A beginner’s guide to starting behavioral therapy

While many people are reluctant to start seeing a therapist, therapy can be an effective treatment for a wide range of mental and emotional issues. From relationship problems and job stress to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and more, a therapist can help you get to the source of your problems, overcome emotional challenges, and make positive changes in your life. Here are some tips on finding a therapist and getting the most out of your therapy sessions.

How to find a therapist who is right for you

If you’re thinking about starting therapy, ask your primary care doctor or other trusted healthcare provider for a referral. Your health insurance plan can also help you find therapists in your area who participate in your network, and you may be able to access counseling services through your employee assistance program (EAP).

Therapists are licensed, board-certified mental health professionals who have advanced training in therapy. Many have special areas of focus, and you may want to look for a professional who has experience treating the issues you have:

A psychologist has a doctoral degree in psychology (PhD or PsyD) and is licensed in clinical psychology.

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master’s degree in social work along with additional clinical training.

A marriage and family therapist (MFT) has a master’s degree and clinical experience in this field.

A psychiatrist is a physician (MD or DO) who specializes in mental health and can prescribe medication.

It’s important to choose a therapist who can help you make healthy changes in your life. You need to find someone you can trust—someone you feel comfortable talking to about difficult subjects and someone who will be a partner in your recovery. The connection you make with your therapist is essential.

Once you have a list of potential therapists, interview them over the phone. Does the therapist have experience working with your issue or with people like you? How does a typical session work? Are they available to meet when it’s convenient for you?

Therapy is confidential

All conversations you have with your therapist are confidential. Licensed mental health professionals are bound by law to protect your privacy. A therapist may break confidentiality only if there is an immediate threat to your safety or when state or federal law requires them to report concerns to authorities.

For example, a therapist may report concerns if a patient is a threat to themselves or others, is abusing a child or a vulnerable adult, or is unable to take care of themselves.

What to expect during your first therapy session

During your first session, your therapist will gather information about you, your health history, and what issues you want to address. The therapist will ask questions to gain a better understanding of your situation. Be sure to explain exactly what you hope to achieve, and work together with your therapist to set goals that you can use to measure your progress.

It may take a few sessions for your therapist to determine the best course of action for you, define goals of your treatment, and establish how many sessions you may need.

The first few sessions give you an opportunity to ask questions and decide whether or not the therapist is a good match for you. If you don’t feel comfortable with the therapist, try someone else. Therapy only works if you have a good fit with your therapist.

It’s okay to switch therapists

If you don’t connect with your therapist—or if you don’t trust the person or feel like they truly care—it’s okay to choose someone new. A good therapist will respect your choice and should never pressure you or make you feel guilty.

Asking yourself the following questions can help you decide if a therapist is right for you:

  • Does the therapist truly care about you and your problems?
  • Does the therapist understand and accept you?
  • Do you feel comfortable revealing personal details to the therapist?
  • Do you feel you can be open and honest?
  • Do you feel that you don’t have to hide or pretend you’re someone else?
  • Does the therapist listen without interrupting, criticizing, or judging?
  • Does the therapist understand what you’re really saying?
  • Does therapy make you feel overwhelmed or unsafe?

Virtual visits are available for behavioral health

If the idea of seeing a therapist in person seems like an emotional burden—or if access to childcare or transportation is a problem—online therapy may be an option.

Online therapy allows you to access professional help from your computer, smartphone, or laptop. Video chatting with a therapist from your own home is more convenient than meeting at a therapist’s office. And, being in a familiar environment can make it easier for you to talk openly about your issues.

7 tips for making the most of therapy

Therapy is an individual journey, and what works for one person may not work for another, but you’re more likely to benefit from therapy if you apply what you learn in your sessions to real life. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your sessions:

  1. Make healthy lifestyle changes. Your emotional health is connected to your physical health. Eat well, stay hydrated, and get plenty of sleep. Connect with friends and loved ones, and make time for relaxation. And remember, exercise is good for your mental health.

  2. Approach therapy as a partnership. Therapy can’t solve all of your problems. Your therapist can guide you and suggest new ways of thinking, but only you can make the changes you need to start healing.

  3. Be open and honest. You’ll get the most out of therapy if you share your thoughts and feelings. If something is too painful to talk about, or if you feel embarrassed or ashamed, let your therapist know about your reservations. Slowly, you can work together to get at the issues.

  4. Make a commitment to your treatment. If you find yourself skipping sessions, ask yourself why. Are you avoiding a painful subject? Did you cry, get upset, or feel angry during a recent session? Talk about your reluctance with your therapist. Skipping therapy sessions can slow or disrupt your progress.

  5. Do your homework. Your therapist may ask you to read, keep a journal, or do other exercises outside of your regular sessions. Doing your homework can help you apply what you’ve learned in the therapy sessions to your daily life.

  6. Don’t expect instant results. When you first start therapy, you may feel uncomfortable as you begin to explore painful feelings, memories, or frustrations. This is a normal part of therapy, and your therapist is there to guide you. Therapy is hard work, and you may need several sessions before you begin to see improvement.

  7. If therapy isn’t helping, talk to your therapist. Be sure to communicate with your therapist about your progress. If the current approach isn’t working, you can discuss other options for getting the help you need.

If you’re in therapy and feel comfortable being open about it, let others know that you are taking steps to prioritize your mental health. Talking about therapy and demonstrating its many benefits may inspire someone else to try it.


HelpGuide, Finding a Therapist Who Can Help You Heal

Mayo Clinic, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy