How Does Individual Therapy Work?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Over 41.7 million US adults saw a therapist in 2021, and individual therapy was one of the most popular methods available. Individual therapy involves one client and a mental health provider, such as a therapist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor. Individual therapy treatment helps clients create goals surrounding specific challenges, such as mental illness, stress, loss, dependency, or unwanted thoughts and behaviors. Learning about this type of treatment can help you decide if it suits your needs.

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What are the benefits of individual therapy? 

Individual counseling can have many forms. It is subject to a multitude of factors and situations that can impact its outcome. However, despite the variables, certain parallels exist across the board. These similarities make this treatment strategy and process popular and rehabilitative for people from all walks of life, regardless of their challenges. 

A few of the benefits of individual therapy include the following:

  • Improved communication skills
  • Learning healthy coping skills
  • Self-exploration
  • One-on-one attention from a trained professional
  • Safe and comfortable environment
  • Improving interpersonal relationships
  • Overcoming life’s obstacles
  • Increasing self-esteem

The ability to overcome obstacles

The ability to overcome obstacles and create positive change is a recurring theme in individual therapy. Regardless of who someone is, where they come from, or their socio-economic status, many people face challenges and learning to overcome them can be scary. Challenges may be emotional, social, physical, or mental health-related. Regardless of the type, individual therapy involves various modalities that can target, treat, and ease these challenges for those experiencing them. 

The solutions for various challenges may not be evident to every client, so individual counseling may be beneficial. Through strategies like talk therapy, an individual therapist possesses the ability to look at matters from an objective and professional angle, assess the situation, and provide the client with strategies they can employ to solve their problems, face adversity, or make positive changes. 

Rising above obstacles may not be simple and can take time. However, this process can show clients they are resilient and capable of addressing their challenges. In many cases, resolution may involve understanding the causes of a client's symptoms or concerns to resolve them at the root. Depending on the modality a therapist uses, this process can vary. 

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Self-esteem improvements 

Individual psychotherapy may benefit individuals who struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. According to experts, pessimistic self-esteem can change how you view yourself, others, and the world around you. Positive self-esteem can help clients feel in control of their symptoms, equipped to handle challenges, and emotionally strong. 

With effective treatment from individual counseling sessions, your therapist can suggest various exercises, self-care tips, and research-backed strategies to help you increase moments of joy, feel comfortable in your skin, and learn new social skills. Regardless of the cause of your self-esteem concerns, individual therapy focuses on you and everything that makes you who you are. In these sessions, you are free to explore any avenue of personality. 

In addition, poor self-esteem may impact who you spend time with or may be directly caused by those in your life. Having unhealthy relationships can make it challenging to feel confident in your worth. Through individual therapy, you can analyze your relationships, make healthy choices, set boundaries, and learn ways to make healthier connections if your current ones are not. 

The ability to regain focus

Helping clients regain focus is another potential theme of individual therapy. Losing focus on goals may prompt people to neglect critical areas of their life, such as family, work, self-care, or dream fulfillment. When other challenges cloud these areas of life, a person's foundation may feel shaken. Individual therapy can help these individuals build up every area of life, including home, family, social, career, education, and mental well-being.

Individual therapy sessions guide people who may be losing focus on what matters most to them. This focus may be regained by working with a therapist who can actively listen, provide professional advice, and suggest valuable solutions. By having these tools under their belt, the client may implement what they have learned, regain focus, become more self-aware, and improve the quality of their life. Short-term or long-term therapy can make a difference in this regard. Individuals may still experience meaningful personal growth in a few sessions, depending on the type of therapy and their goals. 

If you feel like you are losing focus or experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, try not to judge yourself. It can be normal not to have all of the wisdom to understand your situation or what might solve it. That's why therapists exist, and there are thousands around the country to offer support. 

An individual to rely on 

Individual psychotherapy can help clients talk to someone who can actively listen to their concerns. Some people may not come to therapy for advice or strict problem-solving skills but to have someone to talk to, validate their concerns, and hear them in a way that others in their life might not be able to. Many people are confronted with mental health stigmas in their daily lives that make it difficult to talk openly about mental health with those they love. With a therapist, clients can do so without judgment, fear, or danger. They can talk about whatever is on their mind and receive compassionate validation or guidance. 

As human connection can be essential to physical and emotional health, therapists can provide a service to anyone, regardless of their social status in their daily life. Individual therapy is a safe space that doesn't involve any mediator, partner, friend, or family. You can talk about the individuals in your life, how you feel about certain events, and any other topic relevant to your healing. Reaching out for support is not shameful, and therapists are available to support you. 

Why do some clients choose an alternative form of therapy? 

Individual therapy may not be the most effective method for every individual. For example, couples seeking marriage support, families experiencing conflict, or a child needing to talk to their parent about their identity might not benefit only from talking one-on-one to a therapist. Having a session with more than one client allows therapists to view the dynamic in a relationship and provide real-time support to their conflicts and challenges while hearing both sides. With therapy, you can choose the method that feels best to you. Therapy is a personal experience, and no one type of therapy is necessarily better or worse. 

