What is Psychotherapy?

Dr. Howard Turney explains the purpose of psychotherapy.

Dr. Howard Turney, a marriage and family therapist, serves patients in Central Arkansas.

By Howard M. Turney, Ph.D. • Photography by David Yerby

Psychotherapy has become important to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders only in the recent past. The journey of psychotherapy no longer brings to mind thoughts of “voodoo” or similar unsympathetic descriptors. In reality, psychotherapy is an important way to address life’s challenges that result in depression, anxiety, grief, fear, narcissism, dependency and addiction, to name a few.

Psychotherapy explores the inner world of humankind to examine the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviors in the context of the external world. Therapists analyze current human functioning and past experiences’ influence on current mental performance. More importantly, psychotherapy brings relief, hope and optimism to many who ultimately see themselves in a different light.

Psychotherapy is built on relationships. After all, relationships are the context in which we all live. We are a husband, wife, partner, friend, colleague, father, son, mother or daughter, and we live in those relationships from birth to death. These roles can be marked by hope, joy, disappointment and sometimes emotional pain. The therapist/patient relationship is a microcosm of our outer world and that relationship is recreated in the therapy room. In action, the therapist and patient form an alliance essential for successful therapy. Regardless of the therapist’s perspective, a strong trusting relationship is necessary for effective work. Patients need that connection to move forward.

The “therapeutic” relationship formed by the therapist and patient creates an opportunity for a trustworthy collaboration and paves the way for exploration into the memories, beliefs and interpretations a patient has about their interpersonal experiences. Once that alliance is formed, the exploration of unknown territory begins. The therapist and patient forge ahead, first looking at the forces that shape us. Our lives take twists and turns; the detours we take lead us down paths that may be healthy or damaging, depending on the circumstances. As it turns out, we are the sum of our experiences. Everything we know about the world is filtered through relationships. These experiences can manifest themselves in all kinds of psychological distress. This distress takes the form of sadness, depression, anxiety or other symptoms that result in diagnosable pathologies, crippling one’s psychological state and interfering with one’s relationships. Thus, the real work begins.

And the work is hard, for the therapist and the patient. Each of us possesses narratives with dominant themes. These themes overshadow the way we think about ourselves and others. Part of the work of therapy is uncovering. Could it be that we have inaccurate understandings about some of our interpersonal relationships? Or do we need to accept the behavior of others in open forgiveness? Do we need to change our own behavior and accept responsibility for our wrongs? Coming to terms with our self, beliefs and actions is not easy. Good therapists walk alongside their patients, examining hurts and interpretations of those hurts. Hopefully, the patient can form a new understanding of how their behavior influences their inner thoughts and relationships. This complex work requires respectful collaboration between the therapist and patient. Seasoned therapists create a sacred place for patients to let down their defenses for careful examination of conflicts old and new. Ultimately, the patient will see symptoms abate and an improvement in the quality of their life.

The most common forms of psychotherapy include individual, couples, family and group therapy. These methods can be applied to a variety of diagnoses and can effectively alter the course of one’s life. These types can be used exclusively or in combination. Depending on the patient’s motivation and psychological-mindedness, psychotherapy can lead to greater understanding of one’s self, ultimately alleviating a cluster of symptoms that interfere with everyday living.

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