When Should You See A Therapist? Here Are 6 Telling Signs

Licensed Clinical Social Worker By Alison Stone, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Alison Stone, LCSW is an integrative psychotherapist based in New York City. She received her bachelor's in education and sociology from Emory University, and her master's in social work from the New York University Silver School of Social Work. Stone is also a health coach, certified through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Photo by Sonya Khegay

Whether you're coping with a particularly difficult life event or just haven't been feeling quite yourself, it can be difficult to "pull the trigger" and actually go see a therapist—even when concerned friends and family members are suggesting it to you. But in a world where anxiety is at an all-time high and therapy is thought of as a self-care practice, it's worth considering. While there are no cut-and-dried "signs" that seeing a therapist is a must, here are six indications that it's something you might seriously consider:

1. You're coping with a recent hardship.

Most of us are no strangers to hardship and adversity. According to a revelatory study by the CDC, about 50 percent of all children born in the United States experience at least one, if not more, type of significant adversity during their childhood. Often, these experiences play a large role in shaping how we see the world. Certain traumas can make us believe we can’t trust other people, or even that we can’t fully trust ourselves. This can get in the way of enjoying healthy relationships, having perspective, or feeling optimistic about the future. If you think your past might be a barrier to current happiness, or you were affected by a recent traumatic event, therapy is a place to begin healing.

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2. You frequently feel overwhelmed and stressed.

Stress is a fact of life. We often associate stress with negativity, yet stress can also occur as a result of positive events, such as marriage, the birth of a first child, or a new job. Problems and discomfort often occur when we are so bombarded with change that our system becomes hijacked—basically, the stress takes us over and calls all the shots. Additionally, we are more likely to make poor decisions, or feel unable to make decisions at all, when we are plagued by stress. Additionally, chronic stress has serious, long-term health implications. Therapy can be a safe space to lighten your load, learn strategies for self-care, and address any underlying causes contributing to chronic stress.

3. Your bad days are turning into bad weeks.

We all have bad days, but when your bad days feel endless, therapy may be beneficial. Most of us know how to cope with some level of distress, and do so without thinking—we exercise, listen to music, vent to a trusted friend or partner, or grab a drink with co-workers to unwind. Yet often when we experience hardship or enter a new phase in life, our "go-to" coping skills stop being as effective. This can lead to feeling helpless ("I don’t know how to deal with this!") or seeking alternative methods of coping that are intended to be helpful but end up being harmful. Engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as overspending, drinking too much, disconnecting from loved ones, or frequently lashing out at others, might be signs that it’s time to find new coping mechanisms and get to the root of troublesome feelings that can drive risky behavior.

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4. Your relationships feel complicated or dissatisfying.

We all experience frustration in our personal relationships, be they family, friends, co-workers, or a romantic partner. While disappointment is inevitable from time to time, chronic dissatisfaction with your relationships could be a clue that there are themes or patterns worth exploring. Therapy can be a place of learning how to set boundaries, create realistic expectations of others, and develop positive communication skills. Therapy can also be an incredible tool in helping address issues in current relationships. According to Dr. John Gottman, renowned relationship expert and founder of The Gottman Institute, it is not the presence of conflict itself, but rather how people manage that conflict, that ultimately predicts the success or failure of a relationship.

5. You want extra support.

Going through any big change or life transition, such as a new relationship or breakup, death in the family, loss, or other impactful event, can feel daunting to tackle on your own. While it is always important to have a strong network of loved ones, sometimes the wonderful people in your life simply aren’t equipped to give you the support you need. Or you might want someone to listen to you who is unbiased, nonjudgmental, and not distracted by their own lives. Even the most well-intentioned loved ones don’t always have the ability to give us the time or perspective we need around specific issues. Having a therapist will allow you to receive undivided attention and objective, well-informed support.

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6. You're human.

Unfortunately, going to therapy still carries a stigma, and many people don’t seek treatment due to feelings of shame, embarrassment, or discomfort at the thought of being vulnerable. We take great pains to address other aspects of our health; we get medical checkups, go to the dentist, etc. Dedicating attention to your mental health and emotional well-being is just as important! In fact, while there is often a catalyst that prompts that first phone call, going to therapy while in a relatively chaos-free stage of life can be just as transformative. Therapy is an incredible opportunity to get to know yourself better as well as strengthen skills that might assist you in navigating future distress. Remember, going to therapy does not mean you are weak: As Brené Brown stated, "You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability."

Want to understand more about how therapy works? Here's what 33 years as a therapist taught me.

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