What Is Systemic Therapy?

Learn about systemic therapy, the different techniques and benefits, and where to find effective treatment.

What Is Systemic Therapy?

Systemic therapy aims to address human needs beyond an individual level, focusing on relationships, behavioral patterns, and family members. In psychotherapy, systemic therapy focuses on the dynamics of relationships influencing problems by understanding an individual in relation to others.

Systemic therapy is commonly used as a form of psychotherapy for treating mental health conditions in children and adolescents.

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Systemic Therapy for Cancer

Systemic therapy also refers to methods of cancer treatments that target the whole body. For example, systemic medications spread throughout the body to treat cancer cells wherever possible. In systemic therapy cancer treatment, systemic intervention could be in the form of systemic chemotherapy. One study found that systemic therapy effectively elongated the overall survival of patients with non-small cell lung cancer by 22.2 months compared to 4.5 months for those who did not receive this treatment. 1

Systemic radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy are other examples that are helpful in systemic therapy for breast cancer, systemic therapy for prostate cancer, and systemic treatment for lung cancer.

How Does Systemic Therapy Work?

Systemic therapy works in two ways:

  • Systemic Psychotherapy: In psychotherapy, systemic therapy targets the relationship and communication between an individual and their group or family, helping them address problems and move forward. In other words, it focuses on uncovering and understanding unhealthy patterns in relationships. Individuals learn to recognize these patterns for themselves with the support of a systemic therapist.
  • Systemic Therapy for Cancer: Systemic therapy cancer treatments, also known as systemic radiation therapy, involve introducing a radioactive substance into the body to locate and destroy cancer cells. However, systemic radiation therapy can develop side effects as treatment progresses. These side effects range from headaches and fatigue to skin problems.

Chemotherapy can affect cancerous and non-cancerous cells throughout the body; nevertheless, the ideal systemic drugs target only cancer cells, leaving normal cells safe.

Types and Techniques of Systemic Therapy

Therapists can utilize a variety of different forms and techniques of systemic therapy, helping them target and treat the specific needs of individuals and groups.

Types of Systemic Therapy

In psychotherapy, the various forms of systemic therapy include:

  • Individual Psychotherapy: Individual systemic therapy psychology helps resolve motivations and behavioral patterns that affect a person’s life and relationships. The therapist identifies and analyzes the individual’s personal and relational problems to provide methods and strategies to remedy and cope with them.
  • Family Therapy: Family networks profoundly influence an individual’s behavior and mental state, making family therapy a vital component of improving well-being. Systemic family therapy usually involves multiple family members, working toward improving communication and interaction and shining light on each member’s perspective on different situations.
  • Group Therapy: Systemic therapy can be applied to a group of people. Group therapy involves several people, and sometimes several therapists, serving as a social unit. Individuals within this group interact with each to help the group function as a whole and fulfill their individual needs.

Techniques of Systemic Therapy

The following explains the different techniques utilized in systemic therapy:

  • Circular Questioning: Circular questioning is used within systemic therapy to generate various explanations regarding an individual’s situation and obtain information about their relationship with others. For example, a family member may be asked, “who do you think is more aggressive?” or “how do you feel when your parents speak to each other that way?” All other family members respond to the same questions. In family therapy, circular questioning helps shed light on vague ideas about family relationships, enabling the systemic therapist to explore a problem from different angles.
  • Conceptualization: Conceptualization refers to the process of understanding an individual’s problems within a specific framework during systems theory counseling. This technique helps a systemic therapist understand how a person’s experience is part of larger patterns within their family, friends, workspace, living system, community, or culture.
  • Reframing: Reframing is a systemic treatment that works by shifting an individual’s view of an event, a person, or a problem. Reframing presents situations or problems in a positive context for clients and therapists to work together to observe changes. This technique also helps individuals within a group or family to stop blaming one another on who should change and begin acknowledging their contributions to maintaining a problem.

What Systemic Therapy Can Help With

Systems theory counseling is a commonly used psychotherapy approach equally sufficient for improving mental health conditions in children and adults. Systemic family therapy can help an individual recover from addiction and substance abuse, especially in adolescent cases. Multiple studies show that systemic family therapy is highly efficient and, in some cases, better than other therapeutic methods.2

Research suggests that systemic therapy psychology is an effective method to treat and manage symptoms of the following: 3

  • Addictions and substance abuse
  • Anger management
  • Mood disorders 
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Conduct disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD
  • Schizophrenia

How Is Systemic Therapy Different Than Other Forms of Therapy?

One study found that systemic therapy for adults with mental conditions was significantly more effective in short-term and long-term results than those who did not receive therapy and more effective in short-term results than those who received alternative therapies. 4

When comparing systemic therapy to other forms of therapy, a few differences stand out:

It Looks to Group Over Individual Experiences

Systemic psychotherapy believes individuals are interconnected with those around them, meaning that problems could result from shared flaws or problems within an individual’s environment. Systemic counseling theories emphasize the importance of interactions and treating people from personal and relational aspects.

It Works With Present-Day Patterns Over Past Experiences

Systemic therapy aims to understand what is going on in an individual’s relationships in the present. Therefore, it deals with current interactions with people. Everyone has a history of relationships with others; however, systemic therapy does not focus on past experiences. This is a stark difference, as many other therapeutic processes attribute present-day problems to difficult past experiences.

It Doesn't See You as Flawed or Needing a Diagnosis

Systemic therapy does not blame the individual involved. Instead, systemic therapy acknowledges that the individual is involved in a group or system with unhelpful patterns. Additionally, a diagnosis is not required to receive this form of therapy, as therapists can utilize it for many situations.

It Is Circular Over Linear

Systemic therapy is circular in its treatment approach. It believes solutions are created and maintained by individuals changing their interactions and reactions to others. Linear forms of therapy believe solutions are maintained by individuals changing their beliefs and other unhelpful factors.

It's Practical Over Analytical

Systemic therapy aims to identify and properly address unhelpful behavior patterns within a group of people or family rather than analyzing causes or symptoms. Compared to systemic therapy, most other methods of therapy seek to offer analysis over practical solutions.

Systemic Therapy

Benefits of Systemic Therapy

Generally, the systemic model helps improve an individual’s mental well-being and provides an atmosphere for people to discuss experiences that have influenced their relationships with others. It also helps people learn how to identify and handle family and relationship issues, unlike other types of therapy.

Some of the positive impacts of systemic therapy will be detailed below.


After certain levels of intervention, systems theory counseling helps individuals understand how a situation appears to others and learn the best possible ways to react. Systemic perspectives help people consider and try to understand others’ beliefs, viewpoints, and reactions.

Understanding of Different Perspectives

Systemic counseling theories help individuals understand their motives when they act. Self-understanding also allows individuals to interact better with others, as people can only communicate as well as they understand themselves.


Systemic therapy psychology empowers individuals to take charge of their lives, feelings, and emotions. Through empowerment, people can learn to manage situations better.

Relationship Skills

In certain scenarios, systemic counseling theories teach individuals skills that help form happy, healthy, and strong connections. For instance, recognizing systemic patterns during family therapy aid in developing healthy communication and strengthening relationship skills.

Core Beliefs

A person’s core beliefs act as the lens through which they see the world. Systemic therapy can improve core beliefs formed earlier in life by discovering negative patterns as well as help individuals see themselves and the world from a better viewpoint.

Identification of Strengths/Resources

The systemic therapy approach in groups or families enables individuals to keep open minds and discover more about themselves from others, helping them identify their strengths and weaknesses. Identifying strengths and resources can increase self-confidence and self-value.


The systemic model helps people build the capacity to understand and share another person’s feelings. Empathy allows individuals to respond more adequately to a situation, making it essential in relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.

Learning to Work With Family

When used appropriately, systemic theory counseling helps families balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses and bring everyone closer. Systemic patterns encourage the family to work together to benefit one another.

Find Out More About Systemic Therapy at Essence Healthcare

The Essence Healthcare network has licensed therapists experienced with systemic therapy, systemic family therapy, and systemic counseling theories. At Essence Healthcare, our therapists aim to provide relief through systemic therapy to children, adolescents, and adults suffering from mental health conditions.

Please contact us at Essence Healthcare today for more information on systemic counseling theories and how to get in touch with a systemic therapist.

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