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Regular exercise keeps illness at bay and promotes overall physical health. So why do we treat the mental side differently? “People often wait until things are completely falling apart to start therapy,” says Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Coa, a mental health gym that offers classes on skills like resilience, mindfulness, and self-awareness. “But that’s like waiting until you have heart disease to start cardio.” Just as getting your blood pumping can help prevent cardiac disease, “therapy can be a proactive way to stay on top of your emotional well-being,” Anhalt says. According to the American Psychiatric Association, therapy has been shown to increase career satisfaction, improve physical health, and enhance our connections to others. “Therapy can help us become more authentic versions of ourselves, which can improve how we feel in our skin and in our relationships,” says Anhalt.
Know Your Options
Therapy can involve more than just talking about your feelings. Here are three other approaches, along with who benefits from each.
IF: You’re struggling with self-critical thoughts, panic attacks, or phobias.
TRY: Cognitive behavioral therapy.
“CBT is a structured approach that begins with a treatment plan and goal setting, and it teaches people how to change their behaviors and think more flexibly,” explains Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
IF: You need help processing trauma.
TRY: Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.
As you talk about a traumatic event, an EMDR therapist asks you to track their hand movements with your eyes. Diverting attention from the memory decreases the distress associated with it, which can help the brain process.
IF: You’re prone to codependency, conflict avoidance, or angry outbursts.
TRY: Psychodynamic therapy.
“Psychodynamic therapists help people uncover the why behind their relationship patterns,” says Anhalt. “For instance, a person who pulls away when others get close will start to do the same with their therapist at some point. When this happens, the therapist may say, ‘Hey, look what you’re doing here. Let’s understand it together.’ ”
Schedule an Interview
Don’t know where to start in your therapist search? Put these questions to prospective candidates to ensure that you receive the best help.
“What experience do you have treating clients with similar struggles?”
Some therapists specialize in eating disorders, while others focus on grief or substance use. Make sure yours is a good fit and has experience helping clients like you.
“How would you describe your communication style?”
This differs from therapist to therapist. Those who practice psychodynamic or supportive therapy may listen more and talk less. Those who practice behavioral therapies tend to be more direct.
“If I’m not getting what I want from therapy, are you open to feedback?”
Don’t be shy if the process isn’t working for you. Research shows that being up front about your goals and progress is a key component of treatment success.
Decode the Titles
Mental health experts receive varying levels of education and training. Here are four of the most common credentials you’ll encounter.
Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are physicians—either medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs)—who complete three to four years of medical school and four years of residency. They can prescribe medication such as antidepressants and diagnose mental health conditions. Some psychiatrists also offer psychotherapy.
Counselor: Also called therapists, licensed counselors complete two years of graduate school and earn a master’s degree. They provide individual, family, and couples therapy, but many can’t prescribe medication. They may have a master of arts or science (MA or MS), a master of social work (MSW), or a marriage and family therapist (MFT) degree.
Psychologist: Most psychologists receive up to six years of graduate training and earn a doctoral degree. They may become psychology professors, conduct research, provide psychotherapy, or supervise therapists in training. In some states, psychologists can prescribe medication. Common degrees you may encounter include PsyD (doctor of psychology), PhD (doctor of philosophy), and EdD (doctor of education).
Life coach: Like therapists, life coaches help clients set goals, modify behavior, and enhance well-being. Few receive graduate-level training to diagnose and treat mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. There’s no special schooling required to become a life coach, but many obtain advanced credentials—look for certifications from the International Coaching Federation such as PCC (professional certified coach) and MCC (master certified coach).