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Scheduling your very first appointment with a therapist can be a daunting task. Though, as a society, we've begun to remove the social stigma surrounding therapy, the process can still feel intimidating and tricky to navigate. You may not feel comfortable asking friends or family for recommendations, as we would with a dentist or an eye doctor. And, even after deciding to begin your search, it's not always clear what type of therapy will best serve your needs.
While many therapists treat an array of mental health issues, it can be beneficial to seek out treatment tailored to your conditions. If you're suffering from panic attacks, you want to see someone who specializes in anxiety disorders. If you're struggling with addiction, you want to see someone who specifically works with clients overcoming addiction. To make the process more approachable, we had Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist, help us outline different types of therapy. That way, you can find exactly what you need.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Sanam Hafeez is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. She is the founder and clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services and a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has become increasingly popular in recent years, is "a form of psychological treatment effective for a wide range of problems including anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance-abuse problems, eating disorders, marital problems, and severe mental illness," explains Hafeez. Rather than focus on past experiences, it focuses on problem-solving with highly-specific goals in mind and incorporates present thinking, behavior, and communication.
According to Hafeez "CBT aims to give patients mental 'tools' to solve their problems, such as facing fears instead of avoiding them, using role-play to practice for situations that are stressful or anxiety-provoking, and mindfulness to calm the body and mind." In contrast with psychoanalytic types of psychotherapy, which encourage more open-ended self-exploration, Cognitive behavior therapy is more tailored to someone comfortable with a structured and focused approach targeted to a specific goal. CBT is typically short-term, oftentimes making it more affordable than other types of therapy, and helps clients deal with a very specific problem.
Below, Hafeez lists several core fundamentals in which CBT is based.
- That psychological problems are based, in part, on irrational or faulty thought processes
- That psychological problems can be partly based on learned behaviors and detrimental patterns of thinking
- That people suffering from psychological problems can improve their coping skills to aid in alleviating their problems
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
"Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is group therapy, led by a therapist, usually done during an eight-week program," explains Hafeez. MBCT uses CBT methods in collaboration with mindfulness practices. "Patients learn meditation techniques as well as core principles of thinking (like the link between the way you think and how you feel)," says Hafeez. Patients receive homework which includes breathing exercises and meditation.
It is designed to help with repeated bouts of depression and chronic unhappiness: "MBCT has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression in some individuals with physical health conditions, including traumatic brain injury or vascular disease," notes Hafeez. Like CBT, MBCT seeks to interrupt the automatic negative cognitive processes that might trigger a depressive episode by educating the client about the link between depression and cognition, eventually rebalancing neural networks.
It's clear taking care of our bodies has a significant influence on our mental health and wellbeing. "Nutritional therapy is based on the concept that good health is achieved through a holistic and bio-individual approach to nutrition and lifestyle," describes Hafeez. A Nutritional Therapy practitioner is very much like a health coach, as they analyze your unique biological makeup to determine what deficiencies and imbalances you may be suffering from, and then suggest diet and lifestyle changes to help turn things around.
"Nutritional Therapy Practitioners (NTPs) and Nutritional Therapy Consultants (NTCs) employ a foundational, holistic approach to wellness that focuses on the importance of a nutrient-dense, whole food diet paired with a well-balanced lifestyle," notes Hafeez. The approach centers around the belief that nutritional deficiencies can be detrimental to our physical health as well as our mental wellbeing. "Students or patients learn educational techniques and tools to correct nutrition deficits in their diet," says Hafeez. "Scientific principles are covered as they pertain to the human body and its functions.
With addiction therapy, a specially-trained counselor assists clients in overcoming substance abuse. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a trained professional should do a full evaluation and make the diagnosis. No single treatment works best, and the program should be tailored to each individual's needs and symptoms. Addiction therapy can be one-on-one, with a therapist helping the client work through traumas related to their addiction, or in a group setting.
"There are many components to addiction therapy and several different approaches," explains Hafeez. "Alcohol and drug addiction therapy is an umbrella term for a wide range of therapeutic intervention techniques to treat or target patterns of drug abuse," she continues. Some therapy options tackle addiction directly and provide coping strategies to help patients with triggers and cravings without relapsing. Other modalities can center on underlying issues that contribute to a substance use disorder. In many modalities, according to Hafeez, 12-Step programs are employed.
Trauma Work Therapy
As the name suggests, trauma therapy is employed to help individuals overcome psychological trauma—whether you're working through trauma from your childhood or something more recent. "The goal of trauma-focused therapy is to offer coping mechanisms to assist in understanding and processing emotions and memories tied to traumatic experiences from some point in the patient's life," describes Hafeez. Trauma can manifest from a variety of things, including the death of a loved one, sexual assault, or car accident.
According to Hafeez, this type of therapy "helps patients re-establish safety, identify triggers, develop healthy coping skills, and decrease their post-traumatic stress symptoms." A variety of therapies can be used alone or in conjunction in this approach, including prolonged exposure (PE), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), trauma-focused CBT, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and narrative exposure therapy (NET).
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Behavioral health treatments and services. Updated April 21, 2020.