October 19, 2020

Is This Working? How to Tell if You're Making Progress in Therapy

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The therapeutic journey looks different to everyone, which makes it difficult to know if it’s working for you. Since there are no collective goals to reach, everyone has to gaze into their own experience to see if they are getting what they need out of the sessions.

By doing so, it is easier to keep up your motivation to attend each session, especially when working through challenging moments. So, it’s well worth taking the time to gauge your progress in therapy and see where you’re at.

To help you out, here’s a look at several things you can reflect on to see how therapy is working out.

Reaching Goals and Making More

When you first start working with your therapist, they will ask a number of questions to see what you need. One of the most important 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:

  • Improving self control
  • Working through relationship conflicts
  • Learning how to self-soothe
  • Moving past traumatic events
  • Building life skills

If you notice that you’ve started making progress on any of your goals, then therapy is likely starting to pay off. But if you’ve been able to put aside old goals and make new ones, that’s your sign that real progress has been made.

A Switch to Helpful Thought Patterns

As struggles come up in life, it is easy to sink into unhelpful thought patterns that tear you down and stand in your way of healing, such as:

  • Overgeneralizing
  • Black and white thinking
  • Ignoring all types of evidence
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Blaming yourself

As you talk with your therapist, they will help you unwind these thought patterns and see them as barriers to your recovery. With that, it’s possible to replace them with healthier thoughts that assist in healing. At first, you must directly challenge those thoughts. But after awhile, you might notice that you do that automatically. That’s where true progress lies.

Noticeable Decrease in Symptoms

Many people come into therapy due to mental health symptoms taking over certain aspects of their lives. It’s not unusual to come in due to:

  • Tons of worries
  • Crushing sadness
  • Wild swings between moods
  • Withdrawal from people
  • Feeling stuck in life
  • Suicidal thoughts

You might even come in due to an inability to truly tell how you are feeling despite having a nagging sense that something is bothering you.

As you work through the steps in therapy and get your feelings out, you might notice that your original symptoms are starting to decrease. They 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, however, so keep on that path for continued healing.

Fewer Nightmares and Better Sleep

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

When you have nightmares, your therapist may invite you to talk about them as they can reveal how you are feeling day to day. Just talking about the disturbing dreams is helpful, especially when paired with related homework. You might also keep a dream journey to get the nightmares on paper and free them from your mind. As an added benefit, looking back through the journal can tell you 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 and helping you recover.

Ability to Stay Sober with Less Cravings

When mental health symptoms make each day difficult, many people turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. This maladaptive coping method tends to make things worse rather quickly as addiction sets in. As you get into therapy, you will learn helpful coping skills designed to replace the harmful ones, like drug and alcohol use.

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

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

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 stay recovered from drugs and alcohol improves. You might notice 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 anymore — and that’s a huge sign that therapy is working.

Your Journey is Unique and So is Your Progress

Progress in therapy will always look different to each person. You do not have to make huge earth-shattering improvements to see progress. Just look for the little things in the beginning. Over time, those small improvements add up to show how well you are healing with help from your therapist.

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.

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