Psychological therapy: How does it work?
Although in some areas of Australia we still struggle with stigma around seeking emotional support, seeing a psychologist is gradually becoming more widely accepted. And it’s about time too! Since Freud (1856 – 1939) developed psychoanalysis, there has been a growing agreement among scientists from many fields that psychological therapy can help individuals in some very important ways. Some of these include a reduction in symptoms of mental illness, less emotional suffering, getting on top of unhealthy or self-defeating behaviours, progressing in one’s life in a meaningful way, and improving relationships. Seeking help is a critically important thing for us humans to do. If you’re thinking about seeing a psychologist read on and find out a bit about what to expect during this process.
Psychological therapy begins with a client telling a psychologist (or other trained therapist) about the difficulties they are experiencing and providing a bit of history about themselves and the problem. This history helps the psychologist decide what kind of approach might be helpful. If a problem has been present for a long time the type of therapy used may be different to a problem that has just arisen, say from a stressful situation the person has encountered. In the initial session it is important for the client to consider whether the therapist feels like a good fit for them.
By listening carefully and asking questions the therapist considers which treatment approach might address the problem most effectively. Psychologists are trained in utilising a range of different psychological therapies. Certain therapies are widely utilized because of the success they have been found to have in treating mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and stress. Some of these include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and interpersonal psychotherapy.
Building skills in therapy
Psychological therapies such as CBT and ACT focus on the development of particular skills. In CBT a skill known as thought monitoring is the focus – this is the ability to notice one’s thoughts and observe the impact thoughts have on our feelings, decisions, and behaviours. Using this approach the individual learns to notice habitual thought processes and to assess whether they’re realistic or unrealistic (and unhelpful).
A key skill taught as part of ACT is that of mindfulness. Mindfulness is very useful in increasing awareness of thoughts, calming and soothing anxious physical and mental states, and keeping the mind anchored in the present moment. Mindfulness is so helpful you may have read news articles about its integration into corporate settings. In these settings it is utilized to help people manage stress and get more satisfaction and enjoyment from work.
Increasing self-awareness in therapy
In addition to building skills, psychological therapy can lead to increased self-awareness. We can think of this as our understanding of ourselves - how we respond to certain situations and the patterns we repeat in life. It may seem intuitive to many that increasing our understanding of ourselves might help us along in life, and happily the research agrees with this! Increased self-awareness seems to be as important to improving mental health as building skills. Gibbons, Crits-Christoph and associates give a good overview of these findings (2009).
If you’re struggling in your mental health, grieving, feeling stuck and like life is an effort, struggling to recover from past trauma or adjust to a life change, you may benefit from speaking to a psychologist. You can make an appointment without a referral. However, a good place to begin is with your GP. They can write a mental health care plan which gives you access to 10 sessions with a psychologist – with this plan Medicare will contribute a significant amount to the fee (see the ‘fees and rebates’ section of this website for more details). Don’t struggle on alone, help is at hand.