Freud smoking a cigarPsychology has been a godsend for a Western society mired in neurosis. The whys and wherefores of how this came to be are less important than the fact that it is true: Millions of people have had their lives verifiably improved by traditional psychotherapy, as well as newer approaches like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), somatic therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, and integral psychotherapy.

Less praiseworthy are various New Age therapies, which if we take them in good faith and at face value, are attempts to bring New Age teachings into the world of psychotherapy. Much as why Western society needs psychotherapy is outside the purview of this article, so is the question of whether or not New Age therapy is actively malicious, simply bad news, or something else. Guessing at the motivations of any person or movement is a fool’s errand. But what we can say definitively is what New Age therapies have done.

What Is Traditional Psychotherapy?

Traditional psychotherapy is similar to what we see in television and movies. You go in, you lay on a couch, and a man with a little beard and a pipe starts asking you about your mother.

Of course we’re being facetious, but this is closer to the truth than not. Traditional psychotherapy is based around the classic talk therapy. There are other methods that have spun off of talk therapy and psychoanalysis that are more geared toward providing you with practical skills to address your day-to-day life than uncovering some repressed childhood trauma that may or may not be real. For our purposes, we will fold behavioral and physical therapies like DBT, CBT and somatic therapy into the rubric of “traditional psychotherapy,” even though they are more accurately blanketed under the term empirically supported therapies.

Traditional psychotherapy is a new discipline, one that has been with us for precious little time. However, it has a proven track record of improving people’s lives. While there are prominent cases of traditional psychotherapists who have been accused of abuse (Dr. Eugene Landy, who, in fairness, helped Beach Boy Brian Wilson fight back his demons and addictions, is a possible example). We cannot doubt the effectiveness of the methodology, even if we can sometimes question the virtue of the practitioner.

Examples of Traditional Psychotherapy

Traditional psychotherapy is many different things. So we should explain what we mean by these various methodologies.

Freudian Psychoanalysis

This is ground zero for psychotherapy. Freudian psychoanalysis is a talk-oriented therapy where the patient gains insight by exploring their unconscious motivations with the goal of gaining insight from self-understanding. Freud believed that psychiatry was an empirical science which could be tested and measured objectively. Thus, he is the father of the school of empirically supported therapies like IPT, CBT, DBT and somatic therapy.

Jungian Psychoanalysis

Jungian psychoanalysis is sort of the arch-enemy of Freudian psychoanalysis. While Freud and Carl Jung originally worked together, they split as the discipline of psychiatry developed. While Freud was interested in “insight,” the word that can best describe the goal of Jung is integration — taking the various parts of oneself and creating a cohesive whole. Jung was also far friendlier to religion and spiritual world views.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy was a huge breakthrough in the world of psychology. It views the brain as a physical object which can be retrained. Rather than attempt to “get to the bottom of things,” CBT is more pragmatic. Patients learn skills to help them regulate emotions to recognize distorted thinking, such as catastrophizing, overgeneralization, or magnifying negative factors while ignoring or minimizing positive ones.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)

IPT was originally developed for adults with major depressive disorder, but has since been expanded to adolescents and people with a variety of other mental health issues. Spun off of CBT, it differs because it focuses on changing one’s interactions with other people rather than thoughts and feelings.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a modified form of CBT that was originally developed for therapy-resistant patients suffering from borderline personality disorder. It is highly effective, particularly for people who have found other treatments, including pharmaceuticals, lacking. This is called treatment resistance and in some cases, therapy avoidance. DBT therapists (sometimes called “coaches”) attempt to teach clients skills for reality testing, chain analysis of events, emotion regulation, mindfulness and distress tolerance. It has also shown great efficacy in treating traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, addiction, and various mood disorders.

Somatic Therapy

Originally developed for PTSD, somatic therapy has since been expanded to treat other mental and emotional disorders. It has various branches, but what they have in common is an emphasis on locating sensations within the physical body rather than an emphasis on abstract “feelings.” The theories of German psychologist Wilhelm Reich have been highly influential on somatic therapy.

What Are New Age Therapies?

New Age therapies attempt to wed spiritual practices developed in the mid-20th Century to an empirical Western understanding of the human mind. Unfortunately, it combines the features of both, while providing the benefits of neither and has an extensive track record of abuse. Some schools of New Age therapy have a cultish aspect about them.

We are not making the case that all schools of New Age therapy or all practitioners of New Age therapies are abusive and should be avoided. We are, however, stating that there is a consistent track record of abuse and quackery in the New Age therapy community and the buyer should beware.

Whereas the eclecticism of certain traditional psychotherapy methods provide a balanced and more complete toolkit for the patient, New Age therapy tends to have a “everything and the kitchen sink too” approach to it, taking bits and pieces of everything from astrology and Buddhism to past-life regression and repressed memory theory. This creates a culture that, while not necessarily leading to psychiatric abuse, creates an environment where it is easy to blossom.

