Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Talk Therapy When You Really Don't Know Where To Start

Society has come a long way when it comes to realizing the many benefits of therapy sessions. The subject that once seemed so taboo has become increasingly more spoken about openly as we realize more and more the true importance of keeping our mental health in check. In fact, a 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that many psychologists were seeing a large increase in their workload compared to the year before, with a big rise in people experiencing mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

While we're getting more vocal about therapy and its benefits, it can still feel like a giant step to actually take the plunge and get help if you feel you need it. But, once you've been brave enough to take that step and prioritize your mental health, how exactly do you make the most of therapy sessions when you have absolutely no clue where to even start? spoke exclusively with Lisa Lawless, Ph.D., C.E.O. of Holistic Wisdom, Inc., who shared some of her top tips on getting the most out of your talk therapy sessions to ensure you're using your time wisely.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Find a therapist that's right for you

Just because a therapist is qualified in the field you need help with, that doesn't necessarily mean they're right for you. Just like in the real world, there are going to be people you naturally gravitate towards and gel with, and people you don't. "Choosing the right therapist for you is crucial, and they should make you feel comfortable to talk and explore your feelings. If you don't feel like it is a good fit, don't hesitate to find a therapist that better suits your needs," Lisa Lawless explained.

If you have concerns about your rapport with your therapist, don't be afraid to ask them any questions you may have to make sure you're both on the same page when it comes to you and your treatment. For example, if you'd rather try some more holistic treatments over anything too traditionally medical, choosing someone who specializes in that area makes the most sense for you. "Ask questions about your therapist's approach, expertise, and expectations. This can help you to alleviate any concerns you might have," Lawless suggested. A few things you may want to take into consideration? "When you choose a therapist, ensure they are familiar with and sensitive to your cultural background, sexual orientation, gender identity, beliefs, and values," Lawless said.

Licensed psychotherapist Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher suggested to PsychCentral allowing three sessions to decide if this is the person for you, and, if it's just not working, move on.

Remember there are many different talk therapy methods out there

While many people traditionally go to a therapist's office for their sessions, times have changed, and there's no need to even leave your home to get the help you need these days. If the idea of visiting an office fills you with anxiety or you just can't find the time to visit somewhere that may not be that close, why not try a video conference or phone call therapy session? For many, knowing they have instant access to someone from anywhere may be stress-relieving and could even be the only option for those leading busy lives or living in rural areas.

Equally, though, other people may get more benefit more from a traditional in-office session. The appointment may give them a reason to get out and about, while it may also help with opening up without worrying about those they live with (or even strangers in a coffee shop) overhearing their conversations. 

As Dr. Amanda Fialk, chief of clinical services at The Dorm, noted to Self though, it may also be that video calls aren't for you if you're experiencing body image issues and don't want to see yourself on screen. In such cases, make your preferences crystal clear to your therapist. What makes you feel most comfortable may take some trial and error, but it's worth considering all the options to get the most out of your experience.

Work out how comfortable you are opening up in the early stages

Lisa Lawless explained that, before your therapy session, you'll likely be asked to fill out a form about yourself. Here, you want to be as detailed as possible to improve your chances of helping your therapist really understand you. "It is essential to be honest and forthcoming about the things you are struggling with, as it is the only way to get to the heart of what is challenging you," she said. "You can gradually expand on things as you go forward in therapy, but at least briefly touch on things you feel are vital for your therapist to know." You don't have to rush when it comes to your first few therapy sessions and spill everything out all in one go, either. After all, therapy is typically a long, in-depth process, and it's important to take your time with it to allow it to really do its job. "You should move at a pace that feels comfortable to you," she shared.

Psychologist Dr. James Rodriguez, L.C.S.W., also opened up about the importance of learning what works for you early on in order to allow yourself to feel as relaxed as possible. "Sometimes knowing what you want to share and what you feel comfortable sharing early on with respect to any traumas you may have experienced in your life is important, as that's some critical information that therapists are going to want to know about," he told Self.

Get prepared before your therapy sessions

Before you head into your therapy sessions, spend some time working out what's most important for you to address so you can use your time wisely. "Having an idea of what is most pressing and challenging for you and presenting that as the primary focus of therapy will be helpful. In addition, you will want to think about your goals for the treatment," Lisa Lawless shared. Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher agreed, telling PsychCentral that a good patient is a prepared patient. "Take notes throughout the week and come to session with agenda points. The session is your time — we should talk about what's on your mind," she said. 

