That’s a good question. Most of us go to the doctor or the dentist starting from a very young age, so we grow up with something in mind about what a visit to the doctor is like. However, psychological services remain something of a mystery until an individual seeks them out on their own – indeed, many people who ever go to therapy don’t go for the first time until they’re adults.
So what’s it like, and how does it work? Is it just . . . talking?
When you go to therapy for the first time, your first session (or two) will be what’s called an intake. It’s a bit like a visit to a new doctor’s office: the clinician wants to know about your past and current life to get a sense of who you are and what you need. Fortunately, a therapist’s office looks nothing like a doctor’s office – you and your therapist will be doing a lot of sitting, so the rooms are cozy and the chairs are comfortable.
The intake is also a good opportunity for you to get a feel of the therapist, especially if they are the one you will be working with long-term, as intakes are sometimes also performed by other clinicians or “intake specialists”. In these cases, the clinician or intake specialist will gather your information and then match you with a therapist who has worked with people with similar needs in the past, or who specializes in forms of therapy that might be particularly beneficial to you. If you don’t feel a comfortable connection with your therapist, you may wish to speak with others before selecting one to work with. Regardless of who you choose to work with, or the kind of therapy they conduct (and there are several major types of therapies practiced in psychology today), all therapy sessions have some shared characteristics.
Therapy is indeed mostly talking – although sometimes you may do other activities, such as guided meditation or muscle relaxation. However, therapy isn’t “just” talking – talking to a friend or your local hair-dresser can indeed be very therapeutic in its own right, but therapy techniques are based on decades of rigorous development and refinement, designed to carefully identify, breakdown, and resolve major underlying problems that cause stress and discomfort. Therapists and mental health professionals receive years (and years and years) of education and supervision to develop their practice. While mental health professionals will provide comfort and support, they also aim to identify the roots of your problems and help you develop skills that will benefit you across all areas of your life and for the long-term.
Taking a cough drop from a friend will fix your cough, but not your bronchitis, you know?
When you first go to therapy, you can expect to meet with your therapist fairly often – typically once or twice weekly, for about 40 to 50 minutes each time. The content of these sessions is largely up to you: it’s a space for unloading the thoughts and feelings that are most pressing and stressful. Your therapist will help you overcome specific issues, but they will also help you to tease apart and make sense of underlying problems. You may also learn skills, such as techniques for managing anger, anxiety, or depression, which you can practice outside of therapy and reflect and improve upon in each session. With practice, the skills you learn in few months of therapy can benefit you years down the road.