It’s no secret that I have been going to see a mental health professional for the last eighteen months. Managing anxiety and optimizing one’s mental health is no easy task, and I found that I needed some additional guidance to keep me on an even keel. After a while, I managed to find a few tricks that have turned my therapy appointments into those eye-opening sessions regularly. I thought they might benefit others.
Have Your Own Therapy Vocabulary
I’m a little like Shakespeare in that I make up words or use existing ones in creative ways. Despite having a working knowledge of the proper terms through college courses and my own research, this tendency crept into therapy. A lot. My doc actually went with the flow and we’ve wound up creating a whole vocabulary to describe my reactions to certain stimuli and behavioral patterns. Some of it we co-opted from other sources and some of it we came up with our own. For example, feelings of unconscious stress or dread that can superimpose themselves on otherwise nonthreatening situations are called “shark music.” When I get stuck thinking in an anxiety-fueled thought pattern and can’t break myself out, it’s called a “worry loop.” There’s others, but these are the clearest examples of our therapy vocabulary.
Sometimes these terms can be infinitely more useful in quickly and effectively talking to my doctor than using the proper term, which I might have to struggle to recall or may not know. Sometimes the clinical terminology just felt…cold. This is a living, evolving language unique to my doctor’s sessions with me, and best described how I felt, reacted, and expressed myself as an individual. It also helped me bond with my therapist to have a secret language of sorts together.
Be Courageous and Open-hearted
It’s hard to brave, especially when you’re sitting on a spotless couch in front of someone taking notes or looking inscrutable while they’re sipping coffee. It’s hard to open heart up to the suggestions and insight of someone titled “Doctor.” Logically, you know they’ve had years of schooling and professional experience. Your problems are probably not even 1/10th as weird as the wierdest case they’ve read about or seen. This knowledge doesn’t make it easier to be brave and ask for help with specific issues, or experimenting with techniques that seem silly at first.
Do it anyway. Talk about the things that you keep trying to talk around, but not about, and devote a session if the issue warrants an in-depth exploration. Open yourself into being vulnerable. I guarantee you’re not the first person who’s cried or yelled in their office. Try the silly or strange therapy techniques they ask of you.
For instance, last summer I had a powerful revelation about an anxiety of mine. I was nearly in tears because what he said triggered a wellspring of emotion. My therapist and I tried an exercise right then to help ground me. I wrote my fear onto a paper in big, bold letters. My therapist held it very close to me, where it overwhelmed my field of vision. I then walked backwards until the “issue” got smaller and smaller, until it wasn’t so big and scary. It was supposed to help demonstrate when we’re too close to something, it can be overwhelming, but taking a step back (literally or figuratively) will lessen the anxiety. I’ve tried the same technique on my own at home, and it does help. It doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but it is a technique I use to ground myself, especially when my feelings surrounding something is very powerful. I felt like a total idiot doing it the first time at the therapist’s office, but I didn’t dismiss it as useless because I felt silly.
Ask for Homework
Sometimes your therapist will ask you to do homework. If you have social anxiety, it might be something like “go out with a friend for coffee this week.” If you’re experiencing depression, it might be keeping a mood diary between sessions. Before I started this blog, my homework for the two works prior was to find webhosting, come up with a domain, check to see if it was available, and ask one of my tech-savvy friends to help set it up. My therapist knew that writing wasn’t going to be an issue, but setting up the actual blog itself going to be simultaneously intimidating and boring for me. I have zero interest in these things — I just want a pretty place to post pretty pictures and write! Setting and prioritizing the non-creative aspects of this project AND asking for help from an outside source (something I have problems with) was going to tackle two things at once — outside of a session.
Part of the previous point, being courageous and open, is wanting to take the healing to an environment outside of sessions. Homework allows this to happen. By asking for homework, instead of waiting for it be assigned, you’re taking a pro-active approach to your own therapy. It also gives you a chance for your therapist to create homework together, so you’re more likely to complete it and incorporate it into your life. It also helps keep the sessions themselves feeling relevant and fresh, because talking about the homework next session can break up a routine. Or create a new one, if such a thing would be useful to you.
Sessions with our therapists are precious commodities. They cost us patients time, and they cost money. We live in a society that wants to most bang for it’s buck, and mental health services are no different than anything else in this world. The difference is that we, as patients, can guarantee that we’re getting the most out of our therapy sessions if we’re proactive, open-hearted, and utilize the best communication techniques as possible. It may take a little experimentation and internal investment on our part, but the payout for our mental health is so worth it.