Dr. Rodriguez shared a few tips on what it may be helpful to note down while speaking to Self, explaining you may want to jot down any behavioral changes you've worked really hard on that week, any symptoms of mental health issues you may have experienced, or any new issues or difficulties that may have sprung up since your last session. It may also be helpful to have at hand notes about how something you've learned helped you in a particular situation.

But getting prepared doesn't always just mean getting your aims down on paper. There are a few other things to get your body prepared. "Try relaxation techniques before going to your therapy session to help you feel calmer during your session. Breathing exercises, guided meditation, and stretching can be beneficial," Lawless shared.

Be clear about your goals

Making sure you know ahead of time what you want to get out of your therapy sessions will keep you focused on what matters most to you. Lisa Lawless explained that a great way of doing this is by using the SMART method, which means setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound objectives. As for what those goals look like? That will be tailored to your specific needs, but, as Lawless suggested, "Think about what you're experiencing in your life emotionally, mentally, and physically. Consider what behavioral challenges you may be struggling with in yourself or from others, and review any significant life events or stressors."

Once you've taken the time to think about this, prioritize which is most important and how you can attain it. Whatever it is that you want, just make sure that you're not putting too much pressure on yourself and setting unachievable objectives. "Remember that you can always revisit and adjust your goals as you progress in therapy," Lawless pointed out.

You'll also want to keep reminding yourself that therapy takes time, so just because you haven't met a goal after two or three sessions, that doesn't mean you should banish it from your list. "The therapeutic process isn't an overnight thing, even though [patients] may want it to be," Licensed clinical social worker and certified trauma specialist Donald McCasland told PsychCentral. "It's about learning, growing, and making small changes that will be long-lasting."

Don't worry if you struggle to express yourself

Many people may avoid therapy sessions because they don't feel they can accurately express themselves using words — but don't fret if that sounds like you. Therapy is for everyone, no matter how eloquent, or not, you think you are when it comes to sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings. "Therapists are trained to help you feel comfortable discussing things to help you feel safe and supported. They can also lead you down the path of exploration to get to the core of your feelings," Lisa Lawless pointed out, encouraging those who struggle with verbal communication to let their therapist know that beforehand so they can formulate a better way of interacting. "They can use therapeutic tools to support you with those things and will be more empathic about this with you," she added.

Equally, as licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ayanna Abrams told WonderMind, there's no one way to do therapy properly. There's no rule book and no wrong answers. As long as you're getting your feelings out, you're doing the right thing. "I don't want this to be a space in which you feel a need to perform," Dr. Abrams shared of her sessions.

If you're really struggling with being vocal though, there are plenty of other methods you could talk to your therapist about. To name a few? Lawless recommends somatic therapy, art therapy, music therapy, or writing therapy, which could work alongside traditional talk therapy.

Share everything, because all your feelings are valid

Remember that, in therapy, there are no boundaries. Whatever you're feeling at the time is valid and is never something you should feel ashamed of sharing with your therapist. Every little thing you tell them will give them better tools to be able to help you and get to know you better. "People are guilty that they have a lot of feelings around things like missing their graduation or grieving certain celebrations when there are people dying of COVID-19. But all those are things that should be discussed in therapy," executive director of Newport Academy, Caroline Fenkel, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., admitted to Self.

Licensed independent clinical social worker Laura Mueller doubled down on that notion to PsychCentral, explaining every little tidbit you can provide is like gold dust to your therapist in getting a better insight into your mind. "To help me help you, it is good to challenge yourself to bring up the things you are wanting to not bring up. There is nothing too shameful, embarrassing, or taboo to talk about in therapy." After all, therapy only really works when you're totally open and honest, otherwise, all you're really doing is undergoing sessions tailored to someone who isn't you.

Therapy doesn't end when the session ends

Remember that although your therapy session might be physically over, therapy isn't just something that happens during your scheduled time. Continuing to work on yourself outside of your meetings with your therapist will allow you to get the absolute most out of your journey. As Lisa Lawless shared, if your therapist likes to give out homework, making sure you always complete it to the best of your ability is always recommended. 

But, even if your therapist doesn't recommend something for you to do once the session ends, it could be useful to take that upon yourself. "It can serve as a good practice for you to be able to do that so you have materials to bring into the therapist to share with them and process these things that may be working or not working to help you get the most that you can out of therapy," Dr. Rodriguez told Self.

