Whether you’re just starting to consider therapy or you’ve been seeing a mental health pro for some time now, you probably know that it’s a real commitment. You’re setting aside a good chunk of time, money, and energy to work on your mental and emotional health—which is huge. (Seriously, round of applause for you.) So it makes sense that you’d be wondering how to make the most of your time on the couch (or a chair, or your computer, or whatever).
There are so many good reasons to try therapy—whether you need help managing symptoms, want to chip away at relationship issues, could use a hand facing your fears or practicing self-compassion, or are just looking for a safe space to vent. But it takes more than just showing up to get something out of therapy. Here, we asked therapists to tell us how to actually get the most out of those sessions.
1. Before you even start therapy. Do your research to find the right therapist for you.
We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Finding a therapist (especially one that fits your needs, your schedule, and your budget) isn’t always easy. But therapy is an investment in Future You, so it’s worth taking the extra time at the beginning of the process to ensure you’re sitting down with someone who is trained to help with whatever you’re dealing with and makes you feel comfortable enough to open up. So, before you even step foot into a therapist’s office, consider what your goals are and look for professionals that have specific training to address those goals, says licensed clinical psychologist Naeema Akter, PsyD. That might mean searching for an anxiety specialist if you’re dealing with panic attacks or looking for a relationship expert if you’re struggling to set boundaries with your fam.
While you’re researching your options, ask about free phone consultations. A lot of therapists offer these before you officially start with them for that exact reason: to see if you’ll mesh well and so that you can check if they have experience working toward similar goals with other clients. You’ll want to make sure you’re asking questions about their training and license, as well as logistics like what their hours are and if they offer in-person sessions, virtual sessions, or both, says Dr. Akter. The goal is to find the best fit for you so that you can feel as safe and comfortable as possible.
2. Prep a therapy agenda.
It’s good to come to sessions with a list of things you want to talk about with your therapist, especially if you’re a big fan of structure and might not remember what you wanted to address otherwise, says licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, PsyD. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to all of it in the span of an hour or so, but knowing what you want to start with can drive the conversation. With that in mind, Dr. Abrams will sometimes have her clients go over what’s on that list with her, and then will ask them, “Which one do you think I can help you with the most today?” They’ll pick one and tackle that first.
3. If you’re doing teletherapy, try to set the scene.
It’s oftentimes harder to stay focused in a session when you’re doing therapy on the phone or via video, so do what you can to make that time (and space) just as sacred as it would be if you were in a therapist’s office. For starters, check that you have stable WiFi or service and that everything is fully charged, says Dr. Akter. Then, try to find a place to do therapy where you have some privacy, even if you have to go do a session from your car, she says. Finally, limit distractions as much as you can—whether that means putting your phone on Do Not Disturb, hanging a sign on your bedroom door, or simply taking some deep breaths before you jump in to make sure you’re in the right mindset.
4. Take notes.
If you feel comfortable, it might be helpful for you to jot down notes during your actual sessions so that you can keep track of what you discussed, Dr. Abrams says. Sometimes she’ll ask her clients to write what they were worried about that day or things that came up in therapy that surprised them (maybe they started talking about school, but that segued into something else entirely). Even if your therapist doesn’t ask you to take notes, think about keeping track of homework assignments they give you, epiphanies about yourself or your mental health, and any golden nuggets of inspo that can let you reflect back on your sessions when you’re removed from them in the real world.
5. Aim to go weekly or biweekly.
If it makes sense financially for you, it’s a good idea to go to therapy on a more regular basis, rather than once a month or just when something is going badly in your life, says Dr. Abrams, who suggests this to her own clients. You’re able to build a stronger relationship with your therapist, you remember where you left off in past sessions, and you can consistently work on goals together.
One study suggested that people with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and personality disorders saw more improvement when they had more frequent therapy sessions in the first three months of their treatment. And a meta-analysis even suggested that two sessions per week would be more beneficial than one for people with depression. Of course, this all depends on your unique goals and circumstances, so chat with your therapist about the frequency that makes the most sense for you.
