Unfortunately, therapy still remains a shrouded subject, and many myths persist. The problem? These misunderstandings can prevent people from seeking help and getting better — and gives something valuable a bad name.

Myth: It’s All About Your Mother

If therapy makes you think of lying on a couch talking about your childhood, you may be in for a surprise. Real-world therapy has very little in common with fictional scenes on TV. Although discussing the past may be helpful in some situations, most current therapies focus on solving problems in the present and future.

Fact: It’s All About Tools

Therapy provides tools for solving problems and enhancing quality of life, says psychologist Parinda Khatri, PhD. These tools may include relationship skills, anger management, or techniques for controlling thoughts and actions. “You don’t have to go into past issues,” Khatri tells WebMD. “You can be very focused on the present and specific problems you are targeting.”

Myth: Therapy Is for Crazy People

Therapy may have its roots in treating severe mental disorders, but it has since gone mainstream. You don’t have to have a mental illness to benefit from therapy — and seeking therapy does not mean you are mentally ill. Nor is it a sign of weakness. In contrast, it’s a sign of resourcefulness. When life feels like it’s spinning out of control, therapy is one tool to help you control the spin.

Fact: Therapy is for Everyday Life

These days, everyday life means juggling the demands of your job, family, health, and social circle. Therapy can help you manage those demands more gracefully, whether you’re an overstressed parent or a short-tempered executive (or both). Getting a handle on everyday demands will help you function at a higher level and experience more joy.

Myth: You’ll Be in Therapy Forever

That idea of being in therapy for years? It’s another TV cliché. Yes, some people may benefit from ongoing therapy, especially if they have a long-lasting mental illness. But many mental health and quality-of-life issues can be addressed in a few weeks or months.

Fact: Short-Term Therapy Works

As few as one to four sessions can help you make significant changes in your life, Khatri says. And the benefits go beyond relieving stress and anxiety. Short-term therapy can help you improve your relationships, brush up on parenting skills, sleep better, manage your weight, adopt healthy habits, and become more effective in pursuing your goals.

Myth: Therapists Just Listen

It has become a running joke: Therapists just listen and say things like, “How does that make you feel?” Although listening is a critical part of the job, good therapists also do a lot of talking. This includes asking targeted questions, helping you set goals, and teaching skills that will help you meet those goals. Your therapist may even assign homework to help you practice your new skills.

Myth: All Therapy Is the Same

All kinds of therapy are, in essence, a conversation. But the content and structure of that conversation depend on the type of therapy. Solution-focused therapy helps identify and implement strategies that have worked for you in the past. Interpersonal therapy helps improve your interactions with the people in your life. Psychodynamic psychotherapy, a variant of traditional psychoanalysis, aims to give people greater insight into their psychological conflicts and unconscious motivations and feelings. Other options include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Facts About CBT

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most studied forms of psychotherapy. This approach teaches you to recognize and change self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. It is especially effective at treating depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, but can also be helpful for everyday issues, like sleeping better and adopting healthy habits. A typical course of CBT lasts six to 20 sessions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of CBT that helps you become more flexible in meeting challenges. This approach emphasizes acceptance of uncomfortable experiences, along with a commitment to actions that support your personal values. It is particularly helpful in coping with workplace stress, chronic pain, and other long-lasting medical conditions.

Facts About Couples Therapy

Think couples therapy is for partners who are on the verge of divorce? Therapy is actually far more effective when a relationship is mostly positive, and partners can learn to work through their differences respectfully. “Do you want to dig yourself out of a very big hole,” Khatri asks, “or learn to build a bridge over a smaller hole?” Waiting too long is one of the top mistakes couples make with regard to therapy.

Myth: All Therapists Are the Same

The term “therapist” includes people with a wide range of credentials. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are trained both to provide psychotherapy and prescribe medications when appropriate. Clinical psychologists have a PhD or PsyD (doctor of psychology) and are highly trained psychotherapists. They are not medically trained and therefore cannot prescribe psychiatric medicines except in a few states where legislation has granted them prescribing privileges. Psychiatric APRNs (Advanced Practice Registered Nurses) are clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners with at least a Master’s level degree who have advanced mental health training and can provide psychotherapy as well as prescribe medications (either independently or under supervision of a psychiatrist, depending on the state). Social workers and licensed mental health counselors are also qualified to provide therapy. Choose a mental health professional who is experienced in the type of therapy you prefer.

Fact: Therapists Are Not Pill Pushers

Prescription medicine is only one tool a therapist may suggest. The use of medicine depends on why you’re seeking therapy and the severity of the problem. For mild to moderate depression, therapy is often enough. For more severe depression or anxiety, or certain other types of mental health problems, a combination of medication and therapy often works best. Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of medication in your case.

Myth: Therapy is Expensive

Therapy is sometimes viewed as a luxury, but the costs are more reasonable than you might think. Insurance often covers mental health services, and many university clinics have sliding scales or payment plans. Remember that a handful of sessions can provide significant benefits. If you only see a therapist for a short period, the cost will be more manageable.

Fact: Therapy Can Be Convenient

If you’ve been avoiding therapy because you think you don’t have the time, think again. Many offices have weekend and evening hours, and some therapists are willing to do sessions by phone or Skype (as long as you are not in serious distress). Instead of the traditional hour long appointment, therapists can be flexible to accommodate even the busiest schedules. This works best for targeted issues, such as how to sleep better or manage your anger.

Myth: Therapy is for people with “serious” issues.

Fact: Some people believe that you must be diagnosed with a psychological disorder or be profoundly struggling in order to seek therapy. In fact, research has shown that most couples, for instance, wait about six years before getting help. Waiting only exacerbates problems and makes them that much harder to untangle and resolve.

And in reality, there are many reasons people see therapists. According to a 2004 Harris poll, 27 percent of adults received mental health treatment within two years of that year, 30 million of whom sought psychotherapy.

“People go to therapy to cope with disorders, relationships, stress, grief, to figure out who they are and learn to live life to the fullest,” said Howes, who also writes the blog, In Therapy. “There’s no shame in wanting a better life.”

Myth: “Therapists are all New Age-y, warm fuzzy, ‘you’re good enough, smart enough…’ cheerleader types,” Howes said.
Fact: According to Howes, “Most therapists are encouraging and empathic, and some therapy models emphasize this warm support more than others, but certainly not all therapy works this way.” Therapists also challenge and educate clients. “Cheerleading therapy makes for good TV, but not always good therapy.”

Myth: Therapists are all about the money.

Fact: If therapists were really in it for the money, they would’ve picked other careers. As Howes put it, “if therapists wanted money we would have gone to business school or law school instead of psychotherapy school.” He added, “Therapists who thrive in this work have a deep respect for humanity and aren’t driven by the almighty dollar.”

Myth: Therapy is common sense.

Fact: You often hear that therapy is pointless because all therapists do is rehash common knowledge. But, according to Howes, “Common sense is wisdom that applies to everyone, but therapy gives insight, which is wisdom unique to you.”

He describes therapy* as a college course where you’re the only subject. “Therapy will give you a place to focus only on you with the support of a trained expert who works to understand and guide you to reach your goals.”

Myth: Therapy is unnecessary when you can just talk to good friends.

Fact: There’s a pervasive belief in our culture that simply the support of a good friend can substitute for therapy. Social support is important for everyone, especially when you’re super stressed. “Friends give love, support and wisdom that can be invaluable,” Howes said.

But therapy is very different from relationships with friends and family. Howes gave several important reasons why. For one, therapists are highly trained professionals who’ve spent years learning and practicing “how to diagnose and treat cognitive, emotional, behavioral and relational issues.”

Secondly, relationships are reciprocal, Howes said. Typically friends go back and forth discussing each other’s issues. When you’re in therapy, however, each session is devoted to you.

Also, in therapy, you can let it all hang out. With friends you’re more likely to censor yourself, either because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or portray yourself or others in a bad light. “Friend conversations sometimes require mental gymnastics,” Howes said. In other words, “You may avoid or sidestep or sugarcoat some topics because you know your friend so well and anticipate how your comments might affect her.”

And, lastly, therapy is confidential. “Therapists are legally mandated secret keepers (with a few exceptions). For some, this alone makes therapy worthwhile.”

Myth: Therapy is too expensive.

Fact: Price prohibits many people from seeking therapy. But there’s actually a wide range in fees. According to Howes, “Therapy prices range from free in some community clinics to almost-lawyer hourly rates in the nation’s top private practices.” Also, some psychotherapists offer their clients a sliding fee based on their income.

Howes also encouraged readers to consider the gains and investment you’re making. For instance, compare “how much money you spend [each year] on things that help you feel good about your life superficially” — such as cars, clothes, nice dinners, vacations and gifts — “with the cost of working directly on thoughts, feelings and behaviors in therapy.” He added, “Think about how much money you could be making if you reached your full potential and were able to set aside all the obstacles holding you back.”

Myth: Therapists can help only if they’ve experienced the same thing.

Fact: There’s a common belief, particularly in AA circles, that in order to truly help someone, you must experience and overcome the same struggles. If you haven’t been there, you won’t be able to understand or provide a successful solution.

According to Howes, wanting your therapist to have resolved the same issues “is more about wanting to be understood than actually sharing a diagnosis. People in pain, regardless of their particular issue, want to know that someone understands what they’re experiencing and how they feel,” especially if they’ve felt misunderstood before.

But sharing similar experiences is just one path to understanding, Howes explained. “Training, clinical experience and our personal experience of the same emotions or conflicts in a different context can help us have that understanding.” Most therapists have the education, “training and experience to understand and treat the problems clients bring to them, and if they don’t they are instructed to refer them elsewhere.”

Myth: People who go to therapy are weak.

Fact: Think about it this way, Howes said: Are people who go to school too weak to teach themselves or people who see physicians too weak to heal themselves? Of course not.

Sadly, having emotional or cognitive concerns is seen as a moral failing or character flaw. Not fixing your own problems is viewed as weak, so therapy tends to get stigmatized as a shaky solution. But it’s just the opposite. Seeking help for your problems means you’re taking action. Howes emphasized that “asking for help often requires more strength than passively staying stuck.” Plus, consider other successful individuals who’ve had help from coaches, mentors and psychologists, including top athletes, executives and Nobel Prize winners.

Myth: Therapists choose this field to fix their own problems.

Fact: Most therapists, Howes explained, have a personal reason for picking this as their profession, “whether it’s a good experience in our own therapy, a deep curiosity about psychological issues or a passion for helping those in need.” But whatever the initial reason, the ultimate goal is helping clients. “If a therapist isn’t able to make their client’s healing their top priority, they probably won’t enjoy or succeed at being a therapist.”

In general, remember that every therapist is different. If you don’t feel comfortable with one practitioner, find another one. Shopping around is a smart way to find a good therapist for you. Here’s more insight on picking a qualified clinician.

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