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To say we’re living in chaotic, confusing and stress-inducing times is an understatement if there ever was one. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself and those around you is find a professional therapist to talk to. “It always helps to get what I like to call a really good second opinion on your life from somebody outside your life,” says Lori Gottlieb, M.F.T., psychotherapist and author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and the weekly Dear Therapist column in The Atlantic. But how do you go about finding a therapist if you’ve never done it before? Follow this expert advice:
Start your search for a therapist:
Ask a friend. “I think the best way to find a therapist is to ask someone that you know who’s in therapy, if their therapist can give you a recommendation,” says Gottlieb. You don’t necessarily want to go to the same person that your friend sees, but their therapist can often point you in the direction of another qualified professional. “Of course, make sure the friend you ask seems like they’re making progress with their therapist,” Gottlieb adds.
Search online. Gottlieb recommends using Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist tool. “You can get a pretty good sense just from each therapist’s profile of whether this might be someone you’d be interested in going in to see for a consultation,” she says. If you have a specific issue that you want help with, it's smart to tailor your search to therapists who are veterans in treating that particular problem.
Use your network. “Contact your primary care physician for recommendations, and if you have insurance, reach out to your insurance company to identify therapists who may be covered by your policy,” says Meredith Williamson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University College of Medicine, and director of behavioral health at Texas A&M Family Residency. “If financial means are limited, then it may be helpful to look up universities in your area to see if they have a training clinic where you can pay a reduced fee for therapy.”
Consider technology. “Video chatting services and texting services are wonderful resources for psychotherapy, especially for those with busy lives, limited transportation, limited mobility or who live in locations where in-person psychotherapy is rare or non-existent,” says Williamson. “Research in this area is continuously being conducted, but to date, there are no indications that video chatting services are less effective than in-person psychotherapy services.” Some well-known companies offering telehealth for therapy include LiveHealth Online, Talkspace, BetterHelp, and MD Live. However, if you are experiencing frequent suicidal thoughts, self-harm, psychosis or mania, seeking substance abuse treatment or suffering from an anxiety disorder that’s triggered by social interactions, Williamson notes that in-person meetings may be your best bet.
How to decide if you’re a good match:
Some people will tell you to call up a potential therapist and ask some questions to figure out if they might be a good fit for you, but Gottlieb says you might as well save yourself the time and just make an appointment to see them in person. “If your goal is to go every week, you first want to make sure the location is convenient and the fee is affordable to you —those logistical questions,” she says. “But nothing else you ask them is going to matter if you don’t click in the room.”
After you have a session with the therapist, Williamson suggests asking yourself these questions:
How supportive and helpful do you believe the therapist is for you?
Do you feel your therapist seeks to truly understand your perspective and concerns?
Do you experience your therapist as trustworthy and safe?
Does this feel like a collaborative partnership?
Is your therapist knowledgeable about various psychotherapy treatments to address your concerns or mental health condition(s)?
If you feel okay after the first session, commit to one or two more before you make a decision about whether or not you want to stick with this particular therapist. “It’ll take a few sessions before you’re feeling like Yeah, this is where I want to do the work,” says Gottlieb. If, after a few sessions, you still don’t think your therapist is a great fit, feel free to move on. “It’s 100% okay to say to that person, I’m just not sure that this is the right match, I want to look around,” says Gottlieb. “In fact, they might even have a referral for you. And just having that conversation is a really empowering experience.”
Just keep in mind that going to therapy is work. “It is important to remember that psychotherapy is often uncomfortable and may elicit initial fear of painful emotions or memories,” says Williamson. “It is helpful to differentiate between whether a therapist is not right for you or if you are experiencing the discomfort of increased vulnerability due simply to being in psychotherapy.” Gottlieb notes that some people meet with a bunch of therapists and say none of them feel right — if that happens, it might be time to ask yourself what’s going on and why you’re avoiding them.
The bottom line:
If you’re not feeling right emotionally, please don’t hesitant to reach out for help.“There’s no hierarchy of pain,” says Gottlieb. “If something is wrong with you physically, you’re going to go to your doctor. You wouldn't say: well, it’s just a fracture, it’s not like my arm’s falling off. When it comes to our emotional health, we need to go get help if something is feeling off. There’s no prize for toughing it out.”
If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time. If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.
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