Because therapy and mental health are much more than just showing up every week!

What we know and understand about mental health has come a long way in recent years. Between that and everything else going on in the world, it’s no surprise that many people have been more open to receiving mental health treatment. This is great news, but it can also be hard to know where to start and how to get the most of this to improve mental health, especially if this is your first time in therapy. So, where do you begin?

1. Do your mental health related research

It’s always a good idea to do a little bit of research to find a therapist that best suits your needs. Although most therapists are educated and trained on a wide range of issues, some therapists have spent a lot of time working with specific populations and consider that to be their ‘specialty.’ If you’re seeking help for a specific issue, it may be beneficial to see someone who already has experience in that area.

In addition, it’s very important that you feel comfortable with your therapist. People usually go to therapy to discuss challenging things in their lives and mental health issues, and if you’re not comfortable with the person sitting across from you, it will only make talking about those things more difficult. Most therapists post a little bit about themselves in a bio online, or even write blog posts like this one about things that interest them! Doing research about different therapists can give you an idea if he/she would be a good fit for you.

And if you find yourself working with a therapist that you feel isn’t a good fit, speak up about it! Chances are your therapist will be understanding and can even provide referrals for other therapists in the area.

2. Think about you’re mental health goals and what you're hoping to get out of therapy

You will most likely start your first appointment by discussing what brings you to therapy and some of your history. It can be helpful if you’ve already put some thought into the issues you’re hoping to address. Are you looking to change some negative behaviors, or learn healthy coping skills? Maybe you want to improve your interpersonal relationships by learning better communication skills, or manage symptoms of anxiety or depression. Whatever it is you’re looking to address, being prepared with clear goals can help keep your sessions focused so you’re getting the most of your time each week. It can also help to think about any significant experiences from your past that may be impacting you currently, as that can be helpful information that therapists will want to know about you.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Therapy is a safe place where you should feel comfortable sharing your deepest insecurities or struggles. You should also feel comfortable enough to speak up and ask questions if something isn’t making sense to you or isn’t working for you. Your therapist can only work with the information you bring to the session, so if you feel like those breathing exercises you keep talking about each week just aren’t working, be honest and say that. Then we can try to explore what isn’t working with the breathing exercises, or maybe even discuss different calming techniques altogether.

Therapy is also a great place to practice things like communication skills, setting or enforcing boundaries, and being assertive (like saying ‘hey, these breathing exercises aren’t working for me!’). If these are things you struggle with, discuss it with your therapist so they can be sure to address these issues during the session.

4. Be positive but also realistic

It’s a pretty common misconception that you’ll receive some advice from a therapist in one or two sessions and you’ll be able to apply that advice to your life and move on. It’s important to understand that therapy is a process that often requires some patience. For some people it takes more than one or two sessions to even feel comfortable enough to discuss some of those deepest insecurities, and that’s okay. Treatment will be ongoing. There’s no set number of sessions and it can differ for everyone.

It can be helpful to approach therapy with curiosity. Be curious about the ways you currently behave, think, and feel. Have you experienced anything in life that may be contributing to these behaviors, thoughts, and feelings?

5. Do your homework

Therapy is much more than simply showing up for your session each week. Some therapists may give ‘homework assignments’ hoping to keep you engaged in between sessions. Homework could be asking you to journal and reflect on certain areas of your life. It may be simply noticing when something you discussed in session comes up, or even practicing certain skills like breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and self-care, all which help improve mental health.

Even if your therapist doesn’t assign you specific tasks, you should still be putting in work outside of session. Therapy is a great place to receive tips, guidance, and education about things you’re struggling with, but the actual change takes place when you start applying those tips to your everyday life.

- Jennifer Tietjen, LMSW

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