Journalist and founder of welldoing.org Louise Chunn on the benefits of psychotherapy and how to get the most out of seeing a therapist.
‘There are times in your life when you know things are not quite right; when friends can’t comfort you; where nothing that has helped you before seems to work’. Deciding to see a therapist is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Even if you never tell another living soul, you are admitting to yourself that you can’t cope on your own, you need help. As I had always seen myself as capable and in control, I found that very difficult.
I wasn’t alone. Many people are confused and conflicted about therapy. Shouldn’t they be able to get by with friends and family to talk to? What can a stranger tell them that they probably don’t know already? But as one reluctant therapy-user explained it to me: ‘What I have now accepted is that there are times in your life when you know things are not quite right; when friends can’t comfort you; where nothing that has helped you before seems to work.’ This highly professional mother of three found ‘someone to help me find the right way’ and, she says, her life was radically changed.
In some countries – such as the USA and France – therapy is relatively normal behaviour, but we Brits tend to be suspicious of self-examination. But this is changing partly because evidence is supporting the positive effects. For example, some studies show that many physical ailments – such as stomach aches, headaches, insomnia – are improved by therapy. As US psychologist Marian Margulies has written, ‘When people do not express feelings but swallow them and keep them buried and out of conscious awareness, one’s body often reacts [badly]. It acts as a barometer that reads: danger! Something is amiss.’
But people seek therapy for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they have run full-face into one of life’s less pleasant surprises – end of a relationship, bereavement, redundancy, serious illness – and they feel unable to cope. Others go because they are unwittingly in the grip of past experience and realise that nothing will change without finally addressing it. Therapy used to have a reputation as a middle-aged activity, but psychotherapist Philippa Perry has said that when she was practising she often saw women in their late 20s and early 30s who often couldn’t articulate what was wrong: ‘They just knew they weren’t happy.’
If you think therapy might be useful, you shouldn’t be put off by the impenetrable labels and different modalities of psychotherapy or counselling. The key detail is not what school of therapy they follow, but what kind of relationship you can build with this individual. When you look at their website or read their entry on a therapists directory, do they sound like someone you would feel comfortable talking to; does their appearance feel ‘right’ to you; are you more drawn to someone of your own gender or age, or would you prefer to have a different perspective or the experience of someone older? Is this someone you can imagine spending 50 minutes with every week for a lengthy period? These are all points to ponder – there is no right or wrong answer.
You can enter therapy at any level: if you don’t want to delve into childhood you can stick with problem-solving styles such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is offered by the NHS and is very much focused on developing an action rather than reflection) if you want to be more analytical, there are styles such as psychodynamic (where your childhood and family dynamic is usually a key element in understanding your present state). I have seen both a humanistic therapist (which focuses on potential for change) and a psychodynamic therapist, and while I could see there were differences, I felt connected to both therapists, and was helped in different ways by each of them. It’s important that whoever you see is a member of a respected membership organisation such as the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy) who will deal with complaints if you are unhappy with the service. People living outside the UK should check with their GPs about accessing help.
A few further practical tips: it’s good to find someone whose consulting room is not too far from where you live or work; you should settle on a meeting time, a policy on missed appointments, and try to ascertain how long your treatment will last; fees can range widely – in the UK an hour’s session can cost from £40 outside of London, to well over £100 in Harley Street. Many therapists, however, do offer concessions to people according to their income.
I came away from my experiences in therapy with a much better understanding of myself, not just at that moment, but in the longer run. The conversations we had, the patterns we had identified, stayed with me long after I’d finished weekly sessions in the consulting room, making me much better able to deal with whatever happened in the future. It isn’t an easy process – you have to challenge yourself to gain from it – but for many who try therapy, it’s a life-changing process that opens your mind and heart to a better, saner way of living.
Louise Chunn is a former editor of Psychologies magazine, Good Housekeeping and InStyle. Originally from New Zealand, she lives in London and is the founder of welldoing.org, a self development, mental health and wellbeing website.