How Does Therapy Work? An Introductory Guide

Published October 26, 2022
Therapist Meeting with a Patient

When you hear the word "therapy," what comes to mind? Many people believe that therapy is simply a process that involves talking about your feelings. However, there's a lot more science, support, and personalized care behind it than you might imagine. Therapy is a complex process that can help people improve and maintain their mental health in a variety of ways.

If you've considered reaching out to a mental health counselor, understanding how therapy works might help you to take that first step. This close-up look at the elements of therapy can give you more confidence in the practice and encourage you to reach out to a provider.

How Does Therapy Work?

Therapy is an evidence-based process, just like most forms of physical medicine. In fact, in 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) created a policy for evidence-based therapeutic practices as part of a landmark presidential task force. This policy has created positive change in the healthcare system by setting a unified standard for mental health care.

According to the Journal of Neurotherapeutics, therapy is effective, cost-efficient, and can be used to address many mental health concerns. The journal breaks down the foundations of psychotherapy into three categories. When these elements are combined, they create an effective therapeutic experience.

Evidence-Based Techniques

There are a wide variety of therapy techniques available that have been tested in clinical settings and determined to be effective. For example, there's cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). These different types of therapy use various techniques to help people develop problem-solving skills and coping strategies.

Some other common techniques used in therapy include mindfulness, thought challenging, meditation, or activity planning. The type of strategies used in an individual's therapeutic process depends on their personal needs, the approach of the therapist, and the most recent findings from the field of psychology.

These techniques have been repeatedly tested in clinical settings to yield positive improvements to a person's overall well-being. In addition, new and improved techniques are constantly being found and implemented in the practice.

A Provider's Expertise

Not only are there different therapeutic strategies, but there are also a wide variety of mental health professionals specializing in different areas. For example, some therapists specialize in specific mental health concerns. Or, they may facilitate informed care for specific populations, such as veterans or members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

In addition, a therapist's expertise might include their personal and professional backgrounds, their unique approach to therapy, and even their personality. All of these factors should be taken into account when you're searching for a therapist that might be a good fit for you.

Throughout the therapeutic process, a provider should identify the problems that their client shares and evaluate the most current research that might be helpful to them. Then, they should bring those findings to therapy sessions, discuss a treatment plan, and then evaluate whether the strategies have been helpful for that specific person.

Patient Preferences and Background

Therapy is a tool that takes an individualized approach to address mental health concerns. For example, the therapeutic process takes into account a person's background, culture, personal needs and preferences, religious affiliations, and political leaning.

Information from all of these areas is gathered to create a custom care plan that addresses the needs of an individual. For this reason, no two people will ever experience the same type of therapy. Even if you and your best friend both attended CBT therapy sessions with the same therapist, the process or experience would not be identical.

This can help reassure people that their personal health and wellness needs matter. In addition, it can affirm the idea that they will receive personalized care that takes into account all aspects of their identity.

How Does Therapy Help?

Therapy can help people process events from the past, notice unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, and improve their mood, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). For these reasons and many more, the practice has been associated with positive wellness benefits.

The NIMH notes that these gains are due to the various strategies used by mental health professionals during both in-person and virtual therapy. These tools can help people talk about, cope with, and move forward from whatever is weighing them down. You can look to the list below to explore some of the reasons why therapy helps people improve their mental and emotional health according to the NIMH.

Therapy Provides Emotional Support

One of the most basic (but extremely important) foundations of therapy is that it can help people feel seen, heard, and understood. This client-therapist relationship can be difficult to navigate at times but lays the groundwork for the healing to begin. It can be hard for people to talk about past struggles, difficult life events, and negative thoughts. However, therapy gives people a safe, private, and judgment-free space where they may finally be able to share all the things they've been bottling up inside.

You don't have to tell your therapist everything right away. During sessions, you and your provider will gradually build rapport with one another until you and the provider develop a sense of trust. Then, you can begin to share only what you feel comfortable sharing until you have fully released the weight you've been carrying.

Therapy Promotes Communication

Therapy is effective because it can help people work on their communication skills. You might not have the perfect words to describe your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, and that's okay. What's important is that you're talking about them.

Through open communication with your therapist, you'll learn how to explore these thoughts and learn more about yourself in the process. In addition, therapy can help you take those new communication skills and apply them outside of session. It can encourage and empower you to have much-needed conversations with loved ones to help clear the air, set boundaries, and disclose feelings.

Therapy Helps People Become Aware of Their Thoughts

We have thousands of thoughts a day, some of which might be positive, and others that may be unhelpful. Negative thoughts can have damaging effects on your mood, stress level, and even the relationships you have with yourself and others.

Therapy helps people monitor their thoughts and explore triggers. Eventually, you will learn how to challenge negative thoughts and change them into ones that are more helpful. This can be particularly beneficial for people who find themselves stuck in cycles of worry and rumination.

Therapy Supports Behavior Change

Therapy helps people notice and analyze patterns in their behavior. For example, maybe you respond in a similar way each time you experience stress or find yourself in a disagreement. These behaviors can happen so often that people engage in them without even thinking about it.

Therapy gives people the opportunity to identify their behaviors, examine whether they are helpful, and then create a plan for the future that might better serve their needs. However, this doesn't happen overnight. It can take a while for people to recognize their behavior patterns, and even longer to actually change them. Therapy can guide you through this process one behavior at a time.

Therapy Teaches Valuable Coping Skills

Coping skills are strategies that you can use to manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They can help you navigate uncomfortable situations and find a sense of calm when things start to become overwhelming.

There are a wide variety of coping techniques available to you. For example, your therapist might have you try self-care activities, breathing techniques, or encourage you to start a gratitude journal. Not every coping skill will be a good fit for you. You'll gradually build up a list of strategies that you know you can turn to whenever you need them. In addition, you might also learn problem-solving skills that can help you face other challenges along the way.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in five adults in the United States experiences a mental illness each year, as do one in six children. This means that millions of people in the U.S. might especially benefit from exploring therapy. But you don't necessarily need a diagnosis to benefit from therapy. People use therapy simply to navigate typical life challenges.

However, it takes a certain level of confidence and comfort with the therapy process in order to reach out for help. If you don't feel like you're ready, that's okay. Be gentle with yourself and lean on the support you have around you until you're ready to find a therapist that can provide additional care.

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How Does Therapy Work? An Introductory Guide