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Definition: psychotherapy from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

Any therapeutic method of treating illness by psychological means (as opposed to by purely drug treatments, surgery, etc.).


Summary Article: psychotherapy from The Columbia Encyclopedia

treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods. Psychotherapy, thus, does not include physiological interventions, such as drug therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, although it may be used in combination with such methods. This type of treatment has been used in one form or another through the ages in many societies, but it was not until the late 19th cent. that it received scientific impetus, primarily under the leadership of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud's theoretical formulations have come sharply into question, his treatment method involving individualized client-psychologist sessions has been used in modified forms for years (see psychoanalysis).

Behavior therapy aims to help the patient eliminate undesirable habits or irrational fears through conditioning. Techniques include systematic desensitization, particularly for the treatment of clients with irrational anxieties or fears, and aversive conditioning, which uses negative stimuli to end bad habits. Humanistic therapy tends to be more optimistic, basing its treatment on the theory that individuals have a natural inclination to strive toward self-fulfillment. Therapists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow used a highly interactive client-therapist relationship, compelling clients to realize exactly what they are saying or how they are behaving, in order to foster a sense of self-awareness. Cognitive therapies try to show the client that certain, usually negative, thoughts are irrational, with the goal of restructuring such thoughts into positive, constructive ideas. Such methods include Albert Ellis's rational-emotive therapy, where the therapist argues with the client about his negative ideas; and Aaron Beck's cognitive restructuring therapy, in which the therapist works with the client to set attainable goals. Other forms of therapy stress helping patients to examine their own ideas about themselves.

Psychotherapy may be brief, lasting just a few sessions, or it may extend over many years. More than one client may be involved, as in marriage or family counseling, or a number of individuals, as in group psychotherapy.

  • See S. L. Garfield and A. E. Bergin, ed., Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (4th ed. 1993);.
  • Roth, A., et al. What Works for Whom?: A Critical Review of Psychotherapy Research (1996);.
  • Gaylin, W., Talk Is Not Enough: How Psychotherapy Really Works (2000).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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