How Therapy Actually Works and 5 Myths about Therapy Debunked
Since we started building a mental health startup, Kip, we’ve fielded a lot of questions from people who are curious about therapy. These questions have been enlightening and validate the work we are doing. They have also revealed many common misconceptions about what exactly therapy is, who it is for, and how it works.
Have you ever had these thoughts about therapy?
- Therapy doesn’t work.
- Therapy is not for me–it’s for people with serious mental health issues.
- Talking to someone about my problems won’t help me.
- I can fix the problem myself.
- Once I start going to therapy, I’ll have to go forever.
Many people have had these same thoughts, but they’re not true! And worse, these misconceptions prevent people from enjoying the positive, life-changing benefits that therapy brings.
What is therapy?
Therapy is a scientifically proven process that teaches you how your mind works. It helps you navigate your feelings, build better behaviors, and relate to your thoughts differently so you can live the life you want. Therapists who use clinically-proven techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) work with you to set goals, track progress, and measure results. They teach you skills to build emotional resilience so you can eventually leave therapy and manage on your own. Therapy is a high-value–but temporary–investment in yourself.
Myth: Therapy doesn’t work.
For all the good therapy does for people, it certainly has a bad rap.
A founder once shared a story of his time spent living on an island in the South Pacific, where diabetes was becoming a dangerous epidemic. The cycle, he said, went like this: people distrust Western Medicine, so they don’t go to the doctor in the early stages of the disease. By the time they visited a doctor, a once-treatable foot ulcer would have spread so much that the only treatment option available was to amputate the leg. The misconception spread among the community that a visit to the doctor led to severe consequences like a leg amputation, so people would only visit the doctor as the very last resort.
A similar cycle spreads misconceptions about therapy. Many people (wrongly) think that therapy is only for people with severe mental health issues or people at the brink of collapse. Or, they assume that therapy is a glamorous hobby of the rich, who pay professionals to listen to their problems but not to actually help solve them. These are the kinds of stories about mental health that permeate the media. Too often, these stories are the only information people have about therapy, since public discussion about therapy and mental health is rare.
So, when someone does take the leap to go to therapy, and has a bad experience, it’s easy for them to assume that all therapy is useless, just like the island residents in the earlier anecdote thought that going to the doctor would lead to bad things like foot amputations. It’s silly when you think about it; if you went to a bad dentist, you wouldn’t assume that going to the dentist was a waste of time. You’d find a better dentist! But many of us don’t approach therapy with the same expectations.
The truth about therapy is that it really works. Scientific studies consistently show that behavioral and emotional interventions work as well, if not better, than medication to treat anxiety, depression, and mental health issues like OCD. Therapy that teaches you skills, like CBT, will leave you with long-term, healthy coping strategies that you can use when issues pop up.
At Kip, our therapists practice CBT as well as feedback-informed treatment (FIT) which makes therapy even more effective. In FIT, therapists gather data and patient feedback regularly so that they can see what’s working, what isn’t working, and then iterate on treatment plans as quickly as possible. Therapists can’t promise cures or cookie-cutter solutions, but good therapists get you results.
Myth: I don’t need therapy–I can fix it on my own.
At some point, you have experienced stress, felt anxious, overwhelmed, sad, or depressed. No one is immune to these common, human conditions. Sometimes, we can work these issues out on our own by changing our lifestyles, reading books, taking classes, or through talking with friends, family members, or mentors. Other times, we notice patterns that we haven’t been able to change on our own, or issues start to overwhelm us and negatively affect our lives, relationships, and work. In severe cases, anxiety, depression, and stress can put our health and lives at risk.
Therapy is often the fastest, most effective route to overcome emotional and behavioral issues that keep you from living the life you want. Sometimes, you can get better on your own, but in most cases you’ll get better results, faster, with a therapist. Professionally certified therapists are experts in how humans process thoughts and emotions. Whether you want to learn tools to manage stress, build skills to be a better leader, or treat clinical depression, they’ll help you do that. A good therapist is like a coach–a coach for your mind.
Myth: Therapy is for people with serious mental health issues. I’m not broken enough to go.
Therapy is obviously useful in severe situations, but it’s also incredibly valuable as a method to treat moderate conditions and build positive mental health habits. If you approach mental health with a preventative care mindset, you can catch and treat downward trends in your emotional well-being before they become bigger problems.
