For many, therapy is an excellent way to manage their mental health. Unfortunately, sometimes we leave therapy feeling worse than before we started. There are a few things that can contribute to this.
You might feel worse after therapy if:
- You haven’t found the right therapist.
- You haven’t found the right type of therapy.
- You haven’t given in to the process.
- You’re processing trauma.
- You aren’t feeling your feelings.
Below, I’ll explain how to identify these things. I’ll also detail what you can do to fix them or to help yourself recover.
- 1 You Haven’t Found the Right Therapist
- 2 You Haven’t Found the Right Type of Therapy
- 3 You Haven’t Given in to the Process
- 4 You’re Processing Trauma
- 5 You Aren’t Feeling Your Feelings
- 6 Self Care After Therapy
- 7 Sources
You Haven’t Found the Right Therapist
Finding the right therapist is, in some ways, like finding the right hairdresser. Ideally, you want someone with experience and good training who knows how to work with your unique needs.
You need to be able to trust that they’re telling you the truth, and they’ll be honest when they tell you that giving yourself bangs after a breakup is a bad idea. You also want someone you feel comfortable with and can talk to. If you’re leaving feeling frustrated or like they aren’t listening to you, it may be time to find someone new.
You and Your Therapist Aren’t Clicking
Seeing a therapist isn’t the same as seeing other kinds of specialists. If you’re having issues with your heart health and you see a cardiologist, you aren’t as worried about their bedside manner as you are with their expertise.
With a therapist, you need someone who will put you at ease. Part of their job is to help you be vulnerable, but it’s difficult to feel vulnerable if the person you’re talking to is brusque or condescending. Even if you’re seeing the nicest therapist in the world, if your personalities don’t mesh, a session with them could leave you feeling frustrated or irritable.
Your Therapist Doesn’t Understand Your Needs
Like with therapies and treatments for the body, there are different specialties within therapy for the mind. Often, a therapist will have several different areas of expertise, but that doesn’t mean that their expertise will fit your needs.
A person working their way through gender dysphoria wouldn’t get as much help from a therapist specializing in divorce and family therapy as they might with a therapist specializing in LGBTQ+ issues. Likewise, someone seeking therapy after a divorce would want someone specializing in that, rather than a therapist specializing in grief or loss.
This is especially true when seeking treatment for specific mental disorders, like eating disorders or PTSD, instead of generalized anxiety and depression. Even if their intentions are good, a therapist not trained in eating disorders could cause harm to their anorexic patient.
While most therapists have at least had an overview of common disorