What is Occupational Therapy?

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Occupational Therapy 1 1080X675 1 | What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy is a healthcare profession that helps people with the job (or “occupation”) of living a healthy meaningful life (to the fullest). 

Contrary to the popular belief, Occupational Therapy is NOT a therapy devoted to helping people just recover from injuries at work. Nor is it coaching for helping people find the “right” career field for them.

Instead, OT’s equip individuals to participate in “meaningful and purposeful activities of daily living,” every day ‘occupations’. (An individual’s personal occupation” is any activity that occupies his or her time).

Occupational Therapists work with people, from ALL WALKS OF LIFE, to lead healthier, more independent and fulfilling lives, by giving them self-care tools, strategies, exercises, coaching, and experiences to thrive— mentally, physically, socially, and/or emotionally.

This is accomplished by:

(1.) Identifying a client’s current health, mental and lifestyle struggles, obstacles or imbalances through an evaluation and client report;

(2.) Setting goals with the client to improve those areas; and,

(3.) Combining “talk therapy” with “do therapy” (NOT just talking about goals or change, but simulating experiences during therapy, and integrating tasks and activities to put goals and change into practice)


Occupational Therapists are board certified healthcare professionals who hold a Master’s or Doctoral degree from an accredited school. Over the course of three years in the classroom, clinical rotations and a short-term residency, Occupational Therapists are trained in a variety of therapeutic techniques.


In practice, Occupational Therapy mimics a holistic blend of multiple therapies, including:

  • Psycho-social Therapy (ie: coaching, counseling, group therapies)
  • Physical Therapy (ie: rehabilitation, mobility, exercises, strengthening, hand therapy, functional movement)
  • Health & Life Coaching (ie: teaching self-care basics; habit and routine change; lifestyle, nutrition and fitness coaching)
  • Recreational Therapy (ie: integrating play, music, creative arts, leisure, and therapeutic activities into therapy)
  • And, Physiological & Neurological Therapies (ie: vision therapy, brain training, neurological training—such as stroke and brain injury recovery)

—All in one customized treatment approach.


Occupational Therapists don’t just sit on a couch with their clients and talk about about making change or tell an individual what to do, but they integrate hands-on ACTIVITIES, opportunities, and experiences into therapy in order to help clients both heal from disease, as well as learn HOW to establish new healthy habits—for themselves.

Often times, when a person struggles with a disease or imbalance, such as a new diagnosis of Celiac disease, a spinal cord injury, rocky transition to college or eating disorder, their prior healthy lifestyle roles and occupations fade.

Previous occupations gradually become less important (such as socializing with friends, participating in favorite leisure activities, volunteering, sharing time with family, engaging in work or school, and self-care), as their (new) primary occupation becomes focused on dealing with the overwhelm and lifestyle changes they have to make with the diagnosis, disease or imbalance.

Eventually this leads to a severe lack of balance.

For example, if an Occupational Therapist is working with an individual who was recently diagnosed with Diabetes who has lived for 30 years straight on Coca Cola and prime time TV, the OT would:

1.) Identify the patient’s current obstacles and imbalances (ie. their processed food. diet, their sedentary lifestyle, sugar intake, lack of motivation to change)

2.) Set goals with the client towards a “healthier them” (ie. walk 2 miles 3 to 4 days per week; meal prep 3 dishes on Sunday; eat a veggie with each meal etc.)

3.) Work towards these goals in therapy (ie. hosting a “meal prep” session or walking session WITH the client; creating a grocery list together; etc.)

No matter what setting, health challenge or diagnosis, the MAIN goal of occupational therapy is the same—

Help the individual get back to “balance” and do their “job” in their current season of life to their fullest capacity.

The bottom line: Occupational Therapists guide people to “walk the walk” of self-care and healthy lifestyle change through “occupation” (ie. practice or “doing  therapy”) and the use of activities and experiences in session.


Occupational Therapy originated in the mental health field back in the late 18th century as a way to help mental health patients recover by finding hobbies, activities and pastimes that .

Since then, OT has seen an evolution within multiple settings as other healthcare is a BROAD field, and occupational therapists work with clients in various settings, including:

  • Private Practices
  • Pediatric Clinics
  • Schools
  • Rehab Hospitals
  • Outpatient Rehab Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Community Wellness Programs
  • Assisted Living & Nursing Homes
  • Home Healthcare

OT’s work with people from ALL walks of life and various goals to attain healthier, happier, more independent lifestyles, including:


  • Children with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and ADD/ADHD
  • Diabetes, Heart Disease, Obesity, Cancer & Autoimmune Disease Lifestyle Therapy
  • Stroke Rehabilitation
  • Spinal Cord Injury Rehab
  • Traumatic Brain Injury Rehab
  • Chronic Anxiety, Depression, PTSD or Other Mood Disorders
  • Addiction Recovery
  • Productive & Healthy Aging
  • Disabilities (intellectual and physical)



  • Neurological or Cognitive Impairments (Higher Level Thinking Skills)
  • Workplace Ergonomics
  • Lifestyle Transitions (Moves, Adolescence, College, Work, Menopause, etc.)
  • Recovery from musculoskeletal injuries
  • Community & Corporate Wellness
  • General Lifestyle Health Coaching (for preventing disease and incorporating healthier habits)



Occupational Therapy individual and group therapy sessions often integrate real-life activities as part of therapy.

