What is psychotherapy?

Dr. Philip Kronk is a semiretired Knoxville psychologist.

Psychological therapy is called by many different names: psychotherapy, counseling and behavior modification.

Often the name used may depend on the mental health professional (psychologist, social worker, counselor, psychiatrist) offering the psychological treatment.

Psychotherapy, itself, is not a licensed name or activity. Many people of many different backgrounds can call what they do psychotherapy.

In contrast, the person offering psychotherapy may be licensed. For example, the title of “psychologist” is a licensed one for those psychologists who provide psychological treatment to the public. The state names the education, training and continuing education requirements for licensure. In another example, a psychiatrist is trained as a medical doctor, and one cannot practice medicine without a license.

Psychotherapy may be offered in many forms, but the goals of psychotherapy are very similar.

In an article that I published 32 years ago, I wrote that “psychotherapy is a form of psychological treatment whose goal is to obtain some measure of relief, change and growth for the client.” Little has changed since then.

Psychological treatment may be offered alone or in conjunction with medication. An adolescent who is prescribed medication, by his family physician, for his newly-diagnosed diabetes, may exhibit anger and sadness over his diagnosis and the new limitations it places on his life. Psychotherapy may be of help here.

Both internal (mental or cognitive) psychological problems and behavioral patterns may “interfere with a person’s ability to understand, adapt, or cope with the realities and stresses of daily life.”

Psychotherapy can also help with the important issues of how we live our lives at different stages of emotional, social and physical change.

Human issues, such as achievement, intimacy, mastery, identity, loss and separation, and personal meaning are some examples of issues that individuals bring to psychotherapy.

In the previous two columns, I shared how the experiences of time and space are part of the therapy process of getting better. Guilt, shame and anxiety are unsettling experiences that individuals bring to the therapy session. Guilt involves a sense of the past, shame a focus on the present, and anxiety a sense of the future.

Therapists use different techniques or follow different schools of thought about human behavior and individual change, but all psychological treatments involve a relationship between two people.

This professional relationship involves a trained mental health professional and an individual, who comes to therapy with a problem, a symptom, a life question, or a set of behaviors in need of change or acceptance.

Psychological therapy involves a “healing” relationship, but one does not need to think of it only in medical terms. Psychological therapy comes in many different shapes and (emotional) tones. The one that is best for you is the one that is best for you! Knoxville has many to choose from.

Psychological therapy can be short- or long-term, can be individual or involve a group or your spouse. If you are a young child, it may involve play therapy. Some may prefer a therapist of the same gender; others may seek a younger or older therapist.

We often think of therapy as “talk therapy” that gives us insight, self-understanding and self-acceptance. However, psychotherapy may involve a form of integrated behavioral health care or it may involve the use of art or drama. (I remember being impressed by the group workshops of the 1960s where I saw demonstrations of psychodrama and Gestalt techniques.)

Psychological therapy doesn’t always focus on physical symptoms, such as obsessions and compulsions, or disturbed and disturbing thought patterns, or out of control affect (emotions.) For some time now, psychologists have been offering “mindfulness” forms of psychotherapy, which has its foundations in Eastern philosophies.

Psychotherapy always is practiced under ethical rules and standards. The psychotherapy relationship involves respect, caring and boundaries.

Whether we ‘see’ it or not, psychotherapy also has a “political” aspect to it (because of the “power” dimensions of the relationship and the often unspoken values and beliefs connected to the larger society.)

Next week’s column will look at some of the difficulties facing the psychotherapy relationship today, especially in Tennessee, where the state’s Legislature recently passed a law that defines the power relationship inherent in psychotherapy in terms of a specific set of beliefs.

Philip Kronk, M.S., Ph.D. is a semiretired child and adult Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist. Dr. Kronk has a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology and a postdoctoral degree in Clinical Psychopharmacology (the use of drugs to treat mental disorders.) He served his yearlong internship in Clinical Psychology at the University of Colorado Medical School. Dr. Kronk writes a weekly online column for the Knoxville News Sentinel’s website, knoxnews.com. He can be reached at (865) 330-3633.