Introduction to Talking Therapy

Talking therapy is a broad term. It covers all the psychological therapies that involve a person talking to a therapist about their problems.

You may have heard of counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy. These are all different types of talking therapy, but they share some common features.

For some problems and conditions, one type of talking treatment may be better than another. Different talking treatments also suit different people. A particular one may be best one for you and your situation.

To help you decide which one would be most suitable for you, talk to your GP about the types of talking therapy on offer (let them know if you prefer a particular one). Below is a brief explanation of each talking treatment and the situations that they can help.


This is probably the best known talking therapy and the one most readily available at your GP surgery.

Counselling on the NHS usually consists of six to 12 hour-long sessions. You talk in confidence to a counsellor about how you feel about yourself and your situation. The counsellor supports you and offers practical advice.

Counselling is ideal for people who need help coping with a current crisis, such as anger, relationship issues, bereavement, redundancy, infertility or the onset of a serious illness.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The aim of CBT is help you think less negatively, so that instead of feeling hopeless and depressed, you cope better with, and even start to enjoy, the situations you face.

In particular, CBT can help depression, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder and some eating disorders, especially bulimia.

CBT is available on the NHS for people with depression or any other mental health problem that it has been shown to help. There are also books and computer courses which use the concepts of CBT to help you overcome common problems like depression

See the CBT topic for more details and the Self Help Resources page for more information about online resources relating to CBT.


Unlike counselling and CBT, psychotherapy involves talking more about your past to help you overcome problems you’re having in the present. It tends to last longer than CBT and counselling. Sessions are an hour long and can continue for a year or more.

There are different types of psychotherapy, but they all aim to help you understand more about yourself, improve your relationships and get more out of life. Psychotherapy can be especially useful in helping people with long-term or recurring problems to find the cause of their difficulties.

There's some evidence that psychotherapy can help depression and some eating disorders.

NHS psychotherapists normally work in a hospital or clinic, where you'll see them as an outpatient. Private psychotherapists often work from home.

See the Psychotherapy page for more details.

Family therapy

This may be offered when the whole family is in difficulty.

In family therapy, a therapist (or pair of therapists) meets the whole family. The therapist explores their views and relationships to understand the problems the family is having. It helps family members communicate better with each other.
Sessions are between 45 minutes and an hour-and-a-half long, and usually take place several weeks apart.

Family therapy is useful for any family in which a child, young person or adult (a parent or a grandparent) has a serious problem that’s affecting the rest of the family. Many types of cases are seen by family therapists, including child and adolescent behavioural problems, mental health conditions, illness and disability in the family, separation, divorce and step-family life, domestic violence and drug or alcohol addiction.

Couples therapy

Couples therapy can help when a relationship is in crisis (after an affair, for example). Both partners talk in confidence to a counsellor to explore what’s gone wrong in the relationship and how to change things for the better. It can help couples learn more about each other's needs and communicate better.

Ideally, both partners should attend the weekly hour-long sessions, but they can still help if just one person attends.
See the Relationships topic for more information.

Group therapy

In group therapy, eight to 12 people meet, together with a therapist. It’s a useful way for people who share a common problem to get support and advice from each other. It can help you realise you’re not alone in your experiences, which is itself beneficial.

Some people prefer to be part of a group or find that it suits them better than individual therapy.

Last updated: 19 December 2011