Do I Really Need to See a Therapist?

In our increasingly changing world, there are more and more resources to address mental health recovery. There are self help books, retreats, webinars, social media influencers, and an increasing proliferation of digital resources like wearable technology, AI, and mental health apps. With all of these resources, you might ask: is therapy even helpful anymore or is it an aging technology that’s on the way out?

The short answer is that medications paired with psychotherapy has the strongest body of evidence to support mental health recovery. You might find some resources that offer relief in learning about an issue or changing behavioral patterns through guided mental health apps. Your therapist might even recommend these resources to supplement psychotherapy treatment. However, therapy continues to show efficacy. Why exactly is that? What differentiates therapy from other methods?

What Makes Therapy Different?

I’ve mentioned in another post that the most consistent evidence for what makes therapy effective is your relationship with your therapist. Attachment theory can explain why this is the case.

Attachment theory is based in human development and the social nature of humans. There are some animals that are born fully formed and able to care for themselves. That is not the case for humans. Scientists believe that this is due to the human brain which grows and develops all the way through the first twenty or so years of a person’s life. Given this fact, we are reliant on others for survival, especially for the initial period of life. We don’t yet have the cognitive ability to care for ourselves and so we need someone else to fulfill this role. This is most often a parent, who provides a secure base to which we can return when we feel unsafe and who we know will provide nourishment, reassurance, and safety.

There are entire books and types of therapy that explain attachment and its role in relationships like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Gibson), Hold Me Tight (Johnson), and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment (Levine & Heller), to name a few. In brief, attachment early in life affects attachment later in life. We can either feel securely attached, where we know how to find safety and security, know how to manage our feelings, which research shows has a positive effect on how we navigate the world. We could also be insecurely attached, where early attachment relationships lead to uncertainty around safety and security and how we approach different situations. Each type affects our relationships with others, the world, and even ourselves.

What does this have to do with therapy and mental health recovery?

Some might say: everything. It’s safe to say that attachment has an impact on our mental health given how it affects our views of just about everything. Coming back to the effectiveness of therapy, attachment plays a part when your relationship with your therapist feels safe. This allows you to explore together as patterns in outside relationships appear in the therapy space. If you trust your therapist, attachment wounds can be explored and repaired. This same experience can’t be found with a book or an app (or even a blog post!).

Knowing the Path is Not the Same As Walking It

While books and apps can offer resources to understand how our brains, bodies, and behavior work, it’s not necessarily the same as putting this knowledge into practice. Say for instance you have a great interest in playing the guitar. You watch YouTube videos of guitar virtuosos, read books on music theory, and talk to experts on how to be a great guitarist. However, if you never pick up a guitar, you never actually experience playing.

Let’s apply this same principle to mental health recovery. You can get a PhD in psychology or human behavior and still struggle with mental health challenges. In fact, many who enter the field do so for this very reason. We can understand why we eat too much, why we engage in compulsive behavior, why we end up in the same relationship over and over again, amongst other patterns that we want to break. Understanding these patterns is not the same as changing them.

A therapist can serve as a source of accountability and observe patterns as they occur. Your therapist is there to walk alongside you as you pursue mastery over your life, offering support and encouragement as well as accountability.

Just because something promises results doesn’t mean it will pan out. Similar to medicine and other areas, there have been countless methods to address mental health challenges throughout history, some of them ineffective and downright barbaric. It’s important that mental health treatment be trusted as effective as real harm can be done if a treatment is implemented without evidence.

Before we write off other forms of mental health recovery altogether, remember that much of it is in its infancy. At present, more research is needed and new methods emerge every day. There may come a time where the efficacy of new technology surpasses more traditional talk based mental health interventions. Whatever methods you choose, consider the risks vs the possible advantages and be realistic about what’s possible for you. For instance, therapy can be expensive and it can be scary to sit with a stranger in sharing your vulnerabilities. You might not have access in your area to therapy due to a lack of resources. Using an app or reading a book can be a step in the right direction. There is no direct and perfect path to follow. It’s whatever works for you that matters.

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