Is therapy for me?

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Psychotherapy

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 psychotherapy?

A psychologist can help you work through such problems. Through psychotherapy, psychologists help people of all ages live happier, healthier and more productive lives.In psychotherapy, psychologists apply scientifically validated procedures to help people develop healthier, more effective habits. There are several approaches to psychotherapy —  including cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal and other kinds of talk therapy — that help individuals work through their problems.Psychotherapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a psychologist. Grounded in dialogue, it provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. You and your psychologist 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?

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.Overcoming that nervousness is worth it. That’s because any time your quality of life isn’t what you want it to be, psychotherapy can help.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, for example.Signs that you could benefit from therapy include:

  • You feel an overwhelming, prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness.
  • Your problems don't seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends.
  • You find it difficult to concentrate on work assignments or to carry out other everyday activities.
  • You worry excessively, expect the worst or are constantly on edge.
  • Your actions, such as drinking too much alcohol, using drugs or being aggressive, are harming you or others.

What are the different kinds of psychotherapy?

There are many different approaches to psychotherapy. Psychologists generally draw on one or more of these. Each theoretical perspective acts as a roadmap to help the psychologist 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 psychologist's theoretical orientation and what works best for your situation.Your psychologist’s theoretical perspective will affect what goes on in his or her office. Psychologists who use cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, have a practical approach to treatment. Your psychologist might ask you to tackle certain tasks designed to help you develop more effective coping skills. This approach often involves homework assignments. Your psychologist might ask you to gather more information, such as logging your reactions to a particular situation as they occur. Or your psychologist might want you 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 you and your psychologist better understand the root causes of your current problems.Your psychologist 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 main thing to know is whether your psychologist has expertise in the area you need help with and whether your psychologist feels he or she can help you.


Some people wonder why they can't just talk about their problems with family members or friends. Psychologists offer more than someplace to vent. Psychologists have years of training and experience that help people improve their lives. And there is significant evidence showing that psychotherapy is a very effective treatment.

How effective is psychotherapy?

Hundreds of studies have found that psychotherapy helps people make positive changes in their lives.Reviews of these studies show that about 75 percent of people who enter psychotherapy show some benefit. Other reviews have found that the average person who engages in psychotherapy is better off by the end of treatment than 80 percent of those who don’t receive treatment at all.

How does psychotherapy work?

Successful treatment is the result of three factors working together:

  • Evidence-based treatment that is appropriate for your problem.
  • The psychologist's clinical expertise.
  • Your characteristics, values, culture and preferences.

When people begin psychotherapy, they often feel that their distress is never going to end. Psychotherapy helps people understand that they can do something to improve their situation. That leads to changes that enhance healthy behavior, whether it's improving relationships, expressing emotions better, doing better at work or school, or thinking more positively.While some issues and problems respond best to a particular style of therapy, what remains critical and important is the therapeutic alliance and relationship with your psychologist.

What if psychotherapy doesn't seem to be working?

When you began psychotherapy, your psychologist probably worked with you to develop goals and a rough timeline for treatment. As you go along, you should be asking yourself whether the psychologist seems to understand you, whether the treatment plan makes sense and whether you feel like you're making progress.Some people begin to feel better in about six to 12 sessions. If you don't start seeing signs of progress, discuss it with your psychologist. Your psychologist may initiate a conversation about what to do. If he or she doesn’t, bring it up yourself. You could ask your psychologist about additional or alternative treatment methods, for example. Sometimes speaking up to your psychologist can be very empowering, especially since your psychologist will be understanding and nonjudgmental instead of offended.Keep in mind that as psychotherapy progresses, you may feel overwhelmed. You may feel more angry, sad or confused than you did at the beginning of the process. That doesn’t mean psychotherapy isn’t working. Instead, it can be a sign that your psychologist is pushing you to confront difficult truths or do the hard work of making changes. In such cases, these strong emotions are a sign of growth rather than evidence of a standstill. Remember, sometimes things may feel worse before they get better.In some cases, of course, the relationship between a patient and the psychologist isn't as good as it should be. The psychologist should be willing to address those kinds of issues, too. If you’re worried about your psychologist’s diagnosis of your problems, it might be helpful to get a second opinion from another psychologist, as long as you let your original psychologist know you're doing so.If the situation doesn't improve, you and your psychologist may decide it’s time for you to start working with a new psychologist. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you; it’s just a bad fit. And because the therapeutic alliance is so crucial to the effectiveness of psychotherapy, you need a good fit.If you do decide to move on, don’t just stop coming to your first psychologist. Instead, tell him or her that you’re leaving and why you’re doing so. A good psychologist will refer you to someone else, wish you luck and urge you not to give up on psychotherapy just because your first attempt didn’t go well. Tell your next psychologist what didn’t work to help ensure a better fit.


Credit given to the American Psychological Association.