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A guide to individual therapy

A guide to individual therapy

If you’ve already been to individual therapy, you likely know its power. If you’ve never been to therapy, you may need more convincing. You might be wondering: “What is individual counseling? What is the true value of therapy sessions?” 

However you approach the individual therapy guide below, we hope that our information will lead you to one place — Thriveworks — where the best, most compassionate therapists and counselors working in the field today inspire clients across the U.S. to improve their lives. 

But it’s also okay if we only lead you to feeling more of your feelings, cultivating deeper human relationships, and being a bit easier on yourself. We have faith that individual therapy will find you when you’re ready. And when it does, you’ll have the facts you’ll need to make your journey successful.


What Is Individual Therapy?

Individual therapy refers to one-on-one mental health treatment that is personalized to suit an individual’s unique needs. It involves setting therapeutic goals, processes one’s past, and learning how to manage one’s symptoms or triggers in order to live a healthier life. 

Individual therapy is almost always conducted with one client and one provider in a one-on-one setting, but it can include another person on occasion—only when it is relevant to an individual’s treatment plan and goals. 

What Type of Therapy Is Individual Therapy?

There is no set type of therapy used in individual therapy. Instead, the type of therapy used will be tailored to the needs and symptoms of the client. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are five main categories of individual psychotherapy approaches:

  1. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy
  2. Cognitive therapy
  3. Behavior therapy
  4. Humanistic therapy (i.e., client-centered/person-centered therapy, existential therapy, Gestalt therapy)
  5. Integrative or holistic therapy

Sometimes a therapist uses a modality that falls directly in one category or another, but these days, it’s more often the case that therapists draw from multiple modalities to customize their approach to each unique client. They may also care more about the therapy process itself than the theories that guide it. This is called process-based care. 

What Is Another Name for Individual Therapy?

Instead of “individual therapy,” people may say “psychotherapy” or “talk therapy.” Psychotherapy is the dynamic process of alleviating mental suffering and personal difficulties through the exchange of words. 

Talking to a Therapist vs. Talking to a Friend or Family Member

Why should someone hire a therapist rather than just talk through their problems with a friend or family member? 

It’s great to have someone in your life to whom you feel comfortable opening up, but a therapist brings something a little different to the table, such as:

  1. Therapists are trained to empathize with their clients’ experience without becoming overwhelmed, running away, jumping in to fix it, or telling you that it’s not a big deal. This makes them the world’s best listeners.
  2. Therapists are trained to help you find your blind spots. Friends may often tell you what you want to hear, while therapists will ask the right questions, without judgment, to make you curious about your own beliefs and behaviors. 
  3. Therapists are trained to help you find your inner strengths. They can hear your personal story and identify the underlying characteristics that will eventually drive change. 
  4. Therapists frequently develop an intuition for what author Lori Gottlieb calls “the music beneath the lyrics.” This means they can listen to a client’s presenting problems while also attending to their deeper struggles, as well as their strengths. 

Granted, therapists and friends aren’t all made alike. A good friend is probably better than a bad therapist. But there is tremendous value in both kinds of relationships, the personal and the personal/professional. So please cultivate both!

Talking to a Therapist vs. Self-help

No one is saying that self-help, self-care, and self-improvement strategies don’t figure into happiness. But the magic of therapy occurs through human connection, not solo exploration. A great therapist knows that you already have the answers inside you—books and wellness websites can’t always unlock them. For that, you may need a trusted, insightful guide. 

What Does Individual Therapy Focus On?

Individual therapy focuses on the individual’s personal goals. Here are some examples of individual therapy goals:

  • I want to feel better about myself.
  • I want to break a cycle and quit making the same mistakes.
  • I want to feel less depressed or anxious.
  • I want to become better at tolerating stress and frustration.
  • I want to find more meaning in my life.

It’s often the case that current problems can sometimes be a gateway to exploring longer-standing patterns in your life. In general, some therapists recommend therapy for at least six months in order to effectively treat any acute symptoms as well as explore any chronic ones that may be occurring.

Therapists are skilled at helping clients discover their own motivation and ability to effect real, long-term change. Studies show that the therapeutic process is most effective when it’s based on a strong alliance between counselor/therapist and client. This means that the client feels safe, supported, heard, and understood. The client feels that their therapist shares their goals and has their best interests at heart. 

