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Have you ever been faced with a problem that felt too big to solve on your own? Perhaps you were going through a difficult relationship, or struggling to overcome addiction. Maybe you were sidelined by fear, anxiety, anger or negative thoughts. Most people who struggle with such things don’t have a serious mental illness and may not need a clinical psychologist. Instead these clients need someone to help them understand the root of their problems and get treatments to overcome them.

Clinical counselors — also called therapists — help individuals, families, couples and groups sort through these and other issues through individual therapy sessions. These professionals are equipped to treat a multitude of issues, including those related to chemical dependence, crisis and trauma. Therapists also receive training in multicultural counseling so that they can offer effective service in our diverse, global society.

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New clients often wonder how to prepare for your first therapy session or what to do during a session. This guide provides tips on how to get the most out of therapy. 

How to Prepare for a Therapy Session

By scheduling a clinical counseling session, you’re admitting that you don’t have all the answers when it comes to your mental health. Whether you’re dealing with anger, substance abuse, or grief, admitting you need help is a good place to start. If you’ve never been to therapy before, you may feel nervous or even anxious about your first session. Those feelings are common. Counselors suggest several things you can do beforehand to help you be more mindful and less fearful of the process of your therapy journey.

List your therapy goals. While it may be true that you want therapy to make your life better, your goals for therapy should be specific. In what ways do you want your life to be better? What behaviors and/or thought patterns do you want to change? Here are other relevant questions you might want to include:

  • What improvements would you like to see by the end of therapy?
  • What emotions are you feeling at the moment?
  • What events or circumstances in your life have prompted you to seek therapy? How long has this been, and to what extent is it causing distress?
  • What did you do to cope? What experiences have previously given you a sense of relief or made you feel better?
  • Who else did you approach about this problem?

List questions you have. These could be about anything. You may have questions about the counseling process or how many individual therapy sessions are typically required. First-time clients often ask about the therapist’s qualifications, experience, and approach to treatments. Or you may ask about things you want to find out about yourself or your mental health. Listing any and all questions about your problem means that you’ve already started probing for answers.

Be open to change, even if it’s uncomfortable. Change for the better is good, as almost everyone attending a counseling session would agree. But what if that change comes at the loss of a bit of personal comfort? Discomfort isn’t something we naturally embrace. We want to feel comfortable at all times, but sometimes that stops you from feeling your emotions. What if change for the better means revealing a painful secret? Or cutting toxic relationships and habits out of your life? If you’re truly open to change, know that you may see more change than you bargained for and release emotions that have been building up. 

Allow extra time before the session begins. Avoid rushing to your therapy appointment. Arriving early allows you time to sit quietly, reflect, and be in a more receptive mood when the session starts. This is a good practice before all sessions, but especially your first one, since you’ll have paperwork to fill out.

What to Do During Your Counseling Session

Get business out of the way. Consider handling payments, insurance questions, scheduling and similar activities first, before the session starts. Some clients feel awkward having to end sessions — especially emotional ones — by suddenly switching to business matters. 

Ask questions if you don’t understand. Counselors use and understand the terminology related to their field, but occasionally forget that most of their clients do not. If your counselor says something you don’t understand in your therapy experience, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification.

Focus on yourself. If you talk about yourself too much in normal conversations, you may seem self-centered. But in counseling sessions during individual therapy, even if the conversation involves other people, it always comes back around to you. The therapist wants to know the problem from your point of view, and how it makes you feel and behave.

Be honest. Know from the beginning that therapy sessions are safe and confidential. Clinical counselors are trained to listen objectively and without judgment, but also to ask probing questions. If the therapist digs into a hidden part of your life, don’t lie to evade uncomfortable issues. As mentioned earlier, positive change only comes if you’re truly open to it, and sometimes that means you will feel uncomfortable when discussing certain topics. Being honest allows you to get more out of your sessions and better connect with the therapist. If he or she is overlooking things you’d hoped to address, or if the two of you just aren’t clicking, let the therapist know. 

Jot down notes. Bringing a notebook to your session is not required, but may be useful. Although you’ll be talking and listening more than anything, insights may come up during the session that you want to write down. This will also help when the therapist assigns you “homework.” Doing so will largely contribute to a successful therapy journey.

Do your homework. Before sessions close, therapists often give clients something to think about and do before the next scheduled meeting. Maybe your assignment for future sessions is to keep a weekly list of things that trigger your feelings of anxiety. Or maybe it’s a step you’re taking toward a positive change, such as submitting a job application. Whatever the task is that you and your therapist agree on, be sure to follow through with it.

Give yourself credit. Seeking mental health care and treatment is not a simple task. The longstanding stigma surrounding mental illness has historically discouraged individuals from seeking help. Today, we now have a better understanding of how mental health impacts our lives. Despite this progress, many people still struggle to take the step of seeking professional support. If you have reached this point, it is certainly a cause for celebration. Mental health holds equal importance to physical health, and seeing the right therapist to improve your mental health should be no different than exercising to have good physical health.

If you’re planning to become a good therapist or a clinical counselor, the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University  can help. There are several areas of mental health services you can specialize such as couples counseling, family counseling, group therapy, and many more.  At Alliant you can earn your MA in Clinical Counseling and become a California Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). Find out more by calling (866) 825-5426.

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  1. “How to Prepare for Your First Therapy Session,” by Julia Colangelo, LCSW, SIFI, of My Wellbeing,
  2. “7 Professional Tips that will Help You Prepare for Your First Counseling Session,” by Taylor Bennett of Thriveworks,
  3. “21 Tips for Clients in Psychotherapy,” by Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP, of Psychology Today,…
  4. “9 Ways to Make Your Psychotherapy Sessions More Effective,” by Gary S. Trosclair, LCSW, DMA, of GoodTherapy,…

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