Portrayals of psychotherapy are everywhere these days. NBC’s show “Awake” features a detective living in two realities after suffering a automobile accident with his wife and son. He visits a different shrink in each reality, one version where his son lived through the accident, the other where his wife survived.
In one reality, the female shrink listens to the detective patiently as he unravels, but she doesn’t intervene much. In the other reality, the male therapist often confronts the detective impatiently telling him he’s unhinged.
Is this really what goes on in psychotherapy?
As a licensed clinical psychologist, I am witness every day to the tremendous power of therapy to transform and improve the quality of my patient’s lives. Therapy, as practiced by well-trained licensed psychotherapists, is incredibly effective, even life changing.
But how does it work in real life?
MYTH: Psychotherapy consists of talking over and over about my feelings while my therapist just listens.
Psychotherapy is likely to be much more active and problem focused. Your therapist will likely ask engaging questions and generate a two-way dialogue, and may even suggest “homework” assignments and additional readings between sessions.
MYTH: Psychotherapy goes on forever.
Absolutely not. A good psychotherapist is like a good parent, they want you to get better and leave the nest so you can function independently and feel empowered.
One landmark study showed that 50 percent of patients in psychotherapy noticeably improved after only eight sessions, while 75 percent of patients in therapy improved at the end of six months. If you don’t begin to feel better after a few sessions, you should talk to your therapist and consider altering the treatment plan, or in worst-case scenarios, find a different therapist.
MYTH: Psychotherapy is only for people with “serious” mental problems.
Not so. Psychotherapy has been shown to help decrease pain and nausea, decrease blood pressure and improve the immune system in people with chronic health conditions. Psychotherapy helps people cope with life-stressors like divorce, or loss of a job or loved one.
MYTH: Psychotherapy is only for the wealthy.
Wrong again. Many insurance plans, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover psychotherapy. And the mental health parity law requires that group insurance plans must provide equal coverage for mental and physical health benefits, if the plan covers mental health. If you don’t have insurance at the moment, you may be eligible for low cost or sliding scale psychotherapy at your community mental health center, local hospital clinic or community social service agency.
In Hollywood portrayals, the patient often gets that eureka moment at the end of the show and suddenly feels better. In my experience, most psychotherapy sessions are far less dramatic.
Lasting change happens slowly, session by session. In the beginning, it’s sometimes one step forward, one or two steps back. Not too sexy or dramatic unfortunately.
But if you stick with it, your therapist will help you feel a sense of hope; you’ll likely feel less depressed and worried about life and more in control.
That’s how real psychotherapy works, not with a big bang, but a series of real life whispers and revelations that ultimately have the power to change your life.