Five central therapeutic techniques used in mental health counseling

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It is safe to say that each mental health counseling case will differ from the next. However, there are a few common techniques and schools of thought that counselors rely upon to help support their patients.

In this guide, we will examine five of the most popular techniques and schools of thought adhered to by mental health practitioners across the US and worldwide, break down what they entail, and explain why they are so important.


Psychoanalytic counseling is known as a ‘talking’ therapy, as it involves encouraging patients to talk through their problems and look for harmful patterns they can recognize and control for the better.

Rooted in the work of famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, this mental health therapy shares some similarities with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, psychoanalytic treatment focuses more on emotions and experience, and helps people to explore issues deeply in order to understand present difficulties.

Counselors using psychoanalytic therapies will encourage their patients to explore their childhood, familial and romantic relationships, past experiences and more to look for patterns and potential trigger points that cause negative emotions. It’s commonly used to help support people with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

A psychoanalytic therapy session might revolve around dream analysis and might encourage people to talk freely and explore their feelings by way of stream of consciousness – to ‘let it all out’.


Similar to psychoanalytic therapy, behavioral and behavioristic therapies revolve around spotting negative patterns and learning how to control and change them. They are commonly used to help treat people with self-destructive and intrusive thoughts that create negative behaviors. While talking therapies focus on interior emotional landscapes, behavioral therapy seeks to address issues by focusing on positive actions that can be performed now.

CBT, as mentioned above, is a type of behavioristic therapy. It focuses on behavioral patterns and helps people learn how to connect their thoughts with their actions. Counselors essentially help patients build positive thought patterns to drive healthier behaviors.

Some exercises used in this type of therapy might include desensitization to specific triggers, or the reverse, aversion. The latter of these techniques is effective in treating people for substance abuse problems, effectively showing them the negative behaviors that addiction can trigger.

Behavioristic therapies help people ‘help themselves’ by internally reflecting on patterns and building new ones that are healthier and more positive.

Of the different therapies that counselors might learn as part of an Online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling – through providers such as American International College (AIC) – CBT is likely to be one of the first that they might familiarize themselves with.

In fact, AIC helps counseling students examine a wide range of thought schools and practices they can potentially use to treat patients once graduated and in the workforce. Students will have the opportunity to learn about the strengths of each therapy and how to apply them to real-life cases.


Given the prevalence of CBT, it’s easy to assume that cognitive and behavioristic psychologies follow the same processes. However, cognitive psychology focuses predominantly on mental functions, as opposed to the behaviors that arise through specific thought processes.

Cognitive psychology is less a therapy and more the practice of studying how our minds work. Cognitive psychologists and counselors consider the differences in how people think to solve problems and react to traumatic events.

For example, someone working in the field of cognitive psychology might look practically at how people learn through memory recall, and might encourage people to consider events from their past through retrieval practice, which involves bringing new information to mind again and again.

Counselors specializing in cognitive psychology might commonly treat people with speech disorders, memory problems, or those who show signs of Alzheimer’s disease or types of dementia. However, with regard to mental health, it is most commonly used as part of CBT to help treat eating disorders, OCD and mood-related conditions.


Holistic therapy in general refers to treating the ‘whole’ of a problem, rather than specific, separate issues. This sometimes means that holistic mental health treatments will bring together separate techniques, thought schools and ideas to support a singular, central solution.

Holistic psychotherapy will focus on bringing together the separate elements of mind and body, and will also consider elements of spirit – meaning that it is often a faith-based treatment. 

Some counselors will undertake holistic mental health therapy by considering how physical concerns interact with emotional problems. They might also focus less on helping to solve problems and more on helping people accept and adjust to their mental states and thought processes.

The idea behind this practice is that patients can begin to relax, having accepted and adjusted to their mental states without forcing change.


Lastly, humanistic counseling refers to the schools of thought that surround the inherent goodness in people, or in humanity in general. This type of counseling and therapy focuses more on a patient’s present condition and feelings, allowing them to find themselves in the here and now, rather than digging into the past to look for answers.

Some humanistic counselors will focus on providing a client-centered approach to therapy, which means that they will help their patients take the lead and make personal discoveries. Otherwise, they might exercise the Gestalt approach, which involves encouraging patients to consider unresolved issues in their daily lives and how they can better visualize how to handle family and relationship issues.

Counselors might also suggest a more existential approach to therapy, whereby they help people examine their own free will and consider how they have the freedom to make a range of choices to recover from specific traumas and concerns.

Which type of therapy is most recommended?

Ultimately, there is no therapy listed here that is more effective than any other. In fact, counselors might choose to blend multiple different therapy approaches to help their patients understand their mindsets and thought processes.

In any case, mental health counseling education will help budding therapists and counselors explore different thought schools and try different approaches to address mental health concerns stemming from the past and affecting the present. Different strategies and theories are always worth exploring as patient needs will vary greatly!

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