How Do I Know if I Need Therapy?: Exploring the Benefits of Psychotherapy for Mental Health and Finding the Right Therapist

I have heard people say that therapy is a human right, and I have heard others call it a luxury. In Los Angeles, therapy can be costly if you’re hoping to see someone immediately or looking for a therapist with a specific specialization. Conversely, it can be really difficult to find a provider who is in-network with your insurance company and has availability (and availability that works with your availability) or to find a nonprofit that offers therapy at a reduced rate and doesn’t have a long waiting list. Given all the hurdles, including trying to make virtual therapy work when there are other people in your space, driving to and from a therapist’s office in heavy traffic, finding parking, taking time out of your busy schedule, and doing therapeutic work that can be emotionally draining and activating, it makes sense that people will wonder if they actually need therapy.

We all deal with difficulties in our lives, from stress at work to challenges in our relationships with others and everything in between. To struggle is to be human, but does that mean we need therapy to help us through those times of hardship? If not, how do you know whether or not you need additional support? Sometimes, you might just need some basic self-care or the chance to talk things through with a friend to start feeling like yourself again, but how do you know when that just isn’t enough?

Do I Need Therapy?

There are many different schools of thought about how you might determine if you need therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, two main points should be considered. The first is around what level of distress an issue is causing you. Do you spend some time each week thinking about this issue, and are you reluctant to talk about it? Has the issue changed your quality of life? The second thing to consider would be the level of interference in your everyday life that this problem has caused. Does it take up a lot of your time? Has it impacted your educational or work goals? Is it causing you to rearrange your lifestyle? If your answer to these questions is yes, then seeking therapy may be a good idea.

While it might be easy for some to seek therapy if they know they are psychologically struggling or suffering, for others, the answer might not be as clear. There are some common signs and situations that might indicate that one could benefit from additional support. For example, if you are experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, it might be wise to seek therapy. Similarly, feelings of worry, fear, or anxiety can be a sign that you would benefit from professional help. Therapy can also help those who are having difficulty coping with stress and feelings of overwhelm by providing the tools necessary to handle those emotions more effectively. Changes in sleep and appetite can be signs that you are struggling with something emotionally, and therapy can help to address these issues and improve your overall well-being. The National Institute of Mental Health named how lack of pleasure or interest in activities that you used to enjoy and persistent irritability are also reasons to seek out psychotherapy. And if you find yourself isolating or withdrawing from social relationships or having difficulty managing your relationships, therapy can offer a safe and supportive environment to work through those challenges.

Who Benefits From Therapy?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, at least 1 in every 5 American adults experience mental illness each year, and only about 40% of people who experience mental illness can access mental health care. This disparity ultimately impacts a wide array of people as mental health concerns do not discriminate, and everyone from those who have more classic signs of mental distress like anxiety or depression to those who have survived trauma to those coping with chronic pain or illness can benefit from seeking therapy. Individuals navigating grief and loss can also benefit from talking to a licensed professional who can walk beside them through their grief. People with high-stress, demanding careers that are both intellectually and emotionally taxing are similarly prone to benefit significantly from therapy as it provides them with the space to process the challenges of their daily lives. Therapy can also aid those suffering from low self-esteem and self-image issues, as many modalities emphasize self-compassion and self-acceptance. Therapy isn’t just for those who are experiencing mental health problems, however, and many use it as a way to navigate life changes, improve their relationships, advance their goals, further self-improvement, and for a host of other reasons.

And it’s not just adults who have something to gain from therapy. Children and adolescents are particularly at-risk populations, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in minors aged 10 – 14, so ensuring that young people have access to mental health care can be life-saving.

How Do You Know if Therapy is Helping?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether or not therapy is “working.” The therapeutic process can be complex and nonlinear, so the progress that one makes in therapy is not always glaringly apparent. And unfortunately, sometimes, in therapy, things can get worse before they get better.

One obvious sign that you’re benefiting from therapy is an overall reduction in the intensity and frequency of your symptoms. Depending on what you were experiencing initially, this can look like feeling less worried, more hopeful, more connected, or more present. Improved sleep can be another clear sign that therapy is helping. For some, therapy enables you to develop more effective and helpful coping techniques. When you find that you’re using these techniques to manage difficult emotions or situations, it becomes clearer that therapy is working. And, of course, positive feedback from those close enough to see the changes in you and improved relationships due to learning better communication skills are ways to tell that your time in therapy has been fruitful. In an article from Mental Health America, they expound that, “You will know therapy is working for you when you notice a change in your general mood or mindset. Maybe you’ll catch yourself challenging your automatic negative thoughts or processing a frustrating situation rather than immediately reacting with anger.”

Many other indicators of the success of one’s experience in therapy are much more intangible, however. For example, therapy may help you increase your resilience, but you will only recognize that in times of acute hardship. Improved self-esteem and self-worth are also evidence of the benefits of therapy, but these improvements take time to observe.

What Kind of Therapy Works Best?

