No Pain, No Gain: Psychotherapy and Mental Health Recovery Take Time

Person walking down overgrown sidewalkQuick, would you prefer $100 million right now, or a penny that that doubles every day for a year? Next question: Would you like to be cured of your depression, relationship problems, eating and food issues, or addiction immediately, or would you like to work on it?

On first glance, the answer to both questions seems obvious. I’ll take the $100 million and I want to be cured of my mental health issues, marital discord, and alcohol abuse, thank you.

Now do the math. If you take a penny and double it every day you’ll have $5 million in the first month. You’ll have $1 billion before the end of the second month, you’ll be the richest person in the world with $1 trillion before the third month, and shortly after that you would have more money than has existed in print in the whole entire world, ever. You could cure world hunger and economic strife and probably put an end to all war and human suffering within one year’s time.

How’s that for return on investment? Your recovery and mental health and wellness are no different. What you put into it is what you get out of it. Anything good is worth working for. It’s addictive behavior to expect to be cured right away. Too many people want to feel better immediately. Even their families complain, “Aren’t you feeling better yet?” “When will you stop feeling depressed? It’s been a year, shouldn’t you be over it now?” “Can’t you at least have just one drink like a normal person?”

Have you ever been frustrated by someone saying to you, “No pain no gain?” Worse, you found it so annoying because deep down you think it might be true. This is a good analogy for psychotherapy and recovery. When you go to therapy and do the work of recovery and getting well, it can be tiresome, hard, and uncomfortable. It isn’t easy trusting a therapist, depending on them, letting them get to know you, and talking about deeper thoughts and feelings.

Working out, exercise, and going to the gym are hard and uncomfortable. When you are lifting weights, it is commonly believed that you are actually ripping your muscles. Working out this way can cause “microtrauma,” which appears to involve the micro-tearing of muscle fibers and connective tissue, including the sheath around your muscles. Muscle hypertrophy actually increases the size of muscle cells, and muscle hyperplasia refers to the process of the forming of new muscle cells. This working stress on your muscles followed by a rest and repair process is good for you if you if you want to get big and strong.

Work, school, relationships, and therapy are like this, too. Working hard or studying for an exam is tiresome. Reading a textbook for three hours at a desk results in eye strain, boredom, or neck and back pain, but we do it because it can make us smarter, more knowledgeable, or an expert in our field. Telling a good friend or partner that we are angry with them or that they hurt our feelings can be a particularly hard conversation to have, yet we forge ahead in the hope that we might feel closer, more connected, and more understood.

Psychotherapy and mental health recovery are hard work, too, and it can certainly be uncomfortable at times. There is an old adage in Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “You just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It is when we believe that our discomfort states are abnormal that we are at risk of missing an opportunity for growth. Those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are masters at denial and will do anything to avoid uncomfortable feeling states.

If we are uncomfortable, we probably are feeling that way because our bodies or our hearts are telling us something about what we might need or want. It is only when we can listen to what our body or heart is saying that we can learn from what we are feeling. Many believe what Sigmund Freud proclaimed, that the goal of psychotherapy is to make that which is unconscious conscious. This is the work of psychotherapy, and it must be done in a social context with a therapist or a group, with family members perhaps, and with people who are truly important in our lives.

Working on ourselves is hard work, but the good news is we can do a little bit each day; it doesn’t have to be done all at once. A small, consistent daily investment in self-growth will pay off big over time. So next time, when someone asks you if you want the $100 million or if you want to be cured right away, just smile and tell them no thank you, you’ll take a pass. You’d rather do it the hard way, taking your time, just a little bit every day.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Frank, PhD, CAC, Drug and Alcohol Addiction Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • margie lindley

    February 2nd, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    Logically it might make the most sense to allow the healing to become a long term process, to allow you to find yourself and develop solutions to those issues which have plagued you throughout life. But I think that most of us know that we are a quick fix kind of society, and what might normally take years to happen we want to happen in a day. I am like this with most things too. My patience with something wanes and I get antsy. I know that this probably happens to those in treatment and recovery too.

  • MosesJ

    February 3rd, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    I have always liked that no pain no gain analogy. It has been a real motivator for me.

  • br1an

    February 3rd, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    When my friend lost a competition in college that he had worked over for a few months,I told him its okay and we all took him to a place he really wanted to go for a long long time too. But he still thinks about it and laments, even weeks later now.

    i do understand that something in your mind does take time to go away and for you to get over it.Likewise the treatment also needs time.We cannot wave a wand but can certainly stand by thos who we care for.

  • dane

    February 4th, 2012 at 5:47 AM

    all healing takes time

  • Myra

    February 5th, 2012 at 5:37 AM

    And then what happens when someone feels like they have taken a whole lot of time and then are still seeing no improvement? It can get pretty frustrating, so I know that small steps are the answer but you all know that we have all been there when it does not feel that way. Then what are you supposed to do? Who are you supposed to turn to to get the reassurance that it is all going to work out?

  • Dr. Jeremy Frank

    February 24th, 2012 at 9:45 PM

    Myra, time takes time. Don’t give up before the miracle might happen. Turn to anyone and everyone. Change happens slowly so you just don’t see it sometimes but it’s happening. Look up the word “sea change”. The sea can change a boulder into sand. It might take a long time but that is a powerful impressive solid and permanent change.


  • Richard Haden

    March 6th, 2012 at 5:20 PM

    To say that psychotherapy and mental health recovery is hard work is kind of a understatement to me. Sometimes finding a therapist I could work with has been hard. But I have not given up and now have a wonderful healthcare provider. Sometime I have had to be my own best advocate.

    I am now a peer support special who is trained and certified to, among other things, is to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.


  • Bridgette Cotton-Green

    July 9th, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Jeremy, I agree anything good is worth working for. I don’t think client expect to be cured right away. They don’t realize how hard it truly can be to commit to change. The commitment to admit they have an addiction or a problem. Next, committing to changing their lifestyle and friends once they realize what they need to do in order for change to take place.
    I believe people who are not suffering from an addiction may experience the same thing. When some people commit to work, school and relationships, we are not aware going in of what this commitment will entail. Once we started are commitment and we working toward it in the middle of it, we realize how hard it is to see it through. At this point, we are able to make decision about how bad we want to pursue this commitment to work, school and/or relationship.
    Psychotherapy is just like anything else. When we have to face the things that hurt us, we begin to feel uncomfortable. I think the best way to help a client to see therapy would be to make them aware of the times they may feel uncomfortable; however, If they are willing to face the most uncomfortable part of their problem then healing can begin.

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