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Getting the Most Out of Therapy

January 11, 2021

Emily Talbott, LISW-S

Clinical Social Worker

Whether you’re brand new to therapy, returning after a long break, starting with a new therapist, or are in the middle of ongoing therapy, there are some things that you can do to get the most out of your time in therapy. You are worth your effort, so check out some of the suggestions below to make your time even more productive and helpful.

Starting Therapy (Brand New to Therapy/Returning to Therapy/Starting with a New Provider)

Welcome! You’ve taken the brave, and often very difficult first step of getting help. You should be very proud of yourself! You filled out the paperwork, you’ve scheduled your first appointment, now it’s time to think about what it is you want to get out of therapy. Whether you are brand new to therapy, returning after a long break, or starting with a new therapist, it’s a good idea to prepare for your first appointment. You’ve probably thought about what’s bothering you. Maybe you have an idea of what you want to accomplish in therapy. If so, write it down! You may think that you will remember when you get to your appointment, but it’s common for people to forget pertinent information during appointments. Think about your yearly physical exam. You probably have a running list of things to address with your doctor in your head. You feel confident that you will remember. On the drive home you realize that you didn’t mention half of your concerns. It happens to all of us. Even if you feel silly coming in with a list to your first therapy appointment, do it! You won’t regret it. When writing your list keep these suggestions in mind:

  1. Think about what is bothering you the most. Maybe it’s anxiety that keeps you from being able to perform your job, or do well in school. Maybe it’s conflict with your partner, or feeling unmotivated and depressed. Perhaps it’s all of the above. Write down how these problems are making life difficult for you.

  2. Think about what you want to be better/different in your life. Do you want to be able to lead a meeting at work? Get through an exam without a panic attack? Be able to talk to your partner about your problems without yelling? Start exercising? Return friends’ text messages more often? Do things that you used to enjoy? While this may seem like a lot of work, it will help you avoid going blank when your therapist asks you what is bringing you to therapy, and what goals you want to work on. Initial visits can also be a little overwhelming, so giving yourself plenty of time to think about what you want to address can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed during the appointment.

  3. If you’re not exactly sure what the problem is, or what you want to get out of therapy, no worries! Your therapist can help you sort this out. It’s not uncommon for people to be too distressed to organize their thoughts before the first appointment. If you are able to answer some questions about your symptoms, and provide some examples of when things are difficult for you, your therapist will have more than enough information to help you. Assessment and goal development is a collaborative process that takes place over the first few sessions. You don’t have to have everything figured out in the first appointment.

  4. Some people find it helpful to have a support person present to provide information and symptom history. Do whatever helps you feel more comfortable in the first session.

Ongoing Therapy: How to Get the Most out of Every Session

  1. Before your appointment, take an inventory of your mood. You know your therapist is going to ask anyway, so take a moment and really think about it. Often we go about our week without paying a lot of attention to ourselves, so this can be a valuable exercise. If your therapist has you complete mood rating scales, it can be helpful to complete them before your appointment to explore more in depth how you’ve been feeling over the last week or two.

  2. What’s happened since your last appointment that you want your therapist to know about? Perhaps you’ve had a hard time getting out of bed, or you called off work/school due to anxiety. Maybe you’ve been yelling more than normal. Don’t forget the good stuff! Did you speak up for yourself at a meeting? Were you able to breathe through your anxiety and complete your test? Did you do something really enjoyable?

  3. What do you want help with today? You might want to continue whatever you were working on from last session, or perhaps you really want to address a conflict you had with a family member. Maybe you’d like to learn some anger management techniques. If you’re not sure what you want to address in your session, your therapist will help you. This is a collaborative process. Your therapist will always have ideas of topics/skills that would be helpful to cover, based on their understanding of your problems and the goals you developed in the first few sessions.

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