Psychology Psychotherapy
Timothy Anderson, Andrew S. McClintock, Xiaoxia Song
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0154


Psychotherapy is a practice whereby communication (“talk therapy”) between a professionally trained therapist and a help-seeking client is aimed toward the relief of the client’s psychological or emotional problem. Psychotherapy is practiced worldwide and by numerous professional disciplines, most commonly clinical and counseling psychology, psychiatry, and social work. Psychotherapy is similar to several other helping practices, such as personal and career counseling, guidance counseling, psychiatry (with medication management), psychiatric nursing, social (life-situation) case management, and life coaching. While psychotherapy is highly similar to counseling, and sometimes the terms are used synonymously, the practices differ in that the focus of psychotherapy tends to be on treating the maladaptive responses and patterns that are associated with psychological disorders. In contrast, counseling tends to utilize supportive interventions and problem-solving approaches that assist the client in making life adaptations. In spite of these distinctions, psychotherapy is part of both clinical and counseling psychology. Introductory textbooks to clinical psychology provide an overview and general information about psychotherapy. In terms of other areas of psychology, psychotherapy also overlaps with abnormal psychology, personality psychology, and developmental psychology. Furthermore, psychotherapy itself draws from nearly all of psychology’s sub-disciplines, including the biological bases of behavior, linguistics, and social psychology. There are numerous specific forms of psychotherapy, but almost all can be organized by the theoretical orientation from which they are drawn. Psychodynamic psychotherapies were the first to appear and can be traced to Sigmund Freud. Psychodynamic therapies tend to focus on the origins of problems, where clients gain insights about how their current problems are rooted in long-standing patterns, wishes, and defenses. Psychodynamic therapies sometimes direct attention to how the client is relating to the therapist—the transference relationship—in order to help the client gain insight into those patterns. Behavioral psychotherapies arose in conjunction with experimental findings on how behavior can be shaped through association and operant conditioning. John B. Watson was an early advocate for applying behavioral principles in order to change problematic behavior, but Joseph Wolpe is sometimes credited as developing the first full behavior therapies. Humanistic psychotherapies can be traced to Carl Rogers’ client-centered approach, where the focus tends to be on the client’s experience. Many humanistic psychotherapists focus on reflecting the client’s experience without injecting the therapist’s own values and interpretations. Cognitive therapy can be traced to Aaron Beck’s development of more purely cognitive approaches for the treatment of depression. Cognitive therapy focuses on helping the client to identify and modify maladaptive beliefs and attributions. As can be seen in the outline for this review, much of contemporary psychotherapy is either focused on specific clinical disorders or on common treatment processes. In addition, there are forms of psychotherapy for clients according to their developmental phase of life (child, adolescent, adult, and geriatric forms) as well as psychotherapy for groups, family, marriage, and couples. Even more, psychotherapy has been developed for a wide variety of social contexts for which problems of living occur, including affirmative psychotherapy for LGBT clients, therapies that address specific ethnic aspects of living, feminist therapies, and many more.

General Overviews

Introductory overviews of psychotherapy (and counseling) can be found in general texts on counseling and clinical psychology as well as in the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles in Psychology “Clinical Psychology” and “Abnormal Psychology.” Examples of excellent overviews of psychotherapy that provide both breadth and some depth regarding information on the overall state of the field include Prochaska and Norcross 2015, Gabbard 2008, and Ivey, et al. 2012. General textbook-quality overviews of specific theoretical orientations can be found for psychodynamic psychotherapy in Safran 2012, interpersonal in Teyber and McClure 2016, cognitive-behavioral in Craske 2010 (as well as Goldfried and Davison 1994) and emotion-focused psychotherapy in Greenberg 2011—most of these are from a larger series of accessible introductions. For a compendium of the entire history of psychotherapy, Freedheim, et al. 1992 provides a summary of psychotherapy practice and research for the first one hundred years of the field.

  • Craske, Michelle. 2010. Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Theories of Psychotherapy Series. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    A brief primer-style overview of cognitive-behavioral therapies, including a rationale for their general techniques and a basic overview of some of them.

  • Freedheim, D. K., H. J. Freudenberger, D. R. Peterson, et al., eds. 1992. History of psychotherapy: A century of change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10110-000

    This mammoth volume provides a comprehensive history of the first one hundred years of psychotherapy, both in terms of practice and research. While not including more recent contributions, this edited volume is perhaps the most comprehensive history of the many facets of this “golden age” of psychotherapy.

  • Gabbard, G. O., ed. 2008. Textbook of psychotherapeutic treatments. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

    Over fifty authors of leading therapeutic approaches contributed to this text. The book addresses psychotherapy broadly and thus is relevant for all disciplines that practice psychotherapy. Theories and specific treatments are matched to individual client characteristics for individual therapies, but the text also covers group and marital therapies as well as the neuropsychological influences on psychotherapy.

  • Goldfried, M. R., and G. C. Davison. 1994. Clinical behavior therapy. Exp. ed. New York: Wiley.

    Classic text which provides a broad and comprehensive overview of treatment strategies and techniques across behavioral and cognitive therapies. Especially useful for therapists in professional training, the text provides evidence and case examples, which are both practical and useful.

  • Greenberg, L. S. 2011. Emotion-focused therapy. Theories of Psychotherapy Series. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This brief volume provides a primer of emotion-focused therapy, which is the most common representative of therapy from the humanist camp. The treatment is a compilation of modules derived from client-centered and gestalt therapeutic schools. The treatment was originally derived for depression but has since expanded to treat other problems.

  • Ivey, A. E., M. D’Andrea, and M. B. Ivey. 2012. Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: A multicultural perspective. 7th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    A textbook for courses in counseling and psychotherapy, written comprehensively and yet with enough depth to provide an overview of therapeutic approaches for both advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students.

  • Prochaska, J. O., and J. C. Norcross. 2015. Systems of psychotherapy: A transtheoretical model. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    Systems, theories, and treatments of psychotherapy are overviewed in this comprehensive textbook. Therapies are reviewed in a systematic fashion by covering each therapy’s underlying theories of personality and relationship to types of psychopathology, as well as implications for psychotherapy relational processes and types of individual clients who might respond to each treatment. The text is written at a broad level and is accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students in the helping professions.

  • Safran, J. D. 2012. Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapies. Theories of Psychotherapy Series. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This text is a unique, clearly written overview of not only psychoanalytic theories and treatments, but of the social and historical context in which psychotherapy began. Safran also describes the political and cultural tensions of modern psychotherapies with specific attention to psychoanalytic therapies.

  • Teyber, E., and F. H. McClure. 2016. Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrated model. 7th ed. New York: Cengage Learning.

    This text provides an overview of psychotherapy, especially from an interpersonal or relationship-based perspective. The text also provides an overview of practice—which can be helpful for students preparing to utilize psychotherapy—as well as a separate treatment approach that builds on relationship-based principles of practice.

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