Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD


Q: How does psychotherapy work?

Psychotherapy can work in a variety of ways. Many people feel that they benefit from having the support of a caring therapist who genuinely listens and tries to understand what they are going through. Some people find that the process of explaining thoughts, feelings, goals, or circumstances to their therapist helps to clarify these. Therapists can provide feedback, observations, information, or a new perspective about what’s happening that can bring greater awareness or understanding. For instance, therapists could point out connections you might not have seen between thoughts and feelings or between current responses and past relationships. Often therapists will help clients develop new ways of responding to others or coping with problems.

Q: What should I look for in a psychotherapist?

There are many competent therapists, but choosing the one who is right for you is a very personal decision. You’ll want to ask questions about a therapist’s training and experience, as well as about the general therapeutic approach he or she uses with cases like yours.

But most of all, pay attention to how you feel while interacting with the therapist. Research consistently shows that a good relationship between the client and therapist is associated with better therapeutic results.

It’s normal to be nervous the first time you talk with a therapist, but you should begin to feel more comfortable as you spend time together. Here are some questions to think about:

— Is the therapist interested, attentive, respectful, and nonjudgmental?

— How does the therapist respond to your questions?

— Do you feel like the therapist understands and cares about what you’re going through?

— Is the therapist’s style of communication one that you find comfortable and understandable?

— Do you sense that you can trust this therapist?

— Do you feel hopeful that this therapist can help you?

Q: Is psychotherapy just for people with very severe problems?

Definitely not! According to research by Harris Interactive, almost one-third of adults in the United States say that they’ve received treatment from a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Sometimes people are reluctant to seek psychotherapy because their problems “aren’t THAT bad” or “aren’t important” because they’ve lived with them for a long time. These attitudes can lead to unnecessary suffering.

Sometimes people avoid seeking psychotherapy because they see it as a sign of weakness, or they believe they ought to be able to handle things on their own. Actually, seeking therapy means being willing to change for the better, and that takes real strength and courage.

Q: Does psychotherapy really work?

In a word: Yes. A tremendous amount of research demonstrates the effectiveness of psychotherapy. In one large study of 2,400 people receiving psychotherapy once a week, about 50% showed significant improvement after two months and about 75% after six months. The majority of people with severe problems needed a year to feel significantly better (Howard, Kopta, Krause, & Orlinsky, 1986).

A 1995 Consumer Reports survey of 4000 people who had recently participated in psychotherapy found that almost 90% of people who felt “very poor” when they started therapy felt substantially better (“so-so” to “very good”) after getting help. Those who were most upset to start with reported the most improvement. This survey also found that psychotherapy lasting more than six months was associated with more improvement than shorter-term therapy.

These general numbers may or may not match your specific experience. Your particular outcome will depend on many factors, including the severity of your symptoms, the “fit” between you and your therapist, the effort you put in to trying to get better, and the levels of stress and support you have in your daily life.

Don’t believe anyone who “guarantees” that psychotherapy will work for you.

On the other hand, if you’re going through a rough time in your life, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic that psychotherapy could help decrease your distress and improve your well-being.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore. Do not reproduce without permission.