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What Is Systemic Therapy & What Is It For?

Written by Sarah Norman

Tagged in

  • Therapy


Jan 17, 2024, 8 min read

There are so many different types of therapy available, from common options like cognitive behavioural therapy, to more creative options like art or drama therapy. When choosing the kind that will work best for you, it is important to understand what each type actually involves. By researching the many features of each kind of therapy you can identify the one most likely to offer the best results for your specific situation or life challenges. 

What is systemic therapy?

Here, we are putting systemic therapy under the microscope to find out what it is, the different types and techniques, what it is used for, its benefits and shortfalls, how to know if it’s the right fit for you, and how to access it. 

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about systemic therapy or any other type of therapy, we can help. 

What is systemic therapy? 

Systemic therapy can be thought of as a broad term for family therapy, couples therapy or group therapy. Essentially, it refers to any kind of therapy that involves more than one person, although it can be applied to individual therapy too. 

This therapeutic approach focuses on each person’s own part in a larger interconnected system or network. By better understanding the dynamics within a group, and each person’s role in it, systemic therapy enables people to address any issues they are having within the context of the larger group. 

A systemic therapist may take into account things like an individual’s role within a group or relationship, their patterns of communication, shared or individual beliefs, or specific challenges that have come up, in order to help enhance the collaboration between members of the group. 

What can systemic therapy help with?

Systemic therapy can be used in a number of scenarios, and has been found to be effective for many different types of people. Some of the challenges that could be improved by using elements of systemic therapy include:

  • Family or relationship issues: Couples or family members may seek systemic therapy to dig deeper on issues that are getting in the way of their mutual happiness, and learn better communication skills. When it comes to children, studies suggest that systemic therapy could affect change at multiple levels of functioning for both the child and family.
  • Anxiety: Systemic therapy can help those who suffer from anxiety to discover the root cause of what makes them anxious and develop tools to address it. One study found that while 46.7% of cognitive behavioural therapy patients no longer displayed symptoms of social anxiety disorder after the trial, 77.8% of patients engaging in systemic therapy approaches saw the same result. 
  • Addictions: For those suffering from addictions or engaging in substance abuse, systemic therapy can help to discover what has contributed to this, and how their addiction negatively impacts other parts of their life and relationships. 
  • Anger: Anyone with anger issues may find that systemic therapy offers a chance to learn healthy communication and coping mechanisms for their anger and frustration, while exploring how their anger can impact those around them. Systemic therapy can also help children showing destructive behaviour by improving their impulse control and looking closely at how their family dynamics could be impacting their social skills.
  • Mental health conditions: People with mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may find systemic therapy helps them to see their condition in the context of their life and relationships. 
  • Eating disorders: Those with eating disorders may benefit from systemic therapy as it can give a better idea of how an eating disorder affects the larger family unit, and can also help to address issues with self-image by showing how negative feelings impact decisions related to food choices. 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): For those with PTSD or experiences of trauma, systemic therapy can be a useful tool to help them understand how emotions and memories affect their life. Studies have found that tailored systemic and family therapy can be effective for socially disadvantaged young people and their families who have a history of complex trauma.

Systemic therapy can be useful in a number of scenarios, but it has been shown to be particularly effective for those with specific conditions; studies have found systemic therapy may have long-term positive effects on those with eating disorders, mood disorders and schizophrenia. 

What can systemic therapy help with?

What different types of systemic therapy exist? 

For each type of therapy, including systemic therapy, there are often a number of subtypes that enable therapists to tailor their approach to fit each individual case. As mentioned, systemic therapy can be used as an umbrella term for individual, couple, family and group therapy approaches that take the larger ‘system’ into account, so a number of systemic therapy models exist that could help depending on each person’s circumstances. 

For example, in family therapy, a therapist may focus on how the family interacts with each other and how they behave as a group, as well as how the actions or habits of individuals can impact the larger family unit and the ability to make positive changes. Family systems therapy was developed in the 1950s by psychiatrist Murray Bowen to help individuals resolve challenges within their family, which is thought to be where many issues begin. By better understanding the group dynamics and how each person’s actions impact the family, individuals can start to understand that what impacts one family member impacts everyone.

