13 Things to Do Before, During, and After Therapy to Get the Most From Each Session
I'm still relatively new to therapy, but already I've noticed how easy it is to get overwhelmed during my sessions. I have a few specific tendencies that get in my way: I want to say all the right things to my therapist and I get nervous about asking questions. Sometimes I get caught up in the session and forget about certain things I wanted to talk about or feel like I can't fully take in all of the tips, tools, and nuggets of knowledge that my therapist is passing on to me. Overall, there's a feeling of, "Am I doing this right?", paired with a fear that I'm not.
Therapy can be overwhelming and discomforting, especially at first, and it's normal to wonder if you're making mistakes in your sessions (hint: you're probably not). Still, it's important to feel like you're reaping the most benefits of each and every session, because
therapy typically doesn't come cheap, and usually isn't covered by health insurance companies either. More to the point, though, every therapy session is also a chance to make progress with your mental health. If you believe you're leaving anything on the table during your sessions — not being as honest as possible, not leaving with as many takeaways as you'd like — then it might be worth refining your approach.
When it comes to squeezing all the juice out of each therapy appointment, no one can advise you better than therapists themselves. Check out their advice on what you can do before, during, and after your session to get the most possible benefit. One reminder before we jump in, though: There's no "wrong" way to do therapy. If you're in therapy, you've already taken a big first step toward addressing your mental health, so don't put too much pressure on yourself to somehow "perfect" this process. Think of these tips as ways to more fully experience and benefit from the work you're already doing.
Preparing For Your Therapy Session
- Jot down the things you'd like to talk about in the appointment. Take a few minutes right before the session to identify some things you'd like to bring up, or take notes throughout the week when important discussion topics come to mind. Either way, this can help you distill what you're struggling with and even glean new insights "by trying to use language to express your concerns," said Houyuan Luo, PhD, cognitive-behavioral therapist in Ontario, Canada. Additionally, preparing what you'd like to talk about can "ensure you're able to prioritize any key topics during your session," says therapist Annia Palacios, LPC.
- Create a distraction-free environment. It's important to create a calm, comfortable environment for therapy, especially if you're doing teletherapy. "Therapy is your special time," says counselor Quanesha Johnson, LPC. "Make sure you carve out the space and time that will help you get the most out of your experience." Turn off notifications, put away your phone (if possible), and try to set yourself up in a private area where you can talk comfortably.
- Keep a journal. "Journaling in between sessions can help you remember what happened, what worked, what didn't work, and maybe things that haven't been discussed but need to be discussed," says therapist Jessica Jefferson, MA, MS, LMFT. Keeping a journal can also help you track your progress and give you a space for positive affirmations, she adds.
During Your Therapy Session
- Take notes. "Your therapist may drop a nugget in a session that you don't want to forget, so having a notebook and pen nearby can come in handy," says therapist Bianca Walker, LPC. (You can also take notes on your phone or computer, though they have the potential to be distracting.) Taking notes will help you digest information and better remember any breakthroughs you might have. It's also a good idea to jot down any goals or "assignments" you have for the coming week.
- Be honest. Many therapists offer this advice, which sounds simple in theory but is a little tougher in practice. "It can be hard or uncomfortable for many people to come into the therapy space and share [things honestly], as there aren't many places in the world where people spend 50+ minutes talking about themselves," says mental health counselor Corrine Harris, PhD, LCMHC. She encourages clients to "push past their discomfort" and be as transparent and forthcoming as possible, "so that the therapist can gain a better understanding of who the client is and what they're experiencing."
- Talk about the things you'd like to cover in the session, but don't be afraid to go "off script." If you've jotted down some things you want to talk about, feel free to share a loose agenda with your therapist so you're both on the same page with what you want to talk about. At the same time, though, don't worry if you stray from your plan. "During sessions, sharing what's coming up for you or where your mind goes isn't random," says certified art therapist Jackie Tassiello, ATR-BC, LCAT. "Letting your therapist know your thoughts, memories, or associations during sessions can be a gateway to more self-awareness."
- Ask questions. "If your therapist is saying things you don't understand, ask for clarification," says psychotherapist Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS. "Therapists can often fall into 'clinical speak' without realizing it. Asking for clarification can be their signal to simplify their explanations."
- Don't stress about what the therapist is thinking. "If you notice in your day-to-day life that you tend to hold back your emotions in order to not burden people with your feelings, therapy is an excellent place to give yourself permission to feel and express any and all emotions that show up," says somatic therapist Victoria Smith, LCSW. Know that your therapist will not feel burdened by you, no matter how heavy the topics or how big your emotions. "Therapists do the work they do so that people can feel safe and supported" to fully feel their emotions, Smith explains. On the same note, it's natural to want to avoid sharing certain details or experiences with your therapist for fear of being judged. Remember that this is a judgment-free zone, and there's no need to try to appear perfect to your therapist. They're here to help you through the very issues that you're nervous about sharing.
Reflecting on Your Therapy Session
- Reflect on the appointment. Right after your session, give yourself a couple of minutes to "let it marinate," Walker says. "What was helpful? Did it bring up other questions?" Take a few minutes to write down any reflections or takeaways, either in a journal or in a note on your phone.
- Do your homework. Your therapist might give you some "homework" to complete before your next session. Do your best to finish it and to be honest about your experience, including if you didn't get to the task. "It's not always fun or easy to complete these assignments, but they're helpful because they help clients apply what they've learned in sessions to their everyday lives," Harris says.
- If you think your therapist may not be a good fit, talk to them about it. Many of the experts here recommended giving honest feedback to your therapist when something is or isn't working. Meaning, if something about the process isn't working for you, it's best to bring it up. Above all, avoid abruptly stopping therapy, says therapist Zahara Williams, LCSW-S. Instead, she advises "talking to your therapist so they can pivot their approach or refer you to someone who may be a better fit."
- Keep a consistent schedule. This is especially important if you've just started seeing a new therapist, Jefferson says. "If you're inconsistent with appointments, it's hard for a therapist to accurately assess progress," she explains. "If there's a reason consistency is a problem, being honest with your therapist is a great option to think of ways to help." Most therapists recommend weekly or biweekly sessions to start — and there's a reason for that. Psychologist Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, PhD, MMFT, compared it to working on physical fitness. "Would personal training work if you only attended once a month?" she says. "As difficult as it can be, committing to a consistent weekly or biweekly time will help you get the most out of your investment in yourself."
- Know that therapy takes time. Therapy is a marathon, not a sprint, Pruden says. "Many therapeutic techniques take time to be effective," she explains. "Give therapy and your therapist some time for change to occur." The "timeline" for therapy can vary from a few months to years, and you can always ask your therapist if you're wondering how long you can expect to be in this process.