Get More Value From Your Therapy Sessions

August 4, 2021

I’ve heard many people share their experiences with therapy, both in my personal and professional life arenas, throughout my time as a clinician. Some people advocate for anyone interested to try it for themselves. Many feel that therapy has radically helped them to change their lives and reach their goals. Sometimes, I hear people say that therapy seems to have them running around in circles with no clear end in sight. Although therapy is a very flexible process, it is also meant to have some structure. No matter which situation you find yourself in, if you’re considering continuing and/or starting therapy, these top 10 tips for getting more from your sessions is a must-read!

10 tips to help get the most out of your therapy sessions:

1. Choose the right therapist for you (and how to even find one).

Regardless of the general skillset and licensing requirements for all therapists, finding the right therapist is not a one size fits all. There are a few important things you may wish to consider when looking for a mental health professional, however, one of the most important factors seems to be how you feel with your therapist. Your therapist should feel like someone you can talk to and build an effective working relationship with.

I suggest browsing a directory of therapists in your area (you can search on Psychology Today by zip code) and screening them with a few important factors of your choosing. A few common important factors may include the therapist’s areas of expertise and/or the treatment modalities offered, affordability and scheduling availability. People also have needs and preferences such as LGBTQ+ friendly care, trauma-informed care, substance abuse expertise, and so on. If there is anything that is a non-negotiable value in your care, you are worthy and deserving of having those needs met.

If you’re not sure about which modality of treatment you’re looking for, that is okay. Start with what you know you need and go from there. It may help to gather a list of a few therapists who seem like they may be a good fit for you, then call them for a brief consultation or phone interview. Most therapists offer short initial phone consultations free of charge.

When you call a therapist for the first time, a few helpful questions may be:

  1. What type of therapy do you practice, and how will this approach to therapy help me with my specific concerns?
  2. Is there any evidence that this type of therapeutic approach is effective for my problem?
  3. What does this treatment look like? How long might I expect to be in therapy for this treatment?
  4. What do I need to know before our first appointment?

The therapist may not be able to answer all of these questions 100% for certain without doing a proper intake assessment with you individually. However, they should at least have a general idea.

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2. Practice allowing any and all of your emotions into your therapy sessions. Be as open and honest as you possibly can.

Talking about the most intimate and sensitive details of our life experience is difficult. There is vulnerability in sharing openly, which asks for our courage every single time. It is important to talk with your therapist about any and all feelings that you are willing to explore. Part of a therapist’s job is to help you expand your willingness to contact all of your life experiences that are important to your process. This will feel uncomfortable at times. However, if you feel that your therapist is judging you, not supportive or that the therapy is not helpful, it is important to try sharing your thoughts and feelings. Although therapists are humans first, it is critical that the therapeutic space is as safe as possible. Therapists are usually pretty skilled at adjusting when a patient says that something isn’t working. However, if your therapist just simply isn’t a good fit for you, consider taking steps to transfer to a different provider for continued care.

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3. Maintain consistent attendance for your therapy sessions.

Consistency is important in order to keep the momentum of therapy going, which includes both therapy work in sessions as well as your therapy homework (we will talk more about this in #4 below). When sessions are missed regularly, the process is interrupted. Learning takes longer than it otherwise would with consistent practice and reinforcement.

4. Apply your therapy work outside of sessions, too.

Speaking of practice and reinforcement, therapy homework is incredibly helpful. People who apply therapy work outside of sessions tend to generalize (apply therapy skills in various life arenas) much quicker than people who rely mostly on time spent face to face with the therapist. Most of the time, a therapy session is about an hour long and typically once per week. There are 167 hours left in a week spent outside of therapy. Throughout your everyday life is where the real, lasting change grows. Therapy sessions help you to plant the seeds, but you must follow through with the daily watering in order to sustain them. 

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5. Consider creating a therapy journal.

A therapy journal can be super helpful throughout the treatment process, and beyond. Therapy journals can help to document your progress and experiences. I definitely encourage my patients to create a therapy notebook of some kind if they feel it could help them.

A few ideas for keeping a therapy journal include:

  1. write down notes during sessions
  2. track and complete therapy homework
  3. document thoughts, feelings and behavior that occur in between sessions that may be helpful to discuss in therapy
  4. artistic expressions (imagery, poetry, etc.) of your process

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6. Utilize your entire treatment team to help balance your overall health.

Healthcare works best when integrated, meaning that health is cared for in as many areas as possible. We know that the body and mind are undeniably connected, so remember to take care of your physical health as well as your mental health for best results. For example, there have been links between some digestive issues and anxiety. Nutrition and physical movement can help improve some mental health symptoms. Sleep disorders also impact mental health. For these reasons, among many more, therapists care about whether patients have access to other healthcare services alongside psychotherapy.

7. Trust your process.

Licensed therapists are required to complete educational, training and testing requirements in order to do their job. They also do continuing education and regularly consult with their colleagues in order to continue improving their skillsets. Therapists have a strong understanding of human behavior and picking up on patterns. Therapy is much more than chatting as your therapist is tracking the many layers of the experiences you’re sharing. Their job is to listen to you and help you to explore these layers in order to gain clarity and meet your goals. Although it is helpful to trust the therapeutic process and a therapist’s expertise, it is also important to trust your own experience and unique process.

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8. Talk with your therapist to determine a workable session structure.

Everyone is different, both patients and therapists alike. Some people want structure and some don’t. Sometimes, people want a lot of feedback from a therapist. Sometimes, people need to use a therapy session to simply hear their thoughts without much feedback. It is important to consider how you work best in therapy.

For example, I tend to begin sessions with a present moment contact check in followed by a quick agenda setting exercise. The point of creating a session agenda is not to be rigid, but mainly to provide my patient with an opportunity to bring any important topics to my attention for the session. We can always change the agenda throughout the session, but I personally like to make sure we are touching on what is most important to my patient that day. Some of my patients find this helpful. However, some don’t and we adjust. Throughout session, we do our process work and create therapy homework options. I usually wrap session up with a summary and we do feedback.

9. Provide feedback to your therapist.

Your therapist does this work, most likely, because they care about helping people. They want to help you. However, therapy is a challenging job – no matter how much we love it. What works for one person may not work for another person, so we are always adjusting and getting creative and listening for your voice.

Even the most skilled therapists need your feedback because the nature of therapy is to provide personalized treatment to each patient. Due to this nature, modalities and expertise and protocol are only small parts of the puzzle. The individuality of YOU is an incredibly critical key to your process. I check in for feedback with patients during session wrap up. It helps me to know what is working, what is not working and how we can work to keep the process moving.

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10. Gain clarity on the treatment plan.

Therapists use a treatment plan, along with symptom and other assessment measures, to track progress in therapy. Treatment plans have a few main components. The components are goals, objectives and interventions. A goal is an overall statement of your hopes, dreams and wishes. An objective is a time-specific and measurable step toward reaching the goal. Interventions include the therapeutic processes, skills and resources that help to achieve the objectives and therefore the overall goal.

The treatment plan is something that your therapist needs you to help create. They’ll guide you through the process within the first few sessions. Here are a few questions I ask my patients to consider for treatment planning work:

  1. What are your hopes and dreams for your life? What are you hoping to achieve through therapy?
  2. How will you know when you have reached your goal? What might it look like?
  3. What seems to be getting in the way of meeting your goals now?

Treatment plans also need to be reviewed periodically and as needed. As you work through therapy, your goals and objectives change with you.

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