When I first started practicing as a therapist, many people that reached out for therapy were in crisis. They were in dire need of help. We saw people in our practice who were dealing with intense depressive or anxiety symptoms, severe trauma, life crises and intense substance use. I’m so grateful people did reach out to get help and I know there are so many that didn’t. Things are changing and I’m so grateful.
Going to therapy before you are in a crisis makes a big difference just like catching any physical issue early on makes treatment easier. Today, the percentage of people reaching out and being proactive about managing their mental health is significantly higher. One reason is because social media and prominent public figures have moved mountains in destigmatizing therapy and have normalized needing support for mental and emotional health. The pandemic, for better or for worse, has helped with this too.
Let’s talk about the reasons why beginning therapy before a crisis is important.
Developing a relationship with a therapist
Going to therapy may be the first time you have ever shared intimate thoughts and feelings with someone about the challenges or problems you are facing. It can be very intimidating or overwhelming in the beginning but it will get easier as you start to build a relationship with your therapist. The relationship that you have with your therapist will be built like any other relationship, it will take time and require trust.
“Once the therapeutic relationship is formed, an individual in therapy might be more inclined to open up emotionally and provide further details about his or her concerns. This, in turn, helps the therapist to better comprehend the affected person’s point of view, feelings, and motives.” Good Therapy, Therapeutic Relationship, 08-28-2015
When you begin to open up and your therapist starts to understand you better, they will be more effective in assisting you to develop strategies to address what’s bringing you to therapy.
Once rapport has been established, you and your therapist will be on the same page when bigger challenges come up; which means you can head them off before they send you into crisis mode. The goal is to always get the most you can out of therapy but it can take some time to actually understand how to do that. We gave some tips on how to make sure you are getting the most out of therapy HERE in a past blog.
It takes some time to establish some baseline skills
In therapy you will start to develop skills to help you resolve or mitigate what brought you to therapy. It will take time and effort to build them, as these skills usually do not come naturally. Some of the skills you will build over time might include, feeling identification, emotional regulation, awareness of unhelpful thought patterns, and a shift in behaviors and habits. These skills are helpful as they can serve as protective factors against depression and anxiety.
As these skills are developed in therapy, you are able to see things differently and get more out of each session. Over time you will learn how to use these skills outside of your therapy sessions as well. It’s all a part of the process to develop healthy coping strategies.
When you put in the work in your therapy sessions, and develop these skills, you are laying the foundation needed to deal with significant issues and future crises.
If you start therapy in the middle of a crisis you don’t have the advantage of that foundation. You essentially have to play catch up and build skills and deal with an emergency simultaneously, and that can be really hard to do.
It’s easier to learn skills when there is not an emergency
When there is a crisis, therapy is really about putting out fires. You will definitely learn skills, but it’s a lot to take on. And sometimes the strategies you would use to put out a fire would not be the same skills you need to have a solid foundation of mental and emotional health.
In the middle of a crisis you are in survival mode and, honestly, the biggest concern is safety and alleviating immediate pain. If you are not in the middle of a crisis you can take the time to figure out what is starting those fires so you can stop them from starting in the first place.
Also, when you are in survival mode; your brain is not primed to integrate information.
“Our feelings at any given moment affect the amount of information we can process. Negative emotions, such as fear, anger, or anxiety (which many people are feeling these days) are linked to less activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking.” Michigan Virtual Your Brain In Crisis: Why It’s So Hard To Learn During Difficult Times Lauren Kazee April 7, 2020
It is extremely difficult to regulate the nervous system or practice mindfulness when there is a crisis. That’s why getting help early is key to making sure you can learn the proper skills needed to cope and manage your mental well being.
Maybe you don’t feel like your problems are big enough to turn into a crisis but if you are struggling to manage them on your own, that’s the time that you can take control by being proactive and going to therapy.
Some good examples of getting help before you need it would be when you know there is a big growth phase coming up in your life. For example, you are getting married, having your first or second child, starting a new demanding job, a parent or loved one is ill, your child is about to change schools and you know transitions are tough for them.
Or, when you are starting to see signs of stress like your child’s academic performance suffering, more sibling fighting, noticeable changes in behaviors, you start bickering more with your partner, you notice distancing in relationships.