Words by Katie Burn @katierose.burn a child & adolescent therapist and yoga teacher. She is the co-founder of a therapy practice for parents and young people- TeenMatters, based in SW London.
WHAT IS THERAPY?
Therapy, also known as talking therapy, counselling or psychotherapy, is the act of talking to a qualified therapist in a confidential and safe space. A therapist will assist you in finding the solutions to your problems and helping you to develop more awareness about your internal world. There are many reasons why you may seek out therapy, ranging from being curious about certain thoughts or patterns of behaviours to having an acute, urgent, mental health issue.
There are many different types of therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for example is time-limited (normally 6-12 sessions), focuses on the present moment and is goal focused. At the other end of the spectrum is Psychotherapy which is open-ended and is explorative of the whole person, not just their behaviours. Psychotherapy is interested in how your past may be affecting your present and aims to bring awareness to subconscious beliefs that influence your behaviour and may be holding you back.
Typically, therapy is done in person on a one-to-one basis but it can also be done in groups, with your partner or with your family (in the case of couples and family therapy). Increasingly, due to the pandemic, therapists are offering online and phone sessions too.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF THERAPY?
Typically therapy has been viewed as something reserved only for individuals in severe mental health crisis and as a result, seeking support for mental health has been shrouded in stigma and shame. It is well known that therapy is very beneficial for mental health diagnoses such as addiction, psychosis, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD and bi-polar. It is less well known that to benefit from therapy you don’t need a diagnosed condition. In the same way that exercise isn’t only useful for people with an existing physical health condition, therapy isn’t only useful for people on the verge of a mental health breakdown.
Therapy can be very beneficial for you if you are going through more everyday struggles such as difficult life events, loneliness, work stress, living with a physical health condition, past or current abuse, bereavement, anger and relationship issues. Perhaps as a child you weren’t taught how to safely express your feelings or maybe there are things that have happened to you that you feel uncomfortable talking about. Therapy can help you to cope with all of these challenges.
In recent years in the UK, attitudes have begun to shift and instead of physical health and mental health being viewed separately, we have begun to see our health as a more holistic concept. Just like we may be curious about what our body is capable of by trying new workouts or learning new movement skills, the same curiosity can be applied to our minds. Personal trainers for our physical wellbeing are commonplace, think of a therapist as a personal trainer for your brain.
Most people wouldn’t wait until the injury in your leg became so severe you needed amputation before seeking medical help. With your physical health you may be used to taking a preventative approach- seeking physiotherapy support before starting marathon training, lifting weights to prevent osteoporosis or incorporating cardio to your workout routine to prevent cardiovascular issues. Your mental wellbeing doesn’t need to be any different. Therapy is a fantastic preventative tool to learn how to cope with adversity or process a difficult experience *before* it begins to cause significant problems. You don’t need to wait until it is seriously impacting all areas of your life to seek professional help as a last resort.
It is now well understood that not only does looking after our physical wellbeing improve our emotional wellbeing but the reverse is true as well. For example, research has shown that poor mental health is linked to faster disease progression of heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and even cancer. This research really highlights the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing as much as our physical.
WHY IS THERAPY DIFFERENT TO TALKING TO A FRIEND?
A common question that therapists are asked is ‘why go to therapy if I have family and friends that I can talk to?’. It is true that family and friends are a crucial source of support for our mental health. However, there are some significant differences between talking to a trusted friend or family member and speaking to a therapist.
1. Therapists are highly trained in therapeutic conversation, listening, assessment and intervention. You’d seek help from a trained professional for your physical health whether that’s a qualified PT or a doctor, our mental health shouldn’t be any different.
2. Therapists are objective and unbiased. They are trained to be able to listen and respond to you without bringing their personal opinions or their own experiences into it.
3. With friends and family, talking about yourself non-stop for an hour may leave them feeling neglected or you feeling guilty for being self-centred. With a therapist you don’t need to feel guilty for only talking about yourself. That time to focus solely on you is what you are paying for.
4. Therapists are legally and ethically obliged to keep your secrets (unless they are concerned that you are a risk to yourself or others). With friends and family there is no guarantee that what you tell them will stay only between you and them.
5. Therapists are trained to listen to understand, friends and family listen to respond. A good therapist will give you a healing experience of feeling fully understood and listened to.
6. With a therapist you can explore aspects of yourself without worrying that what you say will impact the therapist. Speaking to friends and family you may find you censor yourself so as not to worry or shock them.
7. Therapists are trained to be non-judgmental and aware of their own biases so that they do not impose their values on you. This creates a safe space for you to explore and express the darker side of your thoughts without fear of judgment or consequence.
Perhaps reading this article has left you with the sense that you would benefit from therapy and that seeking support for your mental health isn’t a sign of failure or weakness but in fact an act of self care and a way to support your physical health too. As with starting exercise, it’s never too late to start the journey of building your mental strength with therapy. Whilst therapy will not make all your problems go away, what it will do is equip you to be able to cope with them better and feel happier, less stressed and healthier as a result.