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An Introduction to Therapy

If you’ve never been to therapy before, you might be wondering what therapy is all about. How is it different from chatting to a friend? How can it help me? What will I have to do in a session? These are all very natural and common questions to ask.

What is therapy?

The aim of therapy is to reduce psychological distress, improve psychological wellbeing and to manage mental health difficulties. The specifics of this treatment will differ from person­ to-person, but generally could involve things like:

  • learning skills to manage anxious thoughts and feelings, and working to gradually reduce any specific fears (e.g., social fears)
  • managing low mood or mood swings (e.g., mood alternating between periods of lows and periods of ‘high’ mood alongside other impulsive behaviours)
  • assisting with self-harm or suicidal thinking
  • learning skills to soothe and regulate emotions, especially when the intensity of the emotions negatively impacts functioning or relationships
  • processing past traumatic memories
  • developing an understanding of the way you relate to others or react in particular situations
  • assistance in reducing coping strategies that may have worked well in the past but are less effective currently (e.g., avoidance, unhealthy eating patterns, drinking)
  • improving self-esteem and reducing self-critical thoughts and behaviours
  • assistance in navigating challenging interpersonal relationships

Therapy is much more than just talking! It is a very active process that will involve practicing skills and being open to exploration and the change that often follows.

What should I expect in the first appointment? What about appointments after this?

The first session is a ‘get to know you’ session. Because people come to therapy for all kinds of reasons, it is important for your psychologist to understand what is happening in your life currently. This will involve asking questions about any difficulties you may be experiencing (e.g., how are these impacting your day-to-day life) as well as contextual factors (e.g., current stressors, difficult events that have happened in your life to date).

The first session is also an opportunity for you to get a sense of your therapist’s style and what they can offer you. If you feel that it would be beneficial for you to know some details about your psychologist (e.g., their training, whether they have worked with the difficulties you are experiencing), feel free to ask!

Following your first session, your psychologist will be working with you to develop a collaborative ‘treatment plan’. This will be focus on addressing the issues that you have identified during assessment. This plan will continue to develop over time, as you work with your psychologist to more fully understand your difficulties.

A note on pacing

An important prerequisite for effective therapy is to be open and honest about your difficulties. However, it is also normal to need some time to build a trusting relationship with your psychologist. If there are details that you do not feel comfortable sharing in the first session, know that this is completely okay! Feel free to let your psychologist know your hesitations, so that they can work with you to find a pace that feels acceptable for you.

Ideas for how to prepare for your first appointment

Set aside some time in a quiet place to think about your reason for starting therapy and what you would like from therapy. Some of these suggestions may help to get you started:

  • note down any challenges that you’re currently facing
  • are there any recent changes in yourself or life that prompted you to seek therapy?
  • are there things you’ve already tried in order to feel better?
  • have the people in your life made any observations about you that you’d like to explore further?

You may find that your first session is emotionally draining, even if you didn’t expect it to be. You might like to take some time after session to pause, have a break and do something nice for yourself.

How many sessions will I need?

This is difficult to predict. Some therapies are longer-term, some clients have more severe and enduring symptoms, and sometimes new issues present themselves during the course of therapy. All these factors can extend therapy. It’s also important to have realistic expectations: just as it takes time for difficulties to develop and to impact your life, it takes time to understand and work through those challenges. Feel free to mention any constraints that might prevent you attending as often as you may like (e.g., financial, time).

Generally speaking, most clients find they benefit the most when they are attending regularly, starting with weekly or fortnightly sessions, and decreasing in frequency once they feel like they have gained the skills they need.

What if my psychologist is not a good fit?

Remember that it takes time to develop a relationship with your psychologist, as well as to develop skills to work through your goals. For this reason, it’s important to give the relationship time; you might want to discuss how you are feeling with your psychologist, to see if there is anything that can be modified to better suit you. However, if you still feel like your psychologist is not a good fit for you, it is more than okay to switch psychologists!

Do I need a referral?

You do not need a referral to see a psychologist. However, you may be eligible to receive Medicare rebates for up to 10 sessions per year. If this interests you, speak to your GP about a possible referral under the Better Access to Mental Health scheme.