6. Be as open and honest as possible.
It might take time for you to open up to your therapist, but the more you do—about whatever it is you’re going through—the more your therapist can help you, says licensed clinical psychologist Raisa Manejwala, PsyD. It could take a few sessions to get to the deeper parts, so go at your own pace, she urges.
It’s also a good idea to try to be open to your therapist’s input and listen when they highlight different behavior or thought patterns that they notice. You might have super strong beliefs about yourself—like that you’re a bad mom, for example—and it could be hard for you to listen to a therapist’s perspective when they try to challenge that and get you to consider that you’re actually doing more than enough for your kids, says Dr. Manejwala. But being able to think about outside perspectives—from trained professionals, no less—is key to changing how we think about ourselves.
7. And try not to worry about doing therapy “correctly.”
It’s great to be open and self-compassionate during your therapy sessions, but a lot of people overthink how they should be talking and interacting with their therapist, says Dr. Abrams. She doesn’t want her clients to stress about getting her to like them or doing the “right” things. It’s a therapist’s job to meet you where you are, she says. “I recognize the pressure and habit to perform in a lot of different spaces that we are in,” she explains. “I don't want this to be a space in which you feel a need to perform.” She thinks therapy should be the opposite, where you’re showing up as yourself, for yourself.
8. When things get weird, bring it up.
In that same vein of staying open with your therapist, don’t be afraid to be honest whenever you have a problem with something they said or how therapy is going. Maybe you feel like you haven’t really progressed, or maybe you worry that your therapist doesn’t ~get~ you. Whatever it is, know that you are allowed (encouraged, even!) to broach these subjects with your therapist too, even if you don’t necessarily think to bring it up right when it happens. If you’ve established that you can contact your therapist outside of session hours, maybe do that or wait to address it in the next session, says Dr. Akter. “Therapy only works if an individual’s willing to express what they want and what they feel,” she says. And one meta-analysis actually shows that repairing “ruptures” in the therapeutic relationship can make the whole process better.
9. Have a little debrief.
Some people like to process what comes up in therapy with someone they trust, like a partner or friend. Other people, not so much. There’s no right way to recap your sessions, but it can be a helpful practice to take some time to debrief after therapy. You might want to jot down what happened in a journal or recap everything in a voice memo on your phone, Dr. Abrams says. This just helps you further process what you might have learned and also keep tabs on how each session is moving along.
10. Don’t skip out on homework.
Some therapists are super into assigning “homework” outside of sessions, and it’s definitely important to get to those! Sometimes these are simply thought exercises whereas other times they might include literal worksheets or short assignments that help you practice the goals you’re working on in therapy. For instance, if you’re looking to build more self-esteem, your therapist might have you think about three things that make you feel good about yourself and ask you to come to your next session ready to talk those through, says Dr. Akter. If you’re looking to build stronger relationships, a therapist might tell you to call your mom at least once in the next week, she explains.
But if you don’t do your homework, still please go to therapy, Dr. Akter says. “I always tell my clients, ‘I look forward to seeing you next week with your homework, and even if you don't do it, I still wanna see you.’” This is therapy—not school—so you won’t get detention for missing the assignment.
11. Make time to check in with yourself outside of therapy too.
No matter how productive your therapy appointments are, it’s hard to make real progress in any area of your life if you’re only devoting a tiny fraction of your week to it. So Dr. Abrams suggests setting aside some time (even just 10 minutes each morning) to do some introspective work outside of therapy.
This might look like meditation, journaling, taking a mindful walk or just sitting with your feelings a bit more often. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself, how you think about yourself, and how you respond and react to everyday stressors. It’s a way to recognize that you and your body are your own safe space, Dr. Abrams says. And, over time, these little check-ins might help you see just how much you’re getting out of your therapy journey.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.