What is psychotherapy and how does it work?


Does psychotherapy seem like something that only certain people need?
Do you feel intimidated to talk to a stranger about your problems?
Do you wonder how talking to someone can make any difference in how you feel?

Psychotherapy – in my opinion – can be useful to nearly everyone. It is not just for those who are profoundly depressed, anxious, or traumatized. Sometimes there are more nebulous problems like…

…”I don’t feel as happy as I thought I would after getting promoted”
…”I make these impulsive decisions that bring negative consequences and I can’t seem to stop”
…”I’m not sure if my partner is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with”

Life problems such as these are equally legitimate reasons to come to therapy.

So what actually happens in a therapy session?

Speaking from my own experience as a therapist and even as a client, the session usually starts with whatever you – the client – want to talk about. Here are some hypothetical examples of how sessions can start…

Client 1: “I’ve been feeling down since last Friday. Didn’t get out of bed on Saturday and struggled to get anything done that I wanted to.”

Therapist 1: “You’ve had a very difficult time this weekend. Sounds like each moment felt like a

Client 2:”My brother is visiting us and although I love him, he’s been getting on my nerves. I’m not sure why.”

Therapist 2: ”Something is rubbing you the wrong way with your brother. Can you give me an example of when you felt particularly bothered?”

Client 3:”I’m not sure if I want to work in data science for the rest of my career. I’ve been thinking about getting into the restaurant industry.”

Therapist 3: ”Although you have been working in data science, you feel stirrings to pursue your passion for food?”

The therapist will be trying to understand the client from the client’s own point of view so he can relay that understanding back to the client.

It’s that simple: therapy involves the therapist thinking and feeling his way into the client’s experience so that two people are making sense of the client instead of just one.

If it’s that simple, then why does it work?

There are some pretty complex neurobiopsychological reasons why the types of interactions in therapy are helpful.  We feel better when we are interacting with someone else whose presence is safe, attuned to us, protective, and strong.  The reasons for this can be traced back to the process of how our two brain hemispheres develop and connect with one another.

The right brain is our primordial emotional command center. This part of our brain along with the amygdala produces the emotions that lead to much of our behavior. The left brain, is where our symbolic thought and language arises.

Infants usually operate purely with their right brains because they don’t have full capacity of their left hemisphere yet.  The connection between the two hemispheres is not yet established. Over time parents help infants translate their right-brain driven experience into symbolic thought.

Consider this example: a mother knows the different types of cries of her 9 month old. One day the baby is crying and she identifies this as his ‘hungry cry’ so she soothingly picks him up and breast feeds him while cooing: “Yes, that’s right, you were hungry.” In this small instance, the mother is helping the baby translate his diffuse state of being in distress to the symbolized understanding that he is in distress because he is hungry. As experiences like this happen again and again, the baby’s right brain builds stronger connections to his left brain so that he is eventually able to translate his emotions into thoughts and language. This allows him to communicate his emotions to others and himself in a helpful and effective manner.

What does all of this developmental stuff have to do with psychotherapy?

The process of psychotherapy is much like what happens when a parent helps their child understand and symbolize their emotional experience. In the three examples above the therapists responded to the feelings of the clients and encouraged them to expand upon these feelings with language and/or more feeling. The therapist would also be resonating with the client’s feelings in the moment. Clients tend to feel better because emotional experience is now being made sense of – both between the client and the therapist and between the client’s own two brain hemispheres.

So, there’s more than meets the eye in therapy.

Although psychotherapy may seem like two people talking, there can be a much more complex and healing process happening below the surface. If you are wrestling with any sort of life issue or experience, it may be worth giving it a try. You may be surprised by how much better or clearer you feel.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).   If you are considering psychotherapy, feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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