How Do You Know If Your Therapist Is Helping You?

05/02/2017 01:07 pm ET Updated May 03, 2017

I’ve been in therapy since I was 15 years old. I had my first panic attack at that age, and my parents found me a therapist that specialized in adolescent mental health.

Going to therapy for the first time was helpful, but I sometimes had the feeling that my therapist wasn’t listening to me. For one thing, I would notice her eyes struggling to stay open as I spoke to her, which wasn’t a great sign. One time I called her out on it, and she said that her eyes just “did that.” I didn’t know if that was a lie to placate me or what. I did find speaking about my problems to be helpful, and she did have some helpful feedback for me at times.

I remember struggling with depression and having passive suicidal thoughts and asking my therapist if there was a pill I could take for these thoughts. I had heard of antidepressants because I had a family member who was taking them.

My therapist looked at me with a concerned face and said, “I’m sorry Sarah, but there’s no magic pill to make things better.” While I knew that was true, I also knew that antidepressants could be helpful, as I experienced this empirical evidence with my relative taking antidepressants.

Eventually, when I turned 18, I made the executive decision to try antidepressants to treat anxiety and depression. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and got on antidepressants. I learned that my therapist was wrong. While they weren’t a “magic pill” and they didn’t fix everything, they made it possible to function. That’s what I needed, and I was glad that I decided to treat my mental illnesses with medication. 

Upon reflection, I don’t think this therapist was helping me all that much. I talked a lot about my childhood and my teenage struggles with depression, boys, sex, relationships along with my mental illness. I didn’t feel like I was getting better, and now (as an adult) I have the hindsight to know why. She didn’t give me coping techniques to deal with panic or depression. I remember sitting in her office struggling to eat a turkey sandwich, and she couldn’t hear my concern.

A good therapist listens and provides their patient with coping techniques

After my experience as a teenager in therapy, I went on to have several therapists in my adult life. The most successful therapy experience I had was when I was pregnant. I choose to go off of antidepressants, and I sought out Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

CBT is a documented treatment for anxiety and depression. The goal of CBT is to show us how our sometimes distorted or intrusive thoughts can influence our thinking and cause anxiety and depression. If we can change our thoughts, we can help ourselves and feel less depressed and anxious.

I knew this therapist was helping me, because I started to feel less anxiety and depression. She provided me with concrete coping strategies to deal with my feelings.

Here are some techniques I utilize that I learned in CBT:

1. Using the list of cognitive distortions to combat intrusive thoughts.

2. Utilizing thought records to process uncomfortable situations that cause me to feel anxious or depressed.

3. Reality testing ― assessing the likelihood of a situation happening or not happening.

Different strokes for different folks

Sometimes it’s not always possible to see a therapist in person. Online or virtual therapy is helpful for people who live in remote areas where there aren’t a ton of options for seeing a therapist in person. BetterHelp provides resources for therapists who are all over the country. Also, it’s important to see what kind of therapy works best for you. Some people do well with a CBT therapist, while other people do well with EMDR (which is recommended for PTSD). For Borderline Personality Disorder, people tend to do best with DBT. Check out the BetterHelp Advice section to learn more about different types of therapy and find one that works for you!

Be your own advocate

Ultimately, you know if you are benefiting from therapy. You’ll know if your therapist is helping you if:

1. You’re feeling emotionally well

2. Your life is stable

3. You are functioning - going to work, keeping friends, and managing your day to day activities fairly well

If these things are a struggle for you even with therapy, I would suggest re-evaluating whether the therapy you are in is the right choice for you.

You got this

You can find a good therapist. Just because one therapist isn’t a good fit for you, doesn’t mean there isn’t another person out there who meets your needs. Not all restaurants have delicious food and not all therapists are good at what they do. If your therapist isn’t helping you, it doesn’t mean therapy isn’t helping. Go find another therapist!

You deserve to be well, and I believe in you. You have the right to live a balanced life with the help of a good therapist.

You deserve a good therapist
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You deserve a good therapist
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