Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Most forms of addiction treatment in the UK involve individual therapy.

It’s an opportunity for people with alcoholism to get help from a mental health specialist who understands the causes and consequences of alcohol use disorder.

Each type of therapy looks different, so we recommend researching different models before you start treatment.

Though some people start therapy with no prior knowledge of its benefits, there’s no harm in educating yourself on what will be expected of you in various therapy sessions, and how the sessions are compatible with recovery from alcoholism.

What are Some Common Types Of Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment?

A man sitting with a female therapist who is holding a clipboard

There is no therapy model that is specific to alcohol use disorder. This means that many of the therapies used in rehab will already be familiar to you.

Here are some common examples that you may have heard of:

1. Psychotherapy

This is the type of therapy you probably think of first when you imagine getting professional help for alcoholism.

Many common therapy models fall under this category, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), person-centred therapy and family therapy.

Psychotherapy involves speaking to a therapist about one’s personal issues, including problems with alcohol and other addictive substances/behaviours.

Depending on the type of therapy, the therapist may offer advice to the client, or they may encourage the client to explore their thoughts and feelings without voicing their opinion on the topic.

It is usually recommended that people in addiction recovery have regular psychotherapy sessions. Research suggests most treatments for people with co-occurring conditions are only effective when pursued long-term e.g., 12-18 months (1).

There are exceptions to this. For example, cognitive behaviour therapy can be effective in as little as 3-6 months (2). However, it would usually be recommended for someone with addiction to pursue other forms of therapy after this point.

2. Person-centred therapy

This is a type of psychotherapy with the aim of guiding clients towards ‘self-actualisation’. Because of this, the role of the therapist is to supervise the patient’s mental health journey, rather than offering expert advice.

In order for person-centred therapy to be effective, the therapist must follow three conditions: congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard. In other words, they are committing to remaining genuine, understanding and non-judgemental.

This creates a safe environment for the patient to explore their mental health, including their problems with alcohol.

People who benefit from person-centred therapy are often prepared to dig deep and investigate their thoughts and emotions. As the patient takes control of the sessions, they need to be willing to do this.

3. Equine therapy

Equine therapy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of addiction treatment. However, it’s an important feature of many drug and alcohol rehabs in the UK.

Patients get to form a bond with a horse and take on caring duties, with a mental health expert present.

Equine therapy is proven to help patients with emotional regulation, which can help them to manage the rollercoaster of emotions within the addiction recovery process.

It also encourages mindfulness, as the patient must be aware of the horse’s needs at all times.

4. Art therapy

Art therapy for addiction is proof that patients do not always need to be in a room with zero distractions to benefit from therapy.

They can engage in creative activities, such as painting and listening to music, and make a link between their creativity and their mental health.

Art therapists ensure their sessions are helping the patient to understand their addiction better.

They may do this by asking patients to describe the art they have produced and how it makes them feel, playing a song and asking the patient for their favourite lyrics, or providing a role-play scenario in a drama therapy session.

5. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most common forms of psychotherapy, but it is distinct from other talk therapies. The therapist tends to take a more active role in CBT, by making links between the patient’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

However, the patient will still be at the forefront of the treatment sessions, as they will be encouraged to open up about their mental health and identify unhealthy patterns in their thinking.

The first step of CBT is to identify negative thoughts and reflect on why they are there.

As unhealthy thinking patterns are extremely common for people with addiction, there is often a lot of unpacking to do. CBT therapists will often give homework to the patient to ensure they are keeping up with their new habits on a daily basis.

6. Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)

DBT stems from CBT, so there is the same idea of zoning in on negative thoughts and behaviours. However, as this therapy is mostly targeted at people who feel emotions intensely, there are additional techniques applied.

Many DBT techniques are related to our relationships with others, as this is something people with intense emotions often struggle with.

One example of this is distress tolerance. DBT therapists try to get to the root of the patient’s distress and recommend coping mechanisms such as self-soothing and recognising the benefits of being able to handle distress.

If someone with alcoholism is also diagnosed with another mental health disorder, DBT serves a dual purpose.

It is particularly helpful if the mental health condition is linked to emotional difficulties, which is the case for ADHD, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder and depression.

7. Contingency management

This type of therapy is based on operant conditioning. It is believed that positive behaviour is more likely to be sustained if we are praised for the behaviour.

In the context of addiction, when people are praised for staying sober, they are more likely to continue to avoid relapse.

Contingency management for addiction is often related to financial reward. For example, if someone with alcoholism passes a drugs test, they could receive a gift card for managing to stay sober.

8. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

With EMDR therapy, people with addiction can reprocess negative memories associated with their alcoholism. They may also find it helpful to reprocess unrelated events that have caused trauma, as this can be an indirect cause of addiction.

When we process traumatic experiences in a healthy way, we are more likely to gravitate towards healthy habits, rather than pursuing addiction.

Unlike some talk therapies, EMDR tends to be a short-term treatment, as there is a clear goal in sight – for the patient to reprocess bad memories, and report fewer physical and mental symptoms that are believed to be caused by trauma.

What’s the Difference Between Addiction Therapy and Addiction Counselling?

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Most of the time, alcohol addiction counselling is a short-term treatment with specific goals in mind, like EMDR therapy. However, it is less structured than EMDR therapy, as it involves discussions between the therapist and patient, rather than clear treatment steps.

Therapy tends to be more generalised, which means many different problems will be covered in sessions. This results in therapy lasting longer than counselling on average.

However, some people put therapy and counselling into the same category, so keep this in mind when researching different types of addiction therapy. Make sure you understand when you are going into a counselling session vs. a therapy session.

What are the Pros Of Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment?

It would be incredibly hard to go through addiction treatment without being able to express your thoughts and feelings to a trained professional. You will experience a range of feelings that can be difficult to manage.

Though therapists cannot take these feelings away, they can help you to understand them, confront them, and handle them in a healthy way.

One of the advantages of individual therapy is that it provides plenty of privacy. Recovery from addiction is often a public affair, with family members knowing about your issues and rehab patients watching you endure the detox.

However, individual therapy allows you to escape this, and you are able to be completely honest about your journey as you know that the information will not be passed on.

It’s also easier for many people to process their emotions away from a group setting, so individual therapy helps them regulate themselves before connecting with people again.

Individual therapy prioritises the patient and the patient alone. This means that people with addiction feel that they are valued by their therapist, as they have the opportunity to discuss their issues in depth without interruption.

When a patient is in regular therapy during their recovery, the therapist can keep an eye on their mental health as a preventative measure. Because of this, among other factors, individual therapy is proven to lower the risk of relapse in people with addiction.

What are the Cons Of Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment?

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There are no general disadvantages to getting individual therapy in addiction treatment, as there is a type of therapy out there for every patient.

Even if the patient tries out a therapy and doesn’t find it useful, there is no harm done, as they can simply move on to something else.

However, if the patient is working with an unqualified therapist, damage could be done. Therapists need to be trained to deliver treatments effectively, recommend relevant coping mechanisms and monitor the well-being of their patients.

If they don’t have the qualifications to do this, they could end up undoing some of the patient’s progress.

For example, an unqualified EMDR therapist may not understand the risks of reprocessing, which means they could get a client to start reprocessing before they are ready. This could potentially cause more trauma.

It’s also important to note that individual therapy won’t be effective if you don’t commit to it.

While therapists are willing to be patient as you adjust to the new therapy, you will need to participate in order to benefit from the individual sessions.

If someone gets individual therapy for addiction when they aren’t yet ready to explore their problems, it is likely to be ineffective.

Can You Get Treatment For Addiction Without Getting Individual Therapy?

Yes, you can recover from a substance use disorder without getting individual therapy. This could mean that you avoid therapy completely, or you engage with family therapy or group therapy.

The reason we do not recommend this is that there is a much higher chance of relapse if you don’t go to individual therapy. You will be missing out on healthy coping skills that can help you maintain sobriety, which means you could quickly fall back into old habits.

Individual therapy is also an opportunity to be held accountable for your sobriety. If you don’t meet with a therapist regularly, there is less of an incentive to stay sober, as you may feel as though nobody would notice if you started drinking again.

Rehab 4 Alcoholism’s Thoughts On Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Individual therapy in the context of inpatient rehab is one of the most effective tools you could use to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. Paired with group therapy, detoxing and aftercare, it can turn your life around completely.

To get a referral to an addiction provider that values individual therapy, call us on 0800 111 4108. Our free helpline is available 24/7 for you to enquire about yourself or a loved one.

FAQs About Individual Therapy in Addiction Treatment

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Below, we provide answers to frequently asked questions about individual therapy in the addiction treatment process:

1. What makes a therapist different from a trusted loved one?

Therapists are trained to work with people from all backgrounds, but particularly people with mental health issues including addiction. Non-therapists may not see a huge difference between a therapy session and a deep discussion with a friend, but the two scenarios are not the same.

As therapists listen to clients, they are figuring out ways to reduce their symptoms of mental illness. In doing this, as well as recommending specialist strategies, therapists are providing better quality support than an untrained loved one is able to offer.

What’s more, it is common for loved ones to involve themselves in your problems in a damaging way. However, therapists always stay on the outskirts, which means their personal views should not interfere with your issues. This helps you to come to healthy conclusions that are not based on people-pleasing.

2. Is individual therapy better than group therapy?

Individual therapy is not better than group therapy. Both therapy models reduce the risk of relapse, but they are more effective when they are pursued together.

Patients cannot get the same level of privacy and intimacy in a group therapy session, but equally, they would be missing out on community and group accountability if they only attended individual sessions.

3. What happens if I don’t gel with my therapist?

Most people need to try out several therapists before they find one that works for them. This doesn’t have to be a poor reflection on you or the therapist; different approaches work for different people.

When dealing with personal issues such as drug addiction, you should not settle with a therapist that you are not connecting with.

If you go to an addiction treatment centre, there will be certain therapists assigned to different therapy models. This doesn’t mean that you cannot change therapists; there is an opportunity to move on to different types of therapy and to chat with different therapists to see if you have a better experience.

Qualified therapists should not take offence when you decide to see another mental health professional.

They are trained to understand the importance of connecting with a client, so they should be aware that they will not establish a strong connection with every patient they see.


[1] How Long Will It Take for Treatment to Work?

[2] Intensive CBT: How fast can I get better?