- Interpersonal therapy is a short-term approach that teaches you skills to build productive habits.
- You might learn new ways to self-soothe, express emotions, or pause triggering conversations.
- IPT can help improve relationships and treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and more.
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is based on the idea that your mood and mental health symptoms relate to challenges you face in everyday life.
Here’s what to know about how this type of therapy works and the potential benefits you can expect from treatment.
How it works
IPT is a short-term treatment that typically consists of 12-16 sessions, Roach says.
Though mostly used in individual sessions, IPT can also work in group or couples counseling.
There are two main types of main interpersonal therapy, Roach says:
- Dynamic interpersonal therapy, which emphasizes understanding your own thoughts and emotions and those of others better.
- Metacognitive interpersonal therapy, which emphasizes learning to express your emotions rather than avoiding or suppressing them.
Both types of IPT have three defined stages, says Heather Kent, a registered psychotherapist in private practice:
1. Opening sessions (1-3)
At the start of treatment, the therapist will ask lots of questions about your symptoms and relationship history so they can determine which of the four “problem areas” your sessions will focus on.
Those areas include:
- Grief: Unresolved or overly distressing feelings relating to the loss of a loved one
- Role dispute: Conflicting expectations within one or more of your relationships
- Role transition: Difficulty adjusting to big life changes like marriage, divorce, retirement, or parenthood
- Interpersonal deficits: General challenges in forming and maintaining quality relationships
2. Middle sessions (4-14)
For most of the therapy process, your therapist will guide you in identifying habits and behaviors that no longer seem to serve your needs.
Once you become aware of those unhelpful patterns, you can learn alternative tools to have more productive interactions in your daily life, according to Dr. Taish Malone, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health.
For example, if you have a tendency to let your anger get the best of you during triggering conversations, you might learn how to:
- Identify the first physical signs of rising anger.
- Communicate that you need to step away from the conversation to calm down.
3. The final sessions (15 – 16)
These sessions focus on transitioning out of therapy. You’ll spend time reviewing your progress and dealing with any sense of loss associated with the end of therapy.
It’s natural to feel anxiety or sadness as therapy comes to an end. Your therapist can help support you by:
- Validating these emotions
- Helping you identify your social support network
- Reviewing strategies and coping mechanisms you now have in your toolbox for dealing with interpersonal obstacles
IPT might include some of the following techniques:
- Imagery rescripting: This involves reliving stressful or upsetting situations to understand your emotional responses and gain more confidence handling similar scenarios in the future.
- Guided imagery: This exercise entails imagining a particular environment — usually a relaxing one — and describing it in great detail. While you explore the imagery and develop the scene, the therapist can guide you toward a deeper emotional understanding of yourself and your interactions with others.
- Mindfulness exercises: Body scans, breath work, and meditation can all help you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
- Role-playing: By acting out imaginary scenarios with people in your life in therapy, you can deal with unpleasant feelings in a safe environment, gain real-time insight into your own behavior, and reflect on how you might respond differently. For example, your therapist might play the part of a coworker you’re afraid to confront so you can practice the conflict resolution skills you’ve learned.
Benefits for depression
A wealth of research supports the benefits of IPT for various types of depression, including:
- Major depressive disorder (major depression)
- Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
- Postpartum depression
“Depression often follows a disturbing change in one’s interpersonal environment, such as the death of a loved one, a breakup, or increased fighting with a significant other,” Kent says.
The main goal of IPT involves resolving and healing from any disturbing life events while also building communication and social skills, according to Kent. That can lead to greater self-esteem and stronger relationships — which may, in turn, help reduce symptoms of depression.
A 2016 review found that IPT not only prevented the onset of major depression but also reduced the risk of relapse. These positive effects were more likely with 10 or more sessions of IPT.
Benefits for other mental health conditions
IPT can also help address a wide range of other mental health conditions and symptoms, including:
IPT may help reduce interpersonal issues that trigger or worsen symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks and social withdrawal.
A 2014 review found that IPT reduced symptoms of anxiety and panic. IPT also helped people with panic disorder better understand negative emotions and express them more openly and directly in social situations.
In the treatment of social anxiety disorder, IPT was more effective than psychodynamic psychotherapy but less effective than CBT.
Borderline personality disorder
Core symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) include difficulty managing impulses, frequent shifts in mood, and challenges in interpersonal relationships — and IPT can help address all of these.
In a small 2020 study, people diagnosed with BPD who participated in weekly IPT sessions for 10 months experienced a decrease in disturbed interpersonal relationships and intense, rapid mood swings. They also reported improvements in impulse control and overall perceived quality of life. These effects held during two years of follow-up evaluations.
Plenty of research supports its benefits:
- A 2012 review found that IPT is the most well-researched and supported alternative to CBT for treating bulimia nervosa, though it may take longer to notice positive effects.
- Research from 2016 suggests IPT may prove nearly as effective for treating eating disorders as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- A 2018 review showed IPT can yield comparable results to CBT in treating anorexia nervosa.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
If you live with PTSD, you might find it overwhelming and painful to revisit the traumatic experience. But IPT doesn’t rehash past trauma. Instead, it aims to help you recognize and manage emotional responses as they’re triggered in the moment so they don’t damage your relationships.
A 2014 review found that when people with PTSD participated in interpersonal therapy, they experienced fewer symptoms of depression, along with improved social functioning and general well-being.
In fact, one key treatment for bipolar disorder stems from IPT. Researchers believe your circadian rhythms — your body’s natural internal clock — can impact your mood. Klerman created interpersonal social rhythm therapy (IPSRT), by integrating that theory into the framework of IPT.
In other words, using IPT techniques while creating a regular daily routine may help balance your mood and improve your social life.
In a small 2020 study, people with bipolar disorder who participated in 12 weekly 90-minute sessions of IPSRT reported improvements in symptoms of mania, anxiety, and depression.
When IPT may not help
IPT may not be the most effective treatment for conditions marked by psychosis, like psychotic depression or schizophrenia.
Additionally, IPT focuses on problems in your present life. So, since you won’t spend time exploring events from your early life, it may not help you work through past traumas, like childhood abuse.
How to try it
In order for IPT to work, Roach says you need to have both the motivation to make changes and the willingness to examine your role in any interpersonal problems you experience.
To find a therapist who offers IPT, Kent recommends using the online directories on Psychology Today or Good Therapy, which allow you to search for mental health professionals in your area and use filters to find therapists trained in this approach.
Your insurance will typically cover interpersonal therapy, as long as you select an in-network therapist.
IPT is a short-term treatment that focuses on resolving problems and challenges in your present everyday life — especially those that involve your relationships with others.
Most of the research on IPT has focused on its benefits for depression, but this approach may also prove effective for treating other conditions like anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, and personality disorders.
Also, by helping you learn to identify, manage, and express your emotions in a non-destructive way, IPT can improve all types of relationships.