When you first start meeting with your therapist, they might ask a number of questions to see what you need. One of the most important questions is why you are there. As you answer, you can work together to create goals you want to meet.
Goals in therapy might look like:
Setting goals is one way to tell if you’re making progress in therapy. In this article, we’ll share several other ways you can measure personal growth over time.
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:
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.
Many people come into therapy due to mental health 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:
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.
Some mental health conditions (like trauma or 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:
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.
Some mental health symptoms 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:
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.
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. Just look for the little things in the beginning. Over time, those small improvements add up.
For more information, visit these additional resources:
Clark, D. A. (2013). Cognitive restructuring. The Wiley Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118528563.wbcbt02/
MentalHealth.gov (2020, May) What Is Mental Health? U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health