While there are tons of evidence-based therapeutic models for different issues and diagnoses, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), etc, it can be challenging to identify which approach is going to be most effective for you. This article reviews some of the modalities, however there are hundreds more.

Sometimes, it will make sense to choose a therapist trained in a specific modality if you suspect that it’s what you need most help with or if you’re clear on the type of support you need (like choosing a trauma-based treatment to process and recover from trauma or exposure therapy to address a phobia). What studies have found, however, is that the bond between the therapist and client, and how safe and aligned the client feels with the therapist, is a powerful predictor of how likely that patient is to experience results from therapy. That means that if you’re working with a therapist, it’s crucial to check in with yourself to see if it feels like the right fit. Do you feel safe sharing with your therapist? If not, therapy may not work as well (or may not work at all) as with a different therapist.

Tips on How to Find a Therapist:

There can be many hurdles to finding the right therapist, given the state of our mental health care system, and it can feel like a daunting task. If it’s not an issue of finding in-network providers, then it’s a matter of access in terms of cost and availability. All hope is not lost, however, and there are still many avenues for finding the right therapist for your needs. The following steps are designed to help you connect with a therapist we hope will be a good fit for you.

Ask yourself, “What do I want to address?”

First, assess what your specific needs are. Identify the most significant sources of stress and distress in your life so that you may find the therapist who can be the greatest support system. Are you looking for providers who specialize in anxiety, depression, trauma, or maybe some combination of all three? Are you looking for support to help you through a tough time, or are you looking for something more long-term? What types of therapy do you think could be most beneficial? Do some research about different modalities to determine what might work best for you, given what you know about your willingness and ability to follow through on homework, if you need (or would be averse to) structure, and anything else you know about yourself.

Explore payment options and insurance.

The second step should be determining whether or not you can utilize your insurance. As is the case for many in California, finding providers who accept insurance can be extremely challenging. Insurance companies are notorious for sending out lists of supposedly in-network providers to patients, but these lists are either hundreds of names long, out of date, or both. Instead of relying solely on what information your insurance company provides, try utilizing an online directory such as Psychology Today, TherapyRoute, or GoodTherapy instead. The listings on these websites are often much more up-to-date as the providers manage them directly, and the websites’ helpful search features can help you quickly sort through what would otherwise be an endless list of names. If, in your search, you determine that you can work with an out-of-network (private pay) therapist to be seen sooner or because there’s a specific type of provider you’d like to work with, review your budget and consider what you can comfortably commit to paying for weekly therapy. Just like with many services, you can find therapists that charge different price points, and ideally, the cost of therapy won’t become an additional stressor. Once you have determined what fee is manageable for you, you can use this information as part of your search criteria.

Is virtual therapy an option for you?

Third, determine whether online therapy might work for you. Many therapists offer virtual sessions independently. In California, a licensed therapist can see virtually anyone who resides in the state, even if they are not local, so opening up your search to find therapists who offer virtual sessions can expand the selection pool and offer you many more options. Of course, there are certain benefits to meeting with a therapist in person versus virtually, and vice versa, but if you’re having trouble finding someone who is the best fit, sometimes broadening your search criteria can help.

Interview therapists.

Fourth, it may be best to interview several different practices before deciding on the one you’ll move forward with. Many practices offer free phone consultations where you can get the chance to learn more about them and their therapeutic approach. Be sure to ask them about their experience with your specific concerns and what you can expect from engaging in therapy with them. This would also be the time to ask them about cultural competency, if they are LGBTQIA+ affirming, and their experience working with clients of different backgrounds if that concerns you.

Trust your instincts.

Therapy is a profoundly personal and vulnerable experience that requires you to place a lot of trust in someone who is, at least initially, a stranger. If things don’t feel right or if you feel at all uncomfortable during or after your initial meeting, pay attention to that feeling. Not every therapist’s style and approach will work for you, and that’s okay. The goal is to find someone you can feel comfortable opening yourself up to, and it might take some trial and error before you find that therapist.

Speak up.

For many clients, this is easier said than done, but if something about the therapist’s approach isn’t working for you or if you’re feeling stuck, let your therapist know. Your concerns and feelings are valid (always)! Addressing these issues may help you move forward toward your goals, or it may help you determine that your therapist isn’t the right fit after all. If communicating assertively and being direct is challenging, consider this a chance to practice those skills. Most therapists want to provide the best support possible, and they need your feedback to tailor their approach and will want to know if they aren’t the best fit for you.

In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s easy to question whether therapy is a necessity or a luxury. But in a world where mental health concerns don’t discriminate and where the need for support varies from person to person, the research supports that therapy can be a valuable resource for most. Whether you’re managing a specific mental health issue, navigating a tough time, or seeking personal growth, ideally, therapy can provide you with a safe and supportive space to heal and grow. It might take some time and effort to find the right therapist for you, but we hope that the benefits are worthwhile. Choosing to prioritize your mental and emotional health is a step in the right direction, no matter where you are on your path to well-being. If you need support identifying the right therapist for you (even if it’s not someone in our practice), please let us know. We know firsthand how difficult the search can be and are happy to do our best to help.

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