Everyone has to deal with serious problems from time to time—whether it’s work concerns, family troubles or heartbreak. Sometimes, time heals all wounds and you’re able to handle the situation on your own, while other times, it’s necessary to get a little help. That’s why many individuals turn to a therapist to help them work through their troubles or for “tune-ups.”
“The point of therapy is to give you clarity and guidance to go out and live a rich and meaningful life,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer marriage and family therapist. “As such, it should be structured in such a way that has a beginning, middle and end. Each stage should have clearly articulated goals. So the first stage involves getting to your vulnerability. This takes time and the feeling of trust and respect for your therapist. The middle stage involves coming up with a plan of action and the final stage involves implementing the action plan into your life.”
Dr. Hokemeyer says most therapists see clients once per week for 50 minutes, but notes that he’ll see clients twice per week if they are “in crisis or [want] to make quicker progress in their treatment.”
So now that you know what therapy actually entails, how do you know if you’re ready to make the leap? Read ahead for some signs that you may be ready to see a therapist.
Your coping skills aren’t working effectively
“There are many reasons why someone may choose to seek a therapist,” says Mallory Grimste, LCSW, a mental health therapist. “One of the common reasons people choose to see a therapist is their usual coping skills are no longer working as effectively, or their stress levels are so high, that they end up going into a crisis.” If you used to be able to handle work stress easily, but now find that your anxiety is stretching far beyond the 9-5 hours, then working with a therapist is something to consider.
You’re willing to do the work
Psychotherapist Diane Lang, M.A., points out that therapy isn’t a quick fix. “People go into it with this instant gratification mentality,” she says. “It’s actually really tough work. It’s going to be really tough, especially in the beginning.” This is due to spending time reliving or going over older emotions. Lang describes the process as a slope that dips down, before going back up. “If you look at the big picture, [therapy] will help you heal or grieve.”
You’re looking for a safe space
Marital therapist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D. says two of the main struggles that bring clients into his office are conflict and a sense of feeling “stuck” in some way. “The first involves not being able to resolve some major conflict in your life,” he says. “Typically, it’s a conflict between the externals of your life and your internal feeling state. So the guy you are dating looks great on paper, but emotionally you feel something’s not right. Or, from the outside you look like you have it all but internally you’re riddled with self doubt and fear. The second is closely related. You feel like you’re running on the hamster wheel of life. You’re frustrated with your behavior and no matter how much will power you throw at it, you can’t change your patterns. Therapy provides you with a frame to sort our these issues. It’s a safe, contained and guided space that enables you put your issues out to the world, analyze and come up with a plan of action to resolve them.”
Grimste notes that therapy is a singular experience where you can pretty much be, say and do whatever you want sans judgment. “You make the decision what to share and what to work on in your sessions,” she says. “If something isn’t working, you can talk with your therapist about it and they will listen to your thoughts and concerns. More and more people are open about the fact they see a therapist for a variety of issues. And the thing is, it’s more common than people realize. However, it’s up to you if you want to share your experience because it’s the therapist’s duty to keep that experience and confidential.”
Self-medicating can take a lot of forms, according to Lang, including overindulging in food, gambling, alcohol or drugs. If you find that you’re turning to these or other self-medication techniques to make yourself feel better, you may want to go to therapy to get to the root of the problem.
You can’t shake a bad feeling
Of course traumatic events like a death or divorce are also events that motivate you to seek a therapist, but other unexpected events could have the same effect. “If you’re having intense feelings that are chronic for weeks at a time, it’s definitely a red flag,” Lang says. If something that you didn’t think would affect you deeply—like a demotion or a breakup—may have had more of an effect on you than you think, and you can’t move past it, you may want to seek help. Other signs that you’re internalizing a problem, according to Lang, are displaying physical symptoms like experiencing headaches or stomachaches.
You’re friends are suggesting it
If you’re starting to get indications from your friends or family that you’re acting differently or unable to control your emotions, therapy may be something to consider, according to Lang. “If you’re starting to get feedback from others that are noticing a change in you, that could be a sign,” she says. “People can often stay in denial.” Bottom line: If many of the people closest to you are worried, it’s time to take a good look at yourself.
You want to go for ‘maintenance’
Experts say that individuals can also turn to therapy for “maintenance”—basically working out your mind, just like you hit the gym three times per week. “It’s interesting that in major metropolitan areas people will pay their personal trainers $200 an hour for a good physical workout and yet dismiss the importance of training their emotions,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “We live in a relational- and information-based world. To be successful in this space, we must be clear and intentional in our emotional life. Therapy is an investment in our success as productive and relevant human beings.”
Editor’s note: The information in this article should only be used as a guideline. If you are thinking about hurting yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).