How Does Therapy Work? 3 Ways Counseling Could Help You

Woman looking at mountains from her carIf you’ve never gone to therapy, you might not have much idea what happens in a therapy session. This is fairly common, since much of what people know about therapy comes from (often inaccurate) media portrayals.

In the past decade, awareness around mental health issues has increased significantly. Greater awareness has helped reduce mental health stigma by supporting therapy as a beneficial, normal method of getting help. Accordingly, the shroud of secrecy around therapy has started to fall away. Your friends, family members, even your coworkers may be perfectly willing to open up about their experience in therapy and how talking to a mental health professional has helped them.

But if you’re still unsure about therapy, or don’t know anyone who’s gone to therapy, you might hesitate before booking your first session. Maybe you feel nervous about what a therapist will do, or you don’t think your distress actually merits therapy.

You don’t need to experience any significant mental health issues or emotional distress for therapy to work.

Before exploring how therapy works to help people who are struggling, let’s bust that myth right now. You don’t need to experience any significant mental health issues or emotional distress for therapy to work. If you’re struggling, confused, feel like you want to sort out a problem or your life and don’t know where to start—therapy can help.

Therapy Is Personalized

The process of therapy can differ somewhat based on what you’re experiencing.

For one, the length of therapy can vary based on the issue you want help with. If you’re struggling with depression after a breakup or job loss, for example, therapy often helps you work through the problem within a few months. You might not be completely “cured,” but you’ll generally be able to resolve lingering distress on your own. That’s a key goal of therapy.

Serious or longer-lasting concerns, like trauma from abuse or chronic depression, may require more therapy sessions and a more intensive approach.

In most cases, you’ll spend just an hour each week in therapy. But your therapist might also recommend specialized types of therapy to meet your needs. Dialectical behavior therapy, for example, generally involves an hour of therapy, an hour of skills training, and an additional hour of group therapy each week.

Therapy doesn’t operate as a blanket remedy or one-size-fits-all approach. Therapy for intrusive thoughts (a component of OCD) will likely look much different than therapy for a phobia of dogs.

But even two people with generalized anxiety might see treatment proceed in different ways, based on the type of treatment the therapist specializes in and their individual needs.

If you’ve tried various coping strategies and still struggle with severe anxiety, for example, you might want to try medication, a perfectly valid (and helpful) treatment option. Your therapist should support your decision and work with you to find the right drug.

If you know you don’t want to take medication at all, unless absolutely necessary, you might look for a therapist who specializes in alternative treatments, like yoga or nature therapy.

Therapy Helps People Reach Goals

You might consider going to therapy (or want to avoid therapy entirely) with the idea that your therapist will give you advice, tell you what to do, or ask how every little thing makes you feel.

But therapy doesn’t work like that. Rather, therapy offers a safe, nonjudgmental space for you to talk about problems and anything that’s overwhelming you or even just making life a little tough. Your therapist listens to what you have to say and then works with you to develop a plan to confront challenges and achieve an improved quality of life.

You can also go to therapy if you aren’t experiencing significant distress. Therapy can be beneficial in the pursuit of any goal, no matter what that goal is.

Maybe you want to date but feel you lack the skills to approach someone or make a relationship work. Perhaps you want to work on being closer with your teenage children. Or maybe you just want to break a lifelong nail-biting habit.

Whatever your goal, your therapist will help you explore potential changes you can make to arrive at the outcome you desire. But you come to therapy with your goals (or spend time identifying them in session). You also have an opportunity to share solutions that don’t work, which can help you and your therapist work together to find something that will have benefit.

Say you’ve been feeling low because you no longer have time to create art. Your therapist asks what a typical day looks like for you. After you explain your schedule, they point out you’re spending all your time doing things for others, something you never stopped to consider.

In short, therapy can help you work to identify and break concerning patterns or habits on your own. Therapists don’t give you all the answers. They help you find the right tools to help yourself.

In therapy, you drive the car. Your therapist can help you navigate when you get lost or help dig you out if you get stuck in the mud.

Therapy Puts You in Control

In therapy, you drive the car. Your therapist can help you navigate when you get lost or help dig you out if you get stuck in the mud. But your therapist doesn’t decide where you go or how you get there. You do that work yourself.

That’s why finding a therapist you can work well with is so important. You can often help personalize your own therapy experience by choosing your own therapist, so look for someone you feel comfortable with.

Therapists aren’t machines. Their unique personalities, mannerisms, and styles of interaction will likely show through in the therapy process. Their personality can help attract you to the work you’re doing together, or put you off it.

Finding a therapist who will encourage you to keep pushing through difficulties, even when it’s unpleasant, is also essential. Therapy often feels uncomfortable, even unpleasant. That’s a normal part of the process. But when you and your therapist have a strong working relationship, you trust them to support you through the discomfort and arrive at a place where you feel ready to make change.

If you don’t believe your therapist will continue offering compassion and support, regardless of the thoughts you share or challenges you face, you’ll have a harder time opening up and sharing your vulnerabilities. As a result, therapy may have less effect.

You pay for therapy. It’s your space to create change. Your therapist offers guidance during the process, but you work toward what you need.

Conclusion

If you go into therapy looking for a quick, easy solution, or with the hope your therapist will solve all your problems, you won’t get much out of the process.

Therapy can be hard work, and going into therapy with this in mind can help prepare you for the occasional tough session. But when you work with the right therapist, therapy can be productive and healing, and most of your sessions will probably feel rewarding, even when they’re a little difficult.

Ready to find a compassionate therapist? GoodTherapy is the best place to start. Start your search here.

References:

  1. Frey, E. (2017, April 27). How therapy actually works and 5 myths about therapy debunked. Retrieved from https://medium.com/kip-blog/5-myths-about-therapy-debunked-17e7fdd8b8a5
  2. Going to a therapist. (2018). TeensHealth. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/therapist.html
  3. Understanding psychotherapy and how it works. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-psychotherapy
  4. What is psychotherapy? (2019). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/psychotherapy

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