What Are The Therapy Stages?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Attending therapy may be one of the most potent methods for cultivating change and growth in individuals who engage in the different stages of the process. Therapy involves a series of steps that help individuals progressively gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and overall functioning while developing the skills necessary to manage life's challenges. Through this process, therapists can work with clients to identify goals and create strategies for achieving them.

Explore the stages of therapy in more detail

Understanding the stages of therapy can be helpful for understanding how the different aspects of therapy work and what to expect during your own mental health journey. While every individual requires a personally-tailored treatment strategy based on their unique mental health needs, the stages of therapy are designed to encourage self-reflection, positive change, and personal growth. Keep reading to learn more about the therapy stages and how they may impact your experience working alongside a therapist. 

The stages of therapy

For many people, therapy can be a vital aspect of maintaining balanced mental health and gaining insight into one's struggles. It may serve as an effective way to learn more about our habits, motivations, behaviors, and how we can make positive changes in our lives. The therapeutic process comprises several stages that a client and therapist typically move through together, with each stage building on the last. 

Relationship building

In the first therapy session, the therapist and client engage in low-pressure discussions to become familiar with each other and establish a relationship. In this phase, therapists may wish to discuss the client's life status, mental health symptoms, current problems, goals for treatment, and anything else that seems relevant.

This stage of therapy also allows the therapist to assess whether they are the right fit for a client's needs and style. During this phase, it can be important for both parties to feel comfortable with each other and develop agreed-upon goals. This may help establish a strong foundation upon which deeper work can be accomplished. 

Emotional exploration

The next stage focuses on exploring an individual's emotions more deeply to better understand their current state of mind and mental health. Alongside the guidance of a therapist, the client begins to delve into topics such as past experiences, family dynamics, unresolved issues, and traumas that may have occurred. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

During this process, clients are encouraged to express their feelings openly and honestly to understand how these factors may have impacted them on a deeper level. They may also be encouraged to work on being mindful of what they have learned in order to improve their ability to make small changes on a daily basis. 

Emotional exploration provides an opportunity for individuals to revisit past events, which may help them develop new perspectives about why they are feeling certain ways in the present. The overall goal is for clients to become aware of their emotions and accept them as part of their experience without judgment or criticism. This helps create a safe space for clients to express themselves without fear of being judged or shamed by their therapist. Often, the more open, honest, and vulnerable someone can be in sessions, the more growth and healing they can experience in their life.

Some of the most common treatment methods in this phase include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy, and emotion-focused therapy. 

Skills development 

During the skills development stage, individuals might learn and practice various strategies to help them maintain positive mental health more effectively. Building these skills may allow the individual to manage their overall psychological well-being, create healthier relationships with others, understand personal boundaries and triggers, and choose healthier lifestyle choices. 


Therapists will often provide guidance in these areas so clients can develop targeted skills that enable an increased sense of self-awareness and autonomy while ultimately gaining greater control over their mental health. Oftentimes, this stage represents growth and the development of personal autonomy regarding one's mental health. 

Depending on the needs of the individual in treatment, the skills taught in this phase may include:

Mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness exercises encourage clients to be present and observe their thoughts without judgment. Through mindfulness practices, clients may gain a greater understanding of how their thoughts affect their emotions and behavior and how to separate themselves from unhealthy patterns of thinking. They may also learn how to recognize physical sensations related to stress and anxiety and use breathing techniques or other relaxation strategies to cope with them more effectively.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring involves challenging and replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones. This technique may help clients recognize, analyze, and modify beliefs that are leading to irrational or maladaptive behavior. During this process, clients might learn how to identify negative self-talk and irrational thoughts by paying attention to the nature of their thoughts. By changing these thought patterns, clients may be more equipped to generate healthier emotional and behavioral responses and improve their sense of self-acceptance.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can be an important part of the skills development stage of psychotherapy. This stage involves helping clients understand themselves on a deeper level and equipping them with effective coping strategies to navigate their mental health challenges. Relaxation techniques may be used to reduce stress, anxiety, and physical tension and improve concentration and mental clarity.

One of the most common relaxation techniques taught during the skills development stage of psychotherapy is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR is a technique that involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups to help reduce stress and tension throughout the body. According to a recent study, PMR therapy was found to be an effective method for improving relaxation and decreasing physical and mental stress.

During PMR, individuals systematically tense each muscle group for about 10-15 seconds before slowly releasing it, allowing the muscles to relax gradually. This helps to bring awareness to how each muscle feels when relaxed and highlights areas where tension may be held. Yoga is another relaxation strategy that may be utilized to achieve similar results. 


Last is the integration stage. Integration is a consolidation phase where all elements from prior stages are reviewed together so that an individual can apply what they have learned and see the progress they've made over time. In this last stage, the progress made toward the client's goals is monitored closely so that any issues that come up can be addressed. For this stage to be successful, it can be important that a close therapeutic alliance is developed throughout the previous stages. 

An important part of this phase is the re-evaluation of the individual's mental health state after going through the entire therapy process. Working with the client, counselors may check in with the individual to mark the progress made and note any new issues that may have arisen. At this point in the therapeutic process, the therapist may also evaluate the client's need for continued treatment.

Why the stages of therapy are important 

Achieving effective therapy can be a complex process, with each person requiring different treatments and approaches for a successful experience. It can be important for therapy to progress through the various stages to help ensure that the client and clinician can develop mutual trust and that the client can learn relevant and applicable life skills. 

Explore the stages of therapy in more detail

One of the primary reasons it can be vital to progress through the different stages of therapy in order is because it may help the therapist gain deeper insight into the individual's mental health challenges and understand what techniques and strategies can assist them most.

Successful psychotherapy requires mutual understanding and a team effort to create lasting results. It also helps ensure that the process remains fluid so that the treatment provider allows the individual to progress at their own pace without feeling pressured. According to the American Psychological Association, the mutual trust and flexibility that these stages encourage may play a significant role in the ability of therapy to result in long-term benefits for the client.

Online therapy

If you're experiencing depression, anxiety, or another condition that makes attending in-person sessions difficult, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be a beneficial alternative. Online therapy involves many of the same stages as in-person therapy but takes place virtually from anywhere you have an internet connection. You can join a session from the comfort of your home, which may make it easier to get the support you need if you find it difficult to engage in social interactions and open up about your emotions. These virtual sessions provide direct link to licensed counselors who can guide you through the different stages of therapy and help you learn more about the unique mental health challenges you're facing. 

Through research, online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy in treating a variety of mental health conditions. In one study, researchers explored the efficacy of an online versus face-to-face counseling intervention for university students before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that both approaches were effective, with the online intervention reducing psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and interpersonal sensitivity


The stages of therapy include relationship building, emotional exploration, skills development, and integration. While the exact techniques used within these stages may vary from person to person, this process helps to enable a comfortable therapeutic relationship between counselors and clients that may help improve treatment effectiveness. The therapeutic process is often very fluid, which enables treatment providers to maximize their ability to provide services that meet the needs of individuals in therapy. Everyone's experience with therapy looks different, and each person heals on their own timeline. Connecting with a therapist online may increase your reach to qualified therapists and allow you to start treatment sooner.
Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started