When Does Therapy Start ‘Working?’

woman client couch therapist

Ashley Laderer remembers exactly when therapy started working for her, the first time she could feel its benefits without any doubts or skepticism. The healing began with a single, surprising word: “lumpy.”

During her initial sessions Laderer constantly felt nauseous and had anxiety about vomiting.

“My therapist was like, ‘We need to stop giving the nausea so much power. Let’s make it less powerful,’” Laderer recalled.

Rather than saying she felt nauseous or had nausea, her therapist suggested using “lumpy” to describe what she was experiencing.

“At first it seemed so silly and I always forgot to use the word,” Laderer said. “But then in session I would always say ‘lumpy’ instead of nauseous.”

Shortly after, Laderer felt significantly better about her nausea and anxiety. She recognized this as a result of therapy.

Her story of having a breakthrough in therapy is a far cry from the emotional moments we think of in films like “Good Will Hunting.” It reflects the reality that progress in therapy can look like anything and happen at any time.

For Natasha Tracy, author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, therapy started working when she found the right therapist. Because she was open to therapy from the beginning, finding the right fit was most important.

For other clients progress occurs gradually. There are no specific moments, shifts, or sessions they can easily remember.

“I had been gradually getting a bit better, feeling slightly less terrible day after day, crying in the shower three times a week instead of 14, that sort of thing,” said writer Michael Noker, who worked with therapists to cope with his depression and perfectionism.

Both Laderer and Noker noted that addressing their issues outside of treatment helped them. By resisting his urge to beat up on himself for mistakes, Noker gradually let go of his perfectionist attitude. Rather than reserving this practice exclusively for therapy, he incorporated it into his daily life.

To increase the chance of benefiting from therapy, Tracy said clients need to be open to the likelihood that their therapist knows something they don’t and has insights that are worth hearing. For example, Tracy trusted in and tried the techniques her therapist recommended.

As for how long it took Tracy, Noker, and Laderer to feel the benefits of going to therapy, they rejected the idea of citing a specific time period.

“I used to hate when therapists would say, ‘You’ll be feeling so much better in three months!’” Laderer said. “When three months came around and I still felt horrible, I was even more angry.”

Because everyone has different issues and symptoms, there isn’t a standard time frame for when therapy yields results. To avoid disappointment and frustration, Laderer said, it’s best to begin without setting rigid expectations for how soon treatment will work.

If you’re considering working with a therapist but are concerned with whether therapy will benefit you — in a timely manner or at all — know you’re not alone. There are millions of stories of people who struggled to make progress in therapy and ultimately succeeded. Your story will be unique, but there is one common thread: If you find the right therapist, give the process a chance, and work hard outside of your sessions or chats, therapy can work for you.

Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace