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Individual Therapy: How Does it Work?

Katelyn Hagerty

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Geoffrey Whittaker

Published 03/21/2023

Individual therapy isn’t really a “form” of therapy so much as it’s a category. It’s therapy conducted one on one between therapy professional and patient. But it’s not a cage match, a duel or a showdown — it’s a team effort to get your mind into a healthier space.

Treating mental health issues is important for all of us regardless of how mild or seemingly small our problems may be, and things like individual therapy can help us understand those problems before they become bigger, and manage those problems before they become worse. 

If you’re ready to join a two-person team, individual therapy may have a lot of benefits to offer you regardless of what you’re dealing with. 

To know for sure, you need to understand what it is, how it works and what it can help with. So, let’s get started.

What is Individual Therapy?

Individual therapy is a term for any kind of therapy conducted on a one-on-one basis. It’s the classic armchair and couch session you’ve seen in every movie from the last century — one person shares their struggles, the other (the professional) listens and offers help and perspective.

That’s really all there is to the “individual therapy” approach to treatment. This one-on-one psychological treatment can be practiced in person on virtually, and it can be formatted into a number of actual “forms” of therapy tailored to specific needs, conditions or goals.

Is Personal Therapy the Same as Individual Therapy?

Many people wonder if there’s a difference between personal therapy, individual therapy and psychotherapy, and generally, there isn’t. While forms of psychotherapy may be practiced in group situations (family therapy, for instance), individual therapy and psychotherapy are interchangeable terms. It’s typically assumed that you mean individual therapy unless otherwise stated. 

Personal therapy, meanwhile, isn’t an official medical or therapeutic term. It can be used interchangeably with individual therapy if you wish, but if we’re being honest, it’s not worth your time to get wrapped up in these sorts of issues. After all, therapy isn’t about names — it’s about treatment. And individual therapy can treat many disorders and mental health issues with some tailoring to individual needs. 

And like the types of treatment you can receive, the prices of therapy may vary from one therapy provider to another. Learn more about this in our guide to the cost of therapy, and take a look at our answer to the question of how insurance for therapy works.

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How Individual Therapy Works

“Okay, we get it: individual therapy is one on one,” you say, “but what actually happens in individual therapy sessions — what can I expect in therapy?”

That largely depends on your condition, your choice of therapy provider and their recommendation. Psychotherapy isn’t all Freudian questions about mothers and fathers — in fact, very little of modern therapy is.

While it’s kind of difficult to determine what every person’s first therapy session will look like, most will follow the same basic structure:

  • An assessment of needs.

  • Exploring goals.

  • Setting expectations.

  • Asking and answering questions.

Typically, your provider will begin with an initial assessment. During this time, they’ll go over expectations with you, explain how your individual sessions will work going forward and get an idea of your needs and the reasons that you’ve visited them. 

Generally, some of this information will be shared ahead of time in confidential forms that you’ll fill out before your first visit.

This is likely the session in which your provider will do the most talking throughout your mental health treatment. In most therapy practices, you’ll do most of the talking. Occasionally, they’ll ask clarifying questions or make comments about your feelings, but for the first few sessions (at least), they’re just going to be working to understand you better.

Typically, these outpatient treatment sessions will range between 30 minutes and an hour. Patients will often see their therapy provider every week or every two weeks, but providers may recommend more or fewer sessions based on the severity of your symptoms or meeting your goals.

Over time, an effective treatment may evolve to include practices like cognitive behavioral therapy or other therapeutic methodologies to treat individual disorders or symptoms. But again, that’s largely dependent on what you came to therapy for help with in the first place. 

Let’s take a look at what individual therapy can treat.

What Can Individual Therapy Treat?

Truth be told, most people may self-diagnose a mental health condition before going into therapy, but the therapy environment is useful for a variety of conditions. 

It’s best to consider symptoms first, as therapy can pointedly help you in addressing undesired mental and physical symptoms of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, someone might seek therapy for dealing with the following issues:

  • Changes in the ability to concentrate or carry out daily tasks.

  • Chronic feelings of worry or anxiety.

  • Feelings of sadness or helplessness that have become chronic or overwhelming.

  • Substantial changes in sleep like insomnia or over-sleeping.

  • New or increasing harmful behaviors like substance abuse, excessive drinking or risk-taking.

  • Divorces, the deaths of close friends or family, children leaving home and other sources of grief.

  • Behavioral problems that interfere with relationships.

  • Major interruptions to the status quo like career changes and job loss.

Therapy can be a great place to work through the emotions that these things can bring out, but it can also help you learn skills and practices for modifying these behaviors and the ways of thinking that created these situations in the first place. 

Ultimately, the goal of therapy is to help you grow and change and eventually return to your own ideal of productivity, happiness and enjoyment in relationships and daily life.

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Do I Need Individual Therapy?

Do you need individual therapy? Do you need some type of therapy at all? These aren’t questions we can answer from here, unfortunately. 

Creating a therapy treatment plan is highly specific and tailored to the individual treatment option for mental illnesses, and the type of psychotherapy that works for one person may not work as well for others. 

While you may have telling symptoms of anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, substance use disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorders or some other psychological disorder, you can’t get a firm diagnosis or proper treatment without talking to a mental health professional first. 

Professionals are available to help you navigate these issues. Our mental health resources are a great place to go when you have questions that can’t be answered in an article like this one, and for truly personalized support (and individual types of therapy themselves) you might consider turning to our online therapy platform. Our platform is available 24/7 and from anywhere you have internet access. 

Individual counseling doesn’t have to be scary, it doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be out of reach. If you’re ready to try it out, reach out today.

6 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Team, G. T. E. (n.d.). Individual therapy (psychotherapy). Individual Therapy. Retrieved December 25, 2022, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/modes/individual-therapy.Team, G. T. E. (n.d.). Individual therapy (psychotherapy). Individual Therapy. Retrieved December 25, 2022, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/modes/individual-therapy.
  2. What is Psychotherapy? (n.d.). https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/psychotherapy.
  3. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). What Is Psychotherapy? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/psychotherapy.
  4. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/individual-therapy.
  5. Psychotherapy. NAMI. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Psychotherapy.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Psychotherapies. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies/.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.

She received her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Delaware and her master's degree from Thomas Jefferson University. You can find Katelyn on Doximity for more information.

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