8 Things to Do Before Your First Therapy Session
You’ve taken a major step and made your first appointment with a therapist. Maybe you only have to wait a few days for your first session, or maybe you have to wait a few weeks, but you probably have to wait at least a little while.
That’s okay. As long as the wait isn’t too long, it’s usually worth it if you’ve found a therapist who’s a good match. In fact, it can be good to have a little time before your first session to prepare.
There are many things you can do to increase the chances that your first session will go well. The more you understand why you’re going to therapy and what you want to get out of it, the more quickly you and your therapist will build rapport and start making progress toward your goals.
In this article, we’ll give you eight of our best tips for how to prepare for your first therapy session so you can make therapy successful right from the beginning.
On This Page
- 1. Make sure you're set up to get to your first session on time.
- 2. Observe and take notes about your mental health every day.
- 3. Seek emergency help if your symptoms worsen significantly before your session.
- 4. Learn more about the style of therapy you're going to get.
- 5. Think about your goals for therapy and share them with your therapist.
- 6. Bring questions to ask your therapist.
- 7. Plan ahead of time for post-therapy reflection.
- 8. Consider other options if you're having a hard time getting in to see someone.
Make sure you're set up to get to your first session on time.
Being on time is important in therapy. Therapists usually schedule 45- or 50-minute “therapy hours” to allow them to take notes and prepare between sessions. To make sure you get your full “hour,” it’s important to arrive at least five minutes before your session is scheduled to begin.
For More Information: Starting Therapy
During your first sessions, you’ll spend time getting to know your therapist and helping your therapist get to know you. They’ll ask a lot of questions so they can better understand your background, your needs, and what brings you to therapy.
For more information on what it’s like to start therapy, you can read our article “What to Expect from Your First Few Therapy Sessions.”
If you’re seeing a therapist in your local community, it’s a good idea to research the location first, plan your commute, and learn where to park (if you’re taking a car).
If you’re having an online therapy session, you should make sure your internet connection and computer are set up and that you know where and how to log in.
By taking these steps, you can prevent missing part of your first session because of the time it took to find parking or get your online session started.
Observe and take notes about your mental health every day.
Journaling gives you a jumping-off point for therapy by helping you connect with yourself and better understand what you might what to talk about with your therapist. If you don’t already keep a journal, consider starting one to help you gather your thoughts for therapy.
Journaling can be pretty simple and still give you a lot of benefits. You can spend as little as ten minutes a day writing down your thoughts and gain so much clarity and perspective from it.
The Benefits of Keeping a Journal
Journaling is a great way to support your mental health. It helps you check in with yourself on a regular basis and connect how you’re feeling to what’s going on in your life.
Writing down your thoughts can support the work you do in your therapy sessions. Research shows that personal writing can bolster the effects of therapy.
If you don’t have time to journal, or keeping a written journal isn’t appealing to you, consider recording personal audio notes instead or exploring your feelings through another form of creative expression like music or painting.
In addition to writing in whatever way comes naturally to you, consider tracking information related to the symptoms or concerns that are bringing you to therapy. It will help you get more out of your first sessions by giving you data to share with your therapist. You may want to start a new journal for this.
Remember to bring your journal with you to your first session!
Seek emergency help if your symptoms worsen significantly before your session.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can sometimes worsen to a point of crisis. If you’re thinking about harming yourself or someone else, can’t take care of yourself, or otherwise feel unsafe, you need help right away.
You can get the help you need by calling a mental health crisis line or going to a local mental health crisis center or hospital.
Who to Call When You're in Crisis
If you’re going through a mental health crisis, there’s always someone you can call.
If you’re at immediate risk of harm, or have already harmed yourself, you should call 911 immediately.
If you’re not at immediate risk of harm and don’t need medical intervention right away, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or another mental health hotline.
For a list of crisis hotlines you can call, you can go to any of the following pages on our site:
- National and International Crisis Hotlines
- Free Mental Health Hotlines in the United States
- The United States Mental Health Services Guide
On that last page, you can find information specific to your state, including the mental health crisis hotline for your city or county. Just select your state to go to the full article, which includes a full resource list and other information about how your state’s mental health system works.
Not all crises require emergency care. If you’re feeling worse, but you don’t feel unsafe or at risk of harm, there are things you can do to care for yourself while you’re waiting for your first session. Reach out to people in your support network, take time for self-care, and spend a little time writing or talking about what’s on your mind, including anything you’re grateful for or that gives you hope.
The most important thing you can do is give yourself credit for taking the steps you’ve taken. Help is on the way. There is so much hope and promise when you’re about to start therapy. Most people who go to therapy are helped by it, and many people experience life-changing positive results from therapy.
Learn more about the style of therapy you're going to get.
Learning more about therapy can help you get more out of your first therapy sessions. Reading or listening to stories from people who were helped by therapy can be informative as well as inspiring. You can learn a lot about what therapy is like by listening to other people describe their experiences.
It can also be helpful to learn a little bit about the different methods therapists use, especially the method your new therapist will be using in their sessions with you.
For More Information: Therapy Methods
For more information about the most popular methods therapists use, including explanations of how they work and examples of what therapy sessions using those methods are like, you can read our article “Which Therapy Method Is Right for Me?“
Keep in mind your therapist will probably spend your first session or two asking a lot of questions so they can assess your needs and plan your treatment. This will be true no matter what kind of therapist you’re seeing.
But once regular sessions get underway, the knowledge you have about your therapist’s method will help you understand why your therapist does things a certain way. It will also help you anticipate what your therapist will ask from you and how to prepare for your sessions.
For example, if you’re seeing a Jungian analyst, you may want to prepare by noting down any recent dreams you’ve had. If you’re seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist, you can prepare by writing down any worrisome thoughts you’re experiencing or situations that trigger symptoms you want to address.
Think about your goals for therapy and share them with your therapist.
In your first therapy sessions, you’ll talk about your reasons for coming to therapy. You’ll talk about what’s been going on in your life that is painful, difficult, or at least not working as well as you’d like. You’ll talk about things you want to change and any goals you might have.
It’s okay to start without concrete goals, but therapy is more effective when you have at least some idea of what you want to accomplish. By knowing what you want to get out of therapy, you’ll be able to track your progress and your therapist will be able to focus your sessions on what’s most important to you.
For More Information: Setting Goals
For more information on how to set goals for therapy, including lots of examples and step-by-step guides, you can read our article “Making Therapy Successful: Setting Goals for Therapy.”
Your goals might be related to mental health issues you want to improve. You might want to feel less depressed or anxious. Or your mental health might be basically okay, but you might be having a hard time changing something you want to change. You might be having a hard time adjusting to change that has already occurred. You might want to strengthen an important relationship or improve your overall level of social connection and support.
There are many valid goals for therapy, and if you’re not sure exactly what yours are, your therapist can help you identify some during your first few sessions with them.
Bring questions to ask your therapist.
While most therapists are prepared to work with a wide range of people, it can sometimes take a few tries to find the therapist who’s the best match for you.
If you have information about your therapist, review it before your session to see if any concerns about compatibility arise. Come up with some questions you can ask to check if you’re a match.
For example, you might want to ask if your therapist has worked with other people with your symptoms or how long they expect it will take to reach your therapeutic goals.
You might want to explore whether your therapist shares or understands different aspects of your identity or background. You’ll want to at least make sure that you feel understood and supported when you talk about your experiences and not judged.
You learn a lot by listening to your intuition and how you feel during and after a session. Do you feel like you can trust this therapist and open up to them? Do you feel like they care? Do you like their sense of humor and their style? Do your personalities click?
If talking to your therapist feels good, and you look forward to your sessions with them, chances are good you can do some good work together in therapy.
For More Information: The Interview
For more information on how to interview your therapist, including lists of example questions you can ask, you can read our article “The Five Steps to Background Check Your Therapist.”
It’s okay if you feel like they’re not a good match and decide to keep looking. Therapists value the fit between client and therapist as much as you and will understand. A strong therapeutic alliance is an essential component of successful therapy. If they’re not the right match for you, they’ll support you looking for a therapist who is. They might even be able to make a recommendation or a referral to a colleague who might be a better fit.
Plan ahead of time for post-therapy reflection.
Therapy sessions can bring up deep feelings and unexpected insights. It can be jarring to jump into something intense right after therapy, so try to schedule free time after your first session for personal reflection if you can.
You may want to go to a favorite park or café. If you keep a journal, it’s a good idea to bring it with you. It’s great to talk to someone you trust about how your session went, but it can be even better if you collect your thoughts on your own before you do.
On the other hand, you may want to go home and get cozy right away. It can feel really good to follow up a therapy session with another form of self-care. Consider doing yoga, going for a walk, playing with your pet, drawing or painting, or reading a favorite book.
Therapy is all about making time and space for yourself, and it can add to the benefit of therapy if you can extend that time and space a little before and after your sessions.
If your life is busy, it’s okay. Even little chunks of time can make a difference. You can do something during your commute that’s supportive, like listening to an inspiring podcast or e-book. It may be possible to schedule time for reflection later in the day or even on a different day of the week.
Consider other options if you're having a hard time getting in to see someone.
It’s common to have to wait a couple of weeks to get in to see a therapist. But sometimes the wait is even longer. Some people wait months—or even as long as a year—to get in with a particular therapist.
If the wait is really long, consider whether it’s worth it. How specific are your therapy preferences? How much special expertise do you need a therapist to have? If you don’t have a compelling reason to wait to see this one specific person, consider looking for another therapist.
For More Information: Waiting Lists
For more information that can help you figure out whether it’s worth it to wait, and to learn ways you can get a referral to another therapist, you can read our article “What to Do When There’s a Waiting List.“
At OpenCounseling, we advise putting a lot of thought into choosing a therapist and believe finding the right match is key to success in therapy. However, it’s possible to over-think it, and the timing of when you start therapy is usually at least as important as which therapist you see. So, it’s usually best to look for a good-enough therapist who can see you sooner.
If you’re not finding what you need on your insurance company’s list of in-network therapists (or you don’t have insurance), low-cost counseling may be available in your area through non-profit agencies, the public mental health system, or from therapists who offer a sliding scale. If you’re not finding a good match locally, you could try affordable online counseling with BetterHelp (a sponsor).
We hope this article will help you get off to a great start in therapy. Waiting can be frustrating, but embracing the wait can help you set yourself up for success. Be patient—you may be just days away from changing your life!
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.