One of the most common misconceptions is that clinical psychology is one-size-fits-all. The phrase clinical psychology automatically calls to mind an image of lying stretched out on a couch, pouring out one’s heart and soul, as a stern-faced shrink furiously scribbles down notes until he suddenly stops you and reveals some deeply buried psychic issue or other. This scenario is informed by only one of these five clinical psychology theories and incorrectly informed at that.
As the oldest clinical psychology theory, the psychodynamic theory bears the strongest similarity to the average preconception of clinical psychology. Founded by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s, the psychodynamic theory was originally termed psychoanalysis. This is because the core tenant of this approach is an analysis of how one’s past experiences influence one’s current behaviors and emotions. As explained further by the American Psychoanalytic Association, psychoanalysts of the past and psychodynamic therapists of today agree that one cannot fully heal and function with unprocessed underlying traumas. Psychodynamic therapy is typically long-term, frequent, and grounded mostly in verbal communication.
Behavioral psychology is perhaps the most distinct from psychodynamic theory. This branch of behavioral psychology was born in the early 1900s out of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner’s work with animal behaviors. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs drooling in anticipation of food at the sound of a bell, behavioral psychologists believe that humans learn to exhibit certain behaviors as a result of mental associations. They are little concerned with patients’ pasts and spend little time on talk therapy. Instead, they perform a series of therapeutic tasks and prescribe tasks for patients to complete at home. These tasks include exposure to stimuli and aversion practices, such as initiating punishments every time patients exhibit problematic behaviors. Behavioral therapy tends to be very brief.
Another theory that involves homework and focuses on the present, as well as the future, rather than the past is cognitive psychology. Cognitive therapy, founded in the 1950s by Aaron Beck, focuses on how thoughts guide actions. Cognitive therapists believe that changing one’s problematic thought patterns results in the remedy of difficult emotions and troubling behaviors. Some of the most common tactics include thought journals and reward and punishment systems similar to those in behavioral therapy. In fact, many modern psychologists combine cognitive and behavioral theories into one clinical psychology approach.
At many points during the evolution of clinical psychology, various theorists have reminded the field not to forget about the biological aspect of the human psychological experience. The structure and chemistry of the brain play important roles in human thought, emotion, and behavior. This biological theory of clinical psychology is known in the field as biopsychology. The Association for Psychological Science offers excellent articles about the most current research in biopsychology.
Humanistic theory offers exactly what it sounds like it should, a perspective on psychology that focuses on the things that make people distinctly human. Central to this theory is the concept of empowerment through free will. By way of talk therapy and written and spoken narrative, humanistic clinicians work with patients to take control of their emotional and behavioral responses to their human experiences. This theory relies heavily on validation and empathy. This is one of the newest theories of clinical psychology.
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Each of these clinical psychology theories is like one piece of a whole puzzle. Most therapists specialize in one theory but recognize when and how to pull from other theories or refer patients to a different therapist. The right theory, or combination of theories, is determined by the individual and the issues under treatment. What they all have in common is the goal of helping people live their best lives.