NEW YORK — Sometimes in life we encounter experiences that feel overwhelming and never-ending. At times, these experiences can seem insurmountable, despite our best efforts and social-support networks.
Whether these emotions stem from the loss or illness of a loved-one, a natural disaster, dissatisfaction at work, family dysfunction, or countless other stressors, the pressure and tension of life can begin to wear on our minds, bodies and souls.
For many, it’s time to talk with someone, to get some help. That's when other key questions emerge. Where to go? Who to see? What kind of professional is best for the situation?
This article is the first in a multi-part series designed to explain the process of therapy. It's meant to guide people from those first thoughts about seeking help — to understanding when your therapy is complete. DNAinfo.com New York will take you through the different types of therapy, the variety of professionals to choose from, the stereotypes, the potential costs and how to go about looking for a therapist.
What is Therapy?
The Mayo Clinic defines psychotherapy as a general term for “treating mental health problems by talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider.” Whenever somebody engages in a talk-based intervention where they are speaking to a trained mental health professional, this is considered therapy.
Also known as counseling or talk-therapy, therapy involves sitting down and working on your social, emotional or mental-health issues with a specially trained, licensed individual. This is different than seeking out a life or career coach who usually works on specific career issues, and may or may not be a licensed therapist.
Therapy is also different from sitting down and speaking to a family member, friend, colleague, member of the clergy or teacher. While talking about life issues with these people may be helpful, the process of therapy seeks to help individuals change their beliefs, behaviors and moods in an ongoing way. Often, I hear clients say “talking with friends and relatives is helpful, but the pain just comes right back.” This is why some people seek out therapy, and highlights the difference between a therapist and a friend.
In addition, when talking or taking advice from a friend, we have to consider their feelings, and carefully navigate the waters of these relationships. With a therapist, you have an individual who is caring and supportive, but you will not socialize with this person. You do not have to think about social faux pas. You are paying a professional to help you with your issues.
Here, the therapy office is much like a laboratory, where you can safely express things that might under other circumstances negatively affect a different relationship.
As a mentor of mine once said, “What we do here in therapy is make the unconscious, conscious.” This is very difficult to do by yourself, and even more difficult to do with a friend or family member.
How Do I Know It’s Time?
This is a question I often get asked by friends, friends of friends, and family. The answer is: “It depends.”
There’s no metric or true measurement of when it’s time to see a therapist. However, there are different circumstances that lead people to a therapy office.
I’d estimate that half of the time people seek out therapy when they are in a “crisis.” This crisis is highly subjective, and it greatly depends on the individual and their environment. Common crises include:
• Loss or death of a close friend/family member
• Family issues
• Relationship stress and/or divorce/separation
• Recent trauma (for example, a car accident, violence or almost dying)
• Change in work, or loss of job
• Anxiety/panic attacks
• Anger issues
• Addiction issues (such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex)
• Eating disorders
Other issues that bring people into therapy tend to be more longstanding, and though they may not be labeled as crises, interrupt daily functioning. These may include:
• Depressed mood (for a majority of days/weeks)
• General anxiety/fear
• Dissatisfied with direction in life
• Childhood trauma (physical, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse)
• Dissatisfied with relationships (romantic, family, friends)
• Dissatisfaction at work
• Intrusive or unpleasant recurring thoughts
If you can identify with any of these issues, then it’s a safe bet you are experiencing emotional pain. And that’s where therapy can help.
Many people do not seek help with their “longstanding” issues, and ultimately crises arise, and they choose to deal with the problems then. Again, one does not need to wait until a crisis occurs in order to get resolution.
Some clients tell me, “But my pain isn’t as bad as other people’s pain in this world.” Whether your pain is lesser or greater than someone else’s is a subjective question that cannot be answered — nor does it need to be. It is not necessary to compare your pain in order to feel deserving of such help and reach a resolution.
In sum, the issue of timing is less dependent on the “what” that is happening in one’s life, and more on the “how,” as in “How am I feeling about this?”
There are many stereotypes and stigmas attached to therapy that will be discussed in more detail in this series. Just remember that you need not be weak, or crazy, in order to talk with a therapist.
Indeed, it may be the strongest and sanest thing you can do for yourself.