Knowing When You’re Done
You might think that undergoing psychotherapy means committing to years of weekly treatment. Not so.
HOW LONG SHOULD PSYCHOTHERAPY TAKE?
How long psychotherapy takes depends on several factors: the type of problem or disorder, the patient’s characteristics and history, the patient’s goals, what’s going on in the patient’s life outside psychotherapy and how fast the patient is able to make progress.
Some people feel relief after only a single session of psychotherapy. Meeting with a psychotherapist can give a new perspective, help them see situations differently and offer relief from pain. Most people find some benefit after a few sessions, especially if they’re working on a single, well-defined problem and didn’t wait too long before seeking help.
If you’ve been suffering from extreme anxiety, for example, you might feel better simply because you’re taking action — a sign of hope that things will change. Your psychotherapist might also offer a fresh perspective early in your treatment that gives you a new understanding of your problem. And even if your problem doesn’t go away after a few sessions, you may feel confident that you’re already making progress and learning new coping skills that will serve you well in the future.
Other people and situations take longer — maybe a year or two — to benefit from psychotherapy. They may have experienced serious traumas, have multiple problems or just be unclear about what’s making them unhappy. It’s important to stick with psychotherapy long enough to give it a chance to work.
People with serious mental illness or other significant life changes may need ongoing psychotherapy. Regular sessions can provide the support they need to maintain their day-to-day functioning.
Others continue psychotherapy even after they solve the problems that brought them there initially. That’s because they continue to experience new insights, improved well-being and better functioning.
Knowing when you’re done can be tricky.
HOW DO I KNOW WHEN I’M READY TO STOP?
Psychotherapy isn’t a lifetime commitment.
In one classic study, half of the psychotherapy patients improved after eight sessions. And 75 percent improved after six months.
You and your psychotherapist will decide together when you are ready to end psychotherapy. One day, you’ll realize you’re no longer going to bed and waking up worrying about the problem that brought you to psychotherapy. Or you will get positive feedback from others. For a child who was having trouble in school, a teacher might report that the child is no longer disruptive and is making progress both academically and socially. Together you and your psychotherapist will assess whether you’ve achieved the goals you established at the beginning of the process.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER PSYCHOTHERAPY ENDS?
You probably visit your physician for periodic check-ups. You can do the same with your psychotherapist.
You might want to meet with your psychotherapist again a couple of weeks or a month after psychotherapy ends just to report how you’re doing. If all is well, you can wrap things up at that follow-up session.
And don’t think of psychotherapy as having a beginning, middle and end. You can solve one problem, then face a new situation in your life and feel the skills you learned during your last course of treatment need a little tweaking. Just contact your psychotherapist again. After all, he or she already knows your story.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for a crisis to see your psychotherapist again. You might just need a “booster” session to reinforce what you learned last time. Think of it as a mental health tune-up.