The great tree of psychology: the different branches of health

I’m sure you’ve heard of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and iconic figure in the field of psychology. This still-young field of science has undergone a tremendous period of evolution since it officially began in the German laboratories of Wundt in 1879. Starting from the initial trunk that Freud designed at the time, the developments and growth (flowering) of psychotherapy have been very diverse.  

Indeed, attending therapy is no longer as stigmatized as it used to be: it is considered simply as a space in which an expert helps you to take care of your health. Nowadays, it is much more common to hear people talking about their therapist or how their therapy is going. Also, it’s more likely than ever that each person is focusing on their own personal development in very different ways.

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Many people, when they consider the idea of ​​initiating some kind of therapeutic process, ask the professional in front of them: What type of therapy is the most appropriate for me? What are we going to do together and how are we going to do it? In short … what is the plan?

These are important issues, and it is totally normal for the patient to feel curiosity or concern about which of the branches of the tree he will be climbing with his therapist.  In truth, the tree is very leafy. Since the beginning of psychology, experts have been developing different theoretical models to understand and help people with their own personal growth. Each one understands illness and mental health in a different way. Therefore, each one has focused on treatment in its own way.

Currently, there are dozens of types of therapies within psychology, but all of them are derived from these three prominent psychological models:

  • Psychoanalysis, which began towards the end of the 19th century. This approach prioritizes the in-depth study of the unconscious mechanisms that govern our behavior and how these connect to our past.
  • The cognitive-behavioral approach, which has been evolving since the first half of the 20th century. This approach focuses on the present, examining the thoughts and behaviors we display and the connections between these behaviors.
  • Humanist and systemic approaches, which started in the 1970s. These approaches emphasize the emotional-relational aspects of our lives; they believe in the self-regulation of the organism itself and the relational forces between people.

However, what is the best?

As we have pointed out, in a short time psychology gave rise to a large number of schools, which led to numerous investigations carried out in 1970 to find out which psychological approach worked best for the greatest number of people.

It was discovered that around 40% of the changes in patients’ symptoms and functioning were due to extra-therapeutic factors; that is, 40% of the improvements stemmed from occurrences that had nothing to do their therapy, like finding new jobs, solving health problems, resolving marital conflicts, etc.

The other 60% of the changes in their health were due to therapy. What’s more, they found that half of these behavior changes had nothing to do with the approach of each therapist but with things that they all had in common. It was Carl Rogers who emphasized the relationship or therapeutic alliance as the main variable in the change of people who attend therapy.

If you think about it, surely this will be very familiar to you: how many times have we heard the classic phrase “ever since you got a girlfriend, you’ve changed!”? It seems impossible to deny that relationships change people. As it turns out, all successful therapists had similar personal characteristics that helped their clients to evolve: empathy, the ability to listen actively, a certain warmth, the capacity for confrontation, etc.

However, there was still 30% left to explain. It was a pleasure for many – and an upset for many others – to discover that only 15% of the changes a person experienced in therapy had to do with the specific techniques and unique tools of each therapeutic school. Therefore, this means that the personal qualities of the therapist (on which 30% of the therapeutic change depended) are more important than the psychological approach (which was responsible for only 15% of the change).

If all those percentages didn’t confuse you, you realize that there is still one last 15% left, a small percentage for something vital: hope. The placebo effect, the belief that something will improve, accounts for 15% of the person’s development. So no one can say that hope doesn’t matter!

Many decades have passed since those studies, and nowadays we have more extensive methods of assessing the efficacy of the different therapeutic approaches. The cognitive-behavioral approach has emerged as the only scientifically-supported therapeutic method. Other approaches, such as systemic or humanistic, have not been researched extensively enough to support the effectiveness of their treatments. One need not shy away from those techniques, though; it could very well be that their efficacy will be demonstrated in due time.

How, then, should you choose a therapeutic approach and a psychologist?

Apart from fundamental necessities like training and experience, it is important that you feel at ease with the person with whom you are going to share your worries and thoughts. Comfort and safety are two key factors that cannot be explained to you in any sort of manual, and only you can decide who makes you feel secure.

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