How to Tell if Talk Therapy Is Working for Anxiety and Depression

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Monday, October 19 2020

A common question you might have as you begin your therapy journey is how to tell if therapy is working for your anxiety and depression symptoms. Therapy looks different for everyone, but a common indicator of successful therapy is if you're reaching the goals you set to achieve in therapy. As you and your therapist define and work through these goals, your progress can tell you whether or not talk therapy is positively benefitting you. Here's what setting goals and making progress may look like for anxiety and depression.

What does effective talk therapy look like?

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, can take many different forms depending on what you’re looking to address and the specialties of your therapist. A key component of effective talk therapy is a strong therapeutic relationship between the client and your therapist. Trust is key to this relationship, so that the person receiving care feels vulnerable enough to share intimate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with your therapist. This relationship begins developing from the initial session and continues throughout the course of treatment. Goals in talk therapy might look like building and expanding life skills, improving self-control, learning how to self-soothe, moving past traumatic events, or working through relationship conflicts.

Five signs talk therapy is working for your depression and/or anxiety

1. A change in thought patterns can be a sign of therapy is working for anxiety and depression

When changes occur — especially unexpected changes — it can be all too easy to sink into unhelpful thought patterns. For example, some people may feel stuck in either/or thinking or blaming themselves. Others may ignore evidence, jump to conclusions, or overgeneralize.

As you talk with your therapist, they’ll help you unwind harmful thought patterns and reframe unhelpful thoughts into positive ones. For example, they can help you:

  • Avoid seeing worst-case scenarios
  • Gather all the evidence
  • Problem solve
  • Think about alternatives
  • Understand that what you’re feeling is normal
  • Weigh the pros and cons

With that, it’s possible to replace them with healthier thoughts that are grounding instead. When you begin to observe a switch in your thought patterns, that can be a sign of progress and that therapy is working for you.

2. Noticing a decrease in initial symptoms can be a sign of therapy benefiting you

Many people come into therapy due to depression and anxiety symptoms taking over certain aspects of their lives. It’s not unusual to start treatment because you have symptoms such as excessive worry, feeling stuck, mood swings, unusual sadness, or withdrawal from people.

You might even come in because you can’t really tell how you feel despite having a nagging sense that something is bothering you. As you continue in therapy, you might notice that your initial symptoms decrease. For example, you might even begin to notice the benefits of positive mental health, such as:

  • Better coping with challenges that come your way
  • Contributing to your community in meaningful ways
  • Realizing your full potential 
  • Seeing an increase in your work productivity

Your initial symptoms might not occur as much each day, then disappear altogether some days. You may not even notice this until a troublesome event brings the challenges flooding back in full force. Even the slightest change in symptom severity and duration is progress that should be acknowledged and celebrated, as they are a sign that therapy is working.

3. You experience fewer nightmares and better sleep

Some mental health conditions, like anxiety, can cause nightmares to plague your sleep, making it hard to get enough rest. Without enough sleep, you might notice an increase in other symptoms, which adds to the nightmares. This cycle often continues to worsen unless you get help from a therapist or doctor.

When you have nightmares, your therapist may invite you to:

  • Talk about them as they can reveal how you are feeling day-to-day.
  • Keep a dream journal to get the nightmares on paper and free them from your mind. 
  • Look back through the journal to track if you’re making progress in therapy.

With time, you might notice that you have fewer nightmares to talk about, and they are less distressing to you altogether. That’s a big sign that all your hard work in therapy is paying off.

4. You're able to work through substance use issues in your therapy sessions

Depression and anxiety symptoms have the potential to make each day difficult, leading to substance use and abuse as a coping mechanism. In therapy, you will learn helpful coping skills designed to replace harmful ones.

Your therapist may introduce coping skills one by one, allowing you to try them out and see what works. Skills often taught in therapy include:

  • Getting out with friends
  • Going on a nature walk
  • Journaling
  • Light exercise
  • Making a to-do list
  • Meditation
  • Relying on humor
  • Restorative breathing
  • Taking time for hobbies

Not all coping skills work for everyone, so it’s important to try them out for yourself.

As you find ones that work, you may notice that your ability to manage your substance use improves. You might see fewer cravings as your new coping skills reduce the distress you feel during challenging moments. Eventually, you may discover that you rarely ever think about using your old coping mechanism anymore — and that’s a huge sign that therapy is working.

5. You can use coping mechanisms learned from therapy in your day-to-day life when feelings of anxiety or depression arise 

When you start therapy, you're introduced to a range of coping mechanisms and strategies to manage anxiety and depression symptoms. They might fall into a few different categories like sensory coping skills, cognitive coping skills, active coping skills, and connection coping skills. These tools can include, but are not limited to:

  • Exercise
  • Working with your hands on a craft project
  • Journaling
  • Prayer
  • Reading
  • Mindfulness exercises like meditation
  • Deep breathing techniques

Being able to recognize when those familiar feelings of sadness or worry creep in, and pausing before choosing a course of action, is an essential skill of emotionally resilient people. While progress may not always be straight forward, the ability to apply coping mechanisms learned in therapy to your daily life is a powerful sign that therapy is working.

Create a plan for tracking progress with your therapist

A concrete way to understand what kind of progress you’re making, is by tracking it through feedback-informed care. Feedback-informed care is an innovative, evidence-based approach to mental health care that uses your feedback to help guide your therapeutic journey. At SonderMind, this is built right into our platform, so it’s easy for you to collaborate with your therapist about your care. 

A big part of feedback-informed care are clinical questionnaires (CQs). Before and after a session, you’ll have the chance to fill out CQs to answer questions about your mental well-being. Your CQ responses are tracked over time so you and your therapist can identify any behavior patterns or opportunities to reflect on changes in your well-being. Two of the CQs you’ll likely encounter for depression and anxiety symptoms are the GAD-7 and PHQ-9, respectively.

Throughout your therapy journey, CQs can help your therapist better understand if you’re meeting your goals, whether your treatment is on track, or if changes to your treatment plan need to be made.

Your therapy journey is unique, and so is your progress throughout therapy

If you ever feel like you’re not making progress in therapy, you can talk to your therapist about your concerns. They will help you by adjusting the approach or adding techniques that can assist in reaching your goals. You may also consider switching therapists with their help to gain new perspectives that aid in your healing.

Remember: progress in therapy will look different for each person. You do not have to make huge, earth-shattering changes to see improvement and it's important to review goals with your therapist to tell if talk therapy is working for you. Just look for the little things in the beginning. Over time, those small improvements add up.

For more information, visit these additional resources:

Clinical Questionnaires: Helping You Get Better, Faster‍

When Do We Need Self-Care?

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