I was first diagnosed with depression over forty years ago and have been to see several therapists since then. These are my tips for anyone considering therapy for the first time.
1) Seek help early
The waiting lists for NHS treatment can be very long. The earlier you ask for help the better. Five years ago, I made the mistake of being desperate before I went to my GP; I ended up having to wait for 12 months before being allocated a therapist. As with physical ailments, seeking treatment earlier will also mean that you perhaps don’t need the length and depth of treatment that you would do if you had left it until you were in crisis.
2) Be prepared
Before your first session, think about what has made you seek therapy and what you want the outcome of therapy to be. Try and crystallise your thoughts into a series of bullet points and jot these down. This will be one of the first things your therapist asks you and it’s helpful to both of you if you’ve given some thought to this beforehand. Also, take a pocket pack of tissues with you. Emotions can surface unexpectedly and you may cry. What you don’t need is the extra embarrassment of being tissue-less.
3) Be honest with your therapist (and yourself)
If you’re asked a question, pause before you give a glib reply. It can be easy to fall into the trap of providing comfortable answers. Your therapist wants to know what you really think and feel, not what might be socially acceptable. They will not be judgemental. And if you don’t know what they mean when they ask you a question, ask for clarification. You shouldn’t bluff.
4) Remain open minded
Treat your sessions as a journey around your internal mental landscape. You may have a specific itinerary in mind, but sometimes it is worth exploring other avenues. Insights can often come from unexpected diversions.
5) Do your homework
You might be asked to do some experiments outside the therapy room, in changing your behaviour. Or filling in some thought records, or maybe a quick timetable of your life events so far. Whatever it is, you need to do it. Therapy is just like everything else – you get out of it what you put into it. Block time in your diary and make yourself a priority.
6) Don’t necessarily expect it to be a permanent fix
I expected to be cured when I had finished therapy for the first time, and not have to go back, ever. It was a shock when I became depressed again several years later. For some people, a single round of treatment will be enough; for others, depression reoccurs. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to go back into therapy. Accept that you have a chronic condition and need long-term support.
7) Expect complex feelings towards your therapist
Anger, love, hate, disillusionment. I’ve had all these. They simply reflect what the therapist stands for to you. If you can, share them with your therapist and explore them together.
8) Take a notebook and pen with you
You shouldn’t take detailed notes during the session – you need to be fully in the moment with your therapist. However, at the end, you may be given homework or something to think about before the next session. It helps to put it down in writing, or you may be likely to forget. Use your notebook also between appointments to jot down any questions or things you want to discuss in your next session.
9) Try and keep your diary free afterwards
Therapy can be tough. You have stripped away your social veneer, been searingly honest with yourself and your therapist, possibly been given some great insight, and maybe even cried. You do not want to be going into an important meeting immediately afterwards, because your head will be elsewhere. Take some time in private to compose yourself – go for a short walk, or grab a coffee.