With most of my ideas surrounding therapists centering around tv depictions where they do little but say “and how did that make you feel?” to a character who doesn’t really want to be there, I wasn’t sure what to expect at my first session a couple of years ago. Since then, a lot of the people I’ve talked to about my experiences have been curious about what therapy is actually like – whether you can cry in sessions, whether your therapist gives you advice, whether it’s awkward or intense. But whilst everyone’s experiences of therapy will vary (depending on who your therapist is/how good they are, what you put into a session etc) I thought that World Mental Health day might be a good time to share some advice on how to approach therapy sessions to get the most out of them.
- Be prepared for the benefits of therapy to take time. Therapy is so effective in part because you work to build a relationship with your therapist in a space that feels non-judgemental and safe. But being able to challenge your thoughts and behaviours with someone requires a certain level of vulnerability that most likely won’t appear after just a single session. Give yourself time to connect with your therapist and to adjust to the dynamic of sessions before you decide that you’re not getting the benefits that you hoped for. **
- Try and schedule in some down-time after a session. Therapy is likely going to explore some difficult emotions/memories and you may struggle to just go straight back to whatever you’d usually be doing afterwards. I often felt really happy and productive after sessions because I felt heard and managed to make progress with how I was coping, but I also had sessions were I felt incredibly emotional/needed a good cry. Giving yourself a bit of time to go for a quick walk or have a coffee afterwards to clear your head can be really helpful, especially if you’ve got work/uni commitments.
- Embrace the lack of social norms. Therapy is one of the only places where I’ve felt like it was okay to clarify what was meant by a question, where I felt like I could admit when I was worried I hadn’t articulated a response well enough or had said something that was making me feel anxious. Embrace the fact that therapy isn’t a normal conversation – you can come back to things you’ve already talked about or let the other person know if you’re worried about something they or yourself has said. When you feel able to do this, you can get a lot more out of your conversations.
- Engage with the process. Therapy is about putting hard work in to understand yourself, your thoughts and your behaviours. A really helpful way to ensure you’re able to do that is to make sure you engage with the ideas behind the therapeutic approach being used – if your therapist doesn’t explain the ideas/theories behind their practice to you then ask for some insight. My therapist explained the different models incorporated into our sessions and I found that it really helped me to implement the ideas we discussed into my everyday life.
- Take a pen and paper.There were only a few times I used a notebook and pen in a session because the dynamic was conversational. But sometimes it can really help to be able to quickly jot down a certain pattern of behaviour, a certain idea or even an epiphany you’ve had about your thought process to look back over later. If you’re struggling without support between sessions those notes can be helpful to go back to and if you’re talking about some difficult stuff it’s always useful to have reminders so things don’t get swept up and forgotten by whatever emotions you’re dealing with during the session. If you can develop this a little in your own time you’ll have a handy resource to go back to when you’re struggling as well as a tangible reminder that you’re capable of prioritising yourself and your own mental health.
*Sometimes, for whatever reason, you may not be able to develop the kind of relationship necessary to make progress with your therapist. If they invalidate you/your emotions, you feel there are huge differences in your values/beliefs or you really don’t click then make this clear and try another therapist – you deserve to work with someone who respects you and your boundaries and is capable of creating a safe space for you to grow🌱