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  • Writer's pictureLeo Lobbestael

The Presence Lab: A Brief History of Psychotherapy

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

Exploring Everything. Mindfully.




I see elements of psychotherapy existing since the beginning of time. When humans started connecting with each other, other beings, and the natural world, certain practices evolved to support wellness. Given the natural connection all beings had to each other and the earth, there seems to have been more of a symbiotic relationship between the developed wellness practices and the natural world. There is evidence of these practices in almost every ancient cultural tradition. Some examples of these practices are meditation dating back some 5 000 years to yoga, art, dance, music, and spoken word.


What we call modern psychotherapy is really old practices brought together under a new name. We are not doing anything new we are just sort of rebranding them. With industrialization and colonization, small communities have dissolved and large megacities have bloomed. In this growth, it seems that access to resources such as land, nature, cultural practices, and even intimate relationships, necessary, historically for human wellness is now very limited. Psychotherapy and psychotherapists I would say, in some partial sense, now are playing some of the role that shamans and the wise people of our ancient ancestors played. This is a hugely responsible role and the pressures of modern life and the agendas of capitalism make psychotherapy today sometimes likely more disorienting than its predecessor many years ago in the gentle support of a caring community elder, nested in a supportive natural environment.

In my belief, as humans have disconnected further from community, culture, and the earth we have disconnected from actual healing practices that have the same healing capacity that our ancient ancestors provided. We are doing our best as humans to resolve this through all the creative means available to us. As a result of such creativity, Modern Psychology was born. Modern therapy methods as you can see in my shorthand below seem to have grown out of reactions to previous ways of thinking. Today there is much more openness to seeing a connection and value between all psychotherapeutic modalities.


Psychoanalysis 1900s


What we call Modern Psychology starts in the 1900s with Sigmund Freud. Freud developed Psychoanalysis which is basically "talk therapy" meant to support clients in looking deeper and deeper into their unconscious minds to gain further awareness of their unconscious motivations. More recent followers of this approach have developed approaches that are not purely "Freudian" and describe themselves as psychodynamic. All these approaches are not new in the sense of seeing talk as beneficial to wellness or even the ideas of the unconscious but rather it seems they were new in a now scientific world that was growing and expanding.


Behavioural Therapy - (mid 1900s)


In around the mid-20th century, in resistance to psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy was born. The general philosophy of behavioural therapy as I understand it is that changing your behavior is all that is necessary for human wellness. An example of this that has become popular is Pavlov's Dog which salivates to food but after training salivates to a bell. Behavioral therapy is still quite popular today in particular for individuals struggling with various phobias.


Humanistic: Person-Centered/ Client-Centred Therapy/ Transpersonal Psychology (mid-1900s)


For Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, Stan Grof and other Humanists changing our behaviour was not enough. These therapies focus on the importance of relationship, empathy, and connection. For transpersonal therapists, this is extended to the acknowledgment of experiences outside of our human understanding that connects to spirituality, and transcendent or expanded states of consciousness.


Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy ( 1960s)


Aaron Beck developed this form of therapy due to pressure from to have more measurable ways of diagnosing and treating patients. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) became known as the "gold standard of therapy". The basic idea behind CBT is that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are all important and if we can intercept our negative thinking and/or change our behaviour we can impact or change our present emotional state. This practice is still highly used by many therapists. in my own opinion although this practice is very effective and helpful it has become too controlled and automated and in some incidences seems to take the human quality out of the therapeutic relationship.


Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy ( late 1990s)


Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy have been around since the beginning of time in their elements. Essentially it is a practice of recognizing the connection humans have to nature and using nature to improve mental and physical wellness. Ecotherapy includes a range of different experiences in the presence of nature including adventure therapy, animal-assisted therapy, equine therapy, horticultural therapy, and "forest bathing".


ACT & Mindfulness based CBT ( early 2000s)


New research and developments have expanded what we have known about CBT and created the ACT model and mindfulness-based CBT. The ACT model stands for "acceptance, commitment, change". This model in a nutshell seems to have brought more of humanity back into CBT. It focuses on bringing acceptance to our life in the present moment and has that mindfulness aspect to the work. Mindfulness-based practices have been attributed to this CBT wave as they bring a new relationship to our thinking and behaviour. Focusing our mind on the present moment is critical to this type of work to experience reality "as it is", rather than "how we would like it to be."


Body-based/Somatic approaches ( bottom up approaches) ( late 1990s - 2000s).


This type of therapy is returning to older methods that have been around for thousands of years. The difference perhaps is we are starting to have science that shows the benefit of these approaches. In these approaches, I include such therapies as EMDR, Brainspotting, Somatic Experiencing, Compassionate Inquiry, PolyVagal therapy, Meditation, breathwork, and guided psychedelic-assisted therapy. There are many differences between these types of therapies but more differences between these therapies and what came before them. Since Freud, we have mostly been focusing on psychotherapy in terms of talking and trying to think our way to solutions. Discoveries in neuroscience have pushed us to see healing differently. It seems to talk through our problems although has its benefits, may not always be the best or most effective way. Sometimes talking and thinking can create more problems. Body-based or Somatic therapies support clients into dropping out of the thinking ( Neocortex) and into the emotional, sensory processing, trauma processing brain ( subcortex). Allowing a client to exist in their bodies in a safe or what is called a "resourced" way can help discharge the frozen or stuck energy in the lower brain and create a new relationship to ourselves, our emotions, and the present moment. These approaches are sometimes referred to as "bottom-up" approaches as they start lower in the brain where senses and emotion are processed as opposed to a "top-down" approach that brings a lot of use to the top part of our brain/ thinking brain ( neocortex).

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