If you are considering attending therapy, you might be hesitant not knowing what exactly you should anticipate. Generally, people usually feel better about trying something new, when they have some idea of what they can expect. The process of therapy is very individualized, so it can be challenging to define exactly what will happen. However, there are some common features that you are most likely to see. Learn more about what happens during a first therapy appointment and the process of therapy:
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What is Therapy?
Psychotherapy, therapy and counseling—it may go by different names, but it is generally all the same. Therapy is both a place and a process. It is a place that anyone can go when they are struggling with something and want their life to be better. It is also the process of seeking and receiving help. Within the broader scope of therapy, it is individualized. You might receive various specific treatment approaches depending on who you work with and what your unique presenting problems are. It is important to note that therapy is typically confidential, which means what you talk about stays there.
Who Does Therapy?
There is a range of trained specialists who can provide therapy. Generally, you want to work with someone who is properly educated, trained, and licensed. Depending on your presenting concerns and unique needs or characteristics, some particular mental health providers may be a better fit for you.
Although the term psychologist is sometimes used loosely to define people who do therapy, it is a term that really describes one type of provider. Psychologists will have earned their doctorate (Ph.D.) in Counseling Psychology or Clinical Psychology. These specialists also earn a license in their state. At that time, they can identify themselves as a psychologist. Oftentimes, psychologists can provide individual and group therapy, couples therapy, and psychological assessment services.
Aside from psychologists, there are many other skilled practitioners whom you can consider for therapy. Masters level practitioners also receive education and training to provide therapy. Some people become concerned that a masters level person will not be as skilled. However, research shows that it is common factors such as a good rapport and receiving empathy that predicts success in therapy, much more than the educational level of the practitioner. In some cases, masters-level individuals are specifically trained in key areas such as marriage therapy or addiction treatment.
The First Session
When you seek out a practitioner, you can do research to choose the one that seems like the best fit. You may also be going into your first session with a mindset of further checking things out. At that time, many people are still deciding whether therapy is right for them and whether this therapist is the right fit. That is perfectly reasonable. Go into that first session with an open mind to learn more. While you are asking questions, sharing, and deciding whether this is the right fit, your provider is also asking questions and making assessments to determine what brought you in and how they can best help you.
When you attend therapy, you will probably be forming some first impressions about your potential provider. It is okay to go in with a mindset of checking things out to make sure this setting and therapist is the right fit for you. Your first impressions of them might include information such as the location and neatness of the office. It might also include your personal reactions to this person, and how comfortable you felt about conversing with and sharing important information with them.
One of the biggest things you will be getting a sense of in that first session with a therapist is your rapport with them. Rapport is your ease and comfort in the relationship. Essentially, does it feel easy to talk to them about your problems? If you do not feel particularly comfortable with them, therapy may not be as helpful. However, if they can put you at ease, that is a good sign for your future therapy work. You will be more likely to feel successful in therapy if you have a good rapport. Notably, it is in the therapist’s training to help establish that rapport during the first therapy appointment.
One of the big focuses in your first session will be to discuss your presenting problem. You may wonder, what is a presenting problem? It is the term therapists use to describe the reasons you chose to seek therapy. Your presenting problem could be any range of concerns. Your therapist will ask you to discuss what brought you in and they may ask follow-up questions for more information.
In the first session, you are also likely to talk about your personal history. This can include the broad range of difficulties you may be struggling with and seeking help for in therapy. You may also be talking about your broader mental health history and family history. Essentially, the therapist wants to get to know more about you and also wants to know about different factors that may affect you.
What Happens in Follow Up Sessions?
The first therapy appointment is often different than the subsequent sessions. In that session, you are checking things out and sometimes answering many direct questions, as the therapist gathers important information. In that session, you may be setting goals, or that may occur in the next session. Your goals are those things you hope to accomplish through the process of therapy. After those are established, your therapist will want to help you reach those goals, so each session will likely tie back to them.
The way your therapy appointments look may vary depending on your presenting concern, goals, and your therapist’s approach to therapy. Some therapists practice from a particular theoretical orientation that guides what they do. Other therapists take a more eclectic approach and may typically choose the best approach for each client and their unique concerns. Most therapists will tell their clients what approach they use, what the client can expect, and what factors are guiding certain decisions in therapy.
Why Do Therapists Assign “Homework”?
