Does Self-Therapy Work? Effectiveness, What You Can Learn & Things To Consider

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Self-therapy usually refers to using various therapeutic strategies on your own to improve your mental health without the guidance of a licensed professional. This type of therapy can be effective for some issues, and it may improve mental health for some people, particularly when cognitive-behavioral therapy methods are used. However, it may not be the best option for everyone.

What is self-therapy?

Self-therapy is essentially using different therapy techniques without the assistance of a professional. Improvement can often be achieved using books, computer courses, a step-by-step guide, or free online tools. Self-help methods can help us learn new skills and navigate relationships, life circumstances, and feelings more effectively. In this sense, self-therapy can be effective and helpful in many cases.

Self-help therapy isn’t always a replacement for sessions with a professional, as there are some pieces of therapy with a professional that may not be replicated. However, even if you see a therapist, the work and reflection that exist outside of sessions can be important to gaining inner wholeness. Self-reflection is generally something that we innately use with ourselves. It can happen when we listen to our thoughts with an open heart, seek clarity, or even ask questions to understand ourselves better.

Some people might feel they prefer this approach to working with a counselor because they have a shortage of time, have difficulty leaving their homes, perhaps for physical or mental wellness reasons, want an approach that’s nameless, or have a financial situation that prevents them from having therapy. 

Effectiveness of self-therapy

The effectiveness of self-help therapy often varies. A review of 33 different studies found that self-therapy and treatment can help with anxiety, and in another review of 34 different cases of depression, there were some benefits of this approach, mainly for those who learned cognitive-behavioral techniques.

One of the main goals of cutting-edge psychotherapy CBT treatment is for the person to learn skills that they can continue to learn and practice once treatment ends. Those who learn CBT skills on their own can use them to feel happy and achieve good mental health. Skill-building is typically one of the areas where self-help techniques thrive. You can learn many skills from CBT through a step-by-step guide from your therapist, or by finding a step-by-step guide online.

That said, self-therapy can have limitations. Ideally, these techniques may be used alongside sessions with a therapist, even if you see a provider in the short term. This is because a professional can give guidance, reassurance, new ideas, and support from an outside perspective. Your therapist can help you with a step-by-step guide on how to reach your goals and improve your mental health. They typically retain the information you tell them, build a sense of trust, and give you a place to sound off on how you feel honestly. You may make realizations in therapy that you wouldn’t make otherwise and get information and tools that you wouldn’t usually be able to.

Traditional vs. self-therapy 

While self-therapy can be great for a person to gain inner wholeness, CBT with a therapist can help you make more progress. Self-therapy can be done with limited help from a professional in some cases, but the addition of the therapist often gives that extra boost. The added benefit of working with a therapist is that it usually offers accountability as well as consistent encouragement. A therapist can often break down negative thought patterns in ways that a self-help book or computer program cannot. Your treatment will likely be more standardized, clear, and controlled if you are working with a therapist versus working on your own. In addition, if a certain technique is not working for you, a counselor can usually recommend something that might be a better fit.

You can buy a book or even download an app such as the Self Therapy Journey by Jay Earley. Jay Earley was a computer scientist and psychologist whose app is geared toward changing behavior and healing. Those things can make an impact on your health and aren’t to be overlooked or downplayed! They can’t replace the role of a professional, however. Both professional help and self-help or introspection typically have a place and time. 

Examples of things you can learn on your own in self-therapy

  • Identifying your thought patterns
  • Utilizing a step-by-step guide
  • Determining if the thoughts you have are correct
  • Replacing biased thoughts with realistic ones
  • Discovering how your thoughts affect how you act and feel
  • Scheduling activities that allow you to feel accomplished
  • Recognizing that your actions influence your emotions and thoughts
  • Planning ways to make use of your time
  • Breaking down big tasks into smaller ones
  • Facing fears to reduce the impact they have on you

Take self-therapy to the next level by working with a therapist

How to begin self-therapy

Some people may be able to work out the details of self-therapy on their own and may use it as a way to supplement their current sessions or support themselves if they're having a rough day. Other cases may need more personal care. Finding inner wholeness can be hard for many people. But, if you're going to guide yourself, there may be a few aspects of our guide that you should consider.

  • The scope of the problem: What do you want to work on? Is it a major problem or a small problem? You might think about what you want to achieve and if you can do it on your own.
  • The details of the issue: Studying problems often allows you to look at issues from a deeper level. You can split the problem into two aspects, the practical and the emotional part, and from there, look at the feelings and actions you want to address.
  • The feelings surrounding the problem: You might look at how your emotions are impacting your understanding of the problem you wish to address. If the problem is a behavioral one, you could explore your underlying feelings and how they may be impacting your behaviors.

