Working with a good therapist can bring about positive change in your life, but the road to finding “Dr. Right” can be bumpy and winding at times. Ideally, you want someone with an office location that’s convenient to you, who’s accepting new patients, has experience dealing with your particular set of issues, puts you at ease, and — fingers crossed — takes your insurance or is affordable, too.
To simplify what can be an overwhelming process, we talked to mental health professionals to give you a better handle on the different types of therapists out there, the various approaches to therapy and how to determine the one that will best suit your needs.
Types Of Therapists
For starters, any mental health professional who practices talk therapy – whether it’s a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a marriage and family therapist, a licensed clinical social worker or a licensed professional counselor – can fall under the umbrella of “psychotherapist,” explained Tara Griffith Baker, a marriage and family therapist and executive director of Wellspace SF.
A psychotherapist is someone who treats mental health conditions and helps clients work through stressors or emotional troubles by talking through the issues and encouraging behavioral changes. So essentially it’s what you think of when you picture going to therapy.
The different letters or credentials you see after a therapist’s name — like Psy.D, Ph.D., MD, MFT, LCSW and LPC — refer to their degree, level of education or the focus of their professional training, said psychotherapist Kathleen Dahlen deVos.
“For example, psychologists and psychiatrists are trained at the doctorate level, while marriage and family therapists, licensed clinical social workers and professional counselors all have their master’s degrees,” she said.
Another important distinction to note: While psychiatrists may offer talk therapy like psychotherapists do, their primary focus is typically diagnosing mental health conditions and prescribing and managing medication.
Because psychiatrists are licensed physicians and have medical degrees, they are generally the only type of mental health professional that’s able to prescribe medication (though in several states, psychologists are able to do so with advanced training).
And despite what the title “marriage and family therapist” may suggest, their work isn’t limited to couples and families.
“Like other psychotherapists, they frequently work with individuals, and are qualified to assess, diagnose and treat a wide range of mental health issues,” Griffith Baker said. “What makes MFTs unique, however, is that they have been specifically trained to examine the influence of one’s family dynamics and work with individuals within the context of his or her interpersonal relationships.”
Approaches To Therapy
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the different types of therapists, you can explore the different types of therapy these professionals may utilize.
Mental health professionals will often list their therapeutic approaches on their website or on their Psychology Today profiles. Many will even combine a number of different types of therapy in their work, and the chosen approach may vary based on the individual client’s needs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy — or CBT — is arguably one of the most commonly used therapeutic approaches today. It focuses on identifying the negative thought patterns that influence our mood and behavior and developing tools to challenge those damaging notions. It may be used to deal with stress or to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or phobias. It is often short-term and solutions-oriented.
So, for example, your therapist might have you pinpoint a defeating thought, e.g. “My boss hasn’t responded to my pitch email yet so my ideas must suck. I’m not good at my job so I’m not going to put myself out there anymore.” Then they work with you to evaluate those beliefs — Do you know that’s why she hasn’t replied yet? Didn’t you just get good feedback during your review last week? — so you can work towards being more confident sharing your ideas in the future.
“It can be more structured including exercises and homework that helps to reinforce the tools,” psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez said.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy that was originally developed to treat people experiencing suicidal thoughts, and later, borderline personality disorder. It can also be used to help those with eating disorders and substance use issues, among other conditions. DBT focuses on developing four major skills to help people better cope with difficult emotions and conflicts: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. It combines one-on-one therapy, group therapy and phone coaching between sessions.
Another approach is psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on how our past experiences and relationships ― like those from childhood ― affect our present thought patterns, emotions and behavior. It can be used to treat depression, process trauma or work through family or relationship issues.
“It’s an approach that helps bring the unconscious conscious by using tools that help facilitate dialogue between the client and therapist to heal past wounds and build self-awareness,” Chavez explained.
An unconventional and somewhat controversial form of therapy that’s gained popularity is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing ― or EMDR. Initially, the eight-phase method was designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is now used to treat other mental health conditions as well, including phobias, acute stress and attachment issues, according to Lois Kirk, a licensed professional counselor trained in EMDR.
During the session, the therapist will move their finger (or a wand) back and forth in front of the patient’s face, asking them to follow the movement with their eyes, as they briefly hold the traumatic memory in their mind. Some clinicians may opt to use tactile cues like hand-tapping or auditory cues like musical tones that alternate from left to right in a rhythmic pattern. Over the sessions, the distressing emotions tied to the traumatic event should lessen, as they are replaced with more positive beliefs.
“When a memory is later recalled, the content of the memory has not been changed. Rather, the emotional or physical distress and negative beliefs associated with the memory are no longer present,” said Kim Strong, a licensed clinical social worker at Wellspace SF, who is trained in EMDR.
“At the end of the day, your experience with any given therapist is going to be heavily influenced by the trust and safety that you feel in the room with them.”
– Kathleen Dahlen deVos, psychotherapist
So Which Type Of Therapy Is Right For You?
Start by asking yourself why you’re seeking professional help in the first place, as this will help you define what you want to get out of therapy, Griffith Baker said. If you’re hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how witnessing your parents’ unhealthy marriage as a child affects your behavior in relationships today, then you may opt for a therapist who incorporates a psychodynamic approach. If you want to learn practical skills to cope with your anxiety disorder, then a cognitive behavioral approach may be more helpful.
“For instance, a person looking to work through ongoing conflicts related to his or her sexual identity may likely want to seek a different type of therapy than someone wanting to eliminate a fear of flying,” Griffith Baker said.
While doing research about the various approaches may be useful, don’t get too bogged down in all the psychological jargon. Because the most important factor will be how comfortable you feel opening up to this person, deVos said.
“At the end of the day, your experience with any given therapist is going to be heavily influenced by the trust and safety that you feel in the room with them, and the strength of the relationship that you establish together over time, which may end up having very little to do with how they characterize their work,” she said.
How To Actually Find A Therapist
Below, we’ve compiled some expert-backed tips on how to track down a mental health professional who meets your needs:
First, if you have insurance, contact your provider to get a list of therapists in your area that are “in-network.” The appointments will be more affordable if you’re only responsible for the co-pay. Also, check to see if your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), as they may be able to compile a list of professionals that match your preferences.
Ask for referrals from therapists you’ve worked with in the past, friends or others in your social circles.
Check sites like Psychology Today or Good Therapy that have online directories that allow you to search for professionals. These will allow you to search by gender, location, insurance they accept, issues they specialize in treating, therapeutic approach and whether the therapist has experience working with certain populations, like clients of certain racial or religious backgrounds or those who identify as LGBTQ. If you’re looking to work with a clinician who is a person of color, Chavez also recommends visiting sites like Therapy for Black Girls, TherapyDen or Latinx Therapy.
Do some additional research. Go to the therapist’s website. Check out their bio and credentials. Read any articles they’ve published or contributed to, and watch or listen to any media appearances they’ve made on panels, podcasts or TV segments.
Take advantage of the complimentary phone consultation many therapists offer. Once you’ve narrowed down your search, email or call anyone on your shortlist to set up a time to chat. Prepare a list of any questions you may have. During the call, pay attention to this person’s demeanor and how they make you feel. “You want to feel comfortable with their approach and style,” Chavez said. “If you feel uncomfortable on the phone while talking to them, it might not be a good fit.”
Lastly, meet them in person. The phone call may give you an idea of what the therapist is like but the best way to know if you gel is to meet with them IRL. “It’s also okay to ‘try out’ a few therapists at once before committing to one,” deVos said. “Really —we’re used to it!”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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