The Benefits of Talking Therapy

Many people ask what the value is of talking therapy, what is different from having a conversation with a friend, whether it actually works and ‘Would it work for me?’ 

There are many different psychological therapies available today, which may leave you thinking that talking therapy is no longer relevant. 

However, talking therapy draws upon some of the most sophisticated social processes that take place in human interaction. The positive effects of talking therapy are supported by neuroscience, (the study of how the brain works.) This article uses the word therapist interchangeably with counsellor and psychotherapist, who may all provide talking therapy. 

Attunement: The experience of being heard

When a genuine interest is shown in what we have to say, talking is easier. In therapy, you have your therapist’s full attention, which can be a healing experience in itself. Research revealed that some people reported that they had never been listened to in this way before (Weger, 2014).

Attunement is the experience of having someone ‘tune in’ to us, creating a process of limbic resonance in the brain, where emotional states of two people match each other. A positive feeling of being seen, heard and understood develops.

In children’s emotional development and sense of self, parental attunement is a vital factor.  Therapy can provide a reparative  experience where insufficient attunement in childhood occured. This can have far-reaching positive psychological effects.

Mentalisation: Reflecting together

Talking therapy is when you talk, your therapist listens attentively, but they will engage with you and encourage you to reflect on what you share. You have a supportive, thinking mind alongside your own to help you make sense of and articulate your thoughts and feelings.

Your therapist might ask questions like “How did that impact you?” or “How did that make you feel?”  Reflecting together in this way increases our capacity for mentalisation. 


Mentalisation helps create the skill of understanding our inner experience. Young children lack mentalisation skills (hence tantrums!). These skills are usually developed through a joint process of the adult reflecting together to help the child name their ‘big feelings’ and help soothe their emotions. The child learns to understand and manage their feelings independently as they mature. 

In the past, children’s emotional needs were not always understood, and many of us did not have a chance to learn robust mentalisation skills. However, it’s never too late to learn!

Familiarising ourselves with our emotional states and how to manage them, means we do not become overwhelmed. Instead, we can recognise how our feelings help us think about what we need. This enables us to develop self-compassion and find resources for self-care and to access support. 

Enrichment for the brain

Part of talking therapy enables us to process our feelings around a personal story or memory. We can explore a lived experience from different perspectives, and may be able to imagine new possibilities for ourselves.

Each thought creates new neural pathways which are connections in the brain. Talking therapy provides many opportunities for these new connections to strengthen. Over time, this process of neural integration facilitates change.

Some therapists employ creative methods in their work, increasing opportunities for enrichment. Louis Cozolino (2017, p. 22) writes: “Psychotherapy can be thought of as a specific type of enriched environment that promotes social and emotional development, neural integration, and processing complexity.” 

Reflective activities such as journaling in between sessions can deepen the reflective process, strengthening the new brain pathways and consolidating new insights and habits.

Validation and containment: The power of words

Words hold power. Saying something out loud is more empowering than thinking about it in our heads. When we say it out loud, we can hear it in a different way. Sharing our story with another person gives it shape and makes it more real: now, we both know what happened.

Having a personal experience witnessed in therapy in this way validates the process of letting go of shame or grief.


The words received in response can be equally powerful. Simple empathic statements may be: “That was really difficult for you. You’ve carried this pain for a long time.” As we work through our experience, words of support create containment, the experience of being held through the emotional support of another, as if by an invisible structure. 

Finally, naming our feelings can put them on the emotional map, metaphorically speaking. Thus, this can turn them from free-floating anxiety into something we know and understand. As we have seen, interpreting our inner experience through mentalisation can make our feelings less scary. Therin, it becomes easier to navigate – just like having a map!

Calming the stress response

Recall a time when you felt criticised or humiliated and how that felt in your body. Did you get a sense of inwardly shrinking or a rush of heat to your face? Now recall a time when someone spoke kindly to you. How did that feel?

Criticism activates our brain to start the stress response. By contrast, a kind tone of voice has a calming effect on our nervous system. 

Verbal communication is directly connected to our physical experience. Human brains are designed to determine threat or safety by noticing subtleties in tone of voice..

When we feel seen, heard and understood (attunement), we begin to relax as the signals in our brain communicate a sense of safety to the whole organism. This settles the stress-driven fight-flight system and activates the body’s social engagement system instead. Therapy can be a safe space to talk about our emotional experience, which ultimately helps us to heal.

Seeing the bigger picture

Imagine standing a mountain top with a full view of the landscape below. Exploring our life story in therapy can be a bit like climbing a mountain. On the way up, you can only see so far.

Sometimes, we have only dim recollections of certain periods or events in our lives. At the time, we may have just pulled through. While this may not be problematic, the downside is that these events sometimes continue to affect us, by shaping our beliefs about ourselves, others, and how we relate to people and situations in general.

Talking therapy can help us see the bigger picture by placing important events in context, by making links between past and present. Gaining awareness and insights into our life experiences helps to  file images into a logical order. In therapeutic language, this is known as creating a ‘coherent narrative’. Of course, this also helps us appreciate how far we’ve come! 

 A different kind of relationship

You may not always feel comfortable talking to those closest to you about what you’re going through. No matter how much they care, it can be difficult for people to know what to say, and to see a loved one suffer.

Therapy is different from talking to friends or family because no mutual exchange of personal information takes place. This may feel strange at first. It is normal to think about your therapist’s well-being; you may worry that you’re burdening them or fear that your problems are ‘too much.’ But it can also be a great relief to know that therapy is a space just for you

Research suggests that over time, you will get to know your therapist in a different way. You may discover that the connection that you have with them is an important part of what makes therapy helpful (Carey et al, 2012).

In conclusion, talking therapy can have beneficial and far-reaching effects on our brain chemistry, emotional experience, and overall life story. 

This article was written to provide insight into some of the benefits of talking therapy.  Talking therapy may not be the best option for everyone. To find the type of therapy that best suits you, it may help to talk to a mental health professional to see what will suit you best.  


This article was adapted from Counselling Directory

Carey, T., Kelly, R., Mansell, W., and Tai, S. (2012). What’s Therapeutic About the Therapeutic Relationship? A hypothesis for practice informed by Perceptual Control Theory. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 5 (2-3).

Cozolino, L. (2017). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, 3rd ed. London: W. W. Norton & Co.

Weger, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., and Robinson, M. C. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journey of Listening, Vol. 28 (1).


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