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  • Writer's pictureNicole Pankey

What is therapy and why is it important

There are a lot of misconceptions of what therapy is, and what therapy isn’t. Representations of therapy and mental health in mainstream media have often led to greater confusion and stigma of therapy and mental health issues.

At its core, therapy can be described as an ongoing professional relationship in which a

client entrusts a therapist with the details of their life in order to manage symptoms or otherwise meet desired goals. Therapy is the process by which change occurs to reach those goals or manage symptoms related to a mental illness.

Time Spent in Therapy

There is not a hard and fast rule when it comes to what your therapy process should look like. There is some research that supports the idea that that those in one form of therapy in particular, cognitive behavioral therapy, can achieve significant results and symptom reduction in about 11 sessions. That being said, that is not true for everyone. Others, especially those with moderate or severe conditions, may require or desire ongoing support to ensure they are experiencing an improved quality of life.

For individual therapy, it is most common that you will meet with a therapist for 45 minutes once weekly. This can be true for either in-person or video-based meetings. In online messaging therapy, the “session” is created in digestible chunks over the course of days versus a once weekly meeting. That means that if you spend about ten minutes reading and/or responding to your therapist per day then that is roughly equivalent to one in person session. In online messaging, therapy is done in smaller, digestible pieces in an environment not limited by time or travel constraints. For those reasons, it is a very convenient option. Additionally, messaging therapy provides access to those who may otherwise be homebound or have difficulty scheduling or attending face-to-face meetings.

Group Forms of Therapy

Some who enter therapy may find benefit in attending group therapy. In this model, you will meet with a therapist (or two) who will facilitate a therapy group. This typically happens once per week at an extended time of 90 minutes, in most instances. Group sizes may differ, but tend to hover around 8-15 participants. Group therapy meetings are longer to accommodate the interaction between group members and facilitating therapists.

Many group therapy formats include discussion as well as skill-building components. From week to week, your group therapists may ask you to complete homework or try out new skills and report back to the group at a later meeting. Mutual assistance groups specific to certain recovery models, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, may be more free-flowing and not facilitated by licensed therapists but by peers in the community who are also in the process of recovery. Support groups may be moderated by therapists or peers in an effort to create safe space for sharing and community.

Therapy as Symptom Management

For some, therapy is an ongoing process that focuses mostly on symptom management. For those living with diagnosable mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depressive disorders (but not limited to those conditions), therapy can provide a safe place in which a client can learn more about their condition and learn the effective ways to manage its symptoms. In this sense, therapy can help moderate the symptoms’ impact on the person’s everyday life.

For some, conditions may reach resolution in a limited amount of

time. This is not always the case. Some courses of therapy take longer than others. No matter the circumstances, therapy will help you assess, manage and change the impact of your mental illness. During the course of therapy, your therapist may teach you information about your illness, as well as give you exercises or strategies that have helped others with your condition to move forward in their lives and meet their goals. For some, who live with ongoing conditions, therapy can be a safe place to learn and try on new skills and ways of being. You will work together with your therapist to find what symptom management strategies are most effective for you.

Therapy as Ongoing Personal Development

For others, therapy is a place that represents an ongoing, permanent relationship in which a person works with a therapist to develop greater insight, develop a better sense of self and best navigate life’s ongoing challenges. It is not uncommon for a therapist to work with a client for an extended period of time. In those instances, a therapist will provide an objective and nonjudgmental sounding board to help you navigate the challenges you discuss in your conversations.

In long-term therapy, a therapist will help the client look at their life with different lenses to help the person better understand his or her underlying motivations, cha

llenges, behavioral patterns and choices. A therapist may help you navigate day-to-day concerns related to work or relationships, but also be an ongoing source of support with major life transitions such as moving, marriage, break ups, death of a loved one, etc.

A Blend of The Models

It is often the case that a person will seek out therapy with a specific problem or concern in mind. That is, they may have just broken up with a partner, be

concerned they have a mental illness, or are considering quitting their job. Once that problem has progressed or resolved itself, it is not uncommon that the person in therapy will want to move forward in discussing other concerns. These can be either from the past or new daily experiences in which they might want ongoing support.

Therapeutic Note

Remember your therapist is here to help you figure out the best way to address your concerns. Therapy works best when it is a collaboration between you and your therapist. It is important to be open, honest, and an active participant in this process. Talk to your therapist about your goals for therapy so that together you can come up with the best plan to achieve your goals.

Questions for My Therapist:

  • How is therapy different from just talking to my friends?

  • Is there a difference between therapy and counseling?

  • What different kinds of therapy are there and which ones do you practice?

  • How long should I stay in therapy?

  • I’m unsure of what my goals for therapy, can you help me figure that out?


Anderson, E. M., & Lambert, M. J. (2001, July). A survival analysis of clinically significant change in outpatient psychotherapy. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from

Hiltunen, A. J., Kocys, E., & Perrin-Wallqvist, R. (2013, August). Effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy: An evaluation of therapies provided by trainees at a university psychotherapy training center. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from

In Therapy Forever? Enough Already. (2012, April 21). Retrieved August 14, 2017, from

Psychotherapy: How it Works and How it Can Help. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2017, from

Shpancer, N. (2016, March 04). 10 Ways to Spot a Good Therapist. Retrieved August 08, 2017, from

Understanding psychotherapy and how it works. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2017, from

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