In particular, hypnotherapy and other trance-state therapies can easily be abused, despite the fact that they have been highly effective for many people. Another problematic area is recovered memories, which treats the human brain as a sort of recording device that captures everything that happens. In fact, memory is one of the least accurate records of past events that we have — people cannot accurately remember the color of a car they saw a few minutes ago, let alone things that happened during childhood.

Finally, New Age therapies tend to view themselves as The One True Path, which should always set off alarm bells in your head. While a cognitive behavior therapist might tell you why he believes his methods will work better for you than DBT or IPT, he will likely not tell you that CBT is the only possible treatment for everyone.

Examples of New Age Therapies

Because New Age therapies are so eclectic, it seems like there is a new one every other day. An exhaustive list would be impossible. Here are just a few examples of broad trends within New Age therapies:


We are by no means opposed to use of psychedelic drugs for the purpose of personal fulfillment and self-actualization. However, set and setting are important, and it’s important to note that Dr. Timothy Leary’s experiments at Harvard were under the close personal supervision of licensed therapists. It is easy to do far more harm than good if one is not specifically trained to, for example, lead an ayahuasca trip.


Trance refers to hypnotherapy and related techniques that put a person under an altered state of consciousness, and thus makes them incredibly suggestible and thus vulnerable to the therapist. While these techniques can be highly effective under proper guidance, they are also ripe for abuse.

Guided Meditation

Similar to trances, guided meditations are where a patient enters a trance state and meditates under the guidance of a therapist. There is nothing wrong with guided meditation per se, but guided meditation as therapy should be viewed with some skepticism. The brain is more impressionable when it’s in a trance state.

Rebirthing and Reparenting

Rebirthing and reparenting are highly controversial forms of breath work where a person allegedly undergoes their birth and childhood over again. People have died doing this and it is banned in several countries. Like many forms of quackery, it is unfalsifiable, meaning that if the patient shows improvement, it worked, but if they didn’t, it’s the patient’s fault for not doing it right.

Differences Between Psychotherapy and New Age Therapy

Psychotherapy is not an exact science, but it is a science. And what it is attempting to achieve is not so much “happiness,” but rather a general sense of well-being, emotional and social adjustment, the cultivation of skills to address distress, the resolution of trauma, and the integration of the self into a cohesive whole. None of this can be measured with the precision of Newtonian physics, but we can look at the fruits of various therapies and see if, in the main, they are helpful or harmful.

New Age therapies on the other hand, are firmly established as quackery because they are unfalsifiable. When treatment fails it’s because “true New Age therapy was never tried.” On the other hand, traditional psychotherapists will do two things if treatment isn’t working: Accept responsibility and adjust the treatment, or using a set of clearly defined criteria to decide that the patient is “therapy resistant” and refer them to specialists who work with such people.

What Is Integral Psychotherapy?

It isn’t entirely true to say that integral psychotherapy attempts to square the circle between traditional psychotherapy and New Age therapies, though this is frequently the perception. It is more useful to think of integral psychotherapy as an interdisciplinary approach to treatment that includes traditional psychotherapy, spiritual teachings, Existential philosophy, neuro-scientific research, mindfulness and both Jungian and Freudian forms of psychoanalysis.

Much like the various forms of traditional psychotherapy, integral psychotherapy is not for everyone. People seeking treatment have different needs and respond differently to the various available treatments. But it certainly fills a gap in the marketplace as it were, for people who need or desire a specific type of treatment that views man not simply as a collection of chemicals, but as a soul in a human body.

What’s more, most criticisms of integral psychotherapy are not about the process and method itself, but about founder Ken Wilber. We have no desire to wade into this debate, but we will say that Wilber’s personality and disposition is not relevant to the discussion of whether or not integral psychotherapy works or not.

Examples of Integral Psychotherapy

Integral psychotherapy is just that — integral. It integrates many disciplines and, as such, is difficult to talk about “examples” in the way that we have our other forms of therapy. Instead, we will briefly explain the four “quadrants” of integral psychotherapy:

  • Upper Left is the “Individual-Interior” which refers to one’s subjective personal experience, including self-image.
  • Upper Right is the “exterior-individual” is who you are externally. That is to say, how you behave, not how you feel.
  • Lower Left is the “interior-collective.” This is the subjective cultural experiences we all have based on religious, political, social, and cultural values.
  • Lower Right is the “exterior-collective.” These are objective cultural factors such as socioeconomic status, family background, and unavoidable environmental stressors.

Each of these together is supposed to form a complete picture of the client and thus a more complete form of treatment.

Ultimately, while some techniques, methodologies and training philosophies can easily be identified as quackery, others are simply a choice based on personal preference, personal needs and how well a client responds to treatment.

But the first question one should ask about a specific treatment methodology is “is this falsifiable?” In other words, if the methodology doesn’t work, how would you know? If there’s no answer to this, then the methodology is simply wishcasting, a sort of psychological placebo. While placebo certainly has an effect that cannot be denied, it is not optimal and should not be used as treatment in the presence of other, more effective and, more to the point evidence supported methodologies.