Psychotherapy is an integral part of addiction treatment and recovery. Most people seeking help for addiction will also have a co-occurring mental health issues and these co-occurring issues have to be addressed for recovery to last. Often, treatment for mental health issues will persist long after initial treatment for substance use. Looking after your mental health is a crucial aspect of any recovery plan. Having a good therapist outside of treatment will also help you make the transition back to regular life, which is sometimes tricky for people new to recovery.
Therapy is great for recovery, but like anything in life, you only get out of it what you put in. In general, you don’t need any special knowledge going into therapy for it to be effective. Your therapist should be used to guiding clients who are unfamiliar with the process. However, there are some things you can do to be sure you’re getting the most for the time, money, and effort you spend in therapy. They include the following.
First, think of therapy as more of a collaboration than something like going to the doctor, where you describe your symptoms, answer some questions, then sit around getting poked and prodded until they figure out why you feel bad. Everything your therapist needs to know is locked inside your head and they can’t help you without your participation. What’s more, you need to direct the course of your therapy. That means understanding what you want to achieve—which is not as obvious as you might think—and setting some goals for treatment.
As noted above, setting goals for your own treatment is an important part of participating in your own therapy. You need to have some idea of what you want out of therapy—a better relationship with your kids or spouse? Coping with stress without drugs or alcohol? Being more productive at work? Sleeping better? Doing basic things without feeling like you might panic? These are all common and realistic goals for therapy. You don’t have to know exactly what you want when you come in the door but it’s good to have some idea. You can work with your therapist to come up with some more concrete goals that will help you know whether you’re making progress in therapy.
We are all in the habit of censoring ourselves to some extent when we talk to other people. It may be because we think or do things we’re embarrassed to admit, that we want to be polite, or that we just don’t want to go off on a tangent. While those instincts make sense in many social situations, in therapy it’s typically better to give your thoughts freer rein. That seemingly irrelevant thought that pops into your head or that feeling you’re slightly embarrassed about might turn out to be important. In fact, the more you feel you shouldn’t say something, the more important it typically is. It can take some time to get to the point where you’re comfortable voicing these thoughts but overall you should aim to be open and honest in therapy. Keep in mind that your therapist is bound by confidentiality. They can only divulge what you say under specific circumstances, typically if you are a threat to yourself or others or if a child is in danger. Also keep in mind that whatever you say, your therapist has almost certainly heard much worse.
Your therapist will sometimes give you homework to do between sessions. This isn’t typically very time consuming but it may take some thought and it may occasionally make you uncomfortable. For example, your therapist may ask you to do the ABC exercise, which stands for activating events, beliefs, and consequences. For a week or two, you write down every time you feel sad, angry, anxious, or whatever else—the consequence. Then you try to identify the activating event that preceded it, and finally, the belief that connects the two. So, for example, you feel depressed after a customer yells at you at work because your tacit belief is that if a customer is angry at you, you must be a worthless person. This exercise helps identify the faulty beliefs that cause our negative emotions. There are many other possible assignments your therapist might ask you to and you should take these assignments seriously. Otherwise, it’s a bit like taking music lessons and never practicing.
Even when your therapist doesn’t give you homework, it’s a good idea to keep a therapy journal. After your sessions, take a few minutes to write down what you talked about and how you felt about it. If you have new thoughts since the session, write those down and consider bringing them up at your next session. During the week, look for ways that what you talked about relates to the events of your life. In this way, you’re making the most use of your sessions.
For the most part, it’s good to keep your sessions to yourself. Everyone will have some kind of advice to give you and you don’t want too many cooks. You also want to feel free to speak openly during your sessions and creating an expectation that you’ll share what you talked about might make you more inclined to censor yourself during sessions, which is counterproductive.
Therapy isn’t a quick fix, so don’t get discouraged if you’ve been going for a month and you don’t feel much better. It takes a little time to establish a good therapeutic relationship, meaning your therapist has to get to know you, your history, and how you think, and you have to get comfortable opening up to your therapist. You have to accomplish all that in 50 minutes a week. If you put some research and thought into your choice of therapists—see the post “6 Tips for Choosing the Right Therapist in Recovery”—then you have likely made a pretty good choice of therapists and, barring red flags, you should give therapy time to work.
Therapy is great for your mental health and recovery and by following a few simple, commonsense guidelines, you can get the most out of your time and effort. Knowing what you want, being open, and being committed to the process is key. At Steps Recovery Centers, we know that recovery from addiction is a lifelong process and we want all our clients to have to tools to succeed during treatment and beyond. Call us at 385-236-0931 to learn more about our alumni services.