Understanding how therapy works is surprisingly complicated. There are so many variables, including the characteristics of the patient (e.g., diagnosis) and the therapist (e.g., specialized training they've completed). Another post discussed how some researchers emphasize the quality of the relationship between patient and therapist, and how understanding this can help you (and your therapist) in therapy. This post will discuss a complimentary approach, empirically-supported treatments.
The empirically-supported treatments approach to how therapy works
The empirically-supported treatments model focuses on evaluating specific treatments for specific clinical problems, usually mental health diagnoses. For example, a research study may evaluate the efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in treating Major Depressive Disorder among adults. Therapists in the study each follow a treatment manual, so that the therapy is consistent across patients, and the researchers measure several outcomes at the end of treatment (e.g., improvements in symptoms and quality of life). It's important that the studies also compare how the outcomes of the therapy (e.g., CBT) compare to the outcomes of people who don't receive treatment or who receive another treatment (e.g., antidepressants). If the the therapy (e.g., CBT) produces better outcomes than no treatment or comparable outcomes to another empirically-supported treatment (e.g., antidepressants) then it's assumed that the techniques involved in the therapy contributed to helping the patient.
While this model of research has limitations (e.g., Norcross, 2001), including evidence that much of the benefit of psychotherapy results from "common factors" shared by all psychotherapies (e.g., Cuijpers et al., 2012), it has also produced compelling evidence that psychotherapy works. For example, we now know that:
CBT, including exposure and response prevention techniques, is the go-to treatment for OCD, as it outperforms no treatment, placebo, and medication (e.g., Öst et al., 2015); note: combination treatment (i.e., CBT and medication) often helps.
CBT, including exposure therapy techniques, reliably helps patients with social anxiety (e.g., Mayo-Wilson et al., 2014), panic disorder (e.g., Furukawa et al., 2016), and generalized anxiety disorder / chronic worry (e.g., Cuijpers et al., 2014).
Many forms of psychotherapy, including CBT, are as effective as medication in the treatment of mild and moderate depression (e.g., Cuijpers et al., 2011); note: combination treatment (i.e., medication and CBT) is often recommended for more severe cases.
How understanding empirically-supported treatments might help you in therapy
Empirically-supported treatments have been evaluated in scientific research and have demonstrated efficacy for specific problems or diagnoses. Thus, choosing an empirically-supported treatment means that you're choosing a treatment that is likely to help with your specific diagnosis or problem. It also means that you're choosing a treatment that has been evaluated for potential negative consequences or "side effects."
Division 12 of the American Psychological Association provides a resource to help find the names of empirically-supported treatments, and there's a similar resource for child and adolescent therapy. Once you know the name of an empirically-supported treatment then you can search for a therapist who offers it. For example, the International OCD Foundation allows you to search for therapists specialized in treating OCD. The American Psychological Association also provides a way to search for psychologists in your area. Once you begin working with a therapist it's also important to consider the quality of your relationship with them, as that also affects the efficacy of treatment.
And as always, I'd be happy see if my experiences and training would be relevant to what you want to work on in therapy, as I provide evidence-based online therapy in Georgia for anxiety, OCD, depression, & many other concerns.