Though there are common focuses for therapy clients, the goals for individual therapy are between you and your therapist. They’re going to be unique to you, and they’re probably going to change as you go.

What Does Individual Therapy Include? Characteristics of Individual Counseling

Many types of therapy, including cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, integrative therapy, and the others listed above, are included in individual therapy on a varying basis — depending on the condition being treated, the specialization of the provider, and the personality of the client.

Great therapy is often flexible and integrative, moving from one type or approach to another as the session demands. Just because a particular intervention doesn’t have the support of decades of empirical research, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for a client. 

Types of Psychotherapy

Types of psychotherapy (or individual counseling) include the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) 
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
  • Metacognitive therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Functional analytic psychotherapy
  • Strength-based therapy
  • Solution-focused therapy
  • Solution-focused brief therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Somatic experiencing
  • Embodied-relational therapy (ERT)
  • Emotionally-focused therapy (EFT) 
  • Trauma-focused therapy (TFT)
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
  • Multiple channel exposure therapy (MCET)
  • Stress inoculation training (SIT)
  • Play, art, and music therapy
  • Psychedelic-assisted therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
  • Reality therapy
  • Narrative therapy
  • Adlerian therapy
  • Schema therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is frequently called the gold standard of the psychotherapy field. Extensive research has demonstrated its success in treating depression, anxiety disorders, and a host of other mental health issues. However, the best therapy modality for you will be the one that treats your issue. 

Lastly, you can also categorize types of therapy by what they help with, and who they aim to help. For example, there is:

How Is Individual Therapy Beneficial?

One of the primary benefits of individual counseling is realizing that, in life, you have choices. You can change.

We humans tend to get caught up in our same-old patterns of thinking and behaving. We assume that we can maintain these learned patterns because they’ve worked for us in the past. They’re safe and familiar, while change is scary and uncertain. But therapists can hold up a compassionate mirror to their clients and help them see who they are, and who they’re capable of becoming. They can observe the old patterns that might not be serving you anymore and help you evolve.

Naturally, the therapeutic process can be emotionally painful at times. It can be exhausting. It can be hard work. But it’s hard work with a huge payoff. It’s often necessary to become fully aware of your feelings in order to have a healthier relationship with yourself. Therapy is a safe place to feel…everything. After all, when we hide from our pain, it tends to surface elsewhere, usually in unhealthy ways.

Is Individual Therapy Good for Depression?

Depression is a condition that is frequently addressed in individual therapy, as it is one of the more common mental health conditions. Depression refers to a wide-ranging negative state that affects one’s daily life. People struggling with depression will often feel unhappiness, discontentment, sadness, pessimism and despondency.

Two common evidence-based forms of talk therapy that are generally used to treat depression include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to challenge and reframe unhelpful or distressing thoughts as well as modify problematic behaviors by assuming that one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are each connected to one another. 

Dialectical behavior therapy seeks to help people regulate and tolerate their emotions by challenging them to accept the reality of their life, then learn how to change it—specifically their problematic behaviors.

How Does Counseling Help Individuals, Groups, or Communities?

When an individual improves themselves, they can become a positive influence for those in their group or community. Similar to how viruses spread, so can energy, and positive energy is a very powerful force. Counseling provides useful and necessary assistance and support to individuals, groups, and communities because communities and groups are collections of individuals. 

Groups can even be treated together, in settings like group therapy or family therapy, where multiple individuals can try to heal themselves together. 

People are social beings. When individuals get treatment for their mental health, counseling can help communities become more self-aware, more attuned to the needs of the people in it, and better equipped to deal with the world around them.

What Is the Effectiveness of Group Therapy vs. Individual Therapy?

The effectiveness of group therapy vs. individual therapy is heavily dependent on what is being treated, who the client is, and what their therapy goals are. Group therapy can be highly effective for some people, especially those that feel alone and need support from people that understand what they’re going through, while others may be much more comfortable and open to growth in an individual therapy setting.

These therapies can also work in tandem with each other, providing support and connection as well as a safe space to open up. Many people often do group counseling alongside individual therapy. This approach is often helpful for couples and families, as they can use the work they’ve done in individual therapy to help them better understand themselves and the dynamics brought up in group therapy settings, such as marriage counseling or family therapy.

