What Is Psychotherapy?

The answer to this question is multifaceted and continues to evolve as many different approaches to psychotherapy are developed and refined every day. Psychotherapy is an umbrella term to describe a range of therapeutic approaches aimed at the healing of mental and somatic (physical) disturbances. In 2014, Psychotherapy in Ontario has been regulated and all practitioners who want to call themselves psychotherapists will have to register with the College and provide sufficient evidence of their credentials. Psychotherapy is distinguished from Psychiatry in that contemporary Psychiatry is primarily focused on the use of medication to treat psychological disturbances whereas Psychotherapists cannot prescribe medication.

What excites me the most in answering this question, is that we now know about the plasticity of the brain and of the concrete ability to change and transform our lives through psychotherapeutic work. Pioneering research over the past century has shown that engaging in a meaningful and trusting psychotherapeutic relationship can provide lasting positive change in a person’s life.

An easy way to approach understanding the psychotherapeutic process is to imagine the patterns in our lives like roads that are dug out and paved; these take the form in our brains as well worn neurochemical activities that are habitual. Very often, as the result of less than optimal early experiences, these roads do not serve us in the best way possible and can often lead to unshakable anxiety, depression and general difficulty in living. Of course in extreme cases, we can hit dead ends and have trouble functioning altogether.

Psychotherapy aims to create the space to bring these habitual roads to consciousness, to understand how and why they were created, and then to begin to pave new roads that can free up heretofore undiscovered aspects of the personality. There is mounting evidence that shows that not engaging in this work and remaining stuck in old patterns can be tremendously stressful on the person and lead to a whole host of physical ailments mostly related to lifelong conscious and unconscious stress.

One of the reasons we avoid making these changes is because it is inherently difficult to change old ways, we are understandably tied to our comfortable ways of being in the world, and furthermore, these comfortable ways are often exquisitely designed to keep us safe from lurking pain underneath. That said, psychological disturbances persist and in psychotherapy we aim to create more room to tolerate the intolerable.

Many people who search out psychotherapy often ask what the differences are in the mental health field. It is understandably a good question as the field is complex and there are numerous options. The birth of psychotherapy was around the turn of the last century, in the early 1900s, with the pioneering work of Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Shortly after, with the equally pioneering work of Psychiatrist Carl Jung and numerous others, the field of psychotherapy put forth the basic principle that engaging in therapeutic discourse with a trained therapist could provide significant relief from many psychological issues. If we are honest though, people have endeavoured to deal with their pain for millennia through engaging in deep intimate relationships with others. Psychotherapy may simply be turning our attention to a deeper understanding of how this process works and how we might consciously bring our attention to it.

There is some compelling evidence that the healing process in psychotherapy is less dependent on the model the therapist subscribes to and more related to the relationship that is established. This makes intuitive sense because one of the main goals of therapy is to allow for pain that is often unconsciously wreaking havoc to become conscious and integrated. This can only happen in a safe enough environment, where our defenses are validated and sufficiently disarmed in order to allow the pain through.

There are myriad methods which with psychotherapists approach their work. In my own practice, the individual and unique nature of the patient’s life circumstances dictates a great deal how the process will unfold. Although I bring my own convictions around how to understand and work with the human psyche, I am also aware that I need to respond flexibly to the situation at hand. I would be happy to discuss further how I approach psychotherapy and my own training.