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Talking therapy and counselling

Explains what talking therapies are, what happens during therapy, how to get the most from therapy and how to find a therapist.

What are talking therapies?

Talking therapies are treatments which involve talking to a trained professional about your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. There are many different types of talking therapy, but they all aim to:

  • give you a safe time and place to talk to someone who won't judge you
  • help you make sense of things and understand yourself better
  • help you resolve complicated feelings, or find ways to live with them
  • help you recognise unhelpful patterns in the way you think or act, and find ways to change them (if you want to).

Is there a difference between 'therapy' and 'counselling'?

Throughout these pages we've chosen to use the term 'talking therapy'. But you might also hear people talk about:

  • counselling
  • therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • psychological therapy
  • talking treatment.

Usually there's very little difference between what's meant by these terms – they all broadly refer to talking therapy (as opposed to other types of treatment, such as drug therapy). But sometimes they might indicate differences in who your therapist is, or refer to a specific type of talking therapy.

Sometimes it’s hard to talk to family and friends and you just need that one person who takes the time to listen.

What can therapy help with?

Therapy can help you manage and cope with:

  • Difficult life events, such as bereavement (losing someone close to you), or losing your job.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Upsetting or traumatic experiences, whether it's something recent or something that happened a long time ago.
  • Difficult emotions, such as grief, guilt, sadness, confusion, anger and low self-esteem.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Other mental health problems. Talking therapies can help with a range of diagnoses, and specific talking treatments have been developed for some mental health problems.
  • Long-term physical health problems.

Some people think that therapy is an extreme option, and that unless things get really bad you should try to manage on your own. But this isn't true. It's ok to try therapy at any point in your life, whatever your background.

In fact getting support from a therapist when you're not at crisis point can be really helpful – it might feel easier to reflect on what's going on, and could help you keep things from getting worse.

For me, counselling was a lifesaver. I never used to talk to anyone. For years, I would keep things bottled up and then cry hysterically on my own as to not inconvenience anyone. I would hide it so I wouldn’t have to confront my thoughts and fears.

Could therapy work for me?

Talking therapies have been shown to work well for many people. And some types of therapy are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as evidence-based treatments for particular mental health problems (such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression and anxiety, and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) for borderline personality disorder.)

But it's difficult to say whether a particular therapy will work well for you or not because it depends on lots of factors, including:

The importance of your relationship with your therapist

Research has shown the relationship you have with your therapist is really important in how successful you find any talking therapy. Regardless of the type of therapy they practice, if you don't like or trust that person you're less likely to feel able to open up to them, and are less likely to have a positive experience.

Therapy can work well on its own, or it can be something you try alongside other treatments, including exercise or medication (see our section on therapy, medication or both? for more on this).

But therapy isn't a quick fix, so it might take some time to see whether it's helping you or not. And it isn't right for everyone.

If you've tried therapy for a while and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself. Our pages on getting the most from therapy and alternatives to therapy offers options and tips for a range of situations.

You’re the only person who knows which treatments work for your mental health – counselling doesn’t work for everyone, neither does mindfulness or medication.

This information was published in June 2018.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

References and bibliography available on request.

If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.

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