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What is Single Session Therapy and what are the benefits?

24 January 2022

Can you see a therapist for just one appointment? You can — and here is why Single Session Therapy might be a great step for you…

a woman having a single therapy session


After almost two years of being unemployed, 36-year-old Mike was about to move to a new city to start a new job. It was a big opportunity for him but there was just one problem — Mike was so overtaken with anxiety about the change that he wasn’t sure he could cope. Part of him wanted to cancel the move altogether. 


It got so bad that a family member suggested that he see a therapist. Mike wasn’t sure, as he would be moving in less than a week. Could you really go to see a therapist for just one session? Would it have any effect? However, he decided to give it a try, found a therapist open to the idea and booked an appointment.


‘It was actually really great’ says Mike. ‘The therapist knew we only had one hour together, so he honed right in on the issue. He helped me to realise that the problems I was having with anxiety were really rooted in assertiveness issues. Basically, I hadn’t been assertive enough in previous jobs, which was making me nervous about the new one. And once I could see where the fear was coming from, I felt less worried.’ After the appointment, Mike was able to start his new job with renewed confidence. He is still grateful for the therapist’s willingness to see him for a one-off session.


‘I’d had therapy once before for depression and anxiety, so I knew that it was an ongoing process’ adds Mike. ‘For me, therapy was something that you did for months or even years. So I’d never have thought that one appointment — with a person that I’d never see again — could help so much. But you could tell that the therapist was approaching things differently due to it being a single session — he was very focused on the key issue of my job anxiety and it felt like we’d gone on a whole journey in that hour.’


In fact, Mike isn’t alone — Single-Session Therapy (SST) is an established kind of therapeutic support that can be very effective. And if you are thinking about trying it, let’s take a look at what’s involved and whether it might be suitable for you…

What is Single-Session Therapy (SST)?


From making a tough decision to planning a difficult conversation with a loved one to dealing with anxiety around work, Single-Session Therapy can help with all sorts of issues. As it is a dynamic and focused form of therapy, SST works best if you have a particular issue in mind that you want to bring to the appointment. It can also be helpful if you have an idea of what you want to take away from the session e.g. making a decision about the future of a relationship.


In essence, SST can be seen as a way of helping you to get ‘unstuck’ around an issue over the course of a single appointment. This doesn’t mean that the problem will have magically gone away by the end of the session or that you will feel completely better. But after working with your therapist on the problem, you might be able to see a way forward that you didn’t before. You might also feel more confident in your abilities to solve the issue. Overall, SST is a collaboration with a therapist, where you work as a team to get to the crux of an issue, then come up with a solution and plan, usually over the course of a 50-minute appointment.


Windy Dryden, Emeritus Professor of Psychotherapeutic Studies at Goldsmiths and author of Single-Session Therapy: Distinctive Features, describes it as follows: ‘A purposeful endeavour where both parties set out with the intention of helping the client in one session, knowing that more help is available if needed.’


The ‘more help’ part is important to note. Because while SST is designed to take place over one session, the door is usually open for follow up sessions, should you want them. So it is not that Single-Session Therapy is necessarily restricted to one appointment, just that you and your therapist will work on the assumption that it is.


One key aspect of SST is that you should ideally take as much learning from your session as possible. So by the end of the appointment and afterwards, you will be encouraged to take part in a five-part process where you:


  1. Reflect on what you have learned from the session. 
  2. Digest your learning — perhaps by making links between what you spoke about with the therapist and other problem areas in your life.
  3. Act on your digested learning by putting into practice what you have taken away from the session.
  4. Wait for a while to see how things develop.
  5. Decide whether or not to make another appointment.


What happens in Single Session Therapy?


Therapists from various different approaches can offer Single Session Therapy, meaning the experience can be different with different professionals. For instance, a CBT therapist might offer SST in a different way from a psychodynamic therapist or a couples therapist. But overall, Single Session Therapy tends to have a core set of steps, aims and goals that most therapists will follow, even if their particular techniques differ.


The session will usually begin with you and the therapist prioritising what to focus on. In the main, they will let you take the lead with this. For instance, it might be ‘I want to decide whether to stay in my current job or change career’. This will be your ‘session goal’. They will also ask you various clarifying questions to make sure that they have understood the issue properly.


