This article has been reviewed for accuracy by John Cottrell, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Medical Disclaimer: The information and recommendations on our site do not constitute a medical consultation. See a certified medical professional for diagnosis.
A once taboo topic, mental health issues are now being more openly discussed and with good reason. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost one in five American adults live with a mental illness – that’s 52.9 million people.
The reported levels of anxiety and depression are ever-increasing, with more than 19% of American adults receiving mental health treatment. Sixteen percent of Americans are currently taking mental health medications.
If you are one of the many people seeking professional help for mental illness, you may be wondering, “How does a therapist prepare for a session?” The answer is far from simple. Preparing for a therapy session is a rigorous process that involves specific steps depending on the phase of therapy the client is in. Generally, however, most therapists prepare for sessions by reading notes from previous sessions, creating a calming environment (even for telehealth or telephone sessions), and mentally “cleaning the slate.”
Seeking professional help for mental stressors has become an increasingly important element in many of our lives. If you want to learn more about the other side of the therapy couch, you’ve come to the right place. This article aims to outline the different phases of therapy; the methods therapists use to prepare for sessions with clients, a few key components to understanding how therapists forge solid relationships with their clients, and what you can do to ensure your path to mental wellness is as free from roadblocks as possible.
Phases of Therapy
Understanding the different phases of therapy will enable you to better communicate your needs to your counselor or therapist. There are three main phases of therapy:
This portion of the therapy process starts before you walk in the door. It begins when you inquire about mental health treatment. This phase of therapy includes any sort of consultation session to explore your personal issues and answer any questions you may have. During this period of therapy, you’ll begin to forge a connection with your therapist, define the needs you have, and begin to assess how to overcome the problems you are facing. During the beginning phase, your therapist will start to develop and formulate a treatment protocol for you.
This phase of the therapy process represents the true gist of therapy. Your counselor will assess your insights, signs of improvement, and coping strategies. During this phase of your therapy, you may find that your therapist begins utilizing specific tasks and assignments to assist you between sessions. Your therapist will use your feedback to evaluate your understanding of the therapeutic interventions being implemented and the topics being discussed during your sessions. Your therapist will regularly consider your ongoing need for therapy and if you are actively participating in your recovery.
Saying goodbye can be particularly difficult. The termination phase is meant to assist you in comprehending and properly implementing that process. Your therapist will help you understand the closure process’s significance as it applies to many of life’s transitions and phases. Your counselor may help you to develop an after-care plan to assist you with ongoing mental health maintenance, as well as help you recognize your support networks and alternative options for assistance if future problems arise.
All stages of the therapeutic process are necessary for you to find success in caring for your mental health. You should keep in mind that your process may be shorter or longer than others around you, and that is just fine. Each person is different and so are their needs!
How Your Therapist Will Prepare for Your Session
As previously mentioned, how your therapist will prepare for a session will ultimately depend on the phase of therapy you are in.
If you are in the beginning phase of the therapy process, the preparation your therapist will undertake may involve reviewing any materials gained from you during your initial contact and gathering necessary paperwork about the rules of their practice, the expectations they have of you, and what you want to gain from therapy. Your therapist may also make ready supplemental information about medications, support groups, or other case-specific aids that may assist you in your journey.
If you have progressed to the middle phase of therapy, how your therapist prepares for your session will vary from the initial stage. Your therapist will review notes from previous sessions, compose specific questions regarding tasks or assignments given to you, and devise a rough draft of how your session should flow.
If you have reached the terminal phase of therapy, your therapist will prepare for your final sessions by gathering reference materials about support groups or other alternative avenues that can assist you in the chance that an issue arises in the future. They will review notes of previous sessions to ensure that you are truly ready to say goodbye.
Now for the general preparation that most therapists undertake to prepare for sessions. Many therapists will:
- Ground themselves by engaging in an activity they find peaceful, such as drinking a cup of coffee, listening to music, breathing exercises, or taking a brief walk around to clear their head.
- Create a clean, calming environment by making sure all debris from previous clients has been cleaned up, the office lighting is correct, lighting candles or using aromatherapy oils to create a serene ambiance, and ensuring that everything is conducive to a positive therapy session.
- Finish notes from a previous session, return phone calls and emails, submit prescriptions, or do other office-related tasks.
- Ready all materials necessary for a session: notepad, pen, paper, tissues, water, and whatever else is needed for the client.
Just as your therapy process is unique to your needs, the way your therapist prepares for your therapy session will be unique to theirs.
How Therapists Prepare for Group Therapy Sessions
Preparation for group therapy sessions is very similar to preparing for individual sessions. Therapists will:
- Review all relevant information about group members, including assessment information, notes from previous sessions, and any other important information that can aid in recovery.
- Ready the therapy area by setting up seating in a circular fashion.
- Prepare specific points to discuss with group members.
- Review assignments or tasks delegated to group members in previous sessions.
