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Coaching vs. Therapy – What’s The Difference?

Last updated on April 11, 2023

I remember reading a headline in an online journal in early 2022 which read, “People are developing trauma-like symptoms as the pandemic wears on.” It made me think about the general definition – “What is Trauma?” 

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event—usually an event that threatens your life, or the life of someone near you, and results in feelings of significant fear or helplessness”.   

During the pandemic, feelings of anxiety and stress were becoming increasingly commonplace, and many of us were experiencing mental health challenges—not just anxiety, but depression and a myriad of trauma-related disorders.  “I’m struggling” is more or less what everyone endured.  People were looking for support.

But when it came to looking for the right support, for many, it came down to this question: “What’s the difference between coaching and therapy?”  

Life Coach vs. Therapist

Before we look more deeply into what coaching and therapy really mean, it is important to understand that there are some grey areas; sometimes, there are more similarities than differences between the two.

In fact, since the pandemic, more and more, coaches are taking training courses and qualifications in other areas, such as Trauma-Informed and Trauma Recovery Coaching, and Health & Wellbeing Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. 

First, let’s have a look at what a therapist is trained in and what they can do for you.

What Is a Therapist?

Therapists are qualified mental health professionals who have degrees in social work, clinical psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry and who are trained to address emotional and mental health concerns. Therapists have undergone extensive and continued training and education in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They are required to be licensed and to follow the ethical guidelines in their particular field of work.  

A trained therapist will focus on addressing the difficulties or challenges you are having.  For example, they might explore your relationships, family history, behaviour patterns, and mental processes to develop a unique healthcare plan for you.  They are also licensed to prescribe medication when necessary to help you sleep and/or reduce anxiety.

Recently, I was having a discussion with a colleague of mine who is a therapist, but who is considering moving into coaching!  Why?  Because they felt they would have more capacity and flexibility to help their clients. They said they felt constricted by their profession in that their focus was aligned with what they had decided to study and that they were unable to practise outside of the parameters of their qualification. 

This meant that the rules and regulations applied to therapists were, in fact, obstacles to therapeutic success. 

To put it more simply, you wouldn’t go to an orthopaedic surgeon if you had a heart condition, so why would you go to a therapist who was not trained in, say, trauma, chronic illness, or bereavement?  These conditions are not the same, nor do they merit the same treatment. 

In my own life, I found that a psychiatrist and clinical psychologist did not help me with my condition of PTSD due to multiple surgeries and chronic pain. They asked the wrong questions! They delved into my relationship with my mother and the loss of my child, my son. It had nothing to do with my PTSD and the visions I kept having of myself in an operating theatre. 

Three years after my final (I hope) major surgery, a neuroscience and coaching program changed my life! I’m not criticising therapy; I’m just saying that not everyone needs a therapist.

Next, let’s define what coaching is. 

What Is a Life Coach? 

Coaches are in the business of helping to strengthen your mental fitness, resilience, and well-being and develop your personal growth and performance. The objective of coaching is to help clients with self-improvement, to achieve their personal and/or work-related goals, and to develop essential life skills. 

There are numerous benefits to coaching, such as empowering clients with decision-making skills and improving their productivity. One issue many coaches support clients in is feeling “stuck”—when a client feels they cannot move forward and doesn’t know where to go next (e.g. “Do I stay in the same job or do something else?”)

Whether in the realm of their clients’ professional or personal lives, coaches encourage a greater sense of responsibility for the self, whether through emotional or physical habits such as well-being.  

Today there are many ’schools’ of coaching. Some examples include Somatic Coaching, which involves seeing the client as a whole person and working with them as a whole, not just their intellect; Trauma-Informed Coaching/Trauma Sensitive Coaching for those who have suffered traumatic experiences and need support but not necessarily therapy; and Business and Executive Coaching for those who are leaders in their companies. There’s also Equine coaching with horses, Gestalt coaching, and so much more. Coaching has evolved tremendously in recent years, and coaches are becoming experts in their own fields. 

In a nutshell, coaching builds awareness and empowers choice, which leads to change. Although many coaches are now experts in their field, a coach need not be a specialist in their client’s field of work. 

The biggest difference between coaches and therapists is that coaches have more flexibility but are not able to make medical diagnoses or prescribe medication. However, a good coach will always refer a client to a therapist if they feel that it would be more beneficial to that client.

In a nutshell, coaching builds awareness and empowers choice, which leads to change.

What coaching achieved for me 

When I joined a Neuroscience and Coaching Programme for three months, I learnt more about what was actually happening inside and outside of my body. Becoming a Trauma Sensitive Practitioner really nailed it for me. I had been living a dysregulated life,  constantly in hyper- and hypoarousal for 20+ years! Now I have figured out how to manage my PTSD, and my stress levels are minimal.

