What happens in therapy? What should you expect? Why do we believe therapy helps?
Individuals usually seek help from a therapist when overwhelmed by life’s problems. Life tends to be very difficult; sometimes we are stressed beyond our capacity to easily cope.
We each have our unique mix of strengths and weaknesses.
Seeking professional help for psychological issues should not be seen as a stigma, although unfortunately it is still sometimes viewed in that way. Assistance in dealing with emotional pain is no different than seeking help for physical pain. Some individuals have been worn out by too many stressors early in life, while others do not have as strong a genetic makeup as others, so are less resilient. Genetic chemical imbalances play an important role in individual coping abilities. Some individuals are more susceptible to stress because certain chemicals in the brain become insufficient or out of balance.
Very often when therapy begins, it becomes clear that the current issue is really an old one being triggered by present circumstances. The available repertoire of emotions is limited. All our emotions are some version of joy, sadness, anger, disappointment or pain.
The number of life experiences that evoke these emotions is endless so it makes sense that we will revisit the same feelings over and over. Each time a feeling is reexperienced we are reminded of past events that triggered that emotion. By the same token the memories of past emotions can confuse the mind — are we sad about this event, the old one from long ago, or both? — Therefore when we go to a therapist we usually need to explore the past in order to fully understand the present. Understanding begins a healing process.
During therapy sessions one should feel safe and at ease with the therapist, even when discussing painful or unpleasant topics. The therapist should be skilled at eliciting crucial information and guiding clients through their stories. The goal is for both therapist and client to gain a clear understanding of the relevant issues. Loose strands that up to now have not seemed to be connected will emerge into an integrated picture that suddenly makes sense. Feedback from the therapist is as important as the client’s concerns. Client and therapist should agree on a plan of treatment.
During difficult sessions it is important for the therapist to gently acknowledge the pain and provide appropriate support, helping the client to face and feel his/her emotions as fully as possible; to override the temptation to deny or run away from the discomfort. Only what we feel can be healed.
Judgment is not a goal of therapy. Therapy is about comprehending how a child learns to cope with inevitable disappointments and hurts, how those coping mechanisms are seldom effective or appropriate in adulthood, and how to adapt in more mature ways.
Through therapy one learns to change old maladaptive behaviors into healthy ones; to also should see oneself in a new and positive light, free of self-condemnation and negative judgment. The result is more inner peace, empowerment, happiness and improved relationships.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island. She has 30 years of experience as a therapist in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 394-2861. Visit her Web site at http://www.etseven.net.