What to Expect from Therapy

Published on: 27 Jan 2023
Clinically Reviewed by Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Young woman with psychotherapist

Starting therapy can be an essential first step on your path toward better mental health. However, if you’ve never seen a good therapist, the process may feel overwhelming or intimidating, even if you know it will benefit you. It makes sense, though. You don’t know what to expect from counseling, and it’s common to fear what we don’t know when entering the realm of either in-person or online therapy

When you have a better sense of what good therapy is like and how it can benefit you, you’ll be more prepared to navigate the process and face the challenges ahead. Read on to learn more about what therapy will be like, what to expect in sessions, how long the process generally takes, and what you might get out of your individual therapy experience. 

What Will Therapy Be Like?

While everyone’s experiences with therapy can vary based on things like the type of licensed therapist you choose, what you’re seeking therapy for, and what your goals are for getting help, individual therapy is about solving problems and working towards healthier thoughts, actions, and relationships. 

At the beginning of each session, your therapist will probably ask you to talk about what’s on your mind, or they might inquire about what’s been going on in your world. They might even ask what you’d like to focus on in that initial session.

Different therapists use many strategies and techniques to assist them in treatment. Different types of therapy styles can be more effective for certain conditions, and if there’s one thing therapy isn’t, it’s one-size-fits-all. 

No one process or method will work for everyone. That said, there are some standard therapy techniques that have been studied for efficacy. Some of the most popular and influential styles of therapy include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people understand how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected. The types of CBT can improve self-awareness and help develop healthier coping mechanisms. During CBT sessions, the right therapist will help someone identify the thoughts and behaviors impacting their life and relationships in unhealthy ways. Then, they can focus on changing things to encourage more productive and positive outcomes.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that’s focused on acceptance and change. Although DBT was initially developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder, research has shown certain DBT therapy techniques to be an effective treatment for many other mental health conditions. 
  • Client-based therapy: This is a form of talk therapy that focuses on personal growth. During client-based sessions, good therapists let clients take the lead and develop their own solutions to problems. 
  • Psychoanalytic therapy: Also known as psychodynamic therapy, psychoanalytic therapy is designed to help people process unconscious thoughts and feelings. 

What to expect from your first therapy sessions

Your first few therapy sessions are an opportunity for you and your therapist to connect and get to know one another and increase your therapeutic relationship. When you think about what to expect in the first therapy session, you should know that your experiences will almost always change as you proceed. 

“You might expect some jitters at first but then relief. There is so much anticipation for those first few sessions even before scheduling. But when you finally sit down to get help, the burden of waiting is lifted.  It takes time to build rapport, so an openness to feeling emotionally challenged can help you navigate whatever might be causing stress.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

A therapist may start by asking you some questions, such as:

  • Why did you decide to seek therapy?
  • What kind of symptoms are you experiencing?
  • Have you seen a therapist before?
  • What are your goals for treatment?
  • What would you like to change about yourself, your life, or your relationships?
  • Are there specific concerns that you’d like to address?

A therapist might also ask some basic questions about your personal life and family history. They may encourage you to talk about your career, your family environment and dynamics, where you live, or your closest personal relationships. 

Therapy isn’t a one-way street, though. You need to be comfortable and be open to trusting in your therapist if the process is going to work. The first visit (or several visits, even) can be viewed as an opportunity for you to learn more about your therapist. 

Feel free to have questions to ask a therapist, too. Asking your therapist to tell you more about their background and approach to mental health care can help you to determine if they’re the right fit more quickly. 

What to expect from ongoing sessions

While early therapy sessions are often about gathering information, later sessions will typically be more therapeutic. What you cover during a session can vary based on your preferences, goals, and progress. Any given session might find you and your therapist exploring a specific topic, like experiences from your past or issues you brought up in earlier sessions. 

In a lot of ways, knowing what to expect from therapy largely depends on your needs. Therapy can be rewarding, but it can also be challenging and emotionally draining. Many people find it helpful (and sometimes necessary) to set aside time to decompress after a session. If you feel as if your therapist isn’t meeting your needs, consider changing therapists.

“Like all first time experiences, it’s easy to pick out what’s wrong, but therapy is not meant to be perfect. Be mindful about cumulative change, relief, and progress in order to figure out what goals are possible. It’s important to be honest with your Therapist but also with yourself about what may or may not be working.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

How long does therapy usually last?

Some people may reach their therapy goals over the course of a few sessions, while others might continue to seek therapy for months or years. It’s crucial that you set healthy expectations about what therapy will and won’t be. Most notably, therapy isn’t about quick fixes; it can take time to see progress. 

If cost is a concern and your insurance will only cover a limited number of sessions, talk to your therapist about what you can achieve during that time. 

Note: don’t let the financial side of therapy deter you from getting mental health care. Some therapists offer sliding scale fees (where you pay what you can afford), and there are several low- or no-cost options for therapy. 

What You’ll Get Out of Therapy

When you think about what to expect from counseling, you should consider how therapy can improve your quality of life. 

There are many valuable benefits of therapy, including:

Stronger communication skills

Starting therapy can help you learn to express your feelings and communicate with others in more effective, productive, and healthy ways. These are skills that can help you resolve conflicts, set partner, friends, or family boundaries, and share your emotions with others. 

More self-awareness

As you consider what to expect from therapy, you can anticipate improvements to your emotional intelligence — that is, self-awareness. 

Discussing your thoughts with a trained therapist can help you begin to recognize — and eventually self-regulate — emotions and behavior patterns. Studies show that increased self-awareness can make it easier for people to manage their feelings and accept themselves for who they are. 

Valuable coping mechanisms

While we all struggle at times, therapy can help you find ways to cope with and manage difficult situations and emotions. With the help of your therapist, you can develop tools and coping skills that’ll help you deal with everyday challenges as you work towards your goals. The skills you learn and practice throughout your time in therapy can help you for the rest of your life. 

Treating symptoms that are impacting your quality of life

Studies have found that therapy is an effective way to treat and manage symptoms of many mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders and depression

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health, take the time to think about what you can expect from therapy. You may find that seeing a therapist changes your life and significantly improves your relationships with both yourself and others. You deserve happiness and well-being — therapy might be the road that gets you there. 

“Relief and healing are primary but expect some measure of growth. Once you establish that therapeutic alliance and positive rapport with your therapist, it can be encouraging to see and feel change and diminished stress in your life. It’s ok to talk things through with your therapist about modified goals. But overall, practicing effective communication in therapy can be so empowering.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

What to Expect with Therapy from Talkspace

Talkspace therapists are trained, skilled, and experienced in helping people get online therapy that can change their lives. With a quick intake process, you can be matched with a therapist and begin your journey in no time. Talkspace makes therapy easy, affordable, and convenient.  

Sources:

1. Gillespie C, Murphy M, Kells M, Flynn D. Individuals who report having benefitted from dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): a qualitative exploration of processes and experiences at long-term follow-up. Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2022;9(1). doi:10.1186/s40479-022-00179-9.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8885141/. Accessed October 16,  2022.

2. Sutton A. Measuring the effects of self-awareness: Construction of the Self-Awareness Outcomes Questionnaire. Europe’s Journal of Psychology. 2016;12(4):645-658. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5114878/. Accessed October 16,  2022.

3. Kaczkurkin A, Foa E. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: an update on the empirical evidence. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2015;17(3):337-346. doi:10.31887/dcns.2015.17.3/akaczkurkin. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610618/. Accessed October 16,  2022.

4. Duval F, Lebowitz B, Macher J. Treatments in depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(2):191-206. doi:10.31887/dcns.2006.8.2/fduval. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181767/. Accessed October 16,  2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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