Coach vs Therapist: Education and Credentialing

As mentioned above, therapists have additional licence requirements, which is a key difference between a coach and a therapist. Some therapists, such as psychotherapists, have to pass various licensing boards to be able to practise. It takes a clinical psychologist around 15 years to become a fully trained practitioner.  

Coaches also often have professional training and degrees. There are many universities offering Master’s Degrees and Doctorates in Coaching. There are also plenty of credential requirements (and governing bodies) in the coaching world; however, coaching is still relatively ‘unregulated’ in comparison to therapy. 

This is changing, however, and coaching bodies worldwide are in the process of making big changes in licensing coaches. In fact, Romania is the first country to officially license coaches via a government-led initiative. 

Coaching is still not a substitute for therapy when living with a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, depression, or other forms of mental illness. Today the main difference between the two is that therapists have medical degrees and can diagnose mental illness and prescribe medication.

The remaining difference between coaches and therapists is that coaching focuses on the future, while therapy is past- and present-focused.  Coaching is generally shorter in duration than therapy, which can take years.  So, whilst approaches may differ, coaches and therapists can share similar, if not the same, goals.

Case Study: Coaching vs. Therapy 

The following case study is presented in gender-neutral language to preserve anonymity.

I met my client whilst they had been seeing their therapist for at least two months. My client had recently returned from abroad, having had to bury their spouse, who had died unexpectedly. They were supposed to start a new life together in their new country.  

My client was devastated, angry, and lost. The therapist was primarily concerned with making concrete changes in my client’s past life so that they could function in their present life.

The therapist’s aim was to help the client overcome and resolve the symptoms they were having and to master those feelings and thoughts which were holding my client back from improving their efficiency and productivity at work. Additionally, they sought specific behavioural outcomes, such as improving their relationships with family back home. 

The biggest difference between coaches and therapists is that coaches have more flexibility but are not able to make medical diagnoses or prescribe medication. However, a good coach will always refer a client to a therapist if they feel that it would be more beneficial to that client.

The sessions were focused on mental wellness because my client was showing signs of depression. The first suggestion was medication for depression and anxiety.  The second suggestion was writing a letter to their departed spouse. My client was asked to write down their feelings and emotions and to then burn the letter, which my client did. It offered some release but not enough. 

My client continued seeing the therapist for another month, but the progress was slow and awkward. My client could not understand the correlation between the death of their spouse in relation to the therapist’s desire to investigate my client’s childhood and their relationship to their mother and father. The discussions were varied but did not focus on the hole in their heart and the anger inside and outside their body. Often the sessions would be silent, and there was no interaction at all. My client ended the partnership and felt disappointed.

Clearly, they should have been sent to a bereavement therapist.

I met my client at a hiking event run by InterNations. We later sat down for a coffee, and they began opening up to me. 

They asked me what I did for a living, and I explained my work in Trauma Sensitive Coaching and about my program. They were interested in this and wanted to know more.  

5 Best Trauma-Informed Coaching Certifications

After several discussions and making sure that my client was the right fit for this program, they joined. I would like to share with you that my client had a transformative breakthrough in module 2 (of which there are 8).

They contacted me the same evening, having written a second letter to their departed spouse telling me how uplifted they felt. How the hole in their chest had closed and how they felt relief and peace, which they hadn’t for such a long while. We are still working together, and my client is learning more about how to manage their emotions with the tools and toolkit the program is providing.


  • Finding the right therapist: It is important to look for a therapist who has experience in both treating your problem and uses an evidence-based model. If you are suffering from trauma, you need a trauma specialist. If you are suffering from bereavement, you need a bereavement specialist. Also, consider whether the therapist has qualities that would help you to form a trusting relationship.
  • Finding the right coach: A good coach will have a substantial body of work behind them, and they will be able to explain their approach and produce their credentials, plus have an online profile/source supporting their work. They will interview you and make sure you are both the right fit for the coaching relationship, and if not, they will refer you to another coach or, if necessary, to a therapist.

Final Thoughts

Both therapy and coaching sessions have the potential to be effective and are designed to help you develop and succeed in your life goals. They provide opportunities and professional guidance, helping you to navigate some of the most challenging obstacles in your life. Depending on what you need to address, you can choose to work with one, or both at the same time. 

What matters is that you get help in your efforts to take charge of your problems and challenges, to grow and become more resilient and effective in your life. Coaches and therapists are both invested in your well-being!

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Barbara StClaire-Ostwald - Life Coach
Barbara StClaire-Ostwald

Barbara StClaire-Ostwald, MA, BSc(Hons), is a trauma survivor, Master Executive Coach & Supervisor, Interculturalist, and expert in Trauma Sensitive Coaching and Neuroscience.  She works with individuals and groups around the world supporting them through social pressures, decision-making, discovering how to let go of the past, and understanding their body-mind connection to live full and transformative stress-free lives through embodied self-awareness. 

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