For some reason, our culture celebrates and encourages anyone seeking assistance when it comes to their physical health, but does not do the same for those seeking help for their mental health. For far too long this has been the case, which may be one of the reasons why mental health has become a sort of crisis in our country. In fact, two out of every five U.S. adults report having feelings of anxiety or depression on a regular basis, per a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One of the greatest resources available to those suffering from mental health is therapy, or the collaborative relationship between a therapist and a person who is struggling with life’s stressors, explains Jennifer Henderson, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist at Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill. “I often describe therapy as an interactive diary in which the therapist offers non-judgemental support while helping people discover patterns in how they think, feel, and act which may not be helpful,” she says. “A good therapist will use evidence-based techniques to help empower their clients to feel better, and hopefully, gain new skills so that they are more comfortable handling stress.”
One of the most common misconceptions about therapy is that only those in dire need can benefit from it. In fact, practically everyone can benefit from therapy. “Being a human is hard work and we are all doing our best to navigate life’s obstacles,” says licensed therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, L.M.F.T., owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “The list of challenges is endless, including how we engage in our relationships, manage daily stressors, cope with complicated feelings, and care for ourselves and our loved ones.”
Unfortunately, Lurie explains that the majority of us don’t really have the capability to understand our emotions and may have not learned how to cope with them growing up. “Therapy offers a space where you can begin to understand your emotions and your relationship with them and can consider your needs and wants and identify how to work on getting them met,” she says. “You can better comprehend how you came to engage with your world as you do, and you can make any changes that you identify may benefit you.”
Needless to say, therapy isn’t only designated for those with a diagnosed mental illness; it can offer support to any human who is open to benefiting from it. So if you’re looking to get started in therapy, here are some tips for doing so, according to experts.
Choose a therapist you truly connect with
Just as with hiring any professional, finding the right therapist for you might take time—and it’s crucial that you find someone you trust and connect with. “A big part of knowing whether a therapist is the right fit for you is how you feel when you’re around them, including if you feel comfortable being open and going at your own pace,” explains Lurie. “If it seems like they ‘get’ you to an extent and speak your language, that’s a good sign, as therapy will be most effective if you feel safe sharing and believe that the therapist is competent to help.”
Take the time to ask questions
Scheduling your consultation is your opportunity to ask questions you may have for the therapist, notes Kiara Luna, L.M.H.C., owner of Knew You Psychotherapy and author of Becoming a Knew You. “You may want to know if that therapist worked in the past addressing the issues you are looking to address, you might also want to know their approach and how they help their clients overcome these issues,” she says. “This will help you make an informed decision around how they can help you and whether or not this is a person you believe can help you.”
Remember that therapy is a marathon, not a sprint
Unlike physical therapy, therapy for mental health does not always have a finish line. While some people can seek therapy for a specific issue and feel like they’ve resolved it in a few short months, this is not true for everyone. “For some problems and with some modalities, it is not unusual for therapy to be a longer process of growth and self-discovery,” explains Lurie. She recommends recognizing that the different areas you want to address may need time and a concerted effort to work through effectively. “You’re not failing at therapy or doing anything wrong if it takes a while before you can recognize a change in how you feel or think,” she adds.
Be honest with your therapist
Remember that your therapist is not a mind reader. In order for them to understand something about you, you have to be forthcoming with your story. Share what’s really troubling you and how you’re really feeling about it. “We cannot help you if you don’t openly communicate with us,” says Dr. Henderson. “Part of this honesty is also letting us know when we’re missing the mark: Are we working on what is actually important to you? Are we working with you in a way that is helpful? Therapy should be a collaboration, and open communication is crucial to that process,” she adds.
Know that some sessions may be harder than others
Depending on your emotional state as well as what topic is being discussed, certain therapy sessions may be easier than others. Dr. Henderson points out the importance of creating a buffer for yourself between therapy and returning to your life. “As I’m closing out a difficult session with one of my clients, I always remind them to be extra kind and patient with themselves,” she says. “I remind them they may feel more sensitive for a while, and they should prioritize doing something that is nourishing for them, whether that’s soaking in a bath, playing with their pet, or jamming out to their favorite music.”
Seek an alternative if it’s not a good fit
It’s possible that, as you’re beginning therapy, you may find that you and your therapist aren’t a good fit. And that’s okay, notes Dr. Henderson. “Don’t be afraid to discuss this with your therapist, as it may be a discrepancy that the two of you can work on; however, it may also be that you need to see someone new,” she says. “Making that decision can feel very daunting, especially if you have been seeing a therapist for a long time, but, for therapy to be helpful, the relationship a person has with their therapist is key.”
Get ready to learn how to unlearn a lot of things
“A lot of us move through the world suppressing our emotions and/or not even acknowledging them,” says Luna. “Choosing not to talk about the issues we are experiencing because that would mean ‘showing weakness’ is a belief we must unlearn, as vulnerability is actually a strength—it takes a lot of courage and strength to have discussions about our negative thoughts and emotions and how they are impacting the way we relate to others.”