When it comes to addiction recovery, there’s not one particular method of recovery or even a singular form of treatment that’s optimal for everyone. The reason for this is because addiction is a highly variable disease, developing in a number of ways and manifesting different symptoms for different people. As such, addiction treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all model; despite there being certain therapies that are beneficial in most circumstances, a person’s optimal recovery curriculum is one that is uniquely tailored to his or her specific needs and preferences. However, while there’s much variation across addiction treatment programs, there are certain elements that tend to be a staple in a majority of programs, which is the case with individual therapy. But what, exactly, is individual therapy? How is it beneficial and why is it such an important part of most rehabilitation programs?

Individual Therapy 101

The term “psychotherapy” tends to evoke an image of a patient lying on a sofa, recounting pivotal experiences he or she has had to a therapist. Of course, psychotherapy can look a lot like this, but the common assumption is that this is what all forms of counseling look like when that’s not actually the case. In reality, there are many different types of counseling, including a number of group options. As well, there are a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities, which are basically the different techniques and philosophies behind each approach. However, at present, we’re most concerned with individual therapy.

As you might have guessed, individual therapy is a form of psychotherapeutic treatment wherein a single psychotherapist counsels a single patient. This is also sometimes referred to as one-on-one therapy. In effect, the client (or patient) is the focus of the therapy session, and due to the discretion and privacy that psychotherapists must assure their patients, an individual in one-on-one counseling can speak freely and openly without reservations. Beyond the one-on-one format, however, there can be a great deal of variation in individual therapy; for instance, some forms of individual therapy involve mostly talking while other types may entail various exercises. The optimal type of individual therapy can vary considerably according to the situation and the desired effects.

Substance abuse and individual therapy

Individual therapy has come to be one of the most important components of an addiction treatment program, but many of us fail to consider why that might be. In other words, what makes individual therapy such a strong facilitator of addiction rehabilitation? To answer this question, we must first consider the basic characteristics of addiction.

People can develop addictions in many different circumstances: For some, addiction results from having spent one’s childhood surrounded by people who abused alcohol and used drugs. In these instances, the substance abuse eventually seems normal, making the individual more inclined to abuse mind-altering substances himself or herself. Another possibility is simply having access to dangerous intoxicants; after finally becoming curious, the individual begins to experiment with substance abuse and eventually becomes dependent on the chemical intoxicants. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to note that the circumstances that can lead to addiction are highly variable and are almost always the direct result of one’s background, life choices, peer relations, and so on.

Since a person’s own characteristics and background are huge factors in the development of addiction, it follows that overcoming an addiction would require a person to identify and address those underlying characteristics, which is what individual therapy is designed to do. Again, due to there being different forms of individual therapy, the exact method of addressing those underlying characteristics can vary to a degree; however, the idea is that individual therapy provides a one-on-one situation in which a psychotherapist can help a patient to identify his or her underlying characteristics that contributed to his or her becoming addicted since those characteristics must be addressed if the individual is to achieve lasting sobriety.

Strengths and weaknesses of individual therapy for addiction

As with any form of addiction treatment, individual therapy has its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious strength is that individual therapy is best positioned to get to the root of a person’s substance abuse problem. In group-based therapies, a person would have a much stronger filter when it comes to what he or she is and isn’t willing to talk about; however, in a one-on-one setting, a person can talk openly without fear of judgment from peers. Of course, there are some limits to individual therapy. For one thing, a person who doesn’t want to talk about personal topics won’t find individual therapy to be much more useful than group therapy. As well, group therapy — which is inherently more social — is optimal for psychoeducational sessions, learning or honing social skills, and experiential therapies that are best implemented in a group setting.

What to expect from individual therapy

Individual therapy is supposed to be a safe, private place where a person can work with his or her therapist to uncover the underlying cause(s) of his or her substance abuse. As such, the environment is usually very accepting while the therapist himself/herself often has extensive training on how to facilitate individual therapy sessions. It’s important to remember these things so that anyone who’s about to participate in individual therapy sessions will know that he or she is sure to be in the capable hands of someone who has made it his or her objective to help the patient in any way possible.

Before beginning individual therapy sessions, it would be a good idea to do some quiet reflection. For instance, someone might prepare for individual therapy by taking an inventory of the complex emotions he or she might be feeling and about the circumstances that surrounded the development of his or her addiction. While these might seem like uncomfortable topics to talk about, a therapist is a great resource for deconstructing things like emotion and experience so as to help a person get a better understanding of how he or she developed an alcohol or drug addiction.