What you can expect
Your first therapy session
At the first psychotherapy session, the therapist typically gathers information about you and your needs. You may be asked to fill out forms about your current and past physical and emotional health. It might take a few sessions for your therapist to fully understand your situation and concerns and to determine the best approach or course of action.
The first session is also an opportunity for you to interview your therapist to see if his or her approach and personality are going to work for you. Make sure you understand:
- What type of therapy will be used
- The goals of your treatment
- The length of each session
- How many therapy sessions you may need
Don't hesitate to ask questions anytime during your appointment. If you don't feel comfortable with the first psychotherapist you see, try someone else. Having a good fit with your therapist is critical for psychotherapy to be effective.
You'll likely meet in your therapist's office or a clinic once a week or every other week for a session that lasts about 45 to 60 minutes. Psychotherapy, usually in a group session with a focus on safety and stabilization, also can take place in a hospital if you've been admitted for treatment.
Types of psychotherapy
There are a number of effective types of psychotherapy. Some work better than others in treating certain disorders and conditions. In many cases, therapists use a combination of techniques. Your therapist will consider your particular situation and preferences to determine which approach may be best for you.
Although many types of therapies exist, some psychotherapy techniques proven to be effective include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you identify unhealthy, negative beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthy, positive ones
- Dialectical behavior therapy, a type of CBT that teaches behavioral skills to help you handle stress, manage your emotions and improve your relationships with others
- Acceptance and commitment therapy, which helps you become aware of and accept your thoughts and feelings and commit to making changes, increasing your ability to cope with and adjust to situations
- Psychodynamic and psychoanalysis therapies, which focus on increasing your awareness of unconscious thoughts and behaviors, developing new insights into your motivations, and resolving conflicts
- Interpersonal psychotherapy, which focuses on addressing problems with your current relationships with other people to improve your interpersonal skills — how you relate to others, such as family, friends and colleagues
- Supportive psychotherapy, which reinforces your ability to cope with stress and difficult situations
Psychotherapy is offered in different formats, including individual, couple, family or group therapy sessions, and it can be effective for all age groups.
For most types of psychotherapy, your therapist encourages you to talk about your thoughts and feelings and what's troubling you. Don't worry if you find it hard to open up about your feelings. Your therapist can help you gain more confidence and comfort as time goes on.
Because psychotherapy sometimes involves intense emotional discussions, you may find yourself crying, upset or even having an angry outburst during a session. Some people may feel physically exhausted after a session. Your therapist is there to help you cope with such feelings and emotions.
Your therapist may ask you to do "homework" — activities or practices that build on what you learn during your regular therapy sessions. Over time, discussing your concerns can help improve your mood, change the way you think and feel about yourself, and improve your ability to cope with problems.
Except in rare and specific circumstances, conversations with your therapist are confidential. However, a therapist may break confidentiality if there is an immediate threat to safety (yours or someone else's) or when required by state or federal law to report concerns to authorities. Your therapist can answer questions about confidentiality.
Length of psychotherapy
The number of psychotherapy sessions you need — as well as how frequently you need to see your therapist — depends on such factors as:
- Your particular mental illness or situation
- Severity of your symptoms
- How long you've had symptoms or have been dealing with your situation
- How quickly you make progress
- How much stress you're experiencing
- How much your mental health concerns interfere with day-to-day life
- How much support you receive from family members and others
- Cost and insurance limitations
It may take only weeks to help you cope with a short-term situation. Or, treatment may last a year or longer if you have a long-term mental illness or other long-term concerns.