Why Is Talk Therapy So Effective?

Researchers share the power behind talk therapy. Learn how the benefits are invaluable for your mental health.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiMay 25, 2023 6:00 PM
Stressed man explaining his problems to psychologist at individual therapy session at office
(Credit:Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

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In the memoir, Groupa young law student ranked at the top of her class but struggled in her personal life with an eating disorder, suicidal ideation and intimacy issues. An acquaintance connected her with a therapist who recommended she join group therapy sessions.

The author had to open up to other group members in the sessions and share parts of herself she’d rather keep hidden. In turn, she listened as other group members told their own stories and questioned the parts of their lives that made the least sense. The author maintained the group therapy sessions for decades and attributed them to saving her life.

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy is an approach that some historians say dates back to ancient times. In recent decades, scientists have learned how to measure the benefits of talk therapy. In some circumstances, researchers find that talk therapy is the best. 

What Is Talk Therapy?

Talk therapy is when a person meets with a licensed mental health professional to address their concerns. There are various reasons why a person might seek help through talk therapy, including stress, coping with trauma or specific symptoms such as irritability.

Psychotherapists use various techniques, including problem-solving strategies, mindfulness or behavior tracking. A psychotherapist might use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help a person change their patterns. An example of CBT would be confronting a fear through exposure therapy.

Does Psychotherapy Work?

Psychotherapy is effective, and two-thirds of people who attended talk therapy said their mental health improved. They reported having less depression, anxiety and neurotic behaviors. 

Researchers have also found that psychotherapy benefits people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a 2019 study in JAMA Psychiatry, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of 12 randomized clinical trials that involved 922 people who were being treated for PTSD. The participants were being treated with either psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals or a combination of both strategies.

The authors didn’t see any evidence of the pharmaceuticals as an effective first-treatment approach. In follow-ups, psychotherapy showed a greater benefit than drugs. The study confirmed previous research that talk therapy provided the most long-lasting relief for people with PTSD.

A 2016 study in Depression and Anxiety, for example, concluded that talk therapy should be the first approach for PTSD. The authors analyzed 55 studies that had 6,313 participants who were undergoing a variety of treatments for PTSD, including medication and talk therapy. People who were being treated with talk therapy were less likely to drop out of their treatment program.

The authors found the effects of talk therapy were stronger than pharmaceuticals, prompting them to conclude “... by every measure considered in this study, [trauma-focused psychotherapies] were superior to medications.”


Read More: Do Antidepressants Change Your Personality?


Benefits of Talk Therapy

Versatility is a benefit of psychotherapy. While one person might benefit from talk therapy one-on-one, another might benefit from the support in a group setting. In the memoir Group, the author described how she struggled with binge eating and admitted to her therapist that she ate seven apples in one sitting. He identified her secrecy habit as problematic and challenged her to call a group member every day to report what she ate. She found the accountability helpful.

Researchers are considering other ways talk therapy can be effective in different settings. A 2020 study in Clinical Psychology Review conducted a literature review on studies about the effectiveness of talk therapy in a natural setting. 

Between 1994 and 2019, they found 38 qualifying articles that detailed outdoor psychotherapy. One common theme was that nature-based talk therapy worked in situations where both the client and the clinician felt at peace in natural spaces. They also found the outdoor setting worked for people who were uncomfortable or embarrassed by the idea of traditional therapy.

Therapy in an outdoor setting can allow a client or clinician to apply metaphors from the natural world to life. A person can consider, for example, how a gardener can plant seeds and nurture a growing plant, but outside factors mean the outcome is out of their control.  

New Types of Talk Therapy

Applying nature metaphors to life’s personal challenges is one of many new turns in the approach to talk therapy. Psychotherapy as a term came into use in the late nineteenth century, but it was overshadowed through the mid-twentieth century by psychoanalysis.

With psychoanalysis, clients stretched out on a couch, facing away from the therapist, and spoke about their memories of events once forgotten. Over time, the analyst would offer insight into what ailed the person’s thinking, which was supposed to reduce anxiety and bring a sense of peace.

The technique was most associated with famed neurologist Sigmund Freud, who often attributed clients’ problems to one of his unproven theories. A woman’s anxiety, for example, might be diagnosed as a symptom of penis envy. 

One historian described how Freud’s approach fell out of favor “... because of his frequent refusal to take patients’ painful discourses at face value; instead, he badgered them into admitting to esoteric sexual fantasies.”

How To Find a Therapist

In contrast to psychoanalysis, advocates of talk therapy during Freud’s time encouraged clinicians to show empathy for a client and validate “their real sources of upset.”

Clients today are encouraged to find a therapist that best fits their needs. Many psychotherapists specialize in treating specific conditions such as PTSD or anxiety. Others use specific treatments such as CBT, and some offer varied settings such as virtual or outdoors.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recommends people have preliminary conversations with prospective therapists, and they offer a list of questions on their website that clients can ask prospective therapists during a meet and greet.

If the therapist doesn’t feel like the right match, the NIMH advises people to keep looking because “rapport and trust are essential” in a client-therapist relationship.


Read More: How Effective is Alcoholics Anonymous?


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