You have done your due diligence – you found a therapist who specializes in the issues you want or need to focus on, you attend sessions regularly, and complete all the assignments. But at the end of the day, how do you know if therapy is working?
1. Know Your Struggles and Mental Health Issues
Before you gauge whether the work you are doing with your therapist is bringing about positive change, you need to look at what brought you to therapy in the first place. Whether you have been attending therapy sessions for a few weeks or years, do some reflection on the problems you were facing (and still may be facing).
Let’s say you were someone who was experiencing rapid mood swings of feeling incredibly sad one moment and then angry the next. Maybe you were staying in bed for most of the day, barely eating any meals. You might have pulled away from some of your friends or family members. And perhaps you always considered yourself a stellar worker, but suddenly your job performance was slipping. Dealing with these issues can be overwhelming, especially when you don’t know why they are happening.
This is likely when your therapy journey comes into the picture. Your therapist asks you questions to understand your background as you share your struggles. Sometimes, they may diagnose you with a mental health disorder, but not always – the beauty of therapy is that it can support anyone no matter what they are going through in life.
After you laid out your issues with your therapist, it is time to make a plan of action.
2. Set Small and Large Goals
One of the most common roadblocks in therapy is a lack of engagement. When you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to heal, you can become overwhelmed and unmotivated to make any changes. Setting goals can push you outside your comfort zone, help track your progress and be a clear indicator of whether therapy is working or not.
The good news is that your therapist will work with you to come up with goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound – also known as SMART goals. You might have larger goals that are broken down into smaller, more manageable steps. Of course, everyone will have different struggles and goals, but some examples can include:
- If you are in recovery from addiction, your short-term goal might be keeping a running tab of your triggers. This will help your therapist know what poses a risk to your sobriety and what the next best steps are.
- If you have depression, your short-term goal could be to walk outside for 10 minutes a day for one week.
- If you are dealing with anxiety, one of your short-term goals could be to write your feelings down in a journal anytime you feel overwhelmed.
You can also tell if therapy is working because therapists hold you accountable. It’s harder to procrastinate or postpone certain goals when a therapist is rooting for you to succeed. Over time, therapy will help you develop a better understanding of your own patterns and tendencies, which can help you set more realistic and achievable goals.
3. Monitor Your Progress
Another way to know if therapy is working is by tracking your progress. Therapists will often utilize wellness planning to identify your strengths and weaknesses and determine how you will work together to reach your goals. Regional Outpatient Manager Erin O’Neil, says, “Wellness plans ensure that you are practicing self-awareness, mindfulness, and reflection, and connecting what you are doing in your therapist’s office to the greater scope of your life.”
This important tool concretely maps out your priorities and shows the correlation between that which you are working on in the therapeutic setting to goal achievement, healing, and/or resolution. It is a method that is updated at regular intervals and allows you to clearly see what is working, what isn’t, and how therapy fits into the bigger picture of your life.
You don’t need to wait until your therapy sessions to monitor your progress; this can be done every day. If we use the example above, maybe you notice that you have been walking outside for almost 30 minutes each day. Or perhaps you realize that you have been inconsistent with your walks and your depressive thoughts are becoming worse. Make sure you communicate openly with your therapist. Let them know what is and isn’t working so you can adjust your goals or wellness plan if needed.
Remember, therapy is a collaborative effort, and your therapist is there to support and guide you toward a positive outcome.
4. Assess the Results of Therapy
Now, it is time to measure your progress with your therapist. You will likely look at each of your goals and different points of your treatment to see what areas you struggled with and where you excelled. You can also ask yourself some questions to assess your progress including:
- Do I feel more in control of my emotions and behaviors?
- Am I able to cope with stress more effectively?
- Have I noticed any changes in my mood or outlook on life?
- Do I feel more self-aware and able to express my needs?
- Have I learned any new coping skills or behaviors that are helpful?
- Am I more motivated and engaged in my life?
Through regular therapy and implementing tools learned from your sessions, you may notice gradual changes in your behavior. If you are dealing with depression, you might find you are getting out of bed more frequently. Maybe daily tasks, like showering, brushing your teeth, and eating three meals, don’t seem as impossible as they once did. Or you may be more willing to reach out and spend time with your loved ones.
Of course, all these changes won’t happen overnight, and they might happen slowly, but as long as you are seeing a gradual change in a positive direction, then therapy is most likely working for you! One of the biggest indicators that therapy is helping is coming to understand when you no longer need it (or no longer need it in the same capacity). O’Neil shares, “A successful outcome does not mean that you are no longer dealing with the issue you came in for (although that can sometimes be a result). Rather, it means that you now have more awareness, understanding, tools, and support to manage discomfort, conflict, or symptoms so that therapy is not your only lifeline.”