There are many ways to change how you think, feel, and act but therapy is usually the quickest, most effective, safest route to do it. Also, if you catch issues early, they may need less work and care to be resolved. Therapy is for everybody and can help you anytime you’re working through a behavioral or emotional issue.
There are some situations in which you should definitely consider therapy:
- When your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors hold you back from living a normal life (e.g. you’re not sleeping; you’re avoiding things you normally like doing).
- When your mental health is causing physical harm (e.g., you’re binging; you’re suicidal)
- When your time is valuable and you need to improve your performance quickly to meet professional goals (e.g. you’re a founder; performance issues put your job at risk)
Much like you would consider working with a personal trainer to get in good physical shape, you can work with a therapist to improve your mental fitness. You’ll treat existing issues while you also build emotional resilience, which will leave you better prepared to handle whatever situations life throws at you. Consider the parallels between therapy and personal training:
A professional trainer creates an effective training program to get your body in shape. It’s designed just for you. Your trainer teaches you proper form for each exercise to optimize results and also avoid injury during one-on-one sessions. They make it clear that change comes from routine daily effort; you have to work out, rest, and eat right every day to get in good physical shape, in addition to going to personal training sessions. The time you spend with a personal trainer is not the cure; it’s the combined effort of those sessions plus the work you do outside of sessions which get results.
A professional therapist works in a similar way. They create an effective training program for your mind that is designed just for you, with your specific goals in mind. Your therapist spends time in session to identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that shape your life. They’ll listen for patterns to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and come up with a plan that will help you make positive changes. You’ll learn valuable insights about how your mind works in session and also gain skills that will help you make it work better. Your therapist makes it clear that change comes not just from going to therapy, but also from spending time practicing the skills that you learn in session. You’ll leave therapy when you’re in a positive state of mind, with the tools to manage negative feelings when they crop up and to make positive changes effectively and safely.
Myth: It’s a waste of time to lay on a couch, talk about my feelings, and replay my childhood.
Therapy gives you a safe space to talk freely and process your emotions, but a good therapist doesn’t listen just to make you feel heard. They’re looking for patterns in how your mind works and how they can help you make it work better. Therapy should involve learning skills and building tools to manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Talking about your feelings is simply part of the process.
Eventually you’ll leave therapy with the ability to recognize patterns in yourself and to make changes on your own using the skills you learned in sessions. For example, say you go to a therapist to manage anxiety. Your therapist will help you determine what triggers your anxiety, which could be a behavior such as drinking coffee or an unhelpful thought like, “I’m not good enough.” They’ll teach you ways to catch your unhelpful thoughts and correct them before they impact your feelings. They might also teach you deep breathing exercises to calm down anxiety in the moment and ask you to make lifestyle changes to lower your anxiety overall, such as switching from coffee to tea and exercising daily. You can practice these skills for the rest of your life, whenever anxiety rears its head.
Myth: Once you start therapy, you have to go forever.
Good therapy has an end date. Therapy can be temporary because it teaches you tools that last forever. A good therapist wants you to get better and leave therapy, and will teach you skills so that you can ‘be your own therapist’ when you’re on your own.
Therapy should always have a goal. When your therapy goal is met, you will naturally phase out of therapy. You might not know what that goal is when you first enter therapy and in those cases you and your therapist will figure out goals together.
At Kip, our therapists practice evidence-based techniques designed to be shorter-term treatment methods. You should start seeing progress after just a handful of visits with your therapist. As you make progress, your therapist will move you from weekly sessions to bi-weekly sessions to (eventually) sessions just once a month. Sometimes you feel worse before you feel better–that’s normal. So is seeing your therapist more than once a week in the beginning or booking extra sessions during hard weeks. When it feels right, whether you’re at your goal or have nailed down the routine to get there, you’ll stop seeing your therapist all together, save for a booster session here and there. It’s hard to put an exact number on sessions, but most people on Kip go for 10–20 sessions.
I’m Erin Frey. I’m the cofounder of Kip, a mental health startup that’s building a better, more effective therapy experience using science and data. I use Kip therapy to manage anxiety and build mental resilience to make me a better founder. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be chronicling my own experience going to therapy on Kip. It’s scary to shell things out about my personal life! But it’s important to dispel more therapy myths, once and for all, and show what great, results-driven therapy can achieve. Join my journey by following me on Medium or Twitter.