Demystifying Psychotherapy and how to Choose a Therapist
by Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D. & Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.
In recent years there has been considerable change in the mental health marketplace. One of the major shifts has been to make the process of therapy less complicated and less mysterious.
Many therapists now regard their work as that of problem solving. They help their clients find solutions and develop healthy habits in the here-and-now. Thus, the old fashioned idea of digging deeply into the past has been replaced, in many circles, by resolving present-day problems and misfortunes. The modern and well-informed therapist uses active means to help people overcome their fears, miseries, uncertainties, and relationship difficulties. Moreover, this outlook lends itself very well to developing self-help procedures, and many clients are asked to practice various activities in-between sessions to give them self-mastery.
When you are faced with a psychological or emotional difficulty, we suggest that you take the following approach: First, try to define the problem. Attempt to be very specific. Next, accept the fact that for the most part you learned to act, think, and feel this way, and therefore you can unlearn it.
Devise a way of measuring the problem to see how often it occurs or to what degree it occurs. For example, if you are bothered by disturbing thoughts, keep a notebook and make a check mark every time you catch yourself thinking in that way. Or, let’s say you want to stop over-eating. Write down the exact foods you eat. Often, the very act of keeping a record tends to lessen the frequency of unwanted habits.
Problems are fully overcome only when we make a determined effort to solve them. If you do not get results, it may mean that you did not work hard enough at it, or that you are getting more advantages from staying the way you are. But it does not mean that you are hopeless. There are very few free rides in life and effort is required to bring about change. Basically, effective psychotherapy, whether it be self-help or professionally assisted, uses a combination of scientifically established psychological principles and “common sense” to enable people to live happier and more productive lives.
Of course self-help can only go so far. Often people are troubled by difficulties that transcend problems of everyday living and require expert assistance. For example those who suffer from severe anxiety, significant depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, panic attacks, or extreme problems with stress are best advised to seek professional help. BUT, how does one find a good therapist? For starters, we suggest that you consider the Latin dictum: CAVEAT EMPTOR — let the buyer beware. Choosing a therapist can be a difficult and even dangerous task.
There are a staggering number of psychotherapies and psychotherapists. According to a recent survey, no less than 500 distinct therapeutic approaches currently exist. Not only does the psychotherapeutic marketplace offer a bewildering array of therapies and therapists, but finding one’s way through the maze-like corridors of the mental health system is difficult and often confusing. Because all therapies and therapists are not alike, people can end up in the hands of poorly skilled and inadequately trained professionals, and may even get hurt or harmed in the process.
But what is a consumer to do? Ask a friend? A family doctor? Consult the Yellow Pages? Here are some useful tips for the modern mental health consumer. In our view, the first step is to establish that the therapist is a licensed mental health provider. This can be done by contacting your state’s Department of Law and Public Safety — Division of Consumer Affairs, or by simply asking the therapist directly. We strongly recommend phone-interviewing the prospective therapist to ask questions about her or his experience, theoretical approach, areas of expertise, fees, insurance billing, and any other issues that seem appropriate.
Any therapist who won’t agree to a 5-10 minute introductory discussion over the phone may be too rigid or too busy to provide quality service and we recommend continuing to shop around. When you meet with a therapist, determine whether the counselor is warm, accepting, and non-judgmental. Does he or she provide feedback and answer questions directly? Does she or he seem flexible with time and scheduling? Is the therapist interested in solving current problems and not just concerned with exploring and understanding the past? If you can’t give a definite YES to all these questions, perhaps it would be a good idea to look for another therapist.
It is most important to emerge with a sense of hope after meeting with a therapist. If your morale is lowered rather than raised, we recommend that you look elsewhere. After all, it is your life and happiness that are at stake.