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How to Get the Most Out of Your Trauma Therapy

So you’ve found a good trauma therapist, now you can just relax and get treated, right? Well, not exactly… getting psychotherapy is not like getting a massage. Your therapist will be asking a lot of you, both in session and out. Here are some things you can do, on your own initiative, to get the most out of your therapy. Then you will have the best chance of solving your problems and achieving your goals.

1. Show up early. If your target is to show up on time, and something goes wrong, then you’re late. So aim for early, and you’ll have the cushion. Might as well get what you’re paying for, right? This may seem simple and obvious, because it is. Minutes matter, especially if you’ve only got maybe 45 or 50 of them in your session.

2. Get the practical questions answered up front. Make sure you know the therapist’s policies regarding lateness, cancellations/no-shows, fees/payment, privacy, and anything else. Then you won’t be wondering, and you can focus on what you came to do.

3. Share your discomfort. It is essential that when you experience discomfort in the therapy, you tell your therapist. This applies whether the discomfort is about something related to what you’re working on, or about your interaction with the therapist, or some combination. If you don’t share your discomfort, the risk is that it will become a wall between you and the therapist, or between you and the work you came to do. If you do share it, that gives the therapist an opportunity to respond.

  • Sometimes the therapist’s response will make things even worse. For example, the therapist may persist in pushing you in a way you just said felt coercive; or the therapist may cavalierly dismiss the concern you just expressed. This is actually useful, in that it quickly confirms that this therapist is not a good match for you. Then you can just quit, instead of throwing good money after bad.
  • More often, the therapist’s response will clear up a misunderstanding, or lead towards resolving some issue. This allows you to regain your sense of comfort, and focus more fully on the work you came to do. It also supports the growth and strength of the therapy relationship. This matters, because when you’re working with a therapist, you’ll get the best results by working with the therapist.

4. Do your homework. I know, another obvious one, but (like showing up early/on time) you’d be amazed how many people don’t. If you’ve been given therapy homework that you’re planning to ignore, tell the therapist so they can either revise the assignment or at least further explain the rationale. The thing is, even if the therapist can’t provide a rationale that convinces you, the assignment itself is probably worthwhile. So try to trust the therapist and make an effort. Doing your homework will often lead to greater progress in the therapy.

5. Don’t talk too much. Huh? Okay, maybe some other therapist has encouraged you to talk endlessly. But a therapist using a phase model of trauma-focused therapy will be guiding you through a series of structured tasks so that you can heal from your traumas & losses, and move towards your goals. So you want to avoid generating clouds of talk, that could distract from the focus and slow the work. On the other hand, you should certainly talk enough that the therapist has the important information (e.g., #3 above). So the goal is to talk enough, but not too much; this balance can be negotiated with the therapist.

6. Prioritize your therapy. Here’s a true story: A few years ago I was talking with my brother on the phone, and he mentioned in passing that he’d been to see a doctor. I asked, “Oh, what for?” He said, “Stress. I got some tests done.” I asked, “So what were the results?” and my brother answered, “I don’t know, I’ve been too busy to find out!”

So to paraphrase Click and Clack: “Don’t be like my brother!” You’re getting therapy for a reason, right? Like maybe to lose some distressing symptoms, and to get closer to living the life you believe (or at least hope) you’re capable of? So don’t squander more years wondering if therapy can really do this for you. Go for it. Make appointments when you can keep them. Make extra appointments to move things along. You might even go for an intensive and get the bulk of the work done in a matter of days. Whatever it looks like for you, if you really go for it, you’re giving it the best chance of working for you.

Note: This post is excerpted, in modified form, from my upcoming book, Slaying the Dragon: Overcoming Life’s Challenges and Getting To Your Goals.