As a society, we are definitely at two minds when it comes to therapy. On one hand, it seems that everyone has a therapist. On the other, it’s still something a little shameful and not something “normal” people do. Therapy is for crazy people, right?
No! While a part of therapy is definitely geared towards mental disorders, a large part of it still deals with improving everyday functioning through understanding and changing unhelpful patterns of thinking and behavior. Often, there are some mental blocks that stop us from achieving happiness, and therapy can help to break those down.
If you’ve been wondering about therapy, but you’re afraid to try it, keep reading. In this article, I’ll take a look at what therapy is, what it's definitely not, and how it can help you live a happier life.
- What is therapy?
- What therapy is not
- The many different types of therapy that can make you happier
- How therapy can make you happier
- Wrapping up
What is therapy?
The American Psychiatric Association defines psychotherapy as “a way to help people with a broad variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties”. Illness or not, the goal of therapy is always to help the person improve their everyday functioning.
And therapy has been found to be effective in doing just that. Although there is debate over which psychotherapy is best for specific disorders or situations, overall, they seem to improve functioning and well-being at least temporarily.
As psychiatrist Fredric Neuman writes: “The immediate effects of psychotherapy are also important, and are, after all, what patients are looking for when they come to treatment.”
In some ways it’s very much like taking a painkiller: we are in pain, and we get relief from the pill. We are in psychological pain, we get relief from therapy. Simple.
Counseling vs. therapy
The term “therapy” is often used interchangeably with “counseling”. While there is a lot of overlap between the two and they may sometimes even be provided by the same specialist, it’s useful to know the difference.
Therapy refers to the long-term treatment of a problem and often includes dealing with past experiences that still affect one’s thinking and behavior. Counseling is a fairly short-term intervention usually focusing on a specific situation or problem.
For example, you might seek counseling to deal with grief after the death of a loved one, but therapy when you’ve been feeling lonely, exhausted, and numb for years.
It may be easier to find counseling, as pretty much anyone with a degree in psychology can be a counselor, but different psychotherapies require years of extra training. Of course, this varies from country to country.
I’m perhaps shooting myself in the foot (professionally speaking) by lumping the two terms together in this article, but most people refer to both counselors and therapists as “psychologists”, anyway. And in the end, the purpose of this article is to ensure you that seeking the help of a professional is not something to be afraid of.
What therapy is not
There are some other things that therapy (or counseling) is not.
- It’s not a quick and easy fix, unfortunately. As much as I would love to be able to fix my clients’ problems with some magic words, it’s simply not possible. The professional is there to guide you through the journey to a happier life, but you have to do the walking. It may take time, but most times, it’s worth it.
- There’s no lying on a couch and reminiscing about your childhood. While questions about your childhood may come up, you most likely won’t be lying down to answer them. This enduring image of therapy comes from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, and while this trope definitely has a place in the history of psychotherapy, it’s not done today.
- The therapist is not there to tell you what to do… usually. While sometimes a more directive approach is needed, the therapist will most likely ask you questions that will help you figure out what to do. After all, it’s your life and you need to make the decisions.
The many different types of therapy that can make you happier
While the common goal of therapy is to improve everyday functioning, there are a lot of different ways to approach it.
Even talk therapy - you know, the one where you talk to your therapist - has many different approaches.
The most popular is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT, which focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior. Often, CBT is applied to specific disorders like depression, generalized anxiety disorder or phobias, but CBT techniques can be used to boost overall functioning even if you don’t have a disorder.
Another common approach to therapy is humanistic, which operates on the belief that every person is inherently good and motivated to realize their true potential for growth. Humanistic therapy is often person-centered, meaning it focuses on the individual and their genuine and subjective experiences and feelings.
A newer, but fairly popular form of therapy is acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. This form of therapy focuses on accepting difficult feelings instead of trying to eliminate them, and learning how to handle them. ACT also incorporates mindfulness techniques to achieve this goal.
If being alone with the therapist sounds scary, you can always go for group therapy. Sharing your feelings with a group of strangers can be scary, too, but hearing others’ stories can give you hope.
And if just talking about your feelings doesn’t appeal, art therapy may be the thing for you. While it may still require some talking, art therapy allows you to find help through visual arts, music, dance, or drama.
This is not an exhaustive list of therapies and often, therapists and counselors will employ an eclectic approach, borrowing elements from different therapies that are best suited for your needs.
How therapy can make you happier
Therapy is something almost everyone can benefit from, so let’s take a closer look at how it can help you.
1. A fresh set of eyes
A therapist or counselor can help you look at your problem from a new perspective. When you’ve thought about something for a long time, it may seem that you have thought about every aspect of it. In reality, however, there can be parts of the problem that you are unconsciously ignoring and a professional can help you shed light on those areas. More often than not, these problems are easy to spot for a person that is looking from the "outside-in", instead of your personal "inside-out" point of view.
2. Talking about it really helps
Quite often, a counseling session at my job as a student counselor goes something like this: a student comes in with a problem. I ask them to describe it and then, as they’re talking, I get to watch them figure it out all on their own.
This is because although it may seem like we think in sentences, our thoughts are usually more of a messy word cloud. Add emotions into the mix and you’ve got a perfect mess. By putting them into words and saying it out loud, you are creating some order into the mess and voilà - clarity! This is also why journaling is such a great tool that can help you deal with a problem.
Also, sometimes you just need to talk to a stranger to be able to be completely honest, and in that case, there’s no better choice than a therapist.
3. Understanding emotions
Quite a bit of the unhappiness and discontent in our lives comes from the fact that we can’t control our emotions. We get sad and angry and anxious at the worst times and try as we might, we cannot turn those emotions off.
And that’s completely normal - emotions, at their most basic level, cannot be controlled. They can, however, be regulated, and this is something a therapist can definitely help you with. Learning how to accept and handle your emotions will help you live a more peaceful and happier life.
4. Recognizing unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior
Often, we deal with unpleasant things by avoiding them. This is very common and I can assure you that I too am guilty of it, even with my years and years of psychological education.
Avoiding something doesn’t make it go away, however. Often, the problem only gets bigger, yet we keep avoiding it. And we’ll avoid the next problem, too. And the next. You get the picture. This is often not a good way to deal with your problems.
Therapy can help you recognize these kinds of unhelpful behavioral and thought patterns and replace them with better and more functional ones. Just keep in mind that in order to change those patterns, you need to put in the work to change them. But I promise that it’s worth it!
5. It’s me-time
It seems that we are constantly talking about the importance of taking care of ourselves, but we still struggle with it. There are things to do and people to meet and places to be and it’s easy to forget about yourself in that mess. And even if you set aside some me-time, it’s easy to reschedule because something else comes up.
But it’s a little bit harder to reschedule an appointment with your therapist. This is your time for self-analysis and improvement, guided by a professional. Your phone is off (hopefully!), and you are in full contact with yourself.
And let’s be honest, while me-time can absolutely be a glass of wine and an episode of your favorite show, the more constructive version of me-time provided by therapy is probably more useful in the long run. It might be exactly what you need right now in order to be happier tomorrow and the day after!
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It would be wrong to say that therapy is for everyone, but you definitely don’t have to have a diagnosis to give it a go. The goal of therapy is to help you live a more fulfilled, functional, and happier life by helping you deal with your thoughts, emotions, and the daily stresses of life. And that’s something (nearly) everyone could use at some point in their lives.
What's your experience with therapy? Do you have something you'd like to add? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments below!