How Do You Know If You Need Therapy?

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Aren't sure whether you need psychotherapy? Here's how to tell whether you might benefit from therapy.

Book Description

How do you choose among hundreds of available therapies-offered by psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors-to help you conquer painful feelings, unbearable anxiety, dysfunctional relationships, or out-of-control behavior? What are the sessions like? How will you know if your therapy is working and when it is time to stop? Veteran medical journalist Carl Sherman gives you the tools to make smart decisions about getting professional help.

Excerpt: How to Go To Therapy (by Carl Sherman)

Chapter 1

Things aren't going well. You leave for work with a sense of dread and come home half-dead with fatigue. You fight incessantly with those you love-or can't find anyone to love. The toll of smoking or excessive drinking is obvious, even to you, but you keep on doing it.

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Maybe something happened to knock you off balance. You lost your job a month ago, and now it's hard to get up and get dressed. A friend is terminally ill, and you can't put thoughts of him out of your mind. Since that emergency landing at O'Hare, every business trip gives you nightmares.

Or there's nothing really wrong, nothing you can put a finger on. But one day you realize that you've been struggling through the motions in a miasma of low-level discomfort and dissatisfaction. Whatever you do doesn't seem like the right thing, and none of it gives much pleasure.

What are you going to do? There's no shortage of books to tell you how to heal whatever ails you, no lack of talk-show gurus with wise advice on everything from beating the blues to finding lasting love or the job of your dreams. Maybe you've assembled your own little arsenal of strategies that help when the burdens get heavy and the skies refuse to brighten: taking a long, strenuous walk, a hot bath, a vacation. Volunteering at a soup kitchen. Cultivating your garden.

Friends and family are an age-old source of solace in times of trouble. Human beings are essentially social creatures; we need each other, and a sympathetic ear, an encouraging word can work wonders. It's been shown that simply having a confidant-someone you can trust to listen and care-reduces stress, eases anxiety, and lifts mood.

But sometimes the usual fixes just don't work; you know you've got a problem, and it's not about to go away. And the question comes up, moves up rapidly from the back of your mind (or perhaps it's suggested-diplomatically or otherwise-by a friend or loved one): should you go for therapy?

What Is Psychotherapy?

Aren't sure whether you need psychotherapy? Here's how to tell whether you might benefit from therapy.We all know what therapy is-until we try to pin it down, and realize how many very different things have come to carry the label. "Therapy" can last six weeks or six years. It may involve two people-you and the therapist-or your whole family, or even a group of strangers. You may talk about today's crisis or last night's dreams, or events you can scarcely remember. You may be encouraged to keep a diary of your thoughts, or to free-associate. To pound pillows or to take pills.

What do they all have in common? No matter what particular form therapy takes, the essence is an ongoing relationship. Researchers who seek to find what makes therapy successful return again and again to that central fact: whatever else happens, the closeness and trust between patient and therapist-what is called the "therapeutic alliance"-is a key factor. It even appears to be important when medication is the main treatment.

Therapy is a unique type of relationship, and what makes it valuable is what sets it apart from friendships, working partnerships, family connections, and love affairs. Its purpose is well defined: understanding and change. It comes into being, that is, to help you identify and understand dysfunctional ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, and to generate more productive and satisfying ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.

Friends and family members want to help us when we're in distress, and the advice they offer (with or without solicitation) can be useful. But the kind of counsel you'll get from a therapist is different. Rather than being simply instructive ("Here's what you ought to do"), it's likely intended to be a catalyst, to quicken your own ability to work things out.

Perhaps the most essential difference between therapy and other significant relationships is a matter of balance. You and the therapist are collaborating on a single project: helping you deal with your problems and achieve the changes you want. There is no other agenda.

This makes it very different from even close, supportive friendships in which you pour out your troubles and get a sympathetic ear and even useful feedback. Eventually, your friend will get bored, or tired, or simply need to talk herself. The essence of friendship is mutuality: you meet each other's needs. In therapy, your needs are what matter. The word itself, therapy, comes from a Greek word meaning "to serve." You receive the service-of being listened to, understood, helped-not out of friendship, love, or altruism, but for a fee. Crass as it sounds, this is a strength of therapy-there are no strings attached.

Another essential quality of therapy is safety. If it works well, you can be yourself, say what you feel, reveal your fantasies, fears, and aspirations, without repercussions. The therapist's professional role includes receiving your disclosures without moral judgment or rancor. You won't be ridiculed, censured, or resented-not when you speak, not a week or a year later. Can your best friend, spouse, or parent offer this guarantee?