What is the difference between counseling and psychotherapy?

Although the terms counseling and therapy are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between psychotherapy and psychological counseling. 

In the article we will discuss the major differences between counseling and psychotherapy, we will discuss what psychotherapy is, it’s various techniques, followed by what counseling is and how it works. In the end, we will discuss the similarities between counseling and psychotherapy and how to choose between a counselor or a psychotherapist. 

What is the difference between counseling and psychotherapy?

Counseling focuses on specific issues and is designed to help a person address a particular problem, such as addiction or stress management. 

The focus may be on problem solving or on learning specific techniques for coping with or avoiding problem areas. Counseling is also usually more short-term than therapy.

Psychotherapy is more long-term than counseling and focuses on a broader range of issues. The underlying principle is that a person’s patterns of thinking and behavior affect the way that person interacts with the world. 

Depending on the specific type of psychotherapy that is being used, the goal is to help people feel better equipped to manage stresses, understand patterns in their behavior that may interfere with reaching personal goals, have more satisfying relationships, and better regulate their thinking and emotional responses to stressful situations. 

If someone has a form of mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or an anxiety disorder, psychotherapy also addresses ways in which the illness affects their daily life, focuses on how to best understand the illness and manage its symptoms and follow medical recommendations.

How Does Psychotherapy Work?

Psychotherapy is effective at finding the root cause for depression.This type of therapy may assume that something in the past is responsible for the depression. 

It can be difficult to know if events in your past are affecting your mental health in the present, and this is where psychotherapy comes in. Many people don’t realize just how much traumatic events in the past can affect present decisions, motivations, and behaviors subconsciously.

A psychotherapist is skilled in the use of many different therapies.They rely on the therapeutic relationship between themselves and their client to achieve an understanding of which therapy to use. 

Therapies used include behavior modification, mindful-based behavioral therapy, and insight-oriented psychotherapies. 

The choice of therapy depends on the diagnosis and needs of the client. This is why the therapeutic relationship (relationship between therapist and patient) is so important.

There are many different approaches in psychotherapy, or talking therapies, which include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapies

CBT helps people identify and change thinking traps (thinking and behavior patterns that could be harmful and/or ineffective), replacing them with beneficial thoughts and functional behaviors. 

It can help a person understand their current problems and how to solve them by learning and practicing new skills. CBT may be used in various disorders, such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders.

  • Dialectical behavior therapy

 This is a type of CBT that helps regulate emotions. It is usually used to treat people with long-term suicidal thoughts and those with borderline personality disorder, eating disorders or PTSD. 

Patients are taught new skills to help take responsibility and change unhealthy or disruptive behavior patterns. It usually involves both individual and group therapy.

  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT)

IPT is a short-term treatment. It helps patients understand their underlying interpersonal issues such as unresolved grief, changes in social life or work and relationship conflicts that could be troublesome. It can help people develop healthy ways to express emotions, improve communication and solve conflicts.

  • Psychodynamic therapy

This therapy is based on the concept that behavior and mental health is influenced by past childhood experiences and inappropriate repetitive thoughts or feelings that the patient is not conscious of. 

Patients are helped by addressing these issues, improving self-awareness and changing old patterns.

  • Psychoanalysis

This is a more intensive type of psychodynamic therapy. Sessions are typically conducted at more frequent intervals than other therapies (three or more sessions a week).

  • Supportive therapy

The psychotherapist guides and encourages patients to develop their own resources by helping them improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety, improve coping mechanisms and improve social and community functioning. 

Supportive psychotherapy helps patients deal with underlying issues associated with their mental health conditions that would help them manage their mental health on their own for the rest of their lives.

A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional, who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy. Increasingly, there are a number of psychotherapists who do not have backgrounds in the above fields, but who have undertaken in-depth training in this area.

Medical psychotherapists are fully-qualified doctors who have qualified in psychiatry and then undertaken a three or four-year specialist training in psychotherapy. Their role is in the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with psychiatric illnesses

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How Does Counseling Work?

Just like the therapeutic relationship relied on for effective psychotherapy, effective counseling relies on this relationship too. The goal of counseling is to use talk therapy to help clients work through the issues that affect them in negative ways. 

Counselors listen, provide feedback, and counsel. They do not provide answers; they help you find answers for yourself.

Counselors will discuss present behaviors and help you to understand how these behaviors elicit unwanted results. Counselors work to understand you and your life by asking questions that show your thought process. The more they know about you, the more effective their counseling is. 

Similarities between counseling and psychotherapy 

There are many similarities between counseling and psychotherapy, and even with the distinction, counseling often includes some psychotherapy and psychotherapy often includes some counseling. 

Similarities include:

  • Development of a healing, safe, and therapeutic relationship between a therapist and an individual
  • Effectiveness for a wide range of people, both adults and children
  • Understanding a person’s feelings and behaviors, and addressing issues with the goal of improving a person’s life

How to Choose Between a Counselor and Psychotherapist

When choosing a therapist, it’s helpful to learn about the differences noted above, as well as the background of specific providers and the approaches they use. Sometimes the choice will come down to personal preferences, access, or insurance coverage.

The most important step, however, is to find a therapist you can trust. In fact, the level of trust a person has in their mental health care practitioner plays the greatest role in whether the therapy will be successful or not.

You may actually need to talk with a provider or visit for a few appointments before you know which type of therapy is best for you. 

For example, with some situations it can be difficult to know if it is a short term, a limited problem you are facing (and thus, may fall under conditions best treated with counseling), or if instead there are events or situations in your past that are leading to the current problem.

It’s really about finding the right person, not finding the right degree.

The difference between the right and wrong therapist or counselor for you is not going to come down to the letters after their name. It’s about whether you feel comfortable with them and vibe with their personality and therapy style. 

That might take some trial and error, since finding the best therapist for you is kind of like dating: You might have to sit through a few bad sessions before meeting a match.

Dr. Beeson and Dr. Howes both suggest checking out a therapist or counselor’s website when possible; many practitioners go out of their way to make their personality shine through.

“The question when I’m looking for a provider is, What provider is going to help me develop a strong therapeutic relationship that will get me where I want to be?” says Dr. Beeson. “It’s, Who’s going to be able to connect with me in a unique way that’s actually going to help me?”

The search could involve narrowing down possible therapists and counselors by their degree, but it also might not. “While it is important for therapists to be educated, trained, and up-to-date on current practices, there is so much more to a good therapist than just their background and education,” says Dr. Brister. 

It’s not unlikely that you’ll find someone who looks perfect on paper (and, in fact, has written several papers on the exact issue you’re struggling with) but when you sit down in their office, the chemistry just isn’t there. 

Knowing all these different levels and types of mental health degrees can make your search less overwhelming, but when it comes down to it, finding the right fit for you personally is the crucial part.

What we recommend for Counselling

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression or any other mental disorders then ongoing professional counselling could be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

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