Can Individual Therapy Help Me?

Some people still believe that you’re required to be in crisis to book a psychotherapy session—for example, if you’re suffering from an acute mental health issue, or you’re severely traumatized, or someone you love just died. But individual therapy can help people with a variety of issues, from the most low-level dissatisfaction with life to the highest levels of dysfunction.

You don’t have to compare your suffering against anyone else’s. You don’t have to say, “Oh my problems aren’t that bad.” Why not just be kind to yourself? Say, “I’m hurting. And I’d like to talk about it to someone who will truly listen.” Because if you’re even thinking about going to therapy, it’s probably time to book a session. You want to feel better, and you deserve care. Everyone does. 

Going to therapy isn’t anything to feel ashamed of. It’s a way of reconnecting with yourself, and knowing that you’re not alone.

How to Succeed in Individual Therapy

To succeed in individual therapy and gain self-acceptance and self-knowledge, you must be open with your therapist. It’s okay if this takes time—therapists are very patient people—but you need to commit yourself to being honest and accountable. If you’re having trouble with the process, tell your counselor. Your feedback is often enlightening, and can lead to greater intimacy. 

Thriveworks therapists are always learning how to serve their clients better, and we also like to give clients advice on how they can succeed in therapy. Remember that individual therapy should first and foremost lead to greater self-acceptance and self-knowledge. These benefits tend to have a trickle-down effect in life, improving relationships, compassion, coping skills, mental health issues, maladaptive behaviors, and much more. 

What to Expect in an Individual Therapy Session

If you’re nervous about going to individual therapy for the first time, we totally understand. Daily life has a way of keeping our vulnerable psyches under wraps, and therapy threatens to expose our soft spots. However, most people don’t end up spilling their guts in the first session. Mostly, this is a time to start developing a bond with your therapist and establishing loose goals for what you want out of your experience. 

You may decide that you don’t like the first provider you meet with. You don’t think you can trust them, or the vibes are just off. You can always switch — breaking up with your therapist can be a sign of growth and knowing what you want. Therapists are used to this and they are more than capable of managing their own feelings of rejection. The most important thing is that you find someone with whom you can work well.  

Finally, remember that therapeutic progress isn’t linear. You might have phenomenal sessions where you walk out feeling like you have a new lease on life, and you might have dud sessions where you feel worse than when you came in. Keep going. Tell your therapist when you feel like you’ve figured everything out, and tell them when you feel disappointed. This feedback can be vital in steering the dynamic therapeutic process.

How to Find the Right Therapist for You

Finding the right therapist is both a science and an art. You can research specialties and make phone calls and read dozens of clinician bios, but ultimately you will be alone in a room with this person (or video conferencing in the case of online therapy), and you will have to feel a rapport. 

If you’ve never given much thought to exactly what type of therapist you’d like to see, you can start with some basic questions:

  • Do I feel more comfortable talking to a person of my same gender, racial or ethnic background, sexual orientation, or religion?
  • Do I have an existing mental health condition and need a therapist who has experience treating it?
  • When and how will I be most comfortable meeting with a therapist? Can the therapist accommodate my needs? 
  • Is the therapist available quickly?
  • Is the therapist in my health insurance network?

Many of these questions can be answered online, but you can also call Thriveworks customer support if you need guidance. It is our great joy in life to match people to a therapist who will end up changing their life for the better. We look forward to serving you. 

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewers
  • 3 sources
Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
See Laura's availability

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

Emily Simonian
Emily Simonian, M.A., LMFTHead of Clinical Learning

Emily Simonian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) who has direct training and experience working with family and relationship issues, as well as working with individuals. She also specializes in treating stress/anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, as well as self-esteem issues and general self-improvement goals.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Different approaches to psychotherapy. (2009, December 1).

  • Ardito, R., & Rabellino, D. (2011). Therapeutic Alliance and Outcome of Psychotherapy: historical excursus, measurements, and Prospects for research. Frontiers in Psychology, 2.

  • David, D., Cristea, I. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Why cognitive behavioral therapy is the current gold standard of psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9.


The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

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