How To Get The Most Out Of Therapy
Updated: Aug 2
Modern therapy has its origins in psychoanalysis, developed by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century. Traditionally, the patient would undergo therapy 4-5 times a week, for 50 minute sessions. This was thought necessary to get the most out of the process. However, in today’s day and age, few people have the time, let alone money, to attend therapy 4-5 times a week. So the question becomes: how do you make the most out of your weekly therapy sessions?
It’s important to acknowledge that while therapy has the potential to be immensely helpful, there are limits to how much a therapist can do. Consider that there are 168 hours in a week, and most people see their therapist once a week for a 50 minute session. Less than 1% of your week will be spent seeing your therapist. Let’s consider how you can make the most of your time spent in therapy, and the time you spend outside the therapist's office.
Having a clear idea of what a positive outcome for therapy would look like can help you get more out of your therapy. Many people enter therapy with a strong sense of what problems they are facing. They are mourning the loss of a loved one, or trying to figure out if they should leave their partner or not. However, they may struggle to come up with a clear vision of what things will look like when their therapy concludes.
There are plenty of good reasons for this. It can be hard to focus on positives and think of a brighter future when you’re in pain, or are going through a hard time. Also, you might feel that your expectations are unrealistic, or that you are setting yourself up for disappointment, especially when things have been bad for a really long time.
With that said, goal setting is still really important, because it opens up the opportunity for change. It’s well documented that a belief that the therapy will work is a contributing factor to therapy being successful. Even if you can’t come up with a clear answer, asking yourself the question is a great start. It shifts you into a place of curiosity and imagination, where you begin to envision a future that is better than what you’re experiencing right now. And don’t forget to share this with your therapist so they can help you achieve your goals.
When I was undergoing therapy over a long period of time, there was seldom a session where I didn’t have a million and one things to talk about. And yet, when I became a therapist, I realized that not everyone is wired like this. Sometimes, clients show up to a session having nothing to talk about.
This isn’t to say that therapy can’t be productive and beneficial if you don’t have something urgent to talk about. There are some profound sessions that meander and explore that fuzzy realm of uncertainty, only to reach a point of realization and understanding that might not have occurred otherwise.
However, for the most part it’s really useful to spend some time before your session thinking about what you would like to discuss. Even if it’s during the commute and it takes you 10 minutes. Not only will you feel like you’ve gotten something out of the session, but you will also be more invested in the process.
Writing in a journal is one of the best accompaniments to therapy sessions. In our modern world we’re often so busy that we rarely take the time to reflect on our lives and explore our inner worlds. Whenever we have a spare moment, we often pull out our phone and check our email or scroll through social media. When was the last time you just stared out a window and thought about what’s happening in your life right now?
Before the invention of the smartphone, most people wouldn’t have anything to do when they were on the train or waiting for an appointment. While there were some who listened to music on their cassette player or read a book, a lot of people would just stare out the window and ruminate. This isn’t to say that people in the pre-smartphone era were somehow more reflective or insightful. However, we all carry with us a device that can provide endless entertainment and stimulation, removing any incentive to slow down and simply daydream.
Intentionally setting aside the time to journal can make up for some of this lost rumination. Therapy helps with exploring your inner world, as it’s your therapist's job to ask you questions about yourself that encourage you to dig deeper. But as we’ve already discussed, therapy sessions are only a tiny fraction of your week. Take time each day to pull out a journal and write about what’s happening in your life right now. Whether it means setting a timer for 20 minutes, or aiming to write one page, I promise you’ll notice a shift in your mental health and day to day wellbeing.
Asking your therapist for homework is a great way to make the most of your time outside of therapy sessions. Homework is a core component of many different therapeutic approaches, such as CBT, and research shows it is effective in achieving better therapeutic outcomes. However, I believe that homework is useful regardless of the approach the therapist is taking.
There are sometimes things that would really help improve your situation that aren’t achievable in a 50 minute session. For example, someone might find themselves experiencing anxiety, and wish to alleviate it. But it might be hard for them to pinpoint exactly what is making them anxious. And so, homework might look like noting down the day and time that the anxiety was noticeable, and what was happening at that time.
This doesn’t mean that homework has to be a formal process, such as filling out a form or following some routine. It can simply be a suggestion of a topic to journal about, or encouraging someone to spend some time in nature. So if you’re wanting to make the most of your therapy, try talking to your therapist about getting homework after each session.
Finding Other Resources
I often ponder the process of therapy and how people change. I feel it’s tempting to believe that therapy is a magical process, wherein the therapist is doing all of the work, and you’re just along for the ride. Think of how easy it would be to just go to a professional who could fix all of our problems for us. But the truth is that nobody can carry you to your destination - if you wish to get there, you’re going to have to be the one putting one foot in front of the other.
The therapist's job, then, is to walk alongside you for the journey. They may not be there every step of the way, but hopefully some helpful words or key insights stick with you when you encounter challenges and roadblocks.
And if I can squeeze one last drop out of this metaphor, if you’re going somewhere, it’s sometimes useful to have a map. Or at the very least, a couple of sign posts from someone who has walked the path before you.
Therapy is a worthwhile endeavour, but it isn’t a fixall. There are great things you can do alongside your therapy to assist in the process. I’ve discussed some of them here, and the final one I will mention is finding resources to expand your awareness and understanding of yourself, and the world around you. I personally find the Enneagram a useful accompaniment to therapy, as it serves as a profoundly accurate map of human personality, and an effective framework for personal insight and growth. But for you it might mean finding a book written by someone having a similar experience, or listening to a podcast about the mental health challenges you’re facing. Find something else that inspires you, sparks your curiosity, and provides you with opportunities to explore your inner world and learn more about yourself as you engage in therapy.