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An introduction to different types of counselling

There are a myriad of different types of counselling available and to be honest even trained counsellors can struggle to understand all of them so I thought I would put together a little introduction to some of the most common types. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to call them all counselling but you may also find them described as therapy – counselling and therapy can be used interchangeably. My aim is to give you a jargon free summary as a starting point for when you start searching for a counsellor.

Humanist Counselling – focused on you as an unique human being

It would be easy to describe humanist counselling as simply a classic type of counselling where two people sit in a room and speak to one another but that would be doing it a disservice. Its approach is focused on considering you as a whole human. It is client led, so you decide what you want to work on and the counsellor’s role is to support you to explore the different aspects of those issues, how they impact your thoughts and behaviour and are influenced by your life as a whole. This type of counselling focuses on exploring who you are, how you can take ownership of the things which are causing you difficulty and taking your own responsibility for fulfilling your potential.

There are different types of humanist counselling including person centred, gestalt and transpersonal counselling.

Person centred is probably the one you are most likely to encounter. It is based on the concept that you are the expert of your life and the counsellor’s role is to listen and provide a non-judgemental, supportive space where you explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviour around the issues you want to work on. The counsellor will ask you questions and provide their reflections to help you gain greater self-awareness and develop your confidence in your own abilities to develop your own solutions. As a result, person centred counselling is particularly beneficial if you want to proactively use your own agency to explore your feelings and habits. 

Gestalt is very focused on the present rather than discussing past events so the counsellor will encourage you to understand how you are feeling in the moment. The Gestalt Centredescribes this type of counselling as “…a holistic process. It regards the individual as a totality of mind, body, emotions and spirit who experiences reality in a way unique to themselves.”  It is characterised by being a more interactive process as it can include role play, working creatively, working with your dreams and also working with your body. It is a good way for you to become more attuned to the sensations in your body and how they interact with your thoughts.  

Transpersonal counselling is an additional form of humanistic counselling which goes beyond working with mind and body to have more of a focus on spirituality – not necessarily religious spirituality – and transcendental experiences which helps to help you gain greater understanding of yourself and progress with self-development.

Humanist counselling is valuable for a wide range of issues including anxiety, depression, relationship issues, addiction and low self-esteem on both a short and long term basis.

Cognitive & Behavioural Counselling – focused on how you think & behave

These types of counselling do what they say on the tin – they focus on your cognition – how you think, reason and perceive things – and/or your behaviour. The most well known type of counselling in this category is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which combines both and is the most widely available counselling on the NHS. CBT places an emphasis on changing negative or irrational thoughts and unsuitable beliefs that are causing issues and working to explore, test and replace them with more positive beliefs and behaviours.

CBT has been proven to be effective for a wide range of issues including anxiety disorders, fears and phobias, depressive disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). There are specialist adaptations of CBT which are used for specific conditions such as CBET for eating disorders and trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT). CBT is often used on a short-term basis for a limited number of perhaps 6-10 sessions.

There are newer types of counselling which have taken their influence from CBT including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). ACT teach individuals how to use mindfulness and acceptance skills that help them to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings and be able to take action in their lives based on the values that are important to them. DBT was created to work with borderline personality disorder but is also valuable with conditions such as suicide ideation, self-harm and depression. Like ACT, it has a mindfulness element to it but is a less experiential, more directive process in which individuals are taught specific skills to help to deal with their difficult thoughts and feelings.

Psychoanalysis – a long term exploration of the conscious & sub-conscious

Psychoanalysis explores how your childhood experiences have impacted on your life to date. It particularly focuses on your conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings and the counsellor will use different techniques such as observing patterns, interpretation and free association. Through this exploration, unconscious thoughts and beliefs can be brought into the client’s awareness and help them gain a greater understanding of themselves.

It can be valuable for anxiety, sleep issues, phobias, sexual issues and relationship problems. This is usually a long-term counselling process and it is not unusual for clients to work with their counsellors for years. A shorter term option is psychodynamic psychoanalysis which uses similar techniques but focuses on issues which need a more immediate solution.

It is also worth mentioning transactional analysis (TA) which crosses over between humanistic, cognitive-behavioural and psychodynamic counselling. TA explores how different aspects of your personality have come about, how they impact how you think and interact with other people and can be used by counsellors practicing any of these three different types of counselling.

Creative Counselling – no A level in Art required

You don’t have to be good at art to gain value from experiencing creative counselling. It can be a very valuable tool to help unlock things that someone is unable to put into words using creative materials and activities. Sometimes being able to visualise something on paper or use objects or activities to unlock associations can be really valuable.

Dedicated art therapists usually have a qualification in art or design in addition to undergoing specific training. Counsellors who work creative usually have experience in that area or have taken a specific course such as sand tray work.

Examples include Gestalt counsellors who may make use of drawing or sculpting to help their clients get in touch with what they are currently feeling and sand tray work where the client chooses objects and figurines from a selection and positions them in the sand or creates shapes in the sand which can be useful for exploring conscious and unconscious feelings especially around grief and trauma.

Integrative/Eclectic Counselling – the combination option

You may come across counsellors who describe themselves as integrated, integrative or eclectic. This means that they have trained in different types of counselling which they can draw on to help the unique requirements of the clients they work. Often they may have one type of counselling as their main specialism but they also use elements of other therapies to create a bespoke approach to working with their clients. For example, I, personally, trained as an integrated counsellor and Person Centred counselling is the foundation of my style of working but I also make use of Gestalt techniques, creative counselling, mindfulness and CBT in my work.

As mentioned at the beginning, this is really an introduction to some common types of counselling. There are other different types and combinations so my advice is to start by thinking about what you would like to achieve and what style appeals. You may also find my article Six things to think about before you work with a counsellor of use.

Gestalt Centre (2024). What is Gestalt? Retrieved from  [Accessed 29/04/2024]