Similarly, group therapy outside of the family dynamic focuses on understanding a group and the interactions between its individual members, with a view to helping them function together as part of a successful larger group. This could be a friend group, a professional team, or some other collection of individuals who spend time together. 

Certain types of couples therapy can be another example of systemic therapy. Couples therapy helps romantic couples who are going through challenges to see how their actions impact the other person, and vice versa, and how actions affect the couple as a whole. By encouraging better communication and conflict resolution, couples can reach an understanding that benefits both parties.

On a more individual level, individual therapy can also use elements of systemic therapy by helping to foster a better understanding of how a person’s behaviour can affect their relationships and life in the context of their loved ones and those around them. This can be done in the presence of the other people involved, or without them. 

What types of systemic therapy exist?

During systemic therapy, a number of techniques may be used, such as:

  • Reframing – This gives an individual a different perspective of their circumstances to deepen their relationship with themselves, and helps them identify behavioural patterns that exist within their social settings.
  • Circular questioning – This aims to get to the core of an issue by exploring it from different angles.
  • Conceptualisation – This positions the individual’s symptoms in the context of their family or group members to show how their experience contributes to patterns within the family or larger group. 

What are the pros and cons of systemic therapy?

There are pros and cons to every type of therapy, and these can often help you make an informed decision about whether or not a certain kind could be a good fit for you. Systemic therapy can offer a number of benefits depending on the individual, including: 

  • It adapts to a number of situations, such as individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy and more, and it can be integrated with other therapeutic approaches to tailor treatment to individual needs
  • People can achieve a better understanding of themselves, their habits, emotions, patterns, thoughts, and actions
  • It makes solutions collaborative, involving all members of the group and encouraging them to own a shared responsibility for problem-solving
  • It enables the individual to see issues from the perspective of loved ones, and have empathy for others
  • It can help to identify situations where someone may be negatively impacting an individual 
  • It can be used as a preventative measure to address future issues that could arise 
  • It can help to improve communication skills so people can handle conflict more effectively 
  • It provides a safe space where a therapist will listen to challenges while ensuring no one feels they are being ganged up on
  • It can help people to identify certain core beliefs that could be impacting them in a negative way, such as believing they do not deserve success 
  • It can encourage people to identify where their strengths lie and the resources they already have at their disposal, which can boost self-confidence
  • It can be used for a number of scenarios, from behavioural issues to mental health concerns 
What are the pros and cons of systemic therapy?

Like any style of therapy, systemic therapy will not be the best fit for everyone and every scenario, so it is important to be aware of the downsides too. Some of the drawbacks of systemic therapy include: 

  • If it involves other people in a group therapy setting, attention may feel like it is being split throughout sessions, so it can take longer to reach the core of issues 
  • For certain challenges, it may require compliance and involvement from all parties, which may not always be possible if some members resist getting involved 
  • It can be an emotional experience if working through issues with close family members 
  • Finding the right therapist is key, as they must be skilled in systemic therapy as well as in the individual issues affecting the group 
  • As an ongoing therapy, it may be difficult to find a time for a whole family or group to commit to on a regular basis, which can interrupt the flow of progress 

Is systemic therapy a good fit for me, and how do I access it? 

Finding the best type of therapy for your needs can be difficult, particularly if you have never had any therapy before and are unsure what to look for. Systemic therapy essentially focuses on your place within a ‘system’, for example, a family, a friend group, a work team, a sports team, or any other group of people who could benefit from forming a stronger bond for a healthy, successful relationship.

Whether or not you engage in systemic therapy as a group or as an individual, you can certainly draw benefits from the techniques used by understanding your issues within the context of the people in your life, the relationships that you wish to strengthen, and the support system you have around you in order to deal with challenges. 

Deciding which type of therapy is best for you can be a tough choice, and can sometimes feel like a minefield. That’s why we offer a free initial 15 minute consultation; by speaking to us about your current challenges, needs and concerns, we can help by suggesting the most relevant type of therapy for you, and the best specialist who may be able to start you on your therapy journey. 

Deciding if systemic therapy is right for you

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments to helping you find a therapist near you for support on your journey.

If you have a question about mental health, like wondering what AuDHD is, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.

DISCLAIMER: The content published by Augmentive is not designed to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. Always consult your GP or a qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition and before starting any therapy, diet, exercise, or any other health-related programme.

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