Aside from that, Lawless recommends journaling and practicing self-care (including things like eating well, meditating, and exercising regularly) during what are technically your off days to keep the momentum going. "Take time to reflect on your therapy sessions to review insights you have gained, as well as how to practice practical tips in managing your life better," she suggested, noting that being kind to yourself will keep you healthy both mentally and physically between appointments.

Try to get as much therapy as you need

There's no hard and fast rule when it comes to how many therapy sessions you should be scheduling. There are a number of factors that influence what's right for you, with everything from how much help you feel you need to how much time you have to sit down and chat having an impact on the regularity of your therapy. How much therapy a person receives can also be highly dependent on cost, too. Many therapists charge different prices depending on the day or time, so it may be worth asking when you can find the cheapest slot if money is a big factor. Take all of these factors into consideration, but also ask your therapist for their honest opinion on what they think is best for you and combine that with your own personal preference. That could range from short weekly sessions to multiple longer meetings.

Lisa Lawless noted, though, earlier sessions can sometimes last a little longer while you get to know one another and set the groundwork on what your needs and goals are. So, if you're struggling for time, it may be a good idea to communicate that with your therapist early on. "Initial therapy sessions tend to run longer and focus entirely on establishing why you are there and what you want to achieve in therapy," Lawless said. "This leads us to what you will discuss in therapy during your first session."

Take breaks if you need to

While it's important to get as much therapy as you feel you need, it's just as imperative that you take breaks when you need to. "Therapy isn't all or nothing. I think that oftentimes people think that breaks are permanent when really, breaks from therapy can be super temporary," Caroline Fenkel explained to Self. "There's no real issue with ramping down a little bit. You can easily ramp right back up when you need to."

For example, you may have had a super heavy session where you really opened up about your deepest innermost thoughts and feelings and need a little personal time to recover and reflect. If that's what you need, take it. Then, if you've spoken to your therapist and they're happy for you to take a little time away, head back to your next session when you feel comfortable. This can really help people who may feel therapy can be a little too constant and overwhelming. "Give yourself space, physically and also emotionally, before moving on to the next thing. You want to signal to your mind and body that something significant just happened," therapist, licensed clinical social worker, and anxiety specialist Aisha R. Shabazz recommended to The Washington Post.

Taking a break applies during your sessions, too. If you need a moment to gather yourself or just have a few minutes to reflect on what you've discussed, don't be afraid to ask your therapist for a recess.

No one knows you better than you

Of course, your therapist will be fully licensed with years of research under their belt in order to guide you, so their opinion should always be respected — after all, that is why you're going to them! But don't forget that you know yourself better than anyone on the planet, so it's important to get involved when it comes to your therapy sessions, not just feel like you're sitting on the sidelines or in some kind of a question and answer session. "Sometimes people are afraid to let the therapist guide the session and sometimes people are afraid to engage too deeply with the therapist's questions," licensed independent clinical social worker Laura Mueller told PsychCentral. "The best therapy is a balance between guiding the client and the client finding their own answers."

There's also a lot to be said for showing interest and asking questions back, whether that be about things they've said, questions about them, or things they've suggested to you. "The value of that is that this is a relationship that you're developing, and it can be helpful and signal to the therapist that you have an interest and commitment to doing the work of therapy," Dr. Rodriguez told Self. Psychology Today also recommends speaking out if your therapist says something you don't agree with, no matter what it may be related to, because even that will help them get a better understanding of you.

Every therapy breakthrough is worth celebrating

There are no small wins in therapy, so you're going to want to pat yourself on the back every single time you make a breakthrough. You deserve it! Therapy can feel like a rollercoaster at the best of times, but don't give up if things get difficult. To keep yourself motivated, give yourself a pat on the back every time you reach a goal or put into practice something you've learned along the way — even if you don't necessarily believe you've actually achieved a lot.

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Jamie Long explained to I Am & Co that you may not feel a huge relief of endorphins like you've just hit a home run, but learning what a win in therapy actually feels like will go a long way in making you feel more satisfied and proud of yourself. "Going to therapy should feel less like easing into a warm bath and more like attending a hot yoga class. A good therapy session can be tolerably challenging (you might even sweat), but you'll leave feeling clearer, more flexible, and glad you did it," she shared.

Know that just by going to therapy though, you've already overcome a big hurdle many others haven't — and that deserves to be recognized in itself. As licensed professional counselor Sana Powell told The Washington Post, "Commend yourself. It takes a lot of courage, and you can inspire others to prioritize their mental health, too."