I Think I Feel Better … How to Know If Your Therapy Is ‘Working’
Maybe you’ve been feeling a little down lately, or maybe you’ve noticed that you are getting upset or angry or nervous too often. Your friends and family supported your decision to try therapy and you are finally giving it a shot. After being in therapy for a few weeks or so, it isn’t brand new any more. You have learned some coping skills, and the crisis that brought you to seek therapy in the first place is noticeably moving toward a resolution. Now that you’re in the “work” part of the process, how do you know when it is working? Is feeling better enough?
Absence of Symptoms
For most people who start a therapy program, getting rid of symptoms is probably the single most important thing they hope to get out of therapy: most people want to stop feeling unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings and they want to stop doing things that make them feel worse. Gaining control over emotions and behaviors often top the list of therapy goals.
Depending upon the specific details in your situation, gaining control may happen fairly quickly. Most people enter therapy bec
ause of a crisis, and any given crisis tends to flare up and then resolve. While it might seem like “hey, I went to therapy and things got better” the truth is that sometimes things just get better on their own with a little time.
It is normal to feel at least a little better fairly quickly after starting therapy, partly because it is a real relief to feel like you’ve stepped on the right path and that you’re doing something to get help
. Most people begin feel like their therapists are allies. Just telling your story and feeling like you’ve been heard can reduce feeling of anxiety and hopelessness.
Though in order to reduce or eliminate your symptoms on a more long-term basis you’ll need to work with your therapist over time to:
- Identify triggers
- Develop coping techniques for in-the-moment management
- Develop prevention strategies
Things Get Worse Before They Get Better
You might find that as you settle into the work of therapy—identifying your triggers and working on coping strategies—you end up feeling worse again. Why does this happen? One thing that therapy does for you is it helps you become more self-aware. You are likely to pay more attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and to start wondering about connections between all three. Having time each week to focus on yourself, and having a therapist that pays attention to you tends to help you turn inward and be more self reflective.
So how does that make you feel worse? Well, before entering therapy, you had ways of making yourself feel better when you were feeling anxious or sad or out of sorts in any other way. Often these old coping behaviors (the ones you used before you entered therapy) were less than ideal—and in some cases they can be downright dysfunctional. Using food, sex, relationships, shopping or any other distracting behaviors to manage emotions is very common, and for a while, it seems to work.
Preventing Symptoms Before They Happen
You’ve heard the old story repeated in addiction treatment or self-help groups: you walk down a road and fall into a hole. The next time you walk down the road you are more careful, but you still get distracted at the last moment and fall. Over time you learn to walk more slowly down that road, to anticipate the hole and maybe even to walk around it. Eventually you can choose to walk down a different road.
Preventing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or even distractibility or irritability can happen by paying attention to your triggers and ultimately learning to make different choices to avoid putting yourself into situations that are likely to make you feel bad. Therapy can help you learn to think ahead and predict how certain behaviors will make you feel. Over time, you will be able to make choices based on these predictions, and ultimately feel better and better about yourself and your life. Life will keep handing you challenges and difficulties, but you’ll find yourself better and better equipped to manage them.
Therapy can be a wonderful and important part of getting healthy. It might not be comfortable every step of the way, but it is always worth the effort.