Do one-session treatments work?

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Although it may seem unlikely, some conditions can be successfully treated with just a single session of therapy.  There is a strong peer-reviewed evidence base for the efficacy of one-session treatments for specific phobias that has been established for some time – see for example this review article published in 2008 that summarised the results of 21 separate research studies carried out since the 1990s.  

The 21 studies included in the review had evaluated one-session treatments for different specific phobias (e.g. spiders; flying; injections; claustrophobia). This review concludes that research supports the efficacy of one session treatment and that it seems to be very well received by children and adults.  The review also notes that shorter treatment duration will also likely result in less disruption of the client’s life and schedule and may be more cost-effective.  

Research is continuing – for example, independent research funded by the UK National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), published last year, confirmed the efficacy of one session treatments for 268 children and young people (aged 7–16) with specific phobias.  Other studies have established evidence for single session treatments for depression and trauma. Certainly some conditions can be treated successfully in one session. 

It should be noted however that although “one-session” treatments are well established, therapists will often inform clients that the session is only the start  – not the end – of their treatment and that they must continue to work – perhaps for months – to maintain and stabilize treatment gains. Clients will need to carry out maintenance tasks in their everyday life to promote treatment generalization. For example, for the treatment of specific phobias, maintenance tasks can include a commitment to not allowing oneself to escape or avoid interactions with the feared object or situation. Some therapists will provide more specific maintenance tasks such as frequently visiting a neighbor’s dog, providing spiders to take home, or recommending trips to skyscrapers.

A fully-qualified therapist will conduct work to ensure client understanding that therapy is a collaborative process: the therapist and client will work together to progress. Unlike visits to the doctor or a dentist, one-session therapy requires clients to actively participate in the session – and in the post-session period.

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