For many centuries, mental illness has been treated as something done by evil spirits or the devil. In the past, there was a lack of understanding of how brain chemistry and human behavior worked. As a result, trepanation and other surgical methods such as lobotomies were used to ‘cure’ mental illnesses. Everything changed when psychotherapy was introduced.
Many people believe that antidepressant medications are the most powerful treatment for mental illnesses, specifically depression. However, experts say that there’s no stronger medicine than psychotherapy, a way to help people with a broad variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Previous studies have shown that psychotherapy is generally as effective or more effective than medications in treating various mental health conditions.
Psychotherapy in Treating Mental Health Disorders
More than 3,000 studies and 300 summaries of studies underscore the consistent and positive impacts of psychotherapy. It has been proven effective across all ages and settings. Dr. Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard University psychologist, has convincingly demonstrated that the typical effects of psychotherapy often exceed the degree of effect found in biomedical breakthroughs. In his study, he compared the effects of psychotherapy with the effects of medication, proving that this process is indeed effective.
During psychotherapy, trained psychiatrists or psychologists help patients tackle specific or general problems. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it can help in addressing problems such as the impact of trauma; difficulties in coping with daily life, specific mental disorders, like depression or anxiety, and even medical illness or loss, like the death of a loved one. The sessions can be conducted in an individual, family, couple, or group setting, and typically held once a week.
There are several techniques and practices of psychotherapy that a therapist can use to help their patients. Choosing the best type can vary based on several factors such as the preferences of the client, the training and background of the therapist, and the exact nature of the client’s current problem. Psychoanalytic therapy, for instance, involves delving into a patient's thoughts and past experiences to seek out unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories that may influence behavior.
Another type of psychotherapy helps people identify and change thinking and behavior patterns that are harmful or ineffective. This process is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It helps patients replace harmful behaviors with more accurate thoughts and functional behaviors. Meanwhile, humanistic therapy, which was developed by humanist psychologist Car Rogers, focuses on helping people maximize their potential and stresses the importance of self-exploration, free will, and self-actualization.
Experts say there are several signs to know when it’s time to talk to a professional or if you need psychotherapy. For instance, the problem you are facing may already be disrupting important areas of your life such as school, work, and relationships. It’s also better to seek professional help when you are find yourself relying on unhealthy or dangerous coping mechanisms, including smoking, drinking, overeating, or taking out your frustrations on others.
Benefits of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy is proven to be beneficial for people suffering from mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders. According to Good Therapy, a leading online therapist directory and mental health resource, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the US, impacting roughly 18% of the population. Suffering from anxiety is not easy. People mostly find themselves being extremely anxious that something bad is going to happen, even if there’s no reason for the fear.
With psychotherapy, it can provide people the context for their emotions by identifying the underlying causes. They can understand their emotions, accept them, and make real progress toward their goals. A growing body of evidence has shown that psychotherapy decreases the use of psychiatric hospitalization as well as reduces the use of other medical and surgical services. A 2003 study revealed that successful integration of psychotherapy into primary care may reduce medical costs by 20% to 30%.
The APA reported that about 75% of people who enter psychotherapy show some benefit from it. It has been shown to improve the emotions and behaviors of people. Other benefits include fewer sick days, less disability, fewer medical problems, and increased work satisfaction. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry also suggested that psychotherapy can boost a person’s immune system.
According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance to improve mental health and balance, the researchers found a strong association with psychotherapy and enhanced immune system function. Study author Grant Shields, PhD, at the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California, Davis, said that while all intervention types provided some level of improvement in immune system function, the associations were most significant for CBT or combined interventions. "The main takeaway here is that psychotherapeutic interventions have a variety of beneficial effects on the immune system," he said.
The researchers tracked changes in the immunity of 4,060 participants during the course of psychotherapy. They looked at eight different psychosocial interventions including CBT, behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and psychoeducation as well as seven markers of immune system function, including inflammation, antibody levels, viral load, and natural killer cell activity.
"The results of this study underscore how much mental and emotional issues can affect physiological reactions, and that goes both ways. For example, we often see people with compromised immune function and chronic health problems facing mental health challenges. Addressing physical health will have an impact on mental wellbeing, and vice versa,” Ian Sadler, PhD, a psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said.
Laura Bylsma, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that addressing emotional and mental difficulties through psychotherapy can affect a person’s immune system because it could prompt changes in behavior. Some of these changes include eating healthier foods, exercising more, pursuing more social interactions, creating a better sleep schedule, and implementing anti-stress strategies.
"It's all interconnected in terms of how your mind and body are responding. Generally, when people start feeling better mentally, they start to implement behaviors that support their health. And that begins to build on each other,” Bylsma said.
When people are empowered to make these changes because of psychotherapy, this improves their mood and emotional resilience. "These systems all work together, and it starts with small changes in some behaviors, along with setting reasonable goals, and then you'll likely find that it gets easier to adopt healthier behaviors from there," she added.