Because I have been a believer in the power of psychotherapy for a long time and work for an online therapy company, I often tell people it is a great investment that will help them become better versions of themselves. Unfortunately it’s hard for some of them to believe me. They can’t imagine what anyone could gain or learn from working with a therapist.
When I started therapy, I was horribly depressed and nearly dead. By working with seven therapists during the last five years, I have improved my life and mental health, become a better person and developed skills I use to maintain good relationships and succeed in my career. To paint a detailed picture of what therapy can do for you and help you navigate the process of working with therapists, I decided to share my story and everything I learned.
What Lead Me to Therapy
During my sophomore year of college, my health declined rapidly. I woke up at least twice a night and couldn’t understand why. I no longer had dreams. My sleep was too shallow to create them.
My digestion slowed down and I continued to lose weight despite eating the same amount as the year before. Eventually my skinniest pairs of pants was sagging and I felt weak.
Food didn’t taste as good. It was harder to savor even the best desserts.
After undergoing various tests, doctors told me there was no medical cause for what I was experiencing. Throughout the year my parents suggested I see a therapist. I ignored their pleas because I didn’t see what my mind had to do with what my body was going through. I also had this machismo idea that I should be able to work out my problems on my own.
When my sophomore year ended and my health issues continued to worsen, I finally gave in and set up a meeting with a therapist. Shortly after beginning therapy, I was unable to sleep for four days. Nothing worked, not even heavy sleep medication.
My therapist diagnosed me with depressive-anxiety disorder and told me the sleep deprivation was a symptom of mental illness. He was right. After taking some antidepressants, I was able to get a few hours of sleep. I no longer felt like I was going to die from sleep deprivation.
For the first time I understood how connected my body and mind were. All the years of feeling mental pain through my body started to make sense.
It was frustrating, though. Why was I feeling worse after therapy?
Then I learned my second big lesson about psychotherapy: it works in the long-term, but it isn’t guaranteed to make you feel better immediately. It can actually make you feel worse in the beginning. In my case I was digging into painful issues I had repressed and ignored for many years. They were some of the sources of my depression and somatic symptoms.
My First Therapist, Gene — How Negative Beliefs Hold You Back
Gene and I spent most of our time figuring out how my childhood experience with undiagnosable health issues had caused me to form negative beliefs. These beliefs exacerbated my health issues and sometimes prevented me from developing new relationships.
Most people have subconscious negative beliefs that hold them back. By going to therapy, you can unearth them, examine them and eventually change them to something rational and balanced.
Gene was based in my hometown where I spent my college summers working. He was a great therapist, but I had to leave him so I could find someone who worked in or near my university.
If you commit to therapy for many years, you will most likely need to change therapists for various reasons. Changes in your life, insurance and career make it difficult to stick with one forever.
My Second Therapist, Michael — Learning Mental Techniques to Reduce Anxiety
Michael wasn’t great at the talking part of therapy (he was a young therapist my school provided to me for free), but he did teach me useful techniques I use to this day. Most of them were anxiety reduction techniques to help me go to sleep, focus better and slow down my heart rate.
Finding the best therapist for you is a lot like dating. It might take more than one date to find the right fit.
My Third Therapist, Leslie — Major Improvements and Learning How to Cope
After a few months of therapy and medication, my symptoms had reduced and become more manageable. My dreams returned in a great flood, sometimes ten short ones in one night or a lucid, extended dream. Sleep was less of a struggle. I still woke up at least twice a night, but the intervals of sleep were longer.
My weight came back and food tasted good enough for me to savor it again. Strength welled up in me for the first time in a year.
During this time I worked on various issues with my third therapist, Leslie. We managed my expectations of others and of myself and talked about my frustrations with my health, career and dating life.
Most of our work focused on developing coping skills for these issues. This was valuable because most people don’t learn and practice coping skills in a structured environment. Parents and teachers try to endow you with them, but it’s not enough. There isn’t a coping skills class in high school or college.
After a few more months, Leslie told me he could no longer help me as a therapist. He felt like I could cope with everything on my own, so he ended our sessions.
I didn’t agree with his decision. Fortunately — and ironically — I had the coping skills to move on and find a new therapist. For more on my story with Leslie, see concluding section of this post.
My Fourth Therapist, Peter — Existential Crises and Unexpected Challenges
Many changes occurred during my time with Peter. I graduated from college, struggled to get my first job as a writer, landed a freelance job, lost that job and found a new full-time job.
The transition from college to post-college life was difficult. Going from being a freelancer and working from home to working full-time in an office was challenging, too. After a little more than a year at my full-time job, I got laid off.
Peter was there for me when I wanted to talk with someone about these changes. There was so much frustration, strife, anxiety, disappointment, rejection and feelings of inadequacy.
My Fifth Therapist, Abby — Learning Relationship Skills and Trying Online Therapy
About a month before I got laid off, I began my first serious romantic relationship. I fell in love with my girlfriend and she became the most important part of my life. We had a fun, passionate and healthy relationship where we communicated well.
The only problem was I didn’t know how to handle certain parts of the relationship. Like coping skills, I hadn’t learned relationship skills in a structured setting. I needed tons of advice!
When I joined my company as their staff writer, I decided to sign up and work with one of our therapists online. Abby was my first online therapist. She helped me better understand how my partner was feeling and taught me how to comfort her during stressful situations (there are many more lessons, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing them).
If you struggle with the commute or other cons of traditional therapy, I suggest you try online therapy. Whether you need to talk about relationship issues or anything else, it might work well for you.
My Sixth Therapist, Jessica — Learning How to Deal with People in the Workplace
Learning how to deal with people in the workplace is another skill people often assume they can pick up without a conscious effort. It doesn’t work that way, though. There is a reason why there are thousands of books about workplace relationships: they can be hard.
Among its many values, therapy is like a library of self-help books that morph to fit your situation. In my case I needed a big chunk of that library for improving my soft skills around the workplace. Jessica helped me with this.
My Seventh and Current Therapist, Ken — ?
It’s too soon to tell what Ken will teach me and how he will help me improve my life. I’m optimistic, though.
What Your Experience Might Be Like
You might make some of the same progress I did. Or maybe your experience will be completely different. Either way, if you are willing to be open and persistent in finding therapists who fit your needs, you are guaranteed to benefit from therapy.
Photo by Yuri Samoilov