Throughout the appointment your therapist might pause regularly to ‘check in’ and make sure that you are both on track towards achieving your session goal. It is possible that the focus might shift to another problem altogether during the session but only if the therapist feels that this shift benefits you (and is actually the real crux of the issue). Otherwise, they will try to keep things focused on the initial stated issue.


After discussing your issue, problem or block, your therapist will then turn your focus onto working out a ‘solution’ together. This doesn’t mean that everything will be completely solved by the end of the appointment or that you will have all the answers. However, you should ideally have developed an idea of your next step, no matter how small.


When it comes to finding a solution, your therapist will help you to do this by drawing from a number of sources. For instance, they might encourage you to think about what has been helpful in the past in similar situations, as well as reflecting on what might be helpful now. They might also encourage you to look at any internal strengths or skills that you can draw upon, such as self-soothing, as well as any external resources like supportive friends. Finally, they might share any insights that have come up for them in your session. After exploring all of this, you will hopefully start to see a way forward to solving your key issue.


Once you have found a solution you will then reflect on whether you feel happy with it or whether you might want to refine it in any way. Next, you and the therapist will collaborate to come up with a concrete plan to implement the solution, defining the specific steps you can take to make it happen.


It is possible that you will identify external problems and obstacles in your plan and again, your therapist will encourage you to discuss these. It is also possible that you will have internal fears and doubts too, which you can again talk over until you feel you have worked through them. The great thing about Single Session Therapy is that you don’t have to go on the solution finding journey alone and instead, will have a supportive presence in the room to help you.


Finally, your therapist might end the session by reviewing what you have both talked about and  encouraging you in your next steps. It is also likely that they will let you know the door is open for future appointments, if that might help. However, they won’t pressure you to book a follow up session as they will understand that this is a SSP.


What issues can Single Session Therapy help with?


As mentioned, SST tends to work best when you have a particular dilemma that you want to resolve or a specific block you want to get unstuck from. It can also be useful if you want to explore and understand something better, get some support in making a decision or simply have some space to express how you’re feeling and get something off your chest.


This doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers before your appointment  — for instance, in the case of Mike, he knew that he was feeling anxious about his new job but didn’t know the deeper reasons why. It was only through talking to the therapist that he began to understand the underlying assertiveness issues beneath his fears. So it’s fine if you also feel that some aspects of a problem are unclear to you — in fact, making sense of this is what Single Session Therapy is about. And if you’re not sure whether your issue would be suitable for SST. However, it is often helpful to think about these questions before the appointment — and if possible share the answers with the therapist before you meet:


  • What is the one issue that you want to work on?
  • How is it affecting you and/or your relationships?
  • What have you already tried that has helped?
  • What have you already tried that hasn’t helped?
  • What would you like to get from the session? 
  • How will you know if the session has been helpful?
  • Is there anything that it’d be helpful for the therapist to know before you meet so they can best help you during the time you have together?


Although SST is designed to deal with one specific problem, this doesn’t mean that it is unsuitable for people with long term trauma, C-PTSD, addiction, severe depression or a personality disorder. In fact, according to Professor Dryden, people with more serious underlying issues can still benefit from SST — they might even find that the initial appointment opens the door for them feeling comfortable with more therapy in general. They could even view SST as a chance to dip their toe in the water and try out the therapeutic experience, without feeling any pressure to commit to continued appointments. Alternatively although they might have long-standing issues, there might be a specific, focused issue they would like some help with in a single session and come back to tackling other areas another time.


However, it is also worth pointing out that SST isn’t the same thing as emergency crisis counselling — if you feel that you are dealing with a mental health emergency, then it might be best to contact your GP or another local service for immediate help.


While Single Session Therapy might not offer the transformative journey or personal ‘deep dive’ of some longer term therapy, it can still lead to change and growth. The great thing about it is that it offers the chance to conquer a specific issue or block in one focused, streamlined appointment. And when you have a supportive professional to walk with you on that journey, you could set yourself free from years of ongoing stress in just a single therapy hour.


Interested in trying out Single Session Therapy? Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with a world-class MTA psychologist or psychotherapist today.

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