You may be considering therapy for a variety of reasons but are hesitant to take the plunge because you still have some reservations. Unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions about what therapy is, what it isn’t, who it is for, and how it works. These “myths” persist and unfortunately the continuing stigma surrounding mental illness sometimes prevents people from seeking help. Here I will address the most popular myths and try to “demystify” the therapeutic process.
#1 Therapy Doesn’t Work
I am reminded of a study in the South Pacific. Diabetes was so prevalent in the native population it was becoming an epidemic. But the Pacific Islanders distrusted western medicine so much they refused to seek medical treatment in the early stages of their disease. By the time they finally visited a medical professional, a once-treatable foot ulcer would have spread so much that the only treatment was to amputate the leg. The misconception quickly spread among the community that a visit to the doctor led to severe consequences like a leg amputation, so people would only visit the doctor as a last resort.
There is a similar misconception about psychotherapy. Many people think that therapy is either for people with debilitating mental health issues or for self-indulgent, wealthy, people who just want to vent. Since the media usually sensationalizes mental health issues, often choosing to focus on only the most extreme situations, public discourse on mental health is limited to these aberrations creating a false impression of the incidence and severity. Hollywood often reinforce this misconception.
So it makes sense that if someone finally decides to try therapy and has a bad experience, it’s easy for them to assume that all therapy is useless, just like the Pacific Islander thought that going to the doctor would lead to bad things like foot amputations. It’s silly when you think about it; if you went to a bad dentist, you wouldn’t assume that going to the dentist was a waste of time. You’d find a better dentist! But many of us don’t approach therapy with the same expectations.
The truth about therapy is that it really works. Scientific studies consistently show that behavioral and emotional interventions work as well, if not better, than medication to treat anxiety, depression, and mental health issues like OCD. Therapy that teaches you skills, like cognitive behavioral therapy, will leave you with long-term, healthy coping strategies that you can use when issues pop up.
#2 I don’t need therapy-I’m not crazy
Therapy isn’t just for issues with a traumatic origin. At some point, you have experienced stress, felt anxious, overwhelmed, sad, or depressed. No one is immune to these conditions. Sometimes, we can work these issues out on our own by changing our lifestyles, reading books, taking classes, or through talking with friends, family members, or mentors. Other times, we notice patterns that we haven’t been able to change on our own, or issues start to overwhelm us and negatively affect our lives, relationships, and work. In severe cases, anxiety, depression, and stress can put our health and lives at risk.
Therapy is often the fastest, most effective route to overcome emotional and behavioral issues that keep you from living the life you want. Sometimes, you can get better on your own, but in most cases you’ll get better results, faster, with a therapist. Professionally certified therapists are experts in how humans process thoughts and emotions. Whether you want to learn tools to manage stress, build skills to be a better leader, or treat clinical depression, they’ll help you do that. A good therapist is like a coach–a coach for your mind.
#3 Talking to someone won’t help me
I often hear “What’s the point of talking? Talking about the issue won’t change it!” or “Why can’t I just talk to my friends about my problems?” The difference is between someone who can do something, and someone who has the training and experience to do that same thing professionally. A mental health professional can help you approach your situation in a new way– teach you new skills, gain different perspectives, listen to you without judgment or expectations, and help you listen to yourself. Furthermore, therapy is completely confidential. You won’t have to worry about others “knowing my business.” Lastly, if your situation elicits a great deal of negative emotion, if you’ve been confiding in a friend or family member, there is the risk that once you are feeling better you could start avoiding that person so you aren’t reminded of this difficult time in your life.
Research shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), effectively reduced symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. CBT has proven effective for a multitude of therapeutic issues. An article published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research says: “The evidence-base of CBT is very strong.” (1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has proven results for insomnia, chronic pain, anger issues, anxiety disorders, bulimia, psychosomatic disorders, and general stress.
#4 I can fix it myself
We all encounter stress, anxiety, sadness or other feelings at different points in our lives. Sometimes we can manage to work through these moments independently, other times they become so overwhelming that they begin to negatively impact our lives, our relationships or our jobs. Or sometimes we realize that we are repeating patterns and we just don’t know how to stop. Therapists are professionally trained to understand the connection between thoughts, feelings and actions and can help you figure out you why you are doing the things you do and how to stop. Sure, you might be able to figure some of this out yourself-but how long will it take and at what cost-your health, your relationship, your job? Change comes not from therapy itself but from practicing the skills and tools you learn in therapy.
#5 If I start, I’ll have to go forever
A common misperception of therapy is that once you start you can’t stop. People worry they will become overly dependent upon their therapist. Good therapy has a goal-once that goal is met, therapy ends. The role of a therapist is to teach you how to manage your issues independently outside of the therapy room so you can just live your best life. Another way to approach this question is to consider it from two different perspectives-the illness model or the wellness model. The illness model of therapy is like going to your PCP, you go when you have a specific ailment. The treatment lasts until the symptoms disappear-this could be a few weeks or a few years. Once you’re symptom free-you’re done. In the wellness model, therapy is similar to a gym membership. You go to reach your potential, improve your life or to prevent future issues. In the wellness model there is no set end date. Imagine after going to the gym every week for ten years someone says “You’re done-that’s enough!”.
Ultimately the decision on when to conclude therapy is one that should be made between you and your therapist. Progress towards the presenting problem and symptom resolution should be considered before terminating therapy. A good therapist will not foster lifelong dependence but rather teach you to resolve your own issues during and after our counseling.