It’s normal to feel stress as you navigate life’s challenges. Yet some people still hesitate to seek mental health support to cope with their feelings.
“Some people view asking for help as a sign of weakness. The opposite is true. It takes courage to admit you need help,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. “Anyone can benefit from psychotherapy at any stage of life. It gives you tools to process your thoughts and manage your reactions, improving the overall quality of your life.”
Here Dr. MacLean answers commonly asked questions about psychotherapy, including what therapy entails, where to find a therapist and what to expect during the therapy process.
How Does Psychotherapy Work?
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy or just “therapy,” provides a structured framework to help people cope with difficulties in daily life, trauma, depression, anxiety, medical illness or loss.
“It’s an active process, not a passive one. The core of psychotherapy is the therapeutic relationship and trust between you and your therapist. Together you work toward reducing your stress and improving your quality of life and overall happiness,” says Dr. MacLean.
You can participate in therapy as an individual, with your partner or family, or as part of a group. You and your therapist work together on your treatment goals and decide how often and how long to meet. Sessions are typically 30 to 50 minutes.
Sometimes psychotherapy is part of a treatment plan that also includes medication. Your therapist can assess your needs to identify what approach works best for you.
What Are Signs You Should Seek Therapy?
While therapy can help anyone work through their feelings, Dr. MacLean recommends seeking help if you’re:
- Acting aggressively and thinking about harming yourself or others
- Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs
- Experiencing prolonged periods of sadness
- Feeling overwhelmed and unable to solve your problems
- Having difficulty focusing on work, school or daily activities
- Worrying and feeling anxious most of the time
How Can Psychotherapy Improve My Mental Health?
Research shows that about 75% of people receiving psychotherapy experience symptom relief and are better able to function in their lives. Using brain imaging, researchers have also linked psychotherapy to positive changes in the brain and body.
“Studies have verified the mind-body connection, showing that improvements in mental health have a positive impact on physical health ,” says Dr. MacLean. “As a result, many patients who have psychotherapy have fewer sick days and medical problems.”
Other benefits of psychotherapy include:
- Better daily habits to support a healthy lifestyle
- Fewer negative thoughts
- Greater focus and more satisfaction at work
- Higher self-esteem
- Stronger relationships with others
“Ultimately, you’ll learn not only how to solve the problem that brought you into treatment, but you’ll also gain new skills to help you cope with whatever challenges arise in the future,” says Dr. MacLean.
How Can I Find A Therapist?
It’s important to find a therapist you have a rapport with. You can get referrals for therapists from:
- Your primary care physician
- Local psychiatric societies
- Medical schools
- Community health centers
- Workplace employee assistance programs
There are many licensed professionals trained to provide psychotherapy services, including:
- Marriage and family counselors
- Professional counselors
- Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses
- Social workers
Your relationship with your therapist is also an important part of your treatment. As you progress through therapy, ask yourself these questions to determine if your therapist is the right fit for you:
- Does the therapist understand you?
- Does your treatment plan make sense?
- Do you feel like you’re making progress?
If you have concerns about your progress, discuss these feelings with your therapist. Take the opportunity to understand what is working and what is not. Even if you decide to change therapists, you’ll better understand your needs moving forward.
What Can I Expect When First Starting Therapy?
Before your first session, make a list of things you want to work on in therapy. Compile a list of your medications to share with your therapist. During your initial sessions, your therapist will gather information to learn more about you and will ask about your:
- Childhood experiences and other events that have impacted your life
- Current concerns
- Strategies for addressing problems
Once your therapist has a full history, the two of you work together to create a treatment plan and schedule. This process should be collaborative because both of you need to commit to achieving your goals.
Dr. MacLean recommends these strategies to help you receive the greatest benefit from therapy:
- Play an active role in your care.
- Be honest and open in your sessions.
- Complete any assignments between sessions, such as writing in a journal or practicing coping skills you’ve learned.
- Remember that psychotherapy may take time to help you address your concerns.
“The goal of psychotherapy is to enable people to reach their full potential, develop self-confidence and build resilience,” says Dr. MacLean. Ultimately, we want to help people open doors that may not have been available in the past and enjoy a happier, healthier life.”
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Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.