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How to Know When It’s Time to Go to Therapy
You committed to finding a therapist you could afford. You searched on OpenCounseling and bookmarked potential leads. You signed up for the newsletter and learned as much as you could about how to make counseling work on a limited budget.
But then life happened. A friend was in crisis and needed your help. You went over to their place and talked with them until the early hours, then did it again the next day. Work got really busy and you pulled a couple weeks of late nights. The same anxiety that drove you to look for a counselor in the first place got the better of you and you spent a week binging your favorite show on Netflix and ignoring your “To Do” list.
Whatever it was, the time that passed between when you signed up and now has put some distance between you and that first burst of inspiration you had. Seeing a therapist doesn’t feel as urgent. Maybe you don’t even need to see one at all. Or maybe you do? You’re not sure.
Advocates of counseling insist it’s always a good time to start therapy. It’s true: you can always benefit from seeing a counselor if you have goals to heal, grow, or understand yourself better. But when do you know it’s really time? Here are six occasions when you should strongly consider picking up the phone and finally making that first appointment.
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You keep trying to change a negative pattern and can't do it.
For the thirteenth time this week, you haven’t been able to resist that bag of spicy hot Cheetos or that fourth glass of wine. You ate that food that gives you insomnia every time and had a really bad day at work as a result. You skipped exercise for four days in a row and when you finally got back to the gym, it felt like it was your first day ever.
Whatever it is you’re trying to change, it’s demoralizing to keep trying and failing. But it’s human. Our brains seek repetition and comfort and resist change, especially when the thing we’re trying to do more of is more stressful than the thing we’re trying to do less of.
Therapists can help with this fundamental challenge. Talking to someone every week keeps you aware of the distance between your behavior and your goals and connected with the motivation to change. Therapists can help you spot mental patterns and unearth beliefs that hold you back. They can celebrate the small victories with you and encourage you as you make progress and build lasting habits.
A troubling symptom suddenly gets worse.
Maybe you first signed up on OpenCounseling because you were in a depressed mood or having anxious thoughts. Maybe it got better for a little while or you started to get used to it. But then that passing sadness turned into not being able to get out of bed in the morning, and you’ve now been late to work three days in a row. Your anxious thoughts multiplied like rabbits, hopping over what once enclosed them: now it’s not just driving over bridges that makes you anxious, but getting in the car at all. You’ve started staying home more. You’ve eaten stale wheat crackers for dinner just so you didn’t have to go out again.
When a psychological symptom or condition starts to have a greater effect on your daily life, it’s a sign that it’s not just a passing reaction and that something deeper is going on. It’s hard to do a lot of things alone; it’s impossible to recover from a mental health condition without help. When you worry that you’re at risk of losing your job or your partner or your sense of hope if you don’t deal with your mental health, it’s time to talk to someone.
You're lashing out at the people you love.
You’ve been holding it all together until you get home. After a day of wearing a false smile at the office, you come home and yell at your partner, child, or family pet. You withdraw and refuse to talk, disappearing into your phone or computer or TV. What once only happened on occasion has become a daily pattern, and your relationships are suffering as a result.
When you’re stressed out, it’s natural to be prickly with the people you love. But it’s not fair to your family to give them your worst every day. If work stress has become unbearable, you may need to change jobs, or you may just need to find better ways to vent and release it. Either way, a therapist can help you find healthier ways to express your emotions and preserve your bonds with the people you love.
You fear you'll never fulfill your dreams.
Sometimes, what brings you into therapy is subtler. You might be doing okay on the surface but feel like something is missing. Maybe you don’t experience joy as often as you used to and feel like you’ve left something behind. Many people come to therapy for the first time when they realize that they want to reclaim a dream their parents convinced them to abandon long ago.
Maybe you want to pick up a guitar or paintbrush again for the first time in 20 years or pull that novel you started in college out of a drawer and finish it. Maybe you simply want to feel more alive again. Whatever it is, a therapist can help you reconnect with the authentic self you want to reclaim.
An unexpected change has upended your life.
You got laid off from a job you had for a decade. A five-year relationship suddenly dissolved. You moved to a new city and don’t know anyone. The culture is strange and stressful and you’re not sure how to navigate it. Times like these can send you into spirals of self-doubt and anxiety. A counselor can help you navigate these changes, learn strategies for coping with stress and facing your fears, and gain insight into what you need to do to regain your balance.
You're feeling cut off from other people and don't know how to fix it.
Times of change are often lonely, and loneliness can become a vicious cycle. The more time you spend alone, the harder it becomes to reach out and reconnect. Spending long periods of time alone can trigger self-doubt and worsen anxiety and depression. Making a connection with a therapist can be a powerful first step in building new relationships after a period of isolation.
If you’re in any of these situations, or if something else has made you realize it’s time to start therapy, you can search for a local therapist on OpenCounseling or try affordable online therapy with BetterHelp (a sponsor). Trust your instincts and make that call—the work you do with your new therapist might just change 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.