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Who can benefit from individual therapy?

Therapy is not just for people diagnosed with mental illnesses; every single person could potentially benefit from going to therapy. Good therapy can be a life changing experience for people because they discover the underlying causes behind negative behavior patterns in their life. Talking to a trained professional during stressful times, such as a divorce, loss of a loved one, or move, can help you process big emotions and manage stress. Short term therapy even just for a few weeks can have positive effects according to research studies. 

Individual therapy is recommended as the first course of treatment for moderate depression and anxiety. There is a range of therapeutic approaches to one-on-one therapy for a wide variety of mental health conditions; CBT, DBT, and IPT are some of the most popular. People with substance abuse disorders can also benefit from going to individual therapy sessions. A good therapist can help you make lifestyle changes that will lead to fewer relapses during the recovery process, such as learning new coping skills and developing a safety plan. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

How does the individual therapy process work?

The counseling process can vary depending on what type of therapy you choose. At the first appointment, you and the therapist will set expectations and goals for the therapy sessions moving forward. The therapist will ask you questions about what your current concerns are and what your goals are for therapy.

There are a variety of different types of individual therapy to choose from. When looking for the right therapist for you, some factors to consider are their area of expertise and their experience level. 

Not all mental health professionals are the same. For example, social workers may learn about psychology, child development, and social justice to be able to help people improve their overall situation in terms of work, housing, and mental health taking into account socioeconomic factors, whereas a psychologist only treats specific mental health conditions. A psychiatrist is different than a psychologist because they are medical doctors who can prescribe medications and other medical treatments. 

Types of individual therapies

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular forms of therapy because of its evidence based success. It is a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that focuses on the thinking patterns behind maladaptive behaviors. CBT therapists may ask open-ended questions to prompt self-discovery, engage in behavioral experiments such as roleplay, and teach you coping skills like journaling and deep breathing. 

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) focuses on improving symptoms by improving interpersonal relationships. This therapeutic modality views mental health as a reaction to current relationships and problems. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has been effectively used to treat borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions characterized by intense feelings. It builds off the principles of CBT, with a strong focus on teaching skills like mindfulness and emotional regulation. 

The benefits of good therapy extend long after the treatment has ended. One research study by King’s College London found talk therapy could strengthen connections in the brain. A follow-up appointment with patients with psychosis treated with CBT therapy revealed positive outcomes from treatment eight years later. Studies have also shown that talk therapy can be as effective as medications for treating symptoms of moderate depression and anxiety. 

What are the barriers to seeking individual therapy?

At times, people may struggle to reach out for help, even if they want to. A few reasons this might occur include the following. 

Denial 

Feeling in denial that you want to seek treatment may block you from opportunities that could benefit you. Acknowledging the existence of issues and tackling them head-on with a therapist's clinical observations may benefit you more than ignoring them. Recurrent patterns may not go away independently and could worsen over time. There is nothing wrong or shameful about seeing a therapist; a provider can help you feel more comfortable if you struggle to open up when you arrive at your first session. Alternatively, you may benefit from a therapy that doesn't require much verbal speech, such as music or art therapy.

Lack of education 

Some individuals may not seek individual therapy because they are unaware of its existence or believe it is limited to specific situations. However, anyone can take advantage of individual therapy services anywhere. No matter who you are or what your story and treatment goals are as a client, you can find a therapist. You do not have to have a mental illness or severe concerns to seek help. 

Shame and stigma 

Shame is another potential reason behind the decision not to seek individual counseling. However, your therapist's job is to work with and help you. Therapists abide by an ethical code and are trained not to let judgment, bias, or harm come into their practice. Subjects can be challenging to talk about, but your therapist can help you express them in a way that is easy for you. Therapy is not a process done to you but a process that you willingly partake in and do for yourself. It's okay if it takes time for you to open up. 

Finances

Common barriers to receiving therapy may include financial challenges. In these cases, individuals might be unable to afford traditional in-person therapy or struggle to leave home to make appointments due to transportation, location, or disability status. In these cases, internet-based individual therapy may be beneficial for clients. 

One extensive study found that internet-based therapy was as effective as in-person options in treating loneliness, isolation, and depressive symptoms. Through an online platform, you can choose your session time each week and set up live meetings via phone, video, or live chat with licensed therapists. Additionally, you can specify the type of therapy you'd like to try when you sign up. 

If you're interested in trying individual counseling to see its benefits for yourself, consider signing up with a platform like BetterHelp, which offers clients connection to a vast database of licensed, compassionate counselors specializing in various areas of mental health and wellness. 

Takeaway 

Finding an individual therapist that you click with can be done by reaching out to those you feel interested in meeting. You can consult with each one or sign up for a match-based online therapy platform. Either way, meeting with an individual therapist can provide personalization and detail-oriented care to your challenges. Consider reaching out to get started. 

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