If you have never been to therapy, just thinking about going can be anxiety producing. Realizing that you need help may make you feel weak, but deciding to no longer live with distressing feelings is the most courageous step one can take. Talking to a complete stranger takes bravery. Accepting our limitations takes courage. Seeking help takes strength. But what is psychotherapy? What is it like? Understanding therapy and what to expect can help reduce the concerns about going, and prepare you for the process.
Psychotherapy is a way to help people who suffer from a variety of mental health illnesses and emotional distress. Psychotherapy is a team effort between you and the professional therapist working together to reach an agreeable end goal. Psychotherapy is framed in phases and the length of each phase varies according to each person and the presenting problem.
For psychotherapy to be effective, a professional therapeutic relationship must be built between the therapist and you, the client. This means that the therapist must build a trusting environment where you feel safe to share. This is an ongoing process that is initially created in the first phase of therapy. During this initial phase, you will be asked a lot of detailed questions including what symptoms you are experiencing, how long the symptoms have been present and the negative impact it is having on your life. You can choose how much you want to share and at what pace. The more open you are the better the therapist will understand and be able to help.
At the end of the first phase of treatment, the therapist will begin to provide you with their professional insight into the presenting problem along with recommendation for treatment options. During this time the therapist works with you to identify your goals and the best types of therapy to reach those goals, whether that is finding treatments to heal your emotional distress or reduce and manage the negative and distressing symptoms. If your therapist feels that the treatment needed is not within their scope of competency, your therapist will provide you with referrals where you can receive the treatment that best suits your needs.
In the middle phase of treatment the therapist begins to implement the treatment plan, working together with you to reach your goals. This may include identifying and learning new healthy coping skills and/or talking about things you may have never talked to anyone about. It is important that you implement any and all new healthy techniques into your daily life in order to receive the most benefits therapy has to offer. As you talk about things you have never talked about before, you may begin to feel worse before you begin to feel better. If you experience this at anytime during the therapeutic process, notify your therapist so any necessary adjustments to your treatment plan can be made.
The final phase of therapy includes acknowledging and celebrating the progress you have made, solidifying the new skills you have learned, and possibly celebrating the new you. Therapy can and does change us. Therapy helps us grow. Oftentimes we are grateful for the process not just because we feel better, but because we like who we become better that the person we were before.
Therapy usually consists of weekly session lasting approximately 50 minutes. As you begin to feel better the frequency of the session can be reduced to every other week and eventually once a month until you are no longer in need of therapy. The number of therapy sessions varies for each person, depending of the severity of the problem that is being addressed. You are never obligated to continue therapy. If at anytime you want to stop treatment for any reason, you may. You are simply encouraged to notify your therapist, and the therapist will provide you with referrals as necessary.
There are different types of professional therapists. The most common in California are Marriage and Family Therapists and Clinical Social Workers. Both are trained in individual, family and couples, and group therapy. They examine presenting problems in a social context, and provide a better understanding of the problem and ways to address and treat it. They hold a master degree in either Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) or Social Work (MSW), and they can be licensed (LMFT, LCSW) or pre-licensed therapists (AMFT, ASW). Pre-licensed therapists, like licensed therapists, have completed all the necessary master level educational trainings and are registered with the state Board of Behavioral Sciences. Pre-licensed therapists are mandated to practice under a licensed therapist while they earn the necessary hours to become licensed (3000 hours for Marriage and Family Therapists and 3200 hours for Clinical Social Workers).
There are also Psychologists and Psychiatrists. These therapists hold doctorate degrees and therefore can be referred to as a doctor (PhD, PsyD, EdD, MD). A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in psychiatry and medication treatment. They are the only therapists that can prescribe medication. If your therapist is not a Psychiatrist, but recommends medication treatment for you, or if you decide you want medication at any time to help you deal with your symptoms, your therapist will need to refer you to a Psychiatrist.
Choosing a therapist is a personal decision. Once you find one that is trained and experienced treating the presenting problem that you are suffering from, then you simply need to find one you connect with. Like picking a doctor, you want to go to someone with whom you feel you can trust.
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