What is Counselling?

 By Alice Baer
April 16, 2021
May 3, 2021

Often counselling is described as talking therapy, because in sessions you will be able to talk about your problems and issues. It is a safe and confidential space, where you will not be judged or told what to do, but you work together with your therapist to find ways to cope, make changes and move forward in your life. Your therapist will support you to explore your feelings, thoughts and behaviours, so you can understand yourself and the others better.

How can therapy help?

Often clients will come to therapy because they feel isolated, stuck, weighed down by problems or realise they don’t currently live the life they want to live. Counselling can help with a variety of issues:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Stress
  • Difficult relationships
  • Loss and grief
  • Trauma
  • Phobias
  • Other mental health problems

Many people will experience distress and mental ill-health at some point in their life which affects their well-being and relationships. But you don’t have to be in a crisis and at breaking point to benefit from counselling. Some people feel generally unhappy or want to explore something that bothers them from their past. Once you understand what is going on for you and you made sense of your feelings and thoughts, you will be able to choose what right for you and make positive changes in your life.

FInd out more information on the benefits of talking therapy from the NHS and on the effectiveness of counselling from COSCA (the professional body for Counselling and Psychotherapy in Scotland).

Types of therapy and finding the right therapy for you

Counselling is often described as talking therapy with a focus on the therapeutic relationship and giving you a space to talk about your issues. There are different types of counselling and therapists can be trained in different approaches of working with clients. This means they use specific skills or techniques or are specialised in a certain area of expertise.

Types of therapy include

1. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

2. Person-centred therapy

3. Psychodynamic therapy

4. Integrative therapy

1. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) draws on the connection between your thoughts, feelings, moods and behaviours. The way we think about a situation affects how we feel and act on it. If we see it negatively, we might experience negative emotions and behave in unhelpful ways. The therapist will support you to change the way you think (cognitive), and you behave, with focus on your current situation instead of exploring your past and problem-solving. You will be challenged in your ways of thinking which then leads to different emotions and more positive behaviours. You might be asked to keep a mood diary and complete tasks. CBT can be helpful in dealing with anxiety, phobias, stress and depression among others.

2. Person-centred therapy

Person-centred therapy is based on the belief that everyone has the drive and potential to grow and change, given the right conditions. The therapist is aiming to provide these conditions in the sessions with an emphasis on a therapeutic relationship based on unconditional regard, empathy and congruence. The client is the expert on his or her own life with the counsellor as a source of reflection and encouragement.  The therapist will be led by the client and will provide a space to explore feelings and relationships in a trusting and accepting space to facilitate personal growth.

3. Psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is recognising the role of the unconscious and its effect on our present feelings and behaviours. It recognises that often we are experiencing conflict within ourselves as our different parts of our psyche are fighting with each other. With insight and understanding of your unconscious patterns, the struggle inside you will cease. The therapist’s role is to guide the client safely through this process. The therapist will encourage you to talk and explore your childhood and previous as well as current relationships.

4. Integrative therapy

Integrative therapy is a holistic approach looking at the whole person. In drawing from different types of therapy. The focusses is on what is the right approach for the client’s needs and goals. The therapist aims to develop a trusting relationship with the client and offers a safe space for exploration, promotes self-awareness, as well as enables you to solve conflicts and to be able to move forward to a more fulfilled life.

There are many more therapies which you can read about on the BACP (British Association of Counselling Professionals) website.

Therapy for individuals, couples and families

Apart from working with a specific therapy, the therapist or counsellor might offer help tailored to different sets of people. This includes therapy for

  • Individuals
  • Couples
  • Family or group therapy

How and where therapy can take place

Counselling can take place in different ways and does not always have to be in person. Therapy can take place

  • Face to face
  • Online video
  • Phone call
  • Text or email

Finding the right therapist for you: Questions to ask

It is important that you find the right therapist and therapy as it needs to work for you and be what you need. It might be useful to ask yourself some of the following questions and make a checklist of requirements:

  1. Does the therapist have a specialism that suits my needs, e.g. is trained and experienced in working with anxiety?
  2. Is the therapist qualified and registered with a recognised body?
  3. Does the way therapy is conducted suit me e.g., face to face, location is convenient, online video or phone counselling?
  4. What is the cost of therapy? And can I afford it?
  5. Can I commit to attending therapy regularly?

Qualifications to look for in a therapist

The therapist should have the relevant and regulated training and be a registered member of a professional body in the UK and adhere to their professional and ethical code of practice.

In the UK the main professional bodies for counsellors are BACP, UKCP and NCS, which have directories to find registered counsellors:

Therapy and counselling on the NHS

You can access counselling through the NHS, your health insurance, your employer or education provider, charities and voluntary organisations or privately.

What happens in therapy

Many counsellors, agencies and organisations will assess you before you can start therapy or during the first session, to make sure that it is the right fit. Depending on the provider, you will be offered a set number of sessions, usually a minimum of six, or work open-endedly. You will discuss and agree on the counselling contract and possible fees, be able to ask questions, clarify things and get to know the therapist.

You will agree with your counsellor a set time and place to meet each week. A session usually lasts for 50 minutes. Depending on the counsellor’s approach, it will be more directive, or it can more being led by you. Your counsellor might invite you to do some exercises or ask you to do tasks between sessions. The focus will be on exploration and understanding of your feelings, thoughts and behaviours. What you will talk about depends on you and the agreement you have with your counsellor. For example, in bereavement therapy, you would concentrate on your loss and relationship with the person that has died. Your counsellor will listen to you attentively and without judgement, reflecting back their understanding in a warm and empathetic way. Your counsellor might explain psychological processes to you or give you information, but they won’t tell you what to do and give advice.

A good counsellor will regularly review with you how the sessions and therapy are going and seek your honest feedback. She/he will respect your autonomy and ability to decide what is best for you, e.g., when you choose to end or take a break from counselling.

At first, it might feel strange and scary to open up to a stranger, but a good counsellor will invest in building a positive and accepting relationship with you and aim to understand you and your world.

Confidentiality is paramount in counselling and this is based on the trust that your counsellor is not sharing what you share in sessions unless you or others are at risk of harm or as required by law. Your counsellor will explain this and ensure they provide a safe space for you.

Final thoughts

A counsellor is not going to fix you and be able to make all your problems magically disappear but will offer a safe and trusting relationship in which you will be accepted and supported. The more open and honest you are able to be with your counsellor and yourself, the more you will get out of therapy. You can feel initially worse and it can be difficult to look at yourself and your issues, but a good counsellor will be committed to you and your well-being. The right counsellor for you believes in you and your ability to be the person you want to be and your ability to live a positive and life.