Occupational Therapy In Action

While some sessions may involve simply talking and coaching clients, other sessions will include a hands-on activity, incorporating your specific goals and working through any struggles holding you back on your journey to health and freedom.

Some therapy activities may include:

  • Goal setting
  • Vision-casting and creating
  • Passion planning
  • Leisure and hobby exploration
  • Self-care practice and education
  • Community/social opportunities
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Mindful and intuitive eating education
  • Meal pacing
  • Grocery shopping
  • Cooking
  • Body image therapy
  • Learning to love the skin you’re in
  • Social/public speaking skills
  • Establishing and practicing boundaries (like learning to say “no”)
  • Confidence building
  • Planting and caring for plants and vegetables
  • Money management and budgeting
  • Time management skills & creating a schedule



  • Stress management
  • Coping skills for transitions and change
  • Devising effective problem solving strategies
  • Decision-making strategies
  • Motivational interviewing (helping YOU come to your answer inside you)
  • Exploring and engaging in “life” outside the eating disorder’s old routines
  • Exercise exploration, mindful movement
  • Fitness re-integration
  • Incorporation and referral to complimenting modalities (acupuncture, yoga, NIA, massage, etc.)

Occupational Therapy uses activities (such as these) to assist patients in defining a “new” healthy way of living life, empowering individuals to find freedom from old negative habits and create roles in their lives that are important to them.

Some examples of various ways an OT may work with others:

For a child with Autism, an OT may help the boy adopt more age-appropriate social, coping and play skills through “play therapy,” or simulating “non-preferred” tasks in therapy (like coloring inside lines) to help the child.

For a client with Celiac Disease, Occupational Therapists meet to create a grocery shopping list, support them in healthy meal prep or strategizing menu options to prep for their upcoming travel.

For an individual fighting cancer, an OT may teach the client energy-conservation skills, how to cook healthy anti-inflammatory recipes and assist them in learning how to “say no” or ask others for help.

For stroke or brain-injury rehabilitation, OT’s work with patients to re-learn self-care (like feeding, dressing, bathing and toileting), regain visual focus and enhance strength all around. .

For a woman in recovery from an eating disorder, Occupational Therapists with them around body image, and establishing new activities, hobbies and healthier fitness routines to fill the space that their eating disorder once did.

For a college freshman, an OT may help them establish new self-care skills and routines for optimizing their health during school—assisting them in creating a plan or strategy for incorporating fitness, rest and healthy eating in the college and providing coaching and therapeutic support for processing anxieties, stress or self-care struggles.

For a person struggling with chronic anxiety or a CEO dealing with lots of stress, an OT may provide therapy and coaching by integrating CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), mindfulness-based therapy or motivational interviewing into “talk therapy” sessions, and assisting the establishing positive stress management strategies, such as exercise, rest, meditation and nutrition routine.

For a mid-lifer or baby boomer, entering a new season of an empty nest or retirement, an OT may help them discover their personal interests, hobbies, or next “job” (volunteering, another career path, etc.);  assist them in organizing their home or lifestyle habits; and help them create and implement a healthy eating and workout routine for their own self-care.

Just like a Financial Planner helps a person strategize and manage their finances…A nutritionist helps clients plan and strategize their diet…And personal trainer gives clients a plan to enhance their fitness…An Occupational Therapist gives clients a “Blueprint” and simulates “hands on” therapeutic experiences for optimizing their health and lifestyle in the areas the client needs or wants to work on most— self-care, stress management, social relationships, financial health, career, health.

In short: Occupational Therapy is a “functional” (practical, useful, working) approach to therapy and treatment to gaining strength over any lifestyle or health imbalance.

…Which is actually why I call my therapeutic approach as a practitioner “Functional Lifestyle” Therapy.


“Functional” is a buzz word we hear in the health world, particularly:

Functional Fitness

Functional Medicine

If the word “functional” means practical, useful, working and operating, then in these cases:

“Functional Fitness” means moving like humans are meant to function with the primary functional movement patterns (squats, presses, pushes, pulls; strength, aerobic and sprints)

“Functional Medicine” means “medicine to help humans function in optimal health as humans were meant to function”—using nutrition and lifestyle factors first as “treatment” and seeking to get to the roots of the imbalance and disease, instead of turning first to medications, or managing and band-aiding symptoms.

And a Functional Lifestyle means “living like humans are meant to live (optimally)”

As an Occupational Therapist, I partner with clients to attain a Functional Lifestyle through things like:

  1. Boosting Self-Care Skills (ie. eating real food, daily movement; sleep; hydration)
  2. Enhancing their Health & Health Knowledge (ie. gut health, hormone balance, circadian rhythm balance and stress management)
  3. Cultivating their personal “Tribe” or community (ie. social skills, social connection)
  4. Connecting to Fulfilling Work, Hobbies, Passions & Interests
  5. Understanding & Using Their Personal Strengths to Make Powerful Change
  6. Putting Goals into Action

—Just to name a few things.

 “Functional Lifestyle” is all about getting to your roots of functioning (and thriving) as the person you desire.

In my practice, as an Occupational Therapist, Nutritionist and Functional Medicine Practitioner, I leave no stone unturned for health and healing of my patients—mentally, physically and emotionally—ultimately teaching a men (and women) to fish, so they will fish for…a lifetime.  

Interested in seeing how occupational therapy could support you? Connect with Dr. Lauryn through e-mail at [email protected] or visit her website at DrLauryn.com

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