Could You Benefit from Seeing a Therapist?

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There are many reasons and motivations for seeking therapy. There are also many types of therapy. Here I am referring to psychotherapy and counselling (which themselves include a range of approaches). The issues for which people seek (or are referred to) a counsellor or psychotherapist are numerous. They range from a general desire to improve quality of life, to specific immediate challenges and/or deep-seated problems about which there may be a sense of despair. There is no ‘one size fits all’.

Consulting a therapist does not mean that you are weak, strange or somehow deficient. Many people benefit from the experience of counselling at some point in their lives. As relational beings, we all need support and the normal human need for support includes the possibility of accessing professional support.

Anxiety, depression, addiction, disabling grief, and relationship difficulties are common issues with which people present to therapy. These are also issues which are highly prevalent in society, and you do not need to be ‘in crisis’ to see a counsellor. While a precipitating event or ‘trigger’ is often the catalyst for making an appointment, many people seek counselling in relation to a longstanding issue which has concerned them, possibly intermittently, for some time.

In other cases, the need for counselling is urgent and immediate. The severity of what is being experienced may warrant rapid attention (examples could include recurrent thoughts of suicide, experience of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or recurring panic attacks). But it is also problematic to imply that issues and problems exist in a ‘hierarchy’ of seriousness, because ‘severity’ can itself depend on several variables.

Because experience is necessarily subjective, if you feel the need or desire to see a counsellor, irrespective of the reason, this is sufficient grounds for you to do so. This is even if you are not sure it will help. ‘In the moment’ distress is also only one reason for attending. For example, some conditions, states and experiences involve a degree of detachment and dissociation (i.e. the blunting or ‘shut down’ of feeling, as can occur in complex trauma and clinical depression). Thus while you may not feel bad, the problem may be that you’re not feeling much at all.

For this and other reasons, if you want or think you need to see a counsellor (or are recommended or referred) it is generally advisable to do so. Except in instances of being mandated to attend, you are not obligated to continue. And while it is common to contract for a particular number of sessions, this is subject to your agreement. Therapy can be short or longer-term; brief models are now quite popular. While not the ‘norm’, depending on the issue and person, therapy can in some cases be as brief as a single session!

How do counselling and psychotherapy work?

Both clinical and neuroscientific findings attest to the plasticity and social nature of the human brain, and its capacity to be positively influenced by supportive ‘enriched’ environments. As Cozolino (2002:23) points out, ‘[p]sychotherapy can be thought of as an enriched environment that promotes the development of cognitive, emotional, and behavioural abilities’. As he further highlights, psychotherapy is correlated with the realignment and integration of neural pathways which, for various reasons, may have become disrupted.  With respect to a wide range of issues and problems, experience of the ‘enriched environment’ of psychotherapy is a major avenue through which healing can be activated.

[Also see ‘Evidence base for counselling and psychotherapy‘ link]

What if I already have supportive relationships?

Even when support networks are strong, and we may be doing ‘the right things’ to facilitate healing consultation of a counsellor may still be indicated. By its nature, professional support offers a form of assistance which is unavailable by other means. To the extent that effective addressing of some issues requires a specialised skill base, it also requires training and experience which friends and family – as important as they are – may be unable to provide.

Trauma-related issues are a good example of this (though are not the only ones). The toll exacted by trauma can be high for all parties affected by it. Even In the ‘ideal’ situation of an existing network of committed family and friends, the health of intimate others can itself be compromised by proximity to trauma. This is even (and especially) when the support is freely and enthusiastically offered. Love and loyalty for the person being supported can inhibit intimate others from expressing, or even recognising, their own health needs (which while always important, may seem much less significant in comparison).

At this level, professional assistance for the person directly experiencing trauma can also benefit those with whom they come into contact. This can also apply when issues and problems may be less ‘serious’. Positive experiences of therapy can have a ‘ripple’ effect into the social and psychological world of clients, and the benefits can be multiple.

Whatever the issue, and irrespective of the level of support which is already experienced, seeing a counsellor can be a good idea. How we feel does not simply reflect our circumstances. It is possible to experience distress or isolation among friends, family, and significant others. Guilt that we ‘should’ be able to cope, especially if surrounded by family and friends, can ironically compound feelings of isolation.

It is also ironic that even when enjoying close relationships, we can be reluctant to disclose problems for fear of the effects on others, or the complications that disclosure might bring. For these reasons, while non-professional support in our lives is crucial, it does not disqualify us from the need or desire for counselling.

When an issue or problem significantly impedes well-being, it is also common for support networks to be non-optimal and/or non-existent. In these situations professional assistance can serve a dual function: both as the primary and sometimes sole avenue of support while the process of healing is addressed, and as a key avenue of healing in itself.

What if I need medical support?

Many issues for which people seek counselling do not need medical intervention. But there are also times when it may be necessary. Psychotherapy is not a substitute for medical treatment. Nor is it an either/or situation. Many issues, problems and conditions benefit from both psychotherapeutic and medical support. Professional contact between counsellors and GPs is also increasingly common.