- Outline a plan of action for conducting the group discussion, including any future tasks and assignments that will be given to group members.
Ultimately, preparation for group therapy is relatively the same for individual therapy but multiplied. Instead of reviewing one set of notes, a therapist may need to check six or eight sets to be able to fully assist members of the therapy group.
How Therapists Effectively Connect with Their Clients
As a therapist, forging a strong connection, or therapeutic alliance, is key to completing the therapeutic process. There are several ways this can be accomplished:
Focusing Solely on the Client
As silly as it sounds, remaining focused on a client is key to creating a solid connection and, in turn, forging trust. A trustworthy therapist will focus on your thoughts, actions, and feelings and be able to discuss them without judgment or bias.
Trust is a valuable commodity in the therapist/client partnership. Without trust, you will not feel comfortable opening up about your journey to better mental health. Your therapist should outline how they ensure your complete privacy (unless you reveal the abuse of a child or threaten harm to yourself or others) during the beginning phase of the therapeutic process.
Asking for Clarification
Your therapist should put in the effort to actually understand your actions, thoughts, and feelings. A therapist should always ask for clarification when things seem a bit unclear and never assume how a client feels, thinks, or reacts to specific situations.
Though it may seem as though you are directing a session, your therapist has put in a lot of work to structure your session with specific queues and techniques. Your therapist should structure each session with a beginning, a middle (where the actual therapy occurs), and an end (where the session is summarized and you are given tasks to complete outside of therapy).
Using Open-Ended Questions
One method your therapist will employ to engage an open line of communication is open-ended questions. If you pay attention to the phrasing of the questions your therapist asks, you will realize that they are leading you to open up about topics, feelings, thoughts, and your actions. This is a beautiful technique used to enable therapists to see a bigger picture of their client’s needs and better develop a plan to care for their clients.
Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed how your therapist will prepare for a session with you, it is time to discuss the other side of that coin: your preparation.
How You Can Better Prepare for Your Therapy Sessions
A combination of spontaneity and complete reflection is required to get the most out of therapy. It’s critical to let your thoughts and feelings flow freely, but it’s also crucial to slow down, take a step back, and evaluate what those feelings and thoughts are telling you. This can be done in a variety of ways and in many distinct aspects of your own self-exploration. Although the substance of your counseling sessions will be specific to you, here is some additional advice that can better enable you to get the most out of every session:
Leave No Part of Yourself at The Door
Bring all aspects of your personality (even the ugly ones) and all of your emotions to your therapy sessions. If you feel you need to hide a part of yourself or specific feelings, that is something you should honestly discuss with your therapist. Reflection and introspection on why you feel you have to hide portions of yourself can aid in your overall healing.
Focus On You
Of course, it’s entirely acceptable to vent about the coworker who drives you bonkers but do not make that the focus of your session. The purpose of your therapy session is your healing, and the focus should be on your thoughts, feelings, and actions. As tempting as it may be to seek empathy from your therapist about the coworker who steals your yogurt, keep it to a minimum.
Own Your Behavior
There’s a hefty price to be paid for believing you have control over things you don’t. Anxiety and depression are two mental health problems that frequently result from this situation. If you spend your treatment sessions blaming others for how you live now, your development will be slow to nonexistent. Acknowledge things you are in control of and take responsibility for your actions.
Leave Your Judgment Outside
We’ve all developed strategies for navigating life, some of which are beneficial and others of which are detrimental. What are your game plans? Why did you create them, or what do you hope to gain from them? Some people, for example, realize that they exaggerate their anxiousness to be heard by others because it was the only way they were noticed when they were younger. Don’t pass judgment on your strategy once you’ve identified it. Have empathy for yourself. Self-acceptance is required for therapeutic progress.
Honestly Connect with Your Therapist
However, as with all partnerships, an excellent therapeutic bond is created rather than discovered. To accomplish this, communicate openly with your therapist. No therapist is flawless. What does your therapist do that works and what doesn’t? Do you feel as though you aren’t heard? Do you think that your therapist is too easy on you? Too hard? Just say it. This type of direct interaction not only assists your therapist in assisting you but also aids you in becoming comfortable with aspects of yourself that you usually hide. One of the central tenets of therapy is the connection that heals. But you can’t just arrive; you must also open up.
Understanding more about the other side of the therapy couch will enable you to better assist yourself in completing the therapeutic process. Remember, just as your journey to mental well-being is unique, so are your therapist’s methods and preparation techniques.
John Cottrell, Ph.D., is a yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He has been teaching yoga since 2000. John is originally from Oakland, California, earning his Master of Science and Ph.D. from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His clinical practice led him to child and adolescent psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological and neuropsychological testing, and group/couples therapy. John continues his devotion to sharing health and well-being through his business, mbody. He offers private and group yoga classes, yoga therapy, workshops, retreats, written yoga articles, and a men’s yoga clothing line.