This is a blog post I’ve avoided finishing for over 18 months now, mostly because I haven’t been certain just what I wanted to say. This topic is challenging for me personally. One reason is that it is an attempt to address some issues friends and coaching clients have had around working with therapists, which is one of the reasons for my uncertainty (i.e., I’ve been trying to find the right words.)

Another reason is that therapy is a BIG topic. Therapy isn’t just one flavor or one kind – it is a variety of approaches, theories, techniques and beliefs, and I could do nothing but write about therapy in this blog for a year and only scratch the surface.

So please see today’s blog post as simply a brief discussion of why therapy can be useful in our work to overcome anxiety.

What CAN Therapy Do For Us?

I’ve already written about the uses of medication in the fight to overcome anxiety. (See my post HERE.) Therapy can be another highly effective tool in this fight!

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The first great strength therapists can bring to our work with anxiety is that they can be great listeners. The good ones will sit with you and let you unburden your fears, and hold those fears with respect.

That alone can be a tremendous gift. They can help you create a space where you are free to be completely honest, including with yourself. They can help you craft a situation where you can cry, be weak and sad and depressed and fearful, and NOT have to pretend that you feel anything else.

The second way therapy can assist us is how a good therapist can help us sort out where in our thinking we are converting a problem into a crisis, and help us figure out a more lucid, problem-centered approach for that issue. They can be great thinking coaches – and we need to be better thinkers around our fears.

A third gift of good therapy is that we have someone to help us hold us accountable to ourselves for pushing ahead in the face of our fears. (This is also really a coaching function – just like a football coach might do for his team.)

They can help us set milestones and encourage us even when the work gets hard, scary or overwhelming. They can gently push us when we’re feeling like we’d rather just hide or delay in the work.

A fourth capacity therapists have is that they are NOT part of our family or friendship network. They are impartial but on OUR side allies in the fight. Their mission is to help US – not make us conform to family rules or judge us for where we are failing or chastise us for not working hard enough – but simply to help.

So I hope it’s clear that therapy can be a fierce collection of tools in our march towards freedom from anxiety. Having said that the world of therapy is not a one-stop-shopping experience for most of us wrestling with anxiety. There are different kinds of therapists, obviously – psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and licensed clinical social workers.

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And the variety doesn’t end there. There are a LOT of different approaches that these professionals take in their work, and one size definitely does NOT fit all. So what’s a person supposed to do when they are trying to figure out what works best for this work with anxiety and fear?

Choosing a Therapist

AS I mentioned earlier I could write thousands of words and dozens of blog posts on the various kinds of therapeutic approaches offered in today’s world. I will instead offer this reminder from one of my recent posts: as far as finding help with anxiety and fear therapy potentially offers help in sorting out problem from crisis – i.e., making us clearer and more effective thinkers.

So how do we figure out what kind of therapy/therapist can help us do that work? I wasn’t sure how to move forward. Then I remembered something one of my dearest/closest friends (who also happens to be a therapist) said to me once a while back.

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We were talking about what made a therapist successful, and he told me that some interesting research pointed to one significant factor: the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client AS DECIDED BY THE CLIENT.

In other words if the client felt comfortable and safe with the therapist then the therapy stood a much better chance of success. That was significantly more important than any specific type of therapy that was being done.

So our mission isn’t really about figuring out, from the variety of kinds of therapists or therapeutic approaches, which one we should try to find. Our mission simply becomes connecting with a therapist that we click with on a personal level.

I suspect that key in this clicking is the therapist needs to be someone we feel is LISTENING to us. I’ve seen similar research done around the effectiveness of physicians with their patients, and in that research as well it seems that the doctors with the most effective connection with their patients are also the most successful physicians.

What Does This Mean for You, The Consumer?

This means that you have a simple mission when you decide to seek therapy. You need to literally go shopping. Identify two or three therapists you’d like to check out, then go check them out. Sit with them, have a yak session with them, see what you think. You may even be able to do some of that over the phone and save a trip. Don’t talk for one minute though – talk for several, and ask questions like

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How do you treat anxiety?
What is your personal experience with anxiety?
What is the role of medication in the treatment of anxiety?

Listen for their answers, not so much for what they say as to how their answers resonate with you. Do you sense the potential for connection with this person? Do they listen to you, or talk over you when you’re talking? Or even worse, talk DOWN to you? Do you feel comfortable talking with this person?

One more thing to consider as you work to find a therapist. Don’t treat them as the final source of all wisdom. Here’s a comparison story to clarify what I mean: in my parent’s generation doctors were treated as final authorities. Whatever the doctor said was the ultimate truth. Sadly too much of that is still present in our thinking about doctors.

Yes, they are subject experts. Yes, they know a heck of a lot. But they are not final authorities – they can’t be. Doctors make mistakes. Doctors are not living YOUR experience. They are expert consultants, and need to be deeply respected for their professional opinions. But in the final analysis we have to make the decisions about our own health care.

And, perhaps most importantly, if they can’t be bothered to really listen to you, treat you as a peer and someone who has information they need to do their jobs effectively, then their help is going to be crippled to begin with. And if you don’t feel comfortable or safe with them you’ll be second-guessing the counsel they give you and doubting yourself in the process.

The same is true for our mental and emotional health. Therapists have extensive training, knowledge and experience. They are not just some schmoe from the street. They have important things to say and it makes sense to listen to them.

But they need also to listen to US. And whether we’re talking about physicians or therapists perhaps the single most important thing they can do for us is LISTEN to us first, THEN offer counsel/advice/recommendations.

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We Need All the Help We Can Get!

Therapy can be an enormous asset for us in our fight with anxiety. It only makes sense to take advantage of the help we can find when we can find it. Yeah, I know, therapists cost money. And it means leaving the house – harder if you’re fighting agoraphobia – been there, did that. It may mean having to decide to NOT see a particular therapist after meeting them if you’re not getting any sense of connection – that was hard for me too.

Doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the help we need. Find the money. It’s amazing what we can find money for when we need it. (And often therapists will work on a sliding scale – ask.) Get out of the house. It’s worth the sweat and fear. Shop and decide who connects with you best.

If you’re fighting a war it only makes sense to get the best weapons you can, right? In the war with anxiety one formidable weapon can be the help a good therapist can provide. Hit me here at the blog or at my email address if you want to discuss this further, and let me know also if you have your own stories or experiences with therapy.

Next up – getting around the feeling of despair.