Many people are resistant to the idea of participating in therapy when they first start struggling with their mental health. It’s common to dismiss therapy as “just talking to someone” and make excuses – I already have friends to talk to; I won’t be able to open up to a stranger; I can just take medication. It may seem like therapy can’t possibly be effective in reducing the symptoms of a mental health condition, but a lot of scientific evidence backs the process.
How can therapy improve my mental health?
Over the last few decades, advances in neuroscience have uncovered that life experiences affect our brains—this is called neuroplasticity. When our senses are activated, when we learn something new, when we face stressful situations, or when we have many other kinds of experiences, our brains can
change in structure and function. In part, this means that events or external stressors can lead to mental health struggles, but it also means that some experiences, including therapy, can help modify brain structure and function into a healthier state. Studies consistently show that behavioral and emotional interventions work just as well or even better than medication to treat various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The science of how therapy works varies depending on the technique or skill you are working on. Psychotherapy produces long-term behavior change by modifying gene expression and brain structure which strengthens connections and communication between neurons. For instance, studies have found that as people get better at controlling their emotions, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (which
is responsible for reasoning and rational thinking) changes. Research on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) among people with psychosis found that CBT strengthened connections between the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear and threat analysis, and the prefrontal cortex. This
suggested that people could better perceive social threats, and the increased connectivity was associated with reduced psychotic symptoms.
Beyond the brain changes generated by therapy, therapy also works long-term simply because of the skills it gives people. Through therapy, people learn about themselves and can continue using this insight as they face new challenges.
How do I know if it’s working?
Progress happens gradually – you probably won’t have one big moment in which it’s clear that therapy has “worked.” Instead, it’s slow and steady growth. You will know therapy is working for you when you notice a change in your general mood or mindset. Maybe you’ll catch yourself challenging
your automatic negative thoughts or processing a frustrating situation rather than immediately reacting with anger. It’s helpful to identify your therapy goals early on so that you can track your progress.
The number of recommended sessions varies, but many people start to feel better after two or three months of regular treatment. However, for most people, therapy isn’t as much of a “quick fix” for a specific issue as it is a tool to increase your resiliency so that you’re better able to cope with the many challenges we all face throughout life.
- Mental Health America