Interpersonal Psychotherapy: How It Works and What to Expect

A therapy session

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) is designed to help individuals work through current issues or stressors and focus on improving interpersonal relationships. Based on attachment style and communication theories, interpersonal therapy can be an efficient and effective therapeutic approach.

What is interpersonal psychotherapy?

Interpersonal therapy is a therapeutic approach that typically goes for 12-16 sessions, relatively short term. It focuses on how relationships you are involved in affect your mental health. Typically used for depression and grief, IPT is a way to analyze the support you surround yourself with to improve relationships or process them.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy Goals

Since interpersonal psychotherapy is a short-term goal-based approach to therapy, there are four main goals that IPT seeks to improve upon:

  1. Relationships and social life can include unhappy relationships and self-isolation leading to severe symptoms of depression.

  2. Symptoms of depression and grief can be presenting problems of underlying issues such as recent loss of loved ones or unresolved grief.

  3. Transition periods can be challenging times trying to fit into a new role, IPT can help individuals make sense of transitions like getting married, becoming a parent, and retiring.

  4. Conflict and conflict resolution can be two big factors in how relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and partners. IPT works to resolve and release distress caused by conflict. 

Conditions Treated with Interpersonal Psychotherapy

Several conditions can be treated using interpersonal psychotherapy, not just depression or grief. Since many disorders can have issues stemming from relationships, interpersonal psychotherapy can help resolve conflicts and issues that may cause symptoms related to many disorders. IPT can help by…

  • Depression/grief: working through and processing relationships that may contribute to unresolved grief or feelings associated with depression such as isolation and sadness.
  • Bipolar Disorder: working on helping with emotion dysregulation using techniques specific to interpersonal psychotherapy.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder: working on attachment styles that may become maladaptive, and through traumatic events or situations that have lead to current ideas behind relationships with others.
  • Eating Disorder: working through relationships that may have lead to low self-awareness and self-esteem.
  • PTSD: working through traumatic events or memories that may be re-written and desensitized to feel less painful to the individual.
A therapy Session

How does interpersonal psychotherapy work?

Interpersonal psychotherapy works by looking into an individual’s history and learned behaviors of how to relate to others. This is related to attachment theory that looks at how an individual relates socially and emotionally to other humans. The therapist will help the individual understand any problematic patterns that could be causing conflict and distress within their relationships therefore causing strain on their mental health. This distress could present in the form of depressive symptoms, disordered eating, and personality disorders. The patient and therapist will then work together to help the patient incorporate strategies and skills to improve their interpersonal relationships outside of session.

How does interpersonal psychotherapy help?

Interpersonal psychotherapy can help individuals who are showing signs of depression and prevent it from becoming more severe. There are also studies that show that interpersonal therapy can be just as effective as CBT and is specifically made for short term therapy. This can be useful for individuals who are interested in having their therapist help in a more direct way. IPT is also helpful specifically for individuals with issues relating to their interpersonal relationships. Since relationships and the effects of what people have on a patient is the main focus, there is room for marriage and couples counseling as well. 

Most common interpersonal psychotherapy techniques:

Like many psychotherapy approaches, there are techniques designed to help specific to the approach’s goals for the client. These approaches are designed with relationships in mind to help the client resolve conflicts and work through distress that may have been caused by their connections with others.

  1. Guided imagery therapy and re-scripting: Fully processing an image or situation that was traumatic or problematic for an individual so they may be able to detach themselves making the memory less painful for them. It acts as a way to rewrite the memory in new and positive perspectives.
  2. Drama techniques: Role playing can consist of patient’s role playing as themselves or others to help bring another perspective to foster deeper thoughts.
  3. Bodily Work: Bodily work includes learning techniques for relaxation by grounding, breathing, and physical training to increase physical and mental wellbeing.
  4. Mindfulness and Attention Regulation: Mindfulness brings attention to the present, allowing an individual to focus on self-awareness and what is current.
  5. Restructuring Attention: Restructuring attention can help an individual focus on current bodily position, internal signals and drives, as well as improve emotional regulation and physical awareness. 
A therapy session

The Benefits and Effects of Interpersonal Psychotherapy

Since interpersonal psychotherapy can be adapted for relatively anyone diagnosed with any psychological disorder, it can benefit many people. Specific benefits may include short-term therapy that can help in couples and marriages, increased relationship functioning, and improved mood. Individuals who are struggling with depression may improve mood by improving relationships that may be contributing to low mood and depressive symptoms. It can also help with restructuring thoughts and perspectives for individuals who may have encountered traumatic experiences.

Who should consider interpersonal psychotherapy?

Key parts of interpersonal therapy involve the fact that it is designed to be a short-term therapeutic approach. This means that individuals who are motivated and willing to accept problematic patterns and change them for their own wellbeing will do much better than individuals who are unmotivated or not ready for quick changes. Individuals with disorders such as depression or eating disorders may need to return to therapy after the initial 12-16 sessions due to their recurrent nature. This ensures maintenance and will help reinforce skills learned and prevent relapse from occurring.

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