Psychotherapy and counselling are talking therapies. They are unique forms of conversation that are intended to help you become more aware of how you experience yourself, your life and your relationships and to enable you to heal and to thrive as yourself. My client’s often find that the work is deeply profound and yet surprisingly ordinary at the same time.
Unfortunately there is currently no statutory regulation of psychotherapists and counsellors. I believe there should be as this would help to ensure safe and ethical standards and would give some professional transparency in training and experience. It would also assist people in finding the help they need. When choosing a therapist, it is important to find one who registered with either the BACP or the UKCP as this ensures that they are qualified, experienced, and are practising within governed ethical guidelines.
It is also important that you find someone who you feel you can work with. Studies repeatedly show that the best indicator of a successful therapy is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and client. To begin with you might not know why a particular therapist stands out to you, but often the reason will emerge and become an important part of the work. Beyond ensuring a therapist is safely trained and practising with UKCP or BACP regulations, it is my advice that you trust your instinct in the process of finding a therapist.
Clients often ask about the difference between counselling and psychotherapy, and the simplest answer is that counselling is short-term stabilisation and psychotherapy is longer-term and works at the level of the unconscious to make more profound changes. This is not a complete answer to the differences, however, and even the two main accreditation and regulatory bodies in the UK, The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, do not offer a defined differentiation.
The difference in training processes offers some clarification between counselling and psychotherapy. Qualifying as a psychotherapist is a 4-6 year post-graduate training process with a leaning towards developmental theory and the unconscious, usually involving an MSc or doctorate, extensive experience and personal therapy, and a rigorous examination process in order to achieve accreditation. A psychotherapy qualification is usually preceded by a counselling qualification. A counselling qualification is a 2-3-year post-graduate degree with a leaning towards behavioural theory and conscious processes, usually involving a diploma, experience and an examination in order to achieve accreditation. Accreditation with the BACP and the UKCP requires training on a regulated programme, extensive hours of practise experience, and adherence to an ethical and professional framework.
It is generally understood that counselling is short-term (8 weeks to several months) and focuses on finding stability at a time of need and providing a space to talk about pressing issues or difficult life events that do not feel fueled by deeper traumas or childhood wounds. Short-term counselling is sometimes sufficient in itself, and also often leads to curiosity about self and symptoms and a desire for longer-term work in the form of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy tends to be longer-term (several months to several years) and involves greater consideration to unconscious processes, relationship patterns and your sense of self. This type of work takes longer because it involves exploring core parts of our psyche that have adapted for psychological survival at some point in our lives. These adaptations can result in habits, patterns and ways of being that become painful or harmful to us, yet they are still difficult to adjust because they are our most reliable and familiar form of psychological protection. Research in biology and neuroscience shows that the adaptations we form for protection from trauma affects the entire human organism; body, brain and mind. Neural pathways form to create fixed thought patterns, behaviour and emotional responses become an expression of dissociated or preverbal experience, and changes in hormone balance and the nervous system cause symptomatic problems. Research also shows that psychotherapy can reverse these adaptations and help to create new and healthier ways of being.