Have you noticed the same troubles cropping up in your life again and again? Maybe you keep hitting the same stumbling blocks in relationships, at work or in school. Or you can’t climb out of depression or control your anxiety.
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“When problems interfere with our capacity to function, therapy can help,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “But if we just want to feel better and hope something magical will happen, it won’t work. We have to be willing to endure some discomfort.”
Many of us are taught that asking for help is weak. But acknowledging that we’re human — that we can’t always get it right or know all things — is a sign of strength and flexibility, he says.
New research shows that therapy produces permanent biological change in the brain. “Medication also changes the brain, but therapy produces more lasting results — our own efforts somehow stick in our brains,” he explains.
How does therapy work?
The therapist spends one or more sessions learning about you in order to develop a treatment strategy — based on your goals, not theirs.
“If you have a problem driving over bridges, for instance, we’ll ask why you want to accomplish that goal, what you’ve tried before, what hasn’t worked and whether you’re willing to try new things,” says Dr. Bea.
The therapist then asks you to experiment with new behaviors, and new ways of thinking and communicating.
“We might have you imagine driving over a bridge or have you watch a video of someone going over a high bridge, then ask you to observe your anxiety and not try to extinguish it,” he says.
Further experiments could involve driving over increasingly challenging bridges. As you gain confidence in your ability to drive even when you’re anxious, the anxiety will lessen.
Ironically, avoiding what makes us anxious increases our anxiety, says Dr. Bea — and facing it increases our confidence.
What about people problems?
When conflicts with a partner, coworkers or friends keep surfacing, a therapist may look at how you’re communicating and suggest a few experiments.
“We may say, ‘When you greet your spouse at the end of the day, for the first 10 minutes, just listen to them, rather talking about your day or offering solutions to their problems,’” says Dr. Bea.
The therapist may suggest that you echo what your partner tells you using different words to build empathy. This helps your spouse feel understood.
“All human beings want empathy, but we’re not taught it and we’re not well practiced in it,” he notes.
How does therapy make you feel?
During therapy, you can expect to experience a wide range of feelings, says Dr. Bea:
- Safety and acceptance.
- Discomfort, anxiety or sadness as you face certain truths.
- Profound insights about yourself.
- Hope as you begin to conquer feelings.
- Elation as therapy unleashes power you didn’t realize you have.
As you progress in therapy, you find that you’re less anxious, sad or angry; more confident; and better able to cope with setbacks.
Most importantly, you begin to accept yourself. “When we’re self-accepting, we’re in better spirits, more flexible and more resilient,” he says.
How long does therapy take?
The length of therapy depends on you, your therapist and your own determination to get to a better spot.
“Some conditions take more time than others because of the level of upset in our brains and bodies,” Dr. Bea says. “But with determined effort, we can make changes rather quickly.”
In fact, therapists today often schedule just six to 12 sessions. When time is limited, most of us focus and work a bit harder, he notes.
“Therapy usually has a beginning and an end. But you must practice what you’ve learned — just like great musicians do — to achieve mastery,” says Dr. Bea.