The above can all be aspects of self-therapy. If you feel overwhelmed, stuck, or haven’t had professional help in the past that felt like it was of quality or a good fit for you, it may be advantageous to seek out the help of a therapist.

Self therapy resources

A clear and comprehensive way to approach self-help therapy is to follow a guide that already has proven benefits. Self-help books are an excellent resource for getting started. There are also online workshops and classes that can you can take. One cutting-edge psychotherapy approach that you can learn about at home is called Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) invented by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. 

This type of therapy explores how complex and subtle dynamics in the family system impact us psychologically. There are several techniques and exercises that are taught in IFS therapy to teach individuals how to differentiate the separate parts that make up their inner world. You can find self help books about IFS and watch actual therapy sessions online. 

The IFS model is designed to address deep seated emotional issues like:

  • Anxiety 
  • Shyness
  • Phobias
  • Feelings of depression or hopelessness
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Trauma

Internal Family Systems therapy is an approach to psychological healing that has been endorsed by some of the world’s leading experts on trauma therapy. Trauma expert Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk called IFS “the treatment method that all clinicians should know to treat clients effectively."

Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy is a book by the self-help therapy expert Jay Earley. Jay Earley has created self-help therapy journey guidebooks to help you become your own IFS therapist. You can also find online video courses that show actual IFS sessions by existing IFS practitioners showing the step-by-step process of the complete method. 

The IFS model focuses on developing self-esteem and self-confidence. It looks at the human psyche as a combination of parts that make up an inner world. The IFS model taught in the self-help books by Jay Earley teaches individuals how to improve both mental health symptoms and personal growth by putting the “self” in a leadership position within their internal world. 

When to see a professional therapist

There are benefits to working with a trained therapist. Therapists have more expertise in mental health than the average human being so they may be able to offer insight, skills, and advice that you can not get on your own. Such details can lead to breakthroughs. Having a trusting and healing relationship with a therapist can bring about significant improvements in mental health symptoms, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and self-talk.

Signs it may be time to see a therapist instead of self-therapy may include:

  • Your techniques do not seem to be working, or you don’t know where to focus.
  • You aren’t finding help from any step-by-step guide or manual.
  • You see no improvement in mental health symptoms over time.
  • You find yourself making excuses rather than changes.
  • You have only used self-help or worked individually in the past.
  • You feel overwhelmed by life or your emotions.
  • You are unable to go to work or school, or your mental state is significantly impacting your performance at work or school.
  • You use substances* to cope (such as alcohol or drugs).
  • You struggle with relationships or taking care of children.
  • You have changes in sleep or appetite.
  • Your physical wellness has been impacted by your mental wellness.
  • Someone who knows you well and loves you has mentioned that they are worried about you or that they think you would benefit from working with a therapist.
  • You’ve gone through trauma or a significant life event, such as a divorce or a death.
  • There is no step-by-step guide that seems to deal with your particular situation.
  • You have been hospitalized.
  • You have suicidal thoughts or ideations.

Support options 

Self-therapy can assist us and support our lives in many ways, but sometimes, working with a professional can make it easier. If you have not had a successful connection with a therapist in the past, another provider may be a better fit. It doesn’t have to be the only option. Options like online therapy platforms often make it easier and faster to find a provider who specializes in the area that you need support in. Opting for help instead of self-therapy doesn’t mean that you’ve “failed" by any stretch. The two approaches (self-therapy and professional therapy) can work together, and it can be rewarding to engage in both. A therapist is generally a specialist in this field, after all; working with them is typically no different than if you went to a salon to get your hair done or a mechanic to fix your car. They can offer a step-by-step guide that you might not be able to find elsewhere.

Technology can even make it possible to receive help from home. A recent publication looked at several different studies to examine whether CBT was comparable on a computer or smart device versus face-to-face. The authors found that online CBT could be as effective as in-person CBT, and that an online option is likely more appealing to people located in rural communities.


When a person uses various therapeutic methods on their own to address mental health concerns, this is often referred to as self-therapy. While this approach can be effective in improving some mental health challenges, there may be some cases in which the help of a licensed mental health professional can be necessary or provide additional benefits. If self-therapy doesn’t seem to be giving you the results you’re looking for, you might consider connecting with a therapist to get a professional’s guidance. You may find a suitable therapist locally or sign up for an online therapy platform to find a good match.
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