Experts break down what progress looks like.
Nicole Pajer On Assignment For HuffPost
eek after week, you may walk into your therapist’s office and pour out your anxieties, hopes and dreams, or you might cry or get angry. Does any of this mean the process is actually working?
According to experts, there are definite signs that show you’re on the right track. If you are experiencing any of the following, it may be safe to say that your weekly counseling sessions are paying off:
1. You’ll look forward to your therapy appointments
Revealing your innermost thoughts in a session can be daunting. But if you get to the place where opening up becomes more comfortable, you may have experienced some breakthroughs, according to Rachel Dubrow, a licensed clinical social worker in Northfield, Illinois. Dubrow said her clients often make the connection that their treatment is working when they no longer feel nervous before appointments.
“They also tell me that they start to feel lighter and better after a session,” she said.
2. You’re not as “in your head”
“I’ve had clients tell me that when they begin to feel better, they aren’t as ‘in their heads’ anymore,” said Christy Doering, a therapist with Sage Counseling in Plano, Texas.
According to Doering, constant rumination over anxieties, listening to your “inner critic” or berating yourself for past regrets takes up valuable real estate in the brain.
“When people start to get well, they give that space to something better. It’s often a new appreciation for the present moment, or more interaction with family and coworkers, but it builds upon itself and contributes to overall wellness pretty quickly,” she said.
3. You’re having fun again
Anhedonia ― which is the inability to experience pleasure from activities that people used to find enjoyable ― is one of the hallmark symptoms of mood disorders like depression.
“If a person loves to sew, fix cars, read or exercise, then when he or she is depressed, those things will stop bringing joy,” Doering said. “But when people are improving, they will one day wake up and realize they feel like doing those things again, and often those things bring even more joy than they did in the past. It’s like having a stomach virus and feeling like you will never want to eat again, but then after it’s over, everything tastes wonderful.”
4. You are focusing on the present
“Instead of worrying about whether or not your first grader will get into college ... or feeling guilty over enjoying that bagel you had for breakfast, you are being mindful of the here and now and tending to the things you are in control of at the moment,” said Kayce Hodos, a licensed professional counselor in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
So rather than stressing about the future, you are focusing on work tasks, listening to a friend over margaritas, taking a walk on your lunch break or enjoying your favorite band’s new album.
5. You’ve changed your standards on who you swipe right for on Tinder
Sheri Heller, a New York City-based psychotherapist, noted that effective therapy may make you shift your focus toward more stable partners. Additionally, it may help you seek out healthier friendships and romantic partnerships.
“As clients work through core wounds rooted in relational traumas and betrayals, their healing is evidenced in using discernment and discrimination with who they bring into their lives,” she said. “Often these new partnerships are completely contrary to the sort of toxic traits they found themselves gravitating toward in the past.”
6. Self-care becomes a priority
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According to Hodos, noticing that you are beginning to pay attention to yourself is a great sign of improvement. This could be as simple as booking a weekly massage, journaling about your thoughts and feelings or asking your boss for that overdue raise.
“Regardless of how it shows up for you, you are positively including some much-needed self-care in your routine, and a bonus is you are enjoying it with no, or at least less, guilt,” she said.
7. You’ve started applying your therapist’s suggestions ― and they’re working
“I know that therapy is working for my clients when they are able to transfer what we have been working on in the therapy room to their lives,” said Sheralyn Shockey-Pope, co-founder of Central Counseling Services.
She cited a couple on the brink of divorce that she treated as an example. “They began to come into sessions with statements like, ‘I remembered that he was hurting, too, and when things got too intense at home we took a timeout, just like we did in therapy,’” she said.
Dubrow agrees, adding that she loves seeing patients gain a sense of pride over properly applying techniques she has armed them with. “They’ll come back and report that what they did felt challenging at first but that they were successful in the end,” she said.
8. You may start to go backwards
It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.
“As you work on dismantling old, unhealthy thought patterns and coping habits, feelings of distress and unwanted behaviors sometimes have a surge before they go away,” said Rachel Kazez, a Chicago-area licensed clinical social worker. “Without those things masking the feelings, people might feel stronger and urges to act in unwanted ways might feel stronger or more necessary.”
Jenmarie Eadie, a licensed clinical social worker in Upland, California agreed, adding that anger in a session is a perfectly valid ― and sometimes wanted ― emotion.
“For me, a sign therapy is working is when the client gets mad at me,” Eadie said. “It’s usually because he [or] she is working through the issues with a safe person who won’t retaliate, dismiss, or abuse his [or] her emotions. For my kid clients, this usually means a crayon or two is going to be thrown my way!”
9. You realize you are only responsible for your problems
“It becomes clear to you which problems are actually yours to own and which ones you’ve been taking on that have nothing to do with you,” Hodos said.
For instance, you might learn to lovingly support your husband and listen to his job complaints without frantically updating his resume for him, or you proactively text your mom to let her know you will not be available for your usual Tuesday night chat, sans guilt.
Therapy is a very personalized journey and what works for some is different than what may benefit others. But any of the above changes signify you’re headed down the right path.