What many people think they know about psychotherapy usually comes from movies and TV shows. If you think what you see on TV is what therapy is, think again. You must be an informed consumer when looking to start therapy. There are a lot of myths out there, but what follows are the 5 I hear most often.
Depression and other mental health diagnosis are caused by a chemical imbalance.
This is a debate among us in the field. Truth is that yes there are hormones and neurotransmitters in our body that have to do with regulating mood and energy. For example, Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that boosts our mood. We release Serotonin when we exercise. Anti-depressant drugs are believed to increase Serotonin levels.
The problem is that these neurotransmitters are not measured when giving clients a mental health diagnosis. There is no machine that scans your brain or a blood test that can measure these chemicals. When doctors give scripts for blood work, it is to make sure that there is nothing else wrong physically, such as a Thyroid problem, which will affect your mood.
Diagnoses are given by symptoms. We follow the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which tells us the criteria for each diagnosis depending on the symptoms that the client is reporting. Therefore, if you are diagnosed with Anxiety or Depression, you have symptoms of Anxiety or symptoms of Depression; it is not something you “have”, not something you “catch” like a cold. The goal is that once you learn how to better cope, the symptoms would decrease. Remember, it is normal to feel anxious, sad, scared, etc. It’s called being human. It is only a problem when it affects your day to day life such as having problems with school, work, relationships, and/or your health.
You’re “crazy” or something is wrong with you if you see a therapist.
As mentioned in #1, diagnoses are given by the symptoms reported. When giving a diagnosis, we have to look at the whole picture as well. For example, if you’re going through a bad divorce or someone close to you just died, feeling depressed is a normal reaction to the situation. It doesn’t mean you HAVE Depression. You have SYMPTOMS of Depression. You just had a big loss; of course you’re going to feel sad. Not looking at the whole picture is taking things out of context.
I’ve seen this when working with younger kids. Parents or teachers are complaining that the child can’t focus, doesn’t stay still, and is defiant. Then when we look at the bigger picture we find out that the child’s home life is unstable, or he’s going to school hungry because there’s not a lot of food at home, or that he is a witness to domestic violence. It’s very important to always look at the whole picture.
Furthermore, seeking therapy is a sign of maturity and health. Some of the most successful people in life have reported that they have or are seeing a therapist because they see the value and how it makes them great at what they do.
Finally, there are different levels in therapy. Outpatient therapy, the type of therapy I practice, is one of the lower levels. Clients come either once a week or once every other week. This level is more appropriate for people who are NOT hallucinating, homicidal, or a danger to themselves. Individuals who are a danger to others or themselves, or their symptoms are so bad that they can’t go to school or work, need a higher level of care. This could be in a hospital setting, or a form of outpatient, such as partial program, where they get several hours of therapy per week.
3. Some techniques, such as CBT, REM, or Biofeedback, are better than others.
There are a lot of techniques that therapists learn in graduate school and post-graduate training. And most of those techniques are backed up by extensive research. Some techniques are still being studied to see how effective they are. However, there is also A LOT of research that has shown that what really matters in therapy are not the techniques used, but the relationship between client and therapist. You can look up some studies by doing a Google Scholar search.
The most important thing is that you find a therapist that you feel comfortable with. See my post on 5 tips when seeking psychotherapy HERE
Think about it, you could have a therapist that uses a technique that is effective, but if you don’t click with that therapist, the technique doesn’t matter.
Therapists get paid just to listen to people vent.
Therapists do need to know what brings you to therapy and know your background information. But that’s a starting point to know how to help you. Typically during sessions, there will be an interactive dialogue and sometimes you practice certain techniques, other times the therapist may suggest homework such as techniques to practice at home. They may help you look at things differently in order to come up with solutions to a problem.
You have to be active in your treatment to see some progress. Sometimes it’s gradual, and sometimes people see changes right away. Everyone’s situation is different.
A therapist can only provide resources, suggest different things to try, but in the end they can’t make you DO anything. You have to put some work into it as well. And this all entails a lot more than just listening to people talk.
I have to talk about my childhood.
You might explore childhood events that had an impact in your life. But it really depends on the reason for seeking therapy. If you have a pattern of being in unhealthy relationships, for example, it makes sense to explore childhood events, as we learn about relationships from our first teachers, our parents. Also, we can predict future behaviors by looking at past behaviors. It’s important to know if you have a pattern of negative thinking or being that is contributing to problems. Exploring and working on this can help you change those behaviors.
However, if you are seeking therapy because you’re having trouble adjusting to graduating from high school or college, you might just focus on the problem at hand. Many therapist will focus on solutions to the current problem, not childhood issues.
I hope that some of these myths were cleared up. Ultimately, therapy is a process and you have to judge it from your own experience. I hope that you find the right therapist for you along your journey in personal development.
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About Liza J Alvarado, MS, LPC
Liza J Alvarado is a professional counselor in private practice. She serves Adolescents, young adults, and Spanish speaking families in the Bethlehem, PA area.