Psychotherapeutic interventions have proven effective at treating a wide variety of psychological disorders and promoting client wellbeing both face-to-face and remotely (Bandelow & Wedekind, 2022).
By identifying and sharing appropriate therapy exercises with clients, therapists help clients learn to manage existing problems and gain self-help skills for use going forward (Nelson-Jones, 2014).
In this article, we share many of our favorite free therapy exercises and suggest situations and groups where they may be best placed. Why not review them and reflect on their potential to boost engagement while supporting growth and development in individual, couple, and group settings?
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with detailed insight into positive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
A vital aspect of therapy is for the counselor or therapist to “collaborate with clients to achieve change and then for clients to maintain that change” long after treatment ends (Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 52).
Mental health practitioners must understand the skills their clients need to develop, demonstrate how they can be implemented, and engage them in performing structured activities and homework tasks.
While it is essential that the counselor form a solid therapeutic bond with their client, it is similarly crucial that they identify and share powerful therapy exercises that support them in replacing their old self-defeating ways with more helpful, better skills (Nelson-Jones, 2014).
Unsurprisingly, research recognizes a significant connection between completing therapeutic homework and treatment outcomes (Mausbach et al., 2010).
19 Popular Therapy Exercises to Try
Therapy offers a powerful tool for clients to overcome past trauma, manage existing challenges, and create fulfilling and flourishing lives, particularly when they feel that their need for autonomy is met (Dwyer et al., 2011).
The following exercises can be empowering when working with clients experiencing anxiety.
6 Exercises for managing anxiety
While the effects of anxiety can be catastrophic and far reaching, therapeutic interventions can be highly successful in helping clients redirect their minds away from “worry and negative self-appraisals and toward greater acceptance of internal states” (Crowley et al., 2017, p. 130).
The following therapy exercises will help:
Event Visualization Worksheet
Detailed imagination of a future event or challenge offers a safe and controlled environment for reducing concern and anxiety and gaining confidence without risk of failure.
Tackling Anxious Thoughts
Clients can learn how to notice anxious and irrational thoughts and find more helpful and rational alternatives.
This is a valuable worksheet for identifying triggers and sources of panic and anxiety and recognizing associated feelings and behavior.
Maintaining a record of the causes of anxiety can be enlightening and empowering.
Best and Worst
When working with children, creating a Venn diagram can be a helpful visual representation of their anxieties versus potentially positive outcomes.
Labeling Your Emotions
Giving names to feelings can help children identify and understand their anxiety without forming guilt or engaging in judgment.
6 Best exercises for depression
Depression can be helped by understanding its causes and triggers while building a resilient mindset that increases positivity, improves stress recovery, and maintains flexibility in challenging environments (Waugh & Koster, 2015).
The following worksheets are valuable tools for use when working with clients experiencing depression or at risk of future episodes:
Persistent negative thinking is a key risk factor for depression. This template helps identify unhelpful thoughts and how they interfere with daily living.
My Depression Story
Use this worksheet with clients to create a timeline of their lives to understand the key moments that shaped their perspective.
Unhelpful Thinking Styles
Our underlying thought patterns can worsen our depression. Share this worksheet with clients to identify unhelpful thinking styles and how to reconstruct them more positively.
7 Helpful exercises for building self-esteem
While poor self-esteem may emerge early in life, it can also develop in adulthood, caused by a combination of negative self-beliefs, harsh feedback, and challenging environments (Orth & Robins, 2019).
The following helpful exercises can boost clients’ self-esteem and challenge harsh self-evaluations:
Positively focused self-affirmations can reinforce our self-identity and outcomes related to meaningful personal values.
The Self-Esteem Checkup
This valuable tool offers clients insight into their degree of self-love, self-respect, and confidence in their capabilities.
This worksheet helps teens, adolescents, and adults familiarize themselves with the mental and bodily experiences associated with self-confidence.
My “Love Letter” to Myself
Use this worksheet with clients to help them identify their best traits, abilities, and talents and consider how they have benefited them and others in their lives.
Things I Like About Me
This worksheet helps children and teenagers see the beauty resulting from their uniqueness. Use this worksheet to encourage them to understand all they can do, how they treat others, and what they like about themselves.
Self-Esteem Journal for Adults
Journaling can promote positive self-reflection and enhance self-esteem. Ask the client to complete the questions and then reflect on their thinking patterns, feelings, and emotions.
Track and Measure Success
We are all much better at remembering what we did wrong rather than our successes. Ask clients to keep a copy of what went well and review it before future challenges.
Download 3 Free Positive CBT Exercises (PDF)
These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients with tools to find new pathways to reduce suffering and more effectively cope with life stressors.
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14 Exercises and Activities for Couples
Inevitably, couples disagree. However, when differences become irreconcilable, couples therapy can help regain trust, rebuild communication, and strengthen relationship bonds (Greiger, 2015).
The following exercises and activities are powerful tools for use with clients to support them on their journey.
Active Listening Reflection Worksheet
Being apart can significantly strain a relationship. Each partner will benefit from improving their active listening skills to boost understanding and reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation of what is being communicated on a call, video chat, or in person.
Traps to Avoid and Tips for Success
Conflicts can often be avoided — or at least managed better — by learning the mistakes we make in our communication and following these six tips for conflict resolution.
Group therapy has proven to be a powerful and practical tool for multiple client groups, including those dealing with depression and managing anxiety (Lenz et al., 2015; Crowley et al., 2017).
The following exercises support group-based therapy in children and adults:
Telling an Empathy Story
Telling someone else’s story can be a powerful way to understand their perspective while developing empathy. This five-step worksheet helps group members focus on feelings and what it’s like to be in someone else’s situation.
What I See in You
We rarely see ourselves as others do. In this exercise, the group takes turns offering compliments to an individual member, which they then repeat back using the pronoun “I.”
Nudge Interventions in Groups
A group environment creates a powerful opportunity to identify, explore, and discuss small changes that can have significant behavioral outcomes.
Group Boundary-Setting Exercise
This exercise provides an opportunity to practice using body language and speech to set boundaries with others in a group setting.
Creating an Empathy Picture
Helpful for multiple age groups, this exercise encourages members to reflect on and understand another person’s feelings.
Support Group Evaluation Form
It is vital to assess the appropriateness of interventions performed continuously within a group setting to ensure their suitability.
“Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health.”
Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005, p. 338
Simply capturing our thoughts, emotions, and concerns regularly — perhaps daily in a journal — has been shown to boost our moods and improve our overall sense of psychological wellbeing (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005).
The following five exercises encourage clients to self-reflect and then capture how they feel and think digitally or on paper:
Writing down daily everything that we are grateful for and learning from the challenges we face provides a powerful exercise for boosting our focus on the good things in life.
Who Am I?
Stopping to reflect and answer questions about ourselves increases self-awareness and self-knowledge. This two-part writing activity can be used in individual and group settings.
These 10 self-love writing prompts encourage self-inquiry while identifying ways to introduce more self-directed compassion and kindness.
Self-Love Sentence Stems
Completing these 20 self-love partial sentences can boost self-awareness and self-kindness in clients who tend toward self-criticism.
Reverse the Rabbit Hole
Capturing worries and potentially positive and negative outcomes on paper can make clients’ concerns more manageable.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
As we have already seen, we have many resources for therapists working with individuals, couples, and groups to support multiple issues and concerns while promoting overall wellbeing.
Regular, relationship-focused habits can help foster more productive communicative behavior in a relationship and can offer emotional significance.
The four steps include:
Step one – understanding various ritual types and timings, such as when parting, showing affection, and arranging date nights
Step two – identifying specific actions for inclusion in each ritual
Step three – planning how and when they should take place
Step four – reflecting on the positive emotions that arose from each ritual and recognizing their importance
A strengths versus weakness focus
We often devote more time to our weaknesses than our strengths. The following two steps can be performed in a group setting to improve awareness regarding the importance of strength awareness and focus.
Step one – Divide the group into three subgroups, as follows.
– Group 1 (weakness focus) spends time reflecting on challenging aspects of their jobs that drain their energy.
– Group 2 (strength focus) discusses the highlights of their job.
– Group 3 (observers) keeps an eye on the other two groups, noting their distinctions and dynamics.
Step two – After 15 minutes, regroup. The “weakness” and “strength” groups share what they discussed first. Then, the observers point out the contrasts in energy, mood, and behavior between the two.
This exercise supports participants as they introspectively analyze their strengths and weaknesses, all while fostering group communication and collaboration.
Therapy exercises are powerful tools for therapists and counselors working with individuals, couples, and groups. Such interventions, performed as homework between sessions, are linked to successful treatment outcomes (Mausbach et al., 2010).
The article shares many free therapy exercises and interventions grounded in research that support working with various psychological challenges, including complicated relationships, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues.
Such therapeutic exercises have the potential to foster meaningful change in your clients, equipping them with the tools to manage immediate challenges and the skills to solve issues in the future and after therapy. In doing so, they support and encourage individuals to participate actively in their healing and growth.
Besides the free therapy exercises highlighted, we offer various resource packs available on our website that underpin successful client outcomes. As therapists and counselors, you can use these activities and exercises as they are or tailor them to your clients’ specific needs and situations, ensuring you provide the best support for a positive therapeutic outcome.
When talk therapy doesn’t meet a client’s needs, a more active approach, such as drama therapy, can be helpful. Role-play and storytelling can be powerful tools for treating young people experiencing behavioral challenges, older clients facing age-related issues, and anyone with social and emotional difficulties (Boila et al., 2020).
How do you stabilize mental health?
Typically, stabilizing mental health involves a multifaceted approach. Individuals seeking help benefit from actively engaging in therapy and creating personal treatment plans, including recognizing strengths and setting personal goals.
Counseling offers therapeutic support and learning skills to help clients form solid connections with others and adopt a positive mindset by reframing negative thoughts, practicing gratitude, and focusing on successful outcomes (Dixon et al., 2016; Jacob, 2015).
Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338–346.
Bandelow, B., & Wedekind, D. (2022). Internet psychotherapeutic interventions for anxiety disorders: A critical evaluation. BMC Psychiatry, 22(1).
Boila, V., Klettke, L., Quong, S., & Gerlitz, C. (2020). Raising the curtain on drama therapy: Healing benefits for youth and older adults. Behavioural Sciences Undergraduate Journal, 3(1), 45–50.
Crowley, M. J., Nicholls, S. S., McCarthy, D., Greatorex, K., Wu, J., & Mayes, L. C. (2017). Innovations in practice: group mindfulness for adolescent anxiety: Results of an open trial. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 23(2), 130–133.
Dixon, L. B., Holoshitz, Y., & Nossel, I. (2016). Treatment engagement of individuals experiencing mental illness: review and update. World Psychiatry, 15(1), 13–20.
Dwyer, L. A., Hornsey, M. J., Smith, L. G. E., Oei, T. P. S., & Dingle, G. A. (2011). Participant autonomy in cognitive behavioral group therapy: An integration of self-determination and cognitive behavioral theories. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30(1), 24–46.
Greiger, R. (2015). The couples therapy companion: A cognitive behavior workbook. Routledge.
Jacob, K. S. (2015). Recovery model of mental illness: A complementary approach to psychiatric care. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(2), 117–119.
Lenz, A. S., Hall, J., & Bailey Smith, L. (2015). Meta-analysis of group mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for decreasing symptoms of acute depression. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 41(1), 44–70.
Mausbach, B. T., Moore, R., Roesch, S., Cardenas, V., & Patterson, T. L. (2010). The relationship between homework compliance and therapy outcomes: An updated meta-analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34(5), 429–438.
Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. Sage.
Orth, U., & Robins, R. W. (2019). Development of self-esteem across the lifespan. In D. P. McAdams, R. L. Shiner, & J. L. Tackett (Eds.), Handbook of personality development (pp. 328–344). Guilford Press.
Waugh, C. E., & Koster, E. H. (2015). A resilience framework for promoting stable remission from depression. Clinical Psychology Review, 41, 49–60.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.