“How long does therapy take?” is a common question that comes up on an initial phone call with someone looking to start therapy.
So I wanted to take a minute to answer them in case you have that question too.
So, how long does therapy take?
Like most things, the answer is “it depends”. But, I can tell you what factors come into play so you can get an idea for yourself and your own situation.
ONE: Intensity of the issue prompting you to get started in therapy.
If you are coming to therapy because you are being proactive, you are probably not as concerned with this question.
One of the reasons you might start therapy proactively is to establish a working relationship with a therapist so you can get some support in looking at and improving some important aspects of your life. The other goal here is to have that relationship established and ready for when challenges do arise. You know this could be a long term relationship and it is an investment.
You might or might not go to therapy as frequently (I’ll talk about that next week), but it is an ongoing process to support your emotional and mental well being.
This is the same for children or adolescents. Sometimes parents will initiate therapy just to start a therapeutic relationship and get in some basic learning around emotional fluency and coping skills for their child or teen. Then their child or teen has a relationship with a therapist so they can access that relationship when developmental challenges come up around friend issues, academic stress, transition to adolescence or launching into adult life.
If you are starting therapy because there is a challenge coming up that you know really needs attention, I would expect at least six months.
The first part of therapy (4-6 weeks of weekly sessions), you are building trust with your therapist and your therapist is getting as full a picture as possible of what is going on. This cannot be skipped. Your therapist needs to know as much as possible to know how to best help you. AND you need to know that you trust your therapist. You are paying for their skill set that will support you in getting where you want to go. If you don’t have that trust, you will not be utilizing all they have to offer you.
From there, you are working on de-programming old beliefs, healing, developing insight into yourself, learning communication and coping skills and developing new habits and ways of dealing with things in your life that will support your growth so you can get through the challenge and be a better, healthier person.
I’ve seen people make it through challenges in as little as six months. Here’s the thing: these are people that are ready to take action on recommendations, who take notes either during session or right after to make sure they get as much as they can out of the time, who are willing to be open to reflections and humble to hard questions. They do the work in and outside of session. It’s the willingness that makes their sessions super effective (read more about that here).
Sometimes, when people make it through a challenge, they like to stay in therapy because they see how much they are able to get out of that support. The frequency of sessions might change over time depending on what is going on. Sometimes people will stop sessions due to the main goal for therapy being met and then they will just come back the next time something comes up. But the effort they put in not only helps them grow through their challenge, it builds their confidence in knowing that they can take on challenges successfully.
The same goes for older school age kids and adolescent clients: being open to and wanting to go to therapy makes a big difference in the process. See these posts here and here about kids and teens who are resistant to therapy.
If you are dealing with a crisis, meaning you are concerned about your own safety and daily functioning or your child’s, there are two distinct parts of your treatment. The first is stabilizing, the second is addressing the underlying dynamics and issues that brought things to a head.
People cannot sustain a crisis level situation for very long, but the work to address what created the crisis can take some time to unravel. There is a lot of variability in situations like this. Especially given that people can go in and out of a crisis state until they stabilize. The best thing to do is buckle up and be receptive to your therapist’s and your team’s (you might have a psychiatrist or multiple therapists working with different members of your family or school therapists working together) recommendations. That will be your fastest way through.
TWO: Level of stress.
How much stress you have going on in your life does factor in to how long it will take to reach your goals in therapy.
If you have a number of stressors that take away from you being able to dedicate attention to your work in therapy, it might mean that you will need a little bit more time in therapy. That is not a bad thing.
If you have a high level of stress, therapy will address that so you can work to bring things to a more manageable level. This is a good thing for your overall health and well being.
If it is your child or teen who is in therapy, you want to take life circumstances into consideration: do they have a school transition (going to middle school or high school) or family transition (divorce, remarriage, move) going on? Is there a person in the family who is ill? Are there some difficult sibling dynamics? These things may add to the time it takes to make progress toward goals.
THREE: Level of support.
Do people in your life support you going to therapy? Are there people in your life you can share with about your experiences in therapy who can reinforce the work you are doing?
This can just be someone who asks “what did your therapist say about that” to help you bring back the perspective and guidance you received. Or this person might just be a great listener and someone who is safe to talk to in between sessions while you are working through your stuff. That kind of support helps your progress in therapy.
If your child is in therapy, if you are participating in sessions and help implement the skills your child is learning in daily life, that makes a HUGE difference.