During your time in therapy, your therapist may sometimes assign “homework.” This may sound somewhat aversive. Most people do not have very fond memories of “homework” and may even be concerned that “homework” will lead to some sort of evaluation in therapy. However, therapy “homework” is not intended to be evaluative. In fact, it is intended as part of the process to help you.
The reason that therapists assign homework is so that clients can continue their work outside of the therapy appointment. If the only work you do, pertaining to therapy, occurs in the therapy hour and therapy space, then you will struggle to really achieve your goals. By taking what you are learning outside of the therapy hour and space, you will be able to reach your goals more quickly. Essentially, you cannot improve and make your life better, if you do not take what you learn into your daily life.
Am I Going to Get Diagnosed with a Mental Illness?
Some people delay attending a therapy appointment because they are fearful that doing so will lead to a label of mental illness. You may have concerns about this label being put down on paper. You may also have concerns about others knowing you attend therapy. Unfortunately, there are still sometimes judgments and a sense of stigma about utilizing therapy. Although, fortunately, those are diminishing.
In some cases, when you attend therapy, you may be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. If you present with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or a myriad of other conditions, then a diagnosis will be warranted. That diagnosis is typically helpful to have your therapy covered by insurance. It is also helpful for you and the therapist to communicate your symptoms to other providers (such as medical doctors and psychiatrists if you also need physical evaluation or medication management).
In most cases, your therapist will be assessing your symptoms and talking to you about a diagnosis before they assign it. Then, your information is all confidential, so anything you do talk about and any diagnostic label you do receive, will not be disclosed to other people without your permission. Notably, there are also times that people seek out therapy to improve their lives, but do not have a diagnosable mental health condition. In these cases, other labels may be used to note the focus of therapy.
What Can I Do to Get the Most Out of Therapy?
If you choose to attend counseling, investing both time and money, you surely want to get the most out of each therapy appointment. There are some basic elements to attending therapy that will make it more successful. These include arriving on time and being mentally prepared to participate. Beyond that, you also need to be honest, open-minded, and ask questions whenever you have one.
One of the things that most concerns people about attending therapy, is the fact that they will be disclosing personal information to a veritable stranger. This can be difficult. Many clients ease into this process, opening up and disclosing more over time. Ultimately, it is important to be honest. If you do not talk honestly about your concerns and your reactions to the therapy process, it will be difficult for the therapist to really help you. So be honest, even if it is difficult, it will be worth it.
Be Open Minded
Another important element to successful therapy is to be open-minded. Sometimes the process of therapy will require you to think about things differently. Sometimes you may be asked to try a new skill or a new way of doing things. You may find yourself feeling resistant to this. However, you chose to attend therapy to make your life better. In order to make life better, you have to try living a different life. So, be open-minded to the process or at least be open to discussing your hesitation.
In the process of therapy, it is also reasonable and important to ask questions. You can ask your therapist about their approach, why things are moving in a certain direction, how long your therapy process might take, and many other pertinent questions. You may also ask questions for self-exploration and to increase your own self-understanding. In therapy, it is better to ask a question and get an answer than to left things unsaid. It will ultimately help you to reach your goals.
How to Find a Therapist
If you are interested in finding a therapist, there are a few ways to go about it. One is to ask another provider that you already see. For example, many medical doctors can recommend a therapist whom they think will be a good match for you. You can also ask friends or family who they would recommend.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
When you seek out an LMHP (licensed mental health practitioner) you will indeed want somebody who is licensed. This means that they have passed certain examinations and proven their knowledge and skill for the field. Beyond that, you may want to do some research and make sure they are the right fit for you before you schedule a therapy appointment. This might include reading about them online and being sure that they specialize in working on the presenting concerns you want to address. You may want to read reviews to find out if this potential provider is right for you.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
When you meet with a potential therapist, or if you talk to them on the phone prior to your first session, you may have many questions for them. Some of the most important questions might include: their general training, their experience addressing presenting concerns similar to yours, how they would approach your therapy, how long therapy might take, and how they will assess progress. You may also want to know about their fees and whether insurance will cover them.
Find a Therapist Now
There are many great resources online that can help you find the right therapist. For example, Psychology Today is a website with search tools where you can find local mental health providers. SAMSHA also has a treatment locator where you can find low-cost therapy options. Today, many people attend therapy appointments online through teletherapy for added convenience.
Sometimes therapy can seem like a mysterious process. This is due in part to the confidential nature of therapy appointments. That can keep people from attending therapy. However, you now have a better idea of what to expect. With this new understanding of the process of therapy, you can feel more comfortable about scheduling your first therapy appointment.