How to get the most out of therapy

Entering therapy—even short-term, focused therapy—is an investment of time, money, and energy.  It's a bit like deciding to see a personal trainer.  The trainer can provide a structure, a plan, troubleshooting, and support.  But at the end of the day, your success will hinge on your own efforts.  Here are a few ways to maximize your chances of seeing positive results in therapy:

  1. Give it a chance.  Therapy can change your life—but it doesn’t always happen overnight.  It may take several sessions for you and your therapist to come to a clear formulation of what needs to change in your life.  And sometimes that changes over time. That’s normal.
  2. Don’t “buy into” your anxiety.  A client recently told me that he tends to get bad stomachaches whenever he has to do an important presentation at work.  He would wind up bailing on these presentations, and he would often find that at soon as he notified colleagues of his upcoming absence, his stomachaches would go away.  Clearly, his stomach pains were anxiety-related.  So, we decided that stomachaches would not be an acceptable excuse for missing therapy.  Sure enough, he found that after several sessions of showing up to therapy in spite of his discomfort, his stomachaches eased considerably.  The moral of this story is that anxiety can show up in many different guises, and it’s important to see it for what it is.
  3. Be open with your therapist.  The issues you may want to discuss in therapy are usually hard to talk about by their very nature.    But therapy doesn’t work if you can’t put it out there.
  4. Do your homework.  As wonderful as your therapist may be (and yes, that’s a joke), you will only spend 1 hour each week in his office, and 167 hours outside of it.  Clearly, the big changes occur outside of therapy sessions.  There’s no two ways about it:  You can make progress, but you have to put in the time.
  5. Take notes or record your sessions.  Many of my clients have a notebook that they bring in to every session, and some record sessions with their smartphones.  This can be very helpful.  Therapy sessions can be jam-packed with information, especially early on in treatment.  You will be providing a lot of background information about your situation, and your therapist will introduce you to a number of new techniques and concepts.  Also, some clients find that therapy sessions make them feel a bit anxious (this is no surprise, since anxiety is what we are here to talk about).  If you’ve ever tried to cram for a test at the last minute, you know that anxiety impairs learning and memory encoding.  Some clients have told me that they got more out of their sessions upon subsequent listening, since they could really relax and reflect on what we’d discussed.

These are just a few of the things you can do to maximize your chances of having a good therapeutic experience.  More to come…