Individual Therapy (Psychotherapy)
Individual therapy is a joint process between a therapist and a person in therapy. Common goals of therapy can be to inspire change or improve quality of life. People may seek therapy for help with issues that are hard to face alone. Individual therapy is also called therapy, psychotherapy, psychosocial therapy, talk therapy, and counseling.
Therapy can help people overcome obstacles to their well-being. It can increase positive feelings, such as compassion and self-esteem. People in therapy can learn skills for handling difficult situations, making healthy decisions, and reaching goals. Many find they enjoy the therapeutic journey of becoming more self-aware. Some people even go to ongoing therapy for self-growth.
It could be time to seek therapy if an issue causes distress or interferes with daily life. Distress can mean negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or even a bodily sensation such as pain or fatigue. It is important not to wait until symptoms become severe before going to therapy. It may be best to seek therapy if you are often unhappy or feel overwhelmed and hopeless about issues in your life. Therapy can also help if you cannot focus on work or school, experience addiction, or feel like hurting yourself or someone else.
Some people may avoid treatment, and there are many reasons for this. Some of these reasons include:
- Worry about the stigma that can come with mental health care
- Feelings of shame when speaking about past hurts
- Not wanting to acknowledge that anything is wrong
- Fear that discussions in treatment will not stay confidential
- Money issues
However, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) show mental health issues are common in the United States. In fact, 1 in 5 adults may be affected. It may help to remember that therapists are trained professionals who provide support and maintain confidentiality. They are used to helping people work through painful or embarrassing issues. Some therapists also offer sliding scale fees or other financial assistance to people in need. And, although the stigma surrounding mental health can still come up, more people are becoming comfortable with talking about their mental health options with those they trust.
Find a Therapist
A trained therapist can help people make lifestyle changes. They can also help identify underlying causes of symptoms and provide strategies for changing unwanted thoughts and behaviors. Therapy can equip people with the skills to manage symptoms, reduce stress, and improve their quality of life.
Therapy can help treat mental, emotional, physical, and behavioral issues. Concerns that may be discussed in therapy include, but are not limited to:
- Food and eating issues
- Relationship or marriage challenges
- Family issues
Many kinds of mental health professionals provide therapy. The standards for becoming a therapist usually depend on a state's licensing board. Therapists often have a master's or doctoral degree. They may also have specific training in psychological counseling. Students working toward an advanced degree may provide therapy with direction from a licensed supervisor.
Therapists can have many titles. These are based on their level of education, training, and role. They can work as licensed professional counselors (LPC), psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), psychiatric nurses, or psychiatrists.
The first session of therapy often focuses on gathering information. A therapist speaks with the person in treatment about their past physical, mental, and emotional health. They also discuss the concerns bringing the person to therapy. It can take a few sessions for a therapist to have a good understanding of the situation. Only then can they address concerns and determine the best course of action.
The person in therapy can also use their first session to decide if the therapist’s style is a good fit for their needs. Finding a therapist you are comfortable with is vital to successful treatment. It is important to talk about the type of therapy to be used, treatment goals, session length, and how many sessions are needed.
Many therapists encourage people in treatment to do most of the talking. At first, it may be hard to talk about past experiences or current concerns. Sessions may stir up intense emotions. It is possible to become upset, angry, or sad during treatment. However, therapists can help people build confidence and become more comfortable as sessions progress.
Therapists might assign “homework” to help the people in their care build on topics discussed in therapy. Individuals in treatment can also ask questions at any point in the process. As time passes, people in therapy may develop a more positive mood and healthier thinking patterns.
People in treatment can expect confidentiality during therapy sessions. But, a therapist may break confidentiality if someone is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others. Therapists may also do this if required to by federal or state law. Many therapists explain the limits of confidentiality and provide written guidelines during the first therapy session.
There are many forms of therapy. Some types of treatment work better than others when handling different issues. It is common for therapists to combine ideas from different approaches when addressing a person's needs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular and effective types of therapy. This approach helps people look at the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Then, people can replace negative thinking patterns with positive ones. The belief behind CBT is that healthy thoughts often promote positive feelings and productive actions.
Other effective approaches include:
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): Can help people cope with stress, improve emotional regulation, and work on relationships.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT): Can help build relationship skills.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): May increase awareness of thoughts and emotions.
- Psychodynamic therapy: Can help people understand unconscious experiences and how they may affect behavior.
Individual therapy sessions often last from 45 to 60 minutes. How often sessions occur and how long they are depend on many factors, including:
- The mental health condition addressed and its severity
- The amount of time the person in therapy has had the issue
- How much the issue affects day-to-day life
- How much distress the issue causes
- How quickly the person in therapy improves
- Financial limitations
Some concerns can be addressed through short-term therapy over a few weeks. However, chronic or more complex concerns can require long-term treatment. Sometimes, it may take more than a year for noticeable progress to be made.
Even if therapy cannot cure a condition, it can help people develop healthy coping skills. Determination to be active in therapy and heal is essential for meeting therapeutic goals and fostering a positive therapeutic relationship. Finding the right therapist is also crucial to the treatment process.
Research shows that therapy may result in fewer relapses of common conditions, including moderate depression and anxiety. Furthermore, it indicates that the positive effects of good therapy extend beyond treatment. Many people report improved conditions long after therapy has ended. Therapy is often more effective than psychotropic medication or medical treatments alone. When used on their own, those treatments may cause harmful side effects. Many therapeutic approaches are also evidence-based. This means they have been subject to research studies and clinical observations to test their effectiveness.
Find a Therapist
Finding a therapist you are comfortable with and cooperating with them can help you get the most out of treatment. When a person in therapy is open and honest, therapists generally are better able to address each issue and adjust the treatment approach as needed. Going to therapy might feel difficult on some days. But, it is important to attend each session and complete any homework assigned. Being patient and sticking to the treatment plan can facilitate long-term success in therapy.
The term “psychotherapy” comes from the Greek words for soul and healing. Ancient Greeks may have been the first to view mental health issues as physical and mental conditions. At the time, some other cultures understood them as the result of demonic possession. Still, the Greeks' understanding of mental health issues was limited. They did recognize the benefits of using encouraging words when speaking to people with mental health issues. But, they also had many false beliefs about mental health. For example, they thought only women experienced hysteria. The also believed bathing was an effective treatment for people with depression.
Treatment for severe mental health conditions was often harsh and inhumane until reformers worked for better conditions during the 18th century. In 1773, the first asylum in North America was founded. By the end of the 19th century, most American towns had an asylum. However, individuals admitted to an asylum rarely left the facility. This led to a steadily increasing population of institutionalized people. It was not uncommon for care at asylums to include the use of restraints and violent treatment by doctors.
It is likely that informal types of therapy were practiced throughout human history. However, modern psychotherapy developed near the end of the 19th century in western Europe. During this time, the first laboratory for psychological research was established by Wilhelm Wundt, and Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” laid the foundation for psychoanalysis.
Many therapeutic techniques flourished in the 20th century. These techniques were largely inspired by popular schools of thought at the time. Some of these schools of thought include psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitivism, and systems psychology. In the 21st century, there are many treatments that incorporate diverse fields, such as mindfulness and neurobiology. Many approaches focus on helping people in treatment identify their concerns, foster personal growth, and develop healthy coping skills.
- Butler, K., Cooper, G., & Wylie, M. S. (2012). A brief history of psychotherapy: A mosaic of the Psychotherapy Networker, 1982-2012. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapynetworker.
- Goodwin, James C. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology, Third Edition. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
- Individual counseling. (n.d.). Sam Houston State University. Retrieved from https://www.shsu.edu/dept/counseling/individual-therapy.html
- Individual therapy. (n.d.). Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, University of Massachusetts. Retrieved from https://www.umass.edu/counseling/services/individual-therapy
- Psychotherapy. (2016, March 17). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/psychotherapy/home/ovc-20197188
- Public Broadcasting Service. (2002). Timeline: Treatments for Mental Illness. A Brilliant Madness. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash/timeline
- Recognition of psychotherapy effectiveness. (2012). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/resolution-psychotherapy.aspx
Last Update: 02-13-2018
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