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Finding a therapist that's right for you
Finding a therapist isn’t always easy. But the benefits to your mental health are well worth the effort. Here are some tips that will make the process easier.
So, you’ve decided to see a therapist. Good for you. You’re in what experts call the “thinking about making a change” stage of adopting a healthy habit.
Now comes the next step: preparation. That means choosing someone to talk to about what’s on your mind. But you may want to settle in and get comfortable, because this may take time. Why? A good relationship with your therapist is vital to your success. So, it’s worth being picky about who you see.
Here’s what you need to know so that you can schedule that first appointment (the “action” stage of change) and start living your best life.
There are different types of therapy
First, it helps to understand the different methods therapists use. Think about your goals for therapy and your own ideas about it. Then see which of these comes closest.
Psychoanalysis focuses on your past and your subconscious, which is part of the mind. You’re not fully aware of it, but it can influence thoughts and feelings. Sigmund Freud developed this approach to study it. He believed childhood issues caused many later-in-life challenges. This may be a good fit for you if you’re willing to dive into your past, talk about your dreams and find out the “why” of what you do.
Behavior therapy focuses on your actions. You start by changing what you’re doing. This can improve your mental health and often your physical well-being. If you like being given tasks to do, this may suit you well.
Cognitive therapy focuses on your way of thinking. For instance, you may learn how to challenge bad thoughts that crop up and gain a more positive view. If negative thought patterns and self-talk are something you want to tackle, this can help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) combines the two approaches. In this type of therapy, you’ll learn to identify negative thinking patterns. And you learn better ways to cope with life’s ups and downs. That may involve role-playing or facing your fears.
Client-centered therapy focuses on you being the expert on your life. The therapist’s role is to help you figure things out for themselves. Many CBT therapists will try to let their clients learn to “become their own therapists.”1
Keep this in mind: Some therapists use approaches not listed here. Or they may draw from a few types, depending on the person and the problem at hand.
There are also different types of mental health professionals. They include counselors, therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. They have a range of education and licensing requirements. They specialize in different areas and work with patients in different ways. Some, but not all, can also prescribe medication.2
You can ask your doctor where they think you may want to begin. If the first therapist you see feels you need something they can’t provide, they’ll steer you in the right direction. (Learn more about what it means to have good mental health.)
How to find a therapist
There’s more than one way to cook an egg. And there’s more than one way to find a therapist. Here are a few to try:
Ask trusted friends and family. Depending on why you’re seeing a therapist, you may want to see the same person as someone you know — or you may not. Whatever you decide, know that the information you share is confidential.
Turn to your medical team. Ask your primary care physician, gynecologist or other health expert. Ideally, it’s someone who sees you often and knows you well.
Call your health insurance company. It may be able to connect you with network providers or direct you to a virtual therapist who is covered by your plan.
Visit the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator service.3 It allows you to search by ZIP code or provider name if you have someone in mind.
Do you have a very specific issue health issue? Visit websites of related organizations and associations. Many have a locator for therapists who focus on your concern.
Consider virtual therapy. Depending on the platform or plan, you can often try out different therapists until you find one you like. And there may be just one monthly fee.
Keep this in mind: If you’re private about your health and/or mental health, you might want to keep your search to yourself. People can sometimes react in surprising and not-so-helpful ways. On the other hand, telling trusted loved ones about your therapy can deepen your connection. They may share their own story (or extra support) with you.
What to ask at (or before) the first visit
Your first talk with a therapist will feel a little like meeting any other new person. But there’s a big difference. You’re there to focus on you, not them. During your meeting, you’ll want to find out enough to decide if it’s worth scheduling a follow-up visit. You might get a vibe almost right away. Maybe you know it’s not going to work. Or maybe you feel really comfortable. Either way, listen to your gut. Use these questions to get as much info as you can in a short time frame. (Skip the ones that don’t really matter to you. Add your own questions, too.)
What is your approach to therapy?
What can I expect from a typical session? What do you see as your role? What do you see as mine?
What degrees and licenses do you hold? How long have you been in practice?
I am looking for help with [worry, bullying, eating disorders, etc.]. How much have you worked with people with my specific concerns?
I identify as [insert gender, race, ethnicity, native culture/language, etc.]. How much have you worked with people who identify as I do?
What do you charge, and do you accept my insurance? (If you’re not willing to pay out of pocket, you might want this to be the first question you ask. But if you find a therapist who’s really helping you, the extra investment may be worth it. You can always ask about payment options. You can also use funds in your HSA/FSA.)
Keep this in mind: Don’t feel locked in to your first choice. If you don’t seem to click, it’s OK to let the therapist know. They can help you talk through what you’re looking for. And they may even be able to help you find someone who’s a better fit. Therapists want their clients to get the help they need, even if that means turning to someone else.
It’s also OK to switch therapists for any reason at any point in your therapy. But you may want to talk to your therapist before you do. It can be helpful to share why you want to change to someone new. Talking about it together can help you better understand what you really want and why.
A good therapist will show you respect and make you feel safe (and heard). But they’ll also help you understand more about how you’re feeling. It’s part of how they support your growth. And sometimes it’s not the therapist that’s the challenge. If things are getting harder at times, it may just mean that you’re on the verge of making even bigger progress.
- American Psychological Association. What is cognitive behavioral therapy? 2017. Accessed May 31, 2022.
- Psychology.org. Counseling, therapy, and psychology: What’s the difference? 2022. Accessed May 31, 2022.
- American Psychological Association. Psychologist locator. Accessed May 31, 2022.
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