Integrative therapy is an individualized, holistic approach to therapy that combines ideas and techniques from different therapeutic schools of thought depending on the unique needs of a given client. As such, it is sometimes seen more as a movement within the practice of psychotherapy than a form of therapy in and of itself. In practice, by merging elements of different psychological theories or modifying standard treatments, integrative therapists can often offer a more flexible and inclusive approach to treatment than those who practice singular forms of psychotherapy.
Integrative therapy is sometimes referred to as holistic therapy because it aspires to consider an individual’s mental, physical, and emotional health in a unified way. Ideally, therapist and client will work together to understand the sources of the latter’s anxiety, unhappiness, physical discomfort, or unhealthy behavior patterns.
People who seek to have a voice in the direction of their therapy, and who view the therapeutic relationship as a partnership, may be especially receptive to an integrative approach.
Integrative psychotherapy approaches can be incorporated into almost any type of long-term or short-term therapeutic work with children, adolescents, and adults, whether one-on-one, with couples, with families, or in group settings. An integrative approach can be used to treat a range of psychological concerns, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders, grief, low self-esteem, self-harm, trauma and PTSD, relationship issues, sleep concerns, sexual challenges, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.
An integrative therapist aims to match evidence-based treatments with each client's particular concern or concerns, and so the first step is to discover and understand the individual's personality traits, preferences, needs, spiritual beliefs, openness, and motivation level. These factors, along with the client’s health and age, will help the therapist use their professional judgment to decide on a treatment approach with the highest likelihood of success.
A strong therapeutic alliance is core to the success of integrative therapy. Integrative therapy sessions tend to be more inclusive of the client than those of many traditional forms of talk therapy, in which the client may play a less active role in deciding the form or course of treatment. Once therapy is underway, different approaches may be used at different stages, or a single, integrated form of therapy may be used throughout.
There are more than 400 types of psychotherapy, differentiated by their approach, the clients they best serve, and how long and how often the therapist and client will meet. Research shows that even as these approaches vary, many or all can result in similar, and similarly successful, outcomes. But because a single approach to therapy does not always deliver the best benefit to the client, therapists who may have been trained in one particular model will often use tools, language, techniques, or exercises borrowed from other therapies to come up with a distinct, and hopefully effective, form of treatment suitable for a particular client. An integrative therapist will regularly evaluate a client’s progress with whatever modality is currently being tried, and be ready to pivot to a different approach when it becomes clear that they are not benefiting, or no longer benefiting, from it. Typically, though, such shifts are discussed by client and provider before being put into action.
An integrative therapist may introduce strategies and techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, EMDR, motivational interviewing, mindfulness, art or music therapy, psychodynamic therapy, humanistic therapy, psychodrama, meditation, breathwork, yoga, family systems therapy, gestalt therapy, or trauma-informed therapy. How they go about it is likely to differ from practice to practice: A provider may initially follow one primary approach but introduce elements of other techniques as the therapeutic relationship progresses or when predetermined targets or goals have been met. For example, on realizing that a client struggles with social anxiety, a therapist who takes a humanistic approach to a client's long-term goals and concerns may share techniques from CBT that specifically target the individual's situational anxiety.
A therapist does not require any special certification to perform integrative therapy. Some training programs focus on the approach, but any licensed professional psychotherapist may adopt an integrative strategy for a client’s care, and in practice, a majority already do, even if their core approach is based on one school of thought. Today, a number of mental-health professionals simply refer to themselves as integrative therapists, rather than identify with one primary therapeutic model at all.
A therapist’s particular means of integrating therapeutic approaches will depend on their individual educational background, skills, and previous clinical results. Prospective clients may want to ask a therapist in which therapeutic strategies they have formal training and which they most often draw upon in sessions.