Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/19/2021
If you’ve been diagnosed with a form of mental illness such as depression or anxiety, or if you simply need help navigating life’s challenges, therapy can offer many benefits.
One of the most common questions about therapy is how long it will take for psychotherapy to work. Will you need to spend years in therapy before you feel “better,” or is it possible to experience improvements in just a few sessions?
As with many questions related to mental health, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
For some, therapy might produce immediate improvements, while for others, therapy might be part of a longer-term recovery process that takes several months or years.
Read on to learn more about how long therapy can take, along with what you can expect from it in the short and long term.
Most therapy sessions last for 45 to 55 minutes — or what’s often referred to as a “therapeutic hour.” This slightly-less-than-an-hour period gives your therapist time to prepare for each session, take notes and keep up to date on your specific needs and concerns.
It’s normal to spend slightly longer than this at your first therapy session, which is referred to as an intake session. During this session, you’ll usually spend extra time with your therapist talking about your needs, completing assessments and covering the logistical side of therapy.
Our full guide to the length of a therapy session goes into more detail about how much time you can expect to spend at each session with your mental health provider.
If you’re considering therapy, it’s perfectly understandable that you may want to know how long it will take — as well as how much it may cost — before you can start to notice real benefits from your therapy sessions.
Since everyone’s mental health needs and symptoms are unique, there’s no set amount of time that you can expect to spend in therapy before you experience improvements.
For some, the benefits of therapy may become obvious after the first session with a therapist. For others, improvement may be a slow, gradual process over a period of weeks or months.
In some cases, you may need to combine therapy with medication such as antidepressants or medications for anxiety to experience noticeable benefits.
According to the American Psychological Association, the length of treatment for psychological problems varies between individuals.
On average, for example, it can take about 15 to 20 sessions for 50 percent of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to recover.
Research also suggests that people with anxiety improve as they continue to have more therapy sessions.
It’s best to think of the above as a helpful but imperfect guide, rather than a definite amount of therapy sessions you’ll need before recovering.
It’s important to understand that mental illnesses that require therapy usually vary in type and severity. For example, depression can range from a seasonal disorder to a severe, overwhelming form of mental illness that might resist conventional treatments.
There are also many types of therapy.
In some cases, one type of therapy may deliver fast and significant results, while another type of therapy may require a longer time commitment to reach complete symptom remission.
For example, treatments that involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are generally shorter in duration than psychotherapy with a broader, more comprehensive focus.
These factors can all have an impact on the amount of time required for you to make real progress toward achieving your therapy goals.
There’s more to therapy than just talking to your psychotherapist. Done effectively, therapy is a collaborative form of treatment in which you and your mental health provider will work together to help you make progress.
Try the following techniques to help get better results from therapy.
If you’re taking part in therapy because of a severe or persistent mental disorder, you may need more time to make progress than those who have mild symptoms.
For example, research has found that people with co-occurring conditions or certain personality difficulties often require longer treatment than their peers — often for one year or more.
During the first few sessions with your therapist, it’s important to discuss why you’re taking part in therapy, as well as what you hope to accomplish together.
As the saying goes: What gets measured, gets managed. When you begin therapy with your mental health provider, one of the first steps you’ll take is setting specific goals for you to work toward.
Setting clear goals for therapy is an important aspect of achieving success, especially with forms of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Your goals could include changing the way you think or respond to certain feelings, avoiding or limiting destructive behaviors, or simply gaining a better understanding of yourself so that you’re able to respond to difficult situations.
Your therapist may work with you to prepare a treatment plan, including setting goals for you to work toward together, after you complete a few evaluation sessions.
It’s important to mutually agree on these goals with your therapist so that you both have a clear idea of what defines your progress and success.
Therapy ends when you’ve made significant progress and accomplished the goals you set out to achieve with your therapist.
If you don’t feel like you’ve quite “made it” with therapy, you shouldn’t feel afraid to continue for longer than you’d initially planned.
Research shows that more treatment sessions largely correlate with positive outcomes from therapy. Put more simply, people who spend more time in therapy are more likely to have a positive outcome in the long term.
If you’re coming up to the end of your planned treatment and don’t quite feel like you’re ready to end therapy, it’s important to let your mental health provider know.
Together, you’ll be able to put together a plan to continue your treatment and help you achieve your goals.
Therapy can be a highly effective treatment for depression, anxiety disorders and other common mental health disorders, but it often depends on a successful relationship between you and your therapist.
If you feel like you aren’t making enough progress in therapy, or that you don’t feel comfortable talking to your therapist, don’t be afraid to switch to a different therapy provider.
Switching therapists is not uncommon, and all experienced therapists understand someone may need to switch to another provider if better suited.
If things aren’t working out, or if you feel like your progress has stagnated, it’s absolutely fine to seek a second or third opinion about the best type of therapy for you.
Whether you’re feeling depressed, anxious or just need help grappling with the complicated and stressful nature of life, meeting with a therapist can have serious benefits for your mental health and wellbeing.
The results of therapy aren’t always immediate, and there’s no one-size-fits-all timeline that can tell you when therapy will start to work for you or even how long it might take to complete.
However, over the long term, many people experience a reduction in symptoms and gain major mental health benefits from therapy.
If you’d like to get started with therapy, you can connect with a licensed provider from home using our online therapy.
To learn more about caring for your mental health, check out our free online mental health resources. You’re most certainly not alone in your mental health journey, and help is available — no matter how long (or short!) it might take.