Whether you’re struggling with a diagnosed mental illness, everyday life stressors, relationship problems, or another mental or emotional health concern, deciding to start therapy can be a major step in prioritizing your mental health and well-being.
But deciding what type of therapy you want, finding a provider, and paying for it can all be major obstacles to getting good care. Let’s walk through what you need to know.
“Fundamentally, therapy is about understanding your thinking, mood, emotions, and behaviors and where they cause you distress or impair your functioning. It’s about improving how a person interacts with the world so they can respond to life’s challenges with healthy coping skills,” says Lynn Bufka, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association (APA), where she works on healthcare policy issues and improving mental health care delivery.
Mental health practitioners apply a large number of evidence-based therapies and techniques they’re trained in to help their patients. Some are more effective than others in treating specific disorders and conditions, and in most cases, therapists will use a combination of techniques.
Some common research-backed approaches you’ll come across may include:
Research suggests talk therapy for mental and emotional health can help in a big way.
Therapy can help people with their emotional and mental health (whether they have a clinical diagnosis or not) because it addresses ways of thinking, past traumas, and habits they want to change, Bufka says. It’s through therapy that patients learn healthy coping strategies and feel empowered to take control of their lives — but it requires active participation and some work at learning new skills.
But you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to seek out therapy (and seeking out therapy doesn’t mean you have an illness or a disorder), says Lynn Linde, EdD, the chief knowledge officer at the American Counseling Association.
“Some people go into therapy not because they have a diagnosed disorder, but because they want to make changes in their life, and they want to do that with the assistance of a mental health professional,” Dr. Linde explains. A person may seek help because they want to communicate better, improve their relationships, become more self-aware, overcome a fear, or pursue some other avenue of personal growth.
“Therapy is for everybody, and counselors work with people all along the continuum of emotional difficulty,” Linde says.
She says she thinks the pandemic has removed some hesitancies and negative stigma about professional mental health treatment for many people. People stopped, in many cases, seeing therapy as a sign of weakness; instead people recognized that our day-to-day lives are emotionally challenging, and that taking steps to learn how to cope better keeps you well and makes you stronger. “I hope that continues,” she says. “When someone seeks therapy, they’re doing something positive for themselves and we shouldn’t look at it like there’s something wrong with them.”
Therapy can be helpful for anyone who is feeling like they are struggling to cope with life’s stressors on their own, Linde says. Therapy can be an appropriate first step if emotional worries or struggles are interfering significantly (and in an ongoing way) with day-to-day routines and tasks, like work, school, or household responsibilities.