Curious about therapy? Do you want to pursue a career as a therapist, start seeing a therapist, or just learn more about how therapy differs from other forms of mental health assistance? You’re in the right place.
In 1999, Tony Soprano made an appointment with a therapist. This might not seem like a big deal to you, but it certainly was to him, his “work associates,” and many viewers of the hit TV show The Sopranos. Despite the obvious stress that comes with being in the mob, therapy was looked down upon. Some people believed that going to therapy meant that you were admitting a weakness. Acceptance of therapy has changed slightly in the years since The Sopranos, and more and more people are seeking out a therapist to help them with their mental health.
Therapy is not the only form of mental health care that you can receive. In order to discover whether therapy is right for you, you have to understand what a therapist does, what types of therapy are available, and what questions to ask a therapist before you have your first appointment.
Why Should You Seek a Therapist?
If you are experiencing the following, you might want to reach out to a therapist or mental health professional:
- Recent, big changes in your life
- Thoughts of harming yourself or others
- Difficulty regulating your emotions
- Difficulty regulating negative thought patterns
- Emotions of helplessness or constant worry
- Anger management issues
- Addiction issues
- Conflicts with your partner, friends, or loved ones
Not all therapists specialize in these issues, but being open and honest with your struggles to a mental health professional can lead you to the right therapist.
How Does Therapy Work?
Therapy doesn’t require you to relax on a chaise lounge while the therapist asks you about your mother or hypnotizes you. In today’s world, a therapist is more likely to offer you a chair in their office or even meet you through a telehealth provider.
In your first sessions, the therapist will ask you a lot of questions. What symptoms are you experiencing? What is causing your stress? Can you share information on your family background, current employment, and relationship status? It may take a session or two for you to share all of this information, or you might dive right into your goals and how you are handling stress.
Depending on the approach that the therapist likes to use, they may ask questions or give you a survey to analyze your symptoms and how they relate to depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.
Therapists may offer some advice (and will offer some if you ask for it), or they might offer their insights on how the mind works as we experience trauma, neglect, or other forms of stress. In addition, they may also give you “homework” to try in between sessions. This homework may come in the form of journaling, mindfulness practices, or other treatments related specifically to trauma. Outside of formal assignments, a therapist might offer healthy coping skills that you can use when you are feeling stressed.
Do You Have to See A Therapist for the Rest of Your Life?
No. You can go to a therapist to deal with certain transitions, events, or goals in your life. If you and your therapist can discover solutions that work to reduce your stress, you may only need to see the therapist for a period of months.
Therapists may meet with you once a week, once a month, or as frequently as you need in order to manage your stress and meet your mental health goals.
This is true even if you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental illness. The Diathesis-Stress Model is often used in mental health work to show how stress and a predisposition for mental health disorders relate. A nervous break or symptoms of depression does not mean that this is your reality forever. Additional stress, from a job loss to death to a global pandemic, may bring out more symptoms than you are used to when these transitions are not happening.
If you are considering seeing a therapist, go into your session with a growth mindset. Therapists want to help you live a more fulfilled life.
Therapy vs. Counseling vs. Coaching
Therapists can help you achieve many goals: feeling more confident, forming better relationships, or managing stress. But those goals are also shared by other professionals, including counselors and coaches. What’s the difference? Let’s find out.
Therapy vs. Coaching
A therapist can help you work through issues that stem from stress and anxiety but may be limited to mental health counseling. Coaches, on the other hand, may offer a broad range of services. You can reach out to a career coach, business coach, or life coach. A coach typically asks their clients questions to help them unveil the “answers” and “a-ha” moments that a patient needs in order to have a breakthrough.
While therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists have degrees in their respective fields, coaches tend to get their training from other coaches and programs. ICF is widely considered the most respected program for coaches.
Therapy vs. Advising
Advisors fit somewhere between a “therapist” and a “coach.” They cover a broad range of subjects; you may go to an advisor for your finances, to help run your business, or for legal advice. Unlike coaches, their job is to give you straight advice from their experience. Unlike therapists, this advice doesn’t usually have to do with stress management or mental health.
Therapy vs. Counseling
These terms are relatively similar, although certain states offer certain licenses for both professions. Therapists and counselors typically earn Master’s Degrees in order to help patients work through mental health issues. Their certification is what makes them a therapist or a counselor. While both of these professionals have formal education and training in their field, they are not doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.
Can Therapists Prescribe Medication?
Depending on the type of mental health help you seek out, you may be able to receive a prescription for medication (if that is what is appropriate for your symptoms.) Not all therapists can prescribe medication. You must reach out to a psychiatrist who has been certified to diagnose medical conditions, prescribe medication, and monitor the results of that form of treatment. If medication is something you are interested in exploring, ask your mental health professional in consultation if they provide those services.
Will Therapy Help My Relationship?
If you find yourself struggling with your partner, a relationship therapist can help you get back on track. Many therapists specialize in relationships, including romantic relationships. Relationship therapy sessions can help you have open and honest conversations with your partner, rebuild trust, or reveal issues in the relationship that you may not have identified before.
Therapists cannot guarantee that, when a couple enters their practice, they will leave stronger than before. There is a lot of work that each individual must do in order to save the relationship. If both partners are interested and willing to make the effort, they have a greater chance of staying together. If one person is apathetic, the relationship may still end.
Fortunately, therapists can also help you through the loss of a relationship. Breakups, like deaths and job losses, can conjure up feelings of grief. Therapy can help you through all of the stages of grief, all of the negativity that comes with a breakup, and your next steps toward a positive relationship with yourself and eventually, a new partner.
Therapy Approaches and Treatments
Therapy has evolved over multiple decades. New approaches and treatments have been developed as a response to the biggest theories of the time. While some of these approaches directly tackle anxiety, PTSD, or phobias, others can be used to help a patient with a variety of mental health issues.
Look through this list of different therapy approaches to learn more about the different approaches. If one stands out to you, look for a therapist that specializes in that area.
- Narrative Therapy
- Client-Centered Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Systematic Desensitization
- Flooding Therapy
Can Therapy Be Harmful?
Mental health can be a delicate issue for many people. Receiving the wrong advice, medication, or treatment may do more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid therapy altogether. The best way to ensure that your therapist will help you in your mental health journey is to do your due diligence while searching for a therapist. Take them up on their free consultation. Talk to multiple therapists so you can get a sense of how different people approach your particular goals and background.
Questions to Ask A Therapist
Before you have your first session with a therapist, ask about them:
- Where are you licensed to practice?
- What is your educational background?
- Which schools within psychology do you incorporate into your practice?
- Do you own your practice? If not, why did you choose to work with this practice?
- What types of therapy techniques do you share with patients?
- How often do you work with patients experiencing [share the reason why you are in therapy]
- How often do you work with patients who are like me? [Ask about their experience with POC, the LGBTQ+ community, patients who are disabled, parents, children, teens, or any demographic that applies to you]
- How often do you recommend that your patients see a therapist?
- Do you charge on a sliding scale?
- What are some signs that a patient may stop therapy or needs more frequent sessions?
- Are you able to prescribe medication? What forms of treatment do you recommend before medication?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Listen to their response in order to find the therapist who is right for you and what you are going through.
Tools for Stress Management
Maybe you do not want to see a therapist. Maybe a therapist is out of your price range, you have had bad experiences with therapy, or you just haven’t found a therapist in your area who fits what you are looking for. Therapy is not the only approach to stress management. Improving your mental health may be accomplished by a variety of other strategies. If you are having trouble focusing due to stress or just can’t seem to stay calm, try these tools for stress management.
Mindfulness is a broad term that simply describes being present in the moment. In a world where work is pulling us in one direction, our family is pulling us in another direction, and the notifications on our phone are pulling us in 100 additional directions, mindfulness practices can be a way to de-stress, problem-solve, and remind yourself what you are enough, exactly where you are.
Mindfulness practices include, but are not limited to:
- Breathing practices
- Mindfulness workshops
- …Anything where you can focus on the present moment
If you’re stressed, you might want to consider floating in a big tank of saltwater. I’m serious! Sensory deprivation tanks are a fascinating approach to aligning the body, reducing stress, and recentering yourself. I’ve floated in a few myself! While they are not for everyone, grabbing a float session on Groupon or checking out your local float spa may be your new favorite self-care habit!
Diet, Exercise, and Lifestyle Changes
Adding something new to your routine may not be as effective as changing up your current routine. Mental and physical health are connected. Just think about the connection between stress and sleep. When you’re stressed, you are less likely to get in your recommended eight hours of sleep. Without eight hours of sleep, your body doesn’t get to “reset” fully. Cortisol is not produced in the proper amounts. When you’re awake, you’re more likely to feel groggy, achy, or grumpy. That only leads to more stress, which leads to fewer hours of sleep, and so on.
Pay attention to your diet, sleep schedule, and how much movement you get within a day. There is a reason that people get “hangry” or are easily grumpy until they go to the gym.
Take a good look at what you’re doing throughout the day, from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed. Are you eating and doing things that benefit your mental and physical health, or is it time to make some changes? The choices you make might serve as natural antidepressants - or get in the way of your mental health.