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Is gestalt therapy legitimate? Here's what the science says.

For the most part, real talk therapy practices stick with modalities and methods of therapy that are backed by considerable amounts of scientific and peer-reviewed evidence.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, is a form of therapy that has been reviewed in thousands of studies. Keeping therapy evidence-based is a necessity since it is healthcare and therefore must be proven safe and effective, barring certain conditions, for the majority of patients.

There are some forms of "therapy" that are obviously not rooted in science - for example, mediums and psychics claiming to be in touch with "the other side."

Then there are forms of therapy that are somewhere in the middle. They show some promise, but lack true scientific evidence, so no one can say with certainty that it’s okay for use in healthcare.

Gestalt therapy belongs to this group.

Key Takeaways:

  • Gestalt therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on the individual as more than the sum of their parts. With a heavy emphasis on the present moment, gestalt therapy utilizes techniques like role-playing, body language analysis, and language choice.
  • Gestalt therapy is often used for mild anxiety and depression. For some patients with more severe mental health concerns, gestalt therapy has the potential to cause more harm than good.
  • While anecdotal evidence shows promise in the effectiveness of gestalt therapy, more research needs to be done before its wide acceptance in the medical community.

Information about Gestalt therapy on this page:

What exactly is Gestalt therapy?

What techniques are used in Gestalt therapy?

What is Gestalt therapy used for?

Is Gestalt therapy evidence-based?

What exactly is Gestalt therapy?

The German term "Gestalt" refers to the concept that an individual thing or phenomenon amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

In the context of therapy, this means that a patient is considered to be more than that which comprises their body, their life, and their history.

Gestalt therapy focuses on building a patient's confidence and independence, using techniques like role-playing and body language awareness.

Gestalt therapy tends to focus more on the present environment and how it is impacting the patient than on how their past has made them who they are. This is not to say that gestalt therapy ignores a patient's past; just that it's not at the center of sessions as it is in other forms of therapy like psychodynamic therapy.

Definition Template (15)-1

What techniques are used in Gestalt therapy?

The methods and techniques used in gestalt therapy vary depending on patient needs and responses, but in general, you can expect some or all of the following techniques to be used:

"The Empty Chair"

In the Empty Chair technique, the therapist will guide the patient through an imaginary conversation with one part of their being.

Sitting across from an empty chair, the patient will "talk" to, for example, their fear of commitment or their difficulty speaking up for themselves.

After engaging with a particular part of their personality or behavior, the patient will then switch chairs and talk to an imaginary version of themselves as that particular trait.

The Empty Chair technique is often one of the more difficult techniques for patients, since it can certainly feel awkward at first.

Language Choices

Language choices are important in gestalt therapy.

In sessions, a therapist may guide the patient in their choice of language in order to build a sense of personal responsibility and accountability.

For example, if a patient says "It's my mom's fault I'm so frustrated because she's always undermining me", the therapist may decide to suggest the wording, "I get frustrated by my mom because, in my mind, she is always undermining me."

The idea here is that subtle changes in language like this over time can help build a patient's self-accountability and, by extension, their confidence and independence.

Body Language Awareness

In an effort to help the patient be more aware of their body language and, by extension, their emotions, the therapist will often point out particular body languages and inquire about the psychological mechanisms behind them.

For example, if the client shrinks back in their chair at the mention of their spouse, the therapist will call this to the patient's attention and ask if everything is going okay in the relationship at the moment.

If the patient is tapping their foot incessantly, the therapist may ask whether they are anxious or nervous.

Often, the theory goes, our internal feelings are not registered by our conscious mind, and instead manifest as physical quirks or fidgets.

Exaggeration

A subtechnique of body language awareness, exaggeration involves multiplying the intensity of body language and tone of voice so that they become more noticeable.

In doing so, according to gestalt therapists, it becomes easier for the patient to discover latent emotional responses to conversational topics.

What is Gestalt therapy used for?

Gestalt therapy is often used for self-esteem issues, mild anxiety, and depression.

We'll talk about the science - and lack thereof - behind gestalt therapy in the next section, but note here that the consensus in the psychological healthcare community is that gestalt therapy should not be used for patients with more severe mental health concerns - patients for whom an intense focus on the present may be alarming or even harmful.

Is Gestalt therapy evidence-based?

While there is evidence of the effectiveness of gestalt therapy, it's almost all anecdotal. That is, rather than rigorous, academic, peer-reviewed studies using large sample sizes, most studies on gestalt therapy tell the story of one person or, sometimes, a small group of people.

For this reason, gestalt therapy is often left off of the list of services in many therapy practices, like Williamsburg Therapy Group. This is not to imply that gestalt therapy doesn't work - it just means that many therapy practices won't use gestalt therapy as an exclusive modality. Practices may instead, if the licensed therapist deems it safe for the patient and worth trying, incorporate it with other forms of therapy.

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