If you’re thinking of starting psychotherapy, it can be an intimidating commitment. How do you know whether you’ll get results? How do you know if you’ve found the right therapist? And how much time should you give it before trying something else? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are a few pointers to help you figure out how long therapy may take to work for you.
It depends on the challenges you’re facing.
In general, the more “problems” you need to work on, the more time you will need. The more intense those problems feel, the longer they will probably take. Some of these problems might be mental health related, but they can also come from your relationships, work or school, or other circumstances that give you stress.
Some diagnoses need a longer treatment than others. A person with complex PTSD and depression will probably need more sessions than someone whose only issue is overcoming a phobia of dogs. A person who starts therapy to figure out how to be happier at work might no longer need therapy once they have a new job they love. It’s hard to give a definite timeline, since so many things can make recovery easier or harder. The shortest I’ve seen a person meet their goals is two months, and the longest is several years.
It depends on your goals.
If you want to only see a therapist for two months, that’s probably long enough to improve your coping skills, or learn to handle job interviews. It may be enough for some kinds of phobias or grief. But it will probably take longer to work through complex feelings about your parents, or overcome a major depressive episode, or handle guilt about a childhood trauma. Deeper work, or changes that affect big parts of your life or relationships, tend to take longer.
You can decide how deep you want to go, and what you want to work on. Perhaps you only want to focus on quitting smoking, and not on family issues or anxiety right now. That’s okay. If you wish, you can change your goals later, too.
Your therapist may give you “homework” to try between sessions. This could mean filling out a worksheet, practicing conversation skills, journaling, or many other things. You don’t have to do the homework, but it usually helps your brain learn new skills or insights faster.
It depends on how well you and your therapist connect.
There have been a lot of studies done on which therapy techniques work best. But the most important factor isn’t actually the specific technique: it’s how supported you feel in therapy. The process of working with someone who listens, takes you seriously, accepts you as you are, and who believes you can recover is healing in itself.
On the other hand, if you don’t feel comfortable with your therapist, or don’t feel like therapy is working for you, bring that up with the therapist! We make mistakes sometimes, and it’s helpful for us to hear if we did something wrong, so we can fix it. Or, if you’re not comfortable discussing it, you can contact their supervisor (if they have one) or switch to a new therapist.
It’s also okay to ask for a therapist who shares your background or culture. For instance, if you would feel most comfortable with a Black therapist, the Black Therapy Network is a great place to start. Psychology Today’s directory lets you filter therapists by gender, race, and other demographics. Another great option is to find a therapist who is an ally, even if they aren’t in your community. You can ask therapists in the first email, phone call or session about their experience with your issue or community, and that will help you gauge whether they’re a good fit for you.
How to make therapy work faster for you
- Get help early. It’s easier to address the molehill before it becomes a mountain.
- Find a therapist you feel comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to shop around or do a “trial run” of 1-3 sessions first.
- Identify your goals. This will help you know when you’re moving in the right direction.
- Do the homework. More practice between sessions usually means faster results.
- If something isn’t working, let the therapist know. We don’t want to waste your time going down the wrong path!
Okay, but how long does therapy take to work on average?
For my own clients, it takes anywhere from four months to a couple years. For most people. It might be shorter if you have a lot of support, a relatively straightforward concern, or your external situation improves. It might be longer if your situation is complex or you change your goals midway through therapy. I wish I could be more precise, but it wouldn’t be truthful.
I have found that most people who aren’t sure if their problems are “serious enough” for therapy do benefit from it. Even if the problem really is small, it means therapy goes faster and prevents worse problems later. I’m a big fan of preventative care, both for doctor’s visits and for mental health. So if you’re on the fence, know that you can reach out to me or another therapist, give it a go for a few sessions, and quit or see someone else if it isn’t working for you.