What is Therapy and Will it Work?
Therapy—sometimes called psychotherapy, talk therapy, or counseling—is meeting with a trained professional to take care of your mental and emotional health. A therapist or counselor can provide advice about or insights into feelings and experiences that are confusing or causing stress, and can help us figure out treatment approaches for addressing persistent mental health conditions.
There is a common misconception that therapy is only for people who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. In reality, people go to therapy for all sorts of reasons: to discuss their lives and emotional ups and downs, work out conflicts, heal from trauma, improve their interpersonal skills, or to just have a safe space to talk with someone who is not a part of their personal life. And, until someone has talked to a therapist about the specific things they struggle with, they won’t have a mental health diagnosis to work with. So, if you are struggling and need help figuring out a way forward, seeking therapy is a really useful first step.
If you are asking yourself, “do I need therapy?” then it’s worth exploring what you want out of therapy, what type of therapy might work for you, and how to find the right therapist.
Common Types of Therapy
Therapy can be done one on one, as a couple or a family, or in group settings where there is a common goal—for example, group therapy can be facilitated for a group of people who are working through an issue such as post-traumatic stress disorder or grief.
There are many different types of therapy, and many of them have different purposes—for example, healing from trauma, changing behaviors, or recovering from addiction. Here are some of the most common types of therapy and what they are typically used to treat:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This type of therapy is usually short-term and focused on problem-solving, changing thoughts and behaviors, and learning better strategies for dealing with difficult situations.
Mindful-Based Cognitive Therapy
A modified version of CBT, Mindful-Based Cognitive Therapy incorporates mindfulness practices to help people effectively handle negative behavioral patterns and prevent mental health issues like depression from worsening or relapsing.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, people work developing skills for dealing with painful emotions and relationships through practicing mindfulness, stress tolerance, emotional regulation, and effective interpersonal communication.
What’s the Difference Between Therapy and Talking to a Friend?
You may be asking yourself, “Why do I need therapy when I can just talk to my friends?” While having a strong support network of friends to lean on when you’re having a tough time is important, your loved ones fill a different role than a therapist does. A trained mental health professional can provide a more specialized kind of support—especially if you are dealing with a mental health condition. Here are some ways in which talking to a therapist differs from talking to your friends:
- Training: A therapist has gone through specialized training to recognize and treat mental health conditions. While a friend can be a good listener, they do not have the training needed to help you sort through all of the mental and emotional complexities that result from trauma, prolonged stress, or unhealthy patterns of behavior.
- Confidentiality: While we hope that the friends we confide in will respect our privacy, the only time confidentiality is guaranteed is when we speak to a licensed therapist. Therapists are held to legal and professional standards to protect all information discussed in sessions—unless there is a risk of harm to yourself or others.
- Objectivity: When we get advice from our friends, their opinion comes from their involvement in our lives and their shared experiences with us. When we speak to a therapist, they can offer an outside perspective and help us think through different points of view.
- Attention: A healthy friendship is a two-way street: you each express your feelings and talk about your issues. While it’s important to spend equal time and attention on each person in a friendship, a therapist’s job is to pay full attention to you. While it would be unfair to ask a friend to not talk about their problems, with a therapist there are professional boundaries in place that prevent them from talking about their problems. This way, a therapist can help you focus on more complicated issues that need full attention.
How to Find a Therapist
If you feel ready to seek therapy but you don’t know where to start, start by making a list of what you want. First, think about why you want to go to therapy. Knowing what issues you want to address can find a therapist that specializes in the areas you’re looking to work on.
Referrals are a great way to find a therapist. You can ask your friends or family members if they see a therapist and what their experience has been like. If you’re in school, consider going to a school counselor to find out about on-campus options as well as outside referrals. If you’re working, some employers offer Employee Assistance Programs that provide outside counseling. You can also ask your medical doctor for a referral list.
When looking for a therapist, there are some logistics to consider, including cost, location, timing, and meeting space. Therapy sessions are typically about an hour long, and can happen in person, over the phone or through teletherapy.
Importantly, you want to find a therapist you feel comfortable with. It may take meeting with a few therapists for an introductory session to find one that you click with. That’s totally normal. Therapy is about attending to your needs, so it’s important to find the right fit.
What to Expect from Therapy
Once you have found a therapist who you feel comfortable with, you will work together to define your treatment goals, what you expect to get out of therapy. Therapy is meant to provide a safe space for sharing things that you might not feel comfortable sharing elsewhere, and a therapist can guide you through managing tough emotions, dealing with stressful situations, and using mindfulness techniques. Everything you discuss in therapy is confidential.
Whether or not therapy is successful and you meet the goals you’ve set together depends on a number of things, some of which may be out of your control—such as cost, location, or other logistics. But there is an important piece that is within your control: commitment to your own growth. Successful therapy is not only supported by a good, trained therapist—it’s accomplished with cooperation and investment from you.