Psychotherapy 101

Have you ever wondered about psychotherapy? Lately I’ve been asked about therapy itself. How does it work? Does it work? What exactly is it? So I’ll try to answer some of those questions without being too long-winded! I’ll start with the most important question first.

Does therapy work?

Yes, psychotherapy works. (Otherwise I would have quit doing it a long time ago!) There have been hundreds of studies to determine whether psychotherapy works to resolve emotional problems. One, for example, summarized 475 studies of the outcome of therapy. It found the average person who completed therapy was better off than 80% of the people who did not receive therapy. Many other studies agree with this finding. This level of effectiveness is equal to having a pacemaker installed to prevent fainting from heart malfunction. Psychotherapy is 6 times more effective than using beta-blockers to prevent being re-admitted to the hospital for heart failure. It is three times more effective than bone-marrow transplants to prevent relapse or death from leukemia. It is 59 times more effective than taking aspirin to prevent a major cardiovascular event. In short, psychotherapy is as effective, or far more effective, than many well-known medical procedures.

What happens in a psychotherapy session?

No, a bearded man with a pipe won’t ask you to lie on a couch and talk about whatever comes to your mind. Instead, you’ll be asked to describe what’s going on in your life that is causing problems that you’d like help with. Frankly, this alone sometimes is a huge relief for people; just unloading the burden and being listened to. But this is only the first step. Your therapist is thinking hard while they’re listening; what seems to be the problem and what might be the best strategy to help. Next is looking at how best to improve the situation, using the tools, knowledge and experience that the therapist brings to the table.

There have been so many new developments in Psychology in the last couple of decades. We have learned so many different ways to help people with relationship problems, depression, anxiety, stress, anger, grief, and trauma. It is very encouraging to have so many tools and strategies available to us now, from marriage counseling research and tools, to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the more recent development of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy; to EMDR for trauma; hypnosis for habit control (smoking cessation), pain management, etc., and most recently, EFT (emotional freedom technique) and other energy modalities. It's exciting to know that, more often than not, you and your therapist can find something that will help with whatever the problem is that you are dealing with.

Is therapy only for people with mental illness?

No. Therapy does help people with mental illness, but it is in no way limited to that purpose. Actually, almost everyone can benefit from therapy at one time or another in their lives. No matter how strong we are or how well we generally cope, it is useful to be able to learn some new tools and strategies and better, more effective communication styles, as well as to get a different perspective and new clarity about issues in our lives. Definitely, if you notice a problem repeating itself in a seemingly endless cycle, never getting resolved, and leading to more and more frustration, it’s a good bet therapy can help.

I see a lot of people in my office who are doing quite well in their lives. Why do they come to see me? They are aware that there are areas in their lives that are problematic, where they could do better, and they are the kinds of people who want to do better. Whether it’s learning how to improve the quality of their relationship, to have better people skills at work, thereby improving their job performance or the success of their business, or, knowing that doing a better job at stress management will improve overall health and well-being, they’re all for doing the best they can. Call it peak performance for life.

I should be able to solve my own problems.

Sure, and it‘s nice to have the right tools to be able to do so. I know that when I have a tax or accounting question, I don’t hesitate to ask my accountant for advice and help. If my car is making a strange sound, I take it to a qualified mechanic. I’ve never had any special training in dealing with these issues, so I don’t feel “weak” if I utilize their specialized knowledge. While you can certainly live your whole life without ever consulting with a psychologist, there are times it’s a big help to take advantage of their specialized training.

Bottom line:

Psychotherapy is a useful, beneficial resource. Most people who experience it are better off for it, and glad they did it. Like education, the information and resources gained in psychotherapy are yours for life. The goal is increased happiness and well-being, and improved relationships - what could be better?.

Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at

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