.

ACT is a form of CBT that teaches you how to live with anxiety without letting it limit or control you. “Instead of trying to change the content of your thoughts, you accept that they exist, but you don’t let them define you or your behavior,” says Joanna Arch, PhD, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Arch’s research has shown that ACT is as effective as (and, in one study, more effective than) traditional CBT in treating anxiety.

Seek the help of: A psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, or a licensed professional counselor trained in ACT.

Psychoanalysis: to go deeper into the conscious and unconscious elements of your mind.

People who have been in therapy for at least a year and want to better understand the forces behind their behavior might want to try psychoanalysis. It’s best for phobias, obsessions, compulsions, or continual negative thoughts, as well as troubled relationships with people (rather than day-to-day problems or very specific goals). Whereas most other forms of therapy involve meeting once a week or every two weeks, psychoanalysis often requires three to five weekly visits.

Seek the help of: A psychoanalyst—who could be a psychiatrist (MD), a psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, or a licensed professional counselor with training in psychoanalytic theory and technique.

Psychodynamic Therapy: for relationship problems that keep repeating.

Your therapist will work with you to examine how past events and relationships have contributed to your current difficulties and help you understand how subconscious factors affect the way you interact with others.

Seek the help of: A psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, or a licensed professional counselor with experience in psychodynamic therapy.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): for severe problems, such as addiction or suicidal thoughts.

DBT combines individual therapy with a weekly group session focused on mindfulness, emotion regulation, and other skills. For example, if a family rift is triggering you to binge drink, your therapist may use CBT and recommend group therapy as well.

Seek the help of: A psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, and/or a licensed professional counselor. (You may work with more than one professional.)

Art Therapy: to work through any number of mental health issues, from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder, through application of the visual arts.

Art therapy is an integrative type of therapy that involves managing and mitigating symptoms of a variety of medical and mental health disorders in both adults and children "through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship," according to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). Some examples of art therapy activities include using creative tequniques like coloring, painting, and sculpting, "to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art," as described in Psychology Today.

Art therapy provides a wide spectrum of purported benefits in both adults and children. The AATA recommends art therapy "to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, [and] reduce and resolve conflicts and distress."

While the term art therapy gets tossed around in the context of activities and products like adult coloring books or certain therapy apps, the clinical application of visual arts as therapeutic treatment is a very specific form of therapy facilitated by trained, licensed professionals.

Seek the help of: A licensed clinical therapist with additional qualifications to practice art therapy (ATR or ATR-BC)—at least a masters degree in psychotherapy and visual arts, certified by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). (You may work with an art therapist in addition to more traditional mental health professionals.)

Combination of Therapy and Medication: For serious disorders, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder, consider therapy in addition to medication.

A wealth of research shows that combining CBT with psychotropic medication prescribed by a medical doctor, such as an antidepressant, is often highly effective for significant mental-health problems. “Psychotherapy gives you tools to deal with issues and to understand how your relationships, history, and environment inform the struggles you’re having,” Berman says. “Meanwhile, medication helps you feel better, which gives you the motivation and energy to be active in your therapy.”

Seek the help of: Ideally, a psychiatrist (a medical doctor with mental-health training). However, your primary-care doctor can also prescribe psychotropic medications. And, for psychotherapy, a psychologist, a licensed clinical social worker, or a licensed professional counselor.