Interpersonal therapy

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 16th February 2024 | Next update due 15th February 2027

Interpersonal therapy explores the way our relationships affect us and also how mental health difficulties can affect our relationships. Helping with a variety of concerns, the therapy may be recommended for depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Here we will explore the role of interpersonal therapy in more depth, including what to expect in therapy, the techniques used and areas this therapy can help with.

What is interpersonal therapy?

Having relationships, whether family-based, platonic or romantic, is part and parcel of what makes us human. For the most part, these relationships enrich our lives and offer vital social interaction. Relationships are, however, incredibly complex - and the way we deal with them can have a significant impact on our mental well-being.

Also referred to as IPT therapy, interpersonal therapy is a structured, time-limited therapy that works on interpersonal issues within our relationships. The underlying belief of interpersonal therapy is that psychological symptoms (such as depression) are often a response to difficulties we have interacting with others. The resulting symptoms can then also affect the quality of these interactions, causing a cycle. The thought process behind the therapy is that once a person can interact more effectively, the psychological symptoms can improve.

The time-limited or 'brief' aspect of IPT therapy means that this type of therapy will always have an end date (around 12-16 sessions is considered the norm) and will focus on just a couple of key issues. For this reason, this therapy is best suited to those with problems they can identify.

What to expect from interpersonal therapy

The first few sessions of interpersonal therapy are typically used as an assessment so the therapist can better understand what is concerning you and what you hope to gain from the therapy. Together with your therapist, you will then have the opportunity to identify any interpersonal issues you want to address and rank them in order of importance. It will then be a case of working through the key issues raised.

The next few sessions will look to explore these concerns to help you understand them better, learn how to make adjustments and apply these adjustments outside of your therapy sessions. To help this process your therapist will offer support in several ways, including the following:

  • clarification of your issues
  • communication analysis
  • supportive listening

In contrast to other more open-ended, introspective therapies, IPT therapy looks to focus entirely on the identified issues. This ensures optimum results in minimal time.

Towards the end of your therapy sessions, you and your therapist may choose to discuss any issues brought up by the impending ending of your therapy. This is also an ideal time to hone and apply the skills you've learnt to ensure you can cope efficiently once your therapy is over.

How does interpersonal therapy work?

All therapy sessions will differ according to the individual circumstances, however, certain techniques can be especially useful with interpersonal therapy. These include:

Identification of your emotions

For some of us, accurately identifying the emotion we're feeling can be difficult. An interpersonal therapist will look to help you identify emotions from an unbiased perspective.

Expression of emotion

This involves helping you to express your emotions in a more healthy way.

Dealing with issues from the past

Sometimes relationships you had in the past can affect the way you interact in the present. Part of your therapy may involve looking into your past to see if any patterns have formed.

What are the four areas of interpersonal therapy?

The types of concerns normally addressed within IPT therapy fall into the following four areas:

1. Interpersonal disputes

Disputes can happen in a variety of settings, including family, social, marital, school or workplace disputes. Normally they come from differing expectations of a certain situation. If these types of conflicts cause significant distress, they are worth addressing within therapy.

2. Role transitions

This refers to a change in circumstance, whether this is due to a job change at work, a change in relationship status or a life event that requires you to adapt. These changes can be experienced as losses, leading to conditions such as depression or anxiety.

3. Grief

When someone close to you passes away, feelings of grief and loss are entirely natural. If the grief is delayed, or considered to last beyond the 'normal' time for bereavement, it may be something you wish to discuss during therapy.

4. Interpersonal deficits

This category involves relationships that you feel weaken you in some way, or relationships that you don't have. This could relate to a poor relationship with a sibling or a lack of friends you feel you can trust. IPT therapy can help you identify these deficits and offer ways of resolving them.

Interpersonal therapy for depression

Recommended by the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) interpersonal therapy is considered especially useful for those with depression. While more research is needed, there is some evidence that a course of interpersonal therapy can be at least as effective as short-term treatment with antidepressants.

Originally interpersonal therapy was developed to help adults with depression, but it has also been shown to be effective in treating adolescents and children. As depression can be a recurring condition, those affected may be advised to supplement their interpersonal therapy with an ongoing form of maintenance. This means that alongside your interpersonal therapy sessions, you may be invited to ongoing monthly sessions to reinforce what you've learnt in IPT therapy.

What is dynamic interpersonal therapy?

Dynamic interpersonal therapy (or DIT for short) is a type of interpersonal therapy. Similarly to interpersonal therapy, DIT is a time-limited, structured therapy with a focus on interpersonal relationships. The difference with DIT is that it looks at the connection between the difficulties you are facing now with events from your past.

This therapy looks to reveal any core patterns that may have begun in childhood and are continuing to affect your relationships today. Your therapist will encourage you to reflect on the way you think and feel about past relationships/experiences and help you adjust the way you deal with current difficulties effectively.

Find out more on our dynamic interpersonal therapy page.

Finding an interpersonal therapist

If you feel ready to begin working with an interpersonal therapist, you can reach out to a professional today. Get in touch and let them know what you're hoping to get support with and they will let you know how they can help and if IPT is the right fit for you.

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