Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/28/2021
The therapy session: TV’s and film’s favorite place to exhibit awkward conversations, a feeling of vulnerability and aging men in elbow-padded jackets.
Therapy’s history with modern media is both long and strained — the media has done some great things to normalize mental health, but has also failed frequently in representing what a normal therapy session looks like.
We strongly suspect that the majority of people who consider — but ultimately don’t seek — therapy are worried about the experience of sitting down with a therapist and exposing their fears, traumas, experiences and anxieties to a total stranger.
One of the easiest ways to banish that fear is learning more about what a typical therapy session should actually look like (hint: Analyze This isn’t typical the typical experience).
Therapy is a very general term for a process that involves dealing with problems and mood disorders.
But when people talk about therapy, what they’re typically describing is something called talk therapy.
Therapy is a way of looking at today’s problems through a wider lens, and typically over a longer period of time.
And except in rare cases, it typically takes more than one session, hence the word “process.”
The people who practice therapy may include professionals who are referred to as therapists and psychologists.
A therapist will typically hold several degrees and certifications, but does not necessarily need to be a doctor unless they plan to prescribe medication. In almost all cases, they must be licensed.
There are stringent requirements for the position.
Psychologists typically can’t get a license in most states without a doctoral degree, and therapists must also work to maintain their licenses with continuing education.
Additionally, they will typically specialize in disorders and/or therapeutic techniques with years of specialized practice.
They must be supervised in practice for one to two years at the beginning of their career.
Typically, therapy begins with the patient sharing their background with the therapy practitioner — who they are, how they would describe themselves to another person, how they see themselves, etc. — and then the patient will share the concerns or problems that led them to try therapy.
This is typically referred to as an initial assessment.
After this first meeting, the therapy provider will make recommendations about how the patient’s treatment should look, and the patient and therapy provider will come to an agreement on the type of treatment, state the goals of treatment and put in place the procedures and the schedule for future meetings.
While there’s no official time expectation for a therapy appointment, typical therapy sessions last between 30 and 50 minutes.
The average patient will have a therapy session once a week, but individual needs might make less or more frequent sessions a more productive option.
By the way, we’ve used the term “patient” so far, but it’s important to know that therapy isn’t always a solo practice.
Therapy may be conducted with an individual, within a family, between a couple or even in a group setting.
You may be wondering how long therapy takes to “work,” and that’s a valid question.
Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat less simple, because every person’s needs and healing processes are different.
Therapy can take as little as a few sessions, or it can be a long-term thing that goes on for months or even years.
Because your goals are set mutually with your therapist, they’ll be able to give you a better idea of the scope of time you’ll need to commit based on what you’ve asked for help with.
Talk therapy can be used as a treatment for a variety of disorders and conditions.
The National Institute of Mental Health includes the following in their list of reasons why someone might seek therapy:
Chronic overwhelming sadness or helplessness.
Unusual and extreme insomnia or over-sleeping.
Difficulty focusing on and carrying out everyday tasks and work.
Constant anxiety or worry.
Excess drinking or other harmful behaviors.
Major life transitions including divorce, deaths of close friends or family, career difficulties or children leaving home.
Behavioral problems in children that interfere with peers, family or school.
The range of uses is so broad because therapy is, frankly, a broad practice.
It can be seen as a system for addressing problems in two ways: first, by learning how to deal with negative feelings like grief, disappointment or career or family issues.
But it’s also helpful for addressing and modifying ways of thinking and behaviors that prevent the patient from being productive or enjoying their life and relationships.
And there’s no age limit; therapy is also effective for both children and adults, though the techniques used may differ.
While we may be making therapy sound like a Wild West-sort of situation, therapy or psychotherapy isn’t just talking, nor is it just “talking out” problems.
There are three primary reasons why talking to a professional is better:
Friends may be willing to listen, but their advice is neither licensed nor based on specialized education and experience.
Psychotherapy is a relationship devoted to the patient’s welfare, whereas relationships tend to be mutual — meaning people take turns talking and listening.
The relative formality of a talk therapy relationship is a routine that fosters a different purpose, and is meant to serve the patient’s interests.
Therapy is a treatment and a practice, not a “cure.” You’re not likely to walk out of a therapy session with no problems left.
Rather, the point of therapy is to provide a structured and safe space to talk about ongoing issues with emotions, with cognitive functions, and with other impairments to your happiness and functionality.
One of the most commonly utilized therapeutic styles is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps patients recognize and reframe problematic thoughts and actions.
It’s been proven effective in countless studies. CBT is effective in treating disorders including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and trauma-related issues by helping patients recognize patterns of negative thoughts or behavior.
You might also be offered interpersonal therapy, which is specifically geared toward helping people communicate interpersonally.
That means a specific focus on communication, managing emotions and generally helping people work on relationships and depression.
There are countless other kinds of therapy and particular styles of those therapies may be more or less effective for you, which is why, at the end of the day, the most important thing is finding the right therapy for your own needs.
If you’re looking for someone to talk to, take the next step. Reading this article may have been your way of testing the water.
The good news is making an appointment is often the hardest part. Therapy can have a lot of benefits, but the action of taking steps to deal with whatever problems you may be dealing with is a small victory all its own.
Therapy isn’t something to fear, and despite a cultural history of showing stoic, cold people sitting silently as a patient pours their heart out, therapy and online therapy is actually a very welcoming space designed to help you feel empowered, become more aware and take back control of your life.
Whether it’s anxiety, depression or something else that’s affecting you — or whether you don’t know what to call it — it doesn’t really matter. Your job isn’t to solve the problem, it’s just to ask for help.