Do you ever feel too overwhelmed to deal with your problems? If so, you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of American adults experience depression, anxiety or another mental disorder in any given year. Others need help coping with a serious illness, losing weight or stopping smoking. Still others struggle to cope with relationship troubles, job loss, the death of a loved one, stress, substance abuse or other issues. And these problems can often become debilitating.
What is Therapy?
Therapy can help you work through life’s problems like the ones listed above. Through psychotherapy, therapists help people of all ages live happier, healthier and more productive lives.
In psychotherapy, counselors apply scientifically validated procedures to help people develop healthier, more effective habits. There are several approaches— including cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal and other kinds of talk therapy.
It is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a professional. Grounded in dialogue, it provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. You will work together to identify and change the thought and behavior patterns that are keeping you from feeling your best.
By the time you’re done, you will not only have solved the problem that brought you in, but you will have learned new skills so you can better cope with whatever challenges arise in the future.
When should you consider psychotherapy?
Any time your quality of life isn’t what you want it to be, psychotherapy can help. Because of the many misconceptions about psychotherapy, you may be reluctant to try it out. Even if you know the realities instead of the myths, you may feel nervous about trying it yourself.
Some people seek psychotherapy because they have felt depressed, anxious or angry for a long time. Others may want help for a chronic illness that is interfering with their emotional or physical well-being. Still others may have short-term problems they need help navigating. They may be going through a divorce, facing an empty nest, feeling overwhelmed by a new job or grieving a family member’s death.
What are the different kinds of psychotherapy?
There are many different approaches. Therapists generally draw on one or more of these. Each theoretical perspective acts as a roadmap to help the therapist understand their clients and their problems and develop solutions.
The kind of treatment you receive will depend on a variety of factors: current psychological research, your therapist’s theoretical orientation and what works best for your situation.
Your therapists theoretical perspective will affect what goes on in his or her office. Therapists who use cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, have a practical approach to treatment. Your therapist might ask you to tackle certain tasks designed to help you develop more effective coping skills. This approach often involves homework assignments. You might be asked to gather more information, such as logging your reactions to a particular situation as they occur. Or to practice new skills between sessions, such as asking someone with an elevator phobia to practice pushing elevator buttons. You might also have reading assignments so you can learn more about a particular topic.
In contrast, psychoanalytic and humanistic approaches typically focus more on talking than doing. You might spend your sessions discussing your early experiences to help better understand the root causes of your current problems.
Your therapist may combine elements from several styles of psychotherapy. In fact, most therapists don’t tie themselves to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client’s needs.
The First Session
For your first session, you be may asked to come in a little early to fill out paperwork if you haven’t already done so.
Don’t worry that you won’t know what to do once the session actually begins. It’s normal to feel a little anxious in the first few sessions. Therapists have experience setting the tone and getting things started. They are trained to guide each session in effective ways to help you get closer to your goals. In fact, the first session might seem like a game of 20 questions.
He or she may also go over logistical matters, such as fees, how to make or cancel an appointment, and confidentiality, if he or she hasn’t already done so by phone.
Meeting your therapist
Typically the session will start with a question like, “What brought you here today?” or “What made you decide to come in now rather than a month or a year ago?” It helps to identify your problem, even if you’re not sure why you have it or how to handle it. For example, you might feel angry or sad without knowing what’s causing your feelings or how to stop feeling that way. If the problem is too painful to talk about, it’s OK for you to say that you are not ready to talk about something just yet. As you gain trust in your psychologist and the process, you may be willing to share things you didn’t feel comfortable answering at first.
You may also discuss your family’s history of psychological problems such as depression, anxiety or similar issues. You’ll also explore how your problem is affecting your everyday life and what kind of social support you have.
The two of you will work together to create a treatment plan. This collaborative goal-setting is important, because both of you need to be invested in achieving your goals. The therapist may write down the goals and read them back to you, so you’re both clear about what you’ll be working on. Some even create a treatment contract that lays out the purpose of treatment, its expected duration and goals, with both the individuals’ responsibilities outlined.
At the end of your first session, the therapist may also have suggestions for immediate action. If you’re depressed, for example, it might be suggested that you see a physician to rule out any underlying medical conditions. By the end of the first few sessions, you should have a new understanding of your problem, a game plan and a new sense of hope.
What should I expect as I continue psychotherapy?
As your psychotherapy goes on, you’ll continue the process of building a trusting, therapeutic relationship with your psychologist.
You and your therapist will keep exploring your problems through talking. For some people, just being able to talk freely about a problem brings relief. In the early stages, you clarify what’s troubling you. You’ll then move into a problem-solving phase, working together to find alternative ways of thinking, behaving and managing your feelings. You might role-play new behaviors during your sessions and do homework to practice new skills in between. As you go along, you and your therapist will assess your progress and determine whether your original goals need to be reformulated or expanded.
In some cases, your therapist may suggest involving others. If you’re having relationship problems, for instance, having a spouse or partner join you in a session can be helpful. Similarly, an individual having parenting problems might want to bring his or her child in
As you begin to resolve the problem that brought you to psychotherapy, you’ll also be learning new skills that will help you see yourself and the world differently. You’ll learn how to distinguish between situations you can change and those you can’t and how to focus on improving the things within your control.
Thanks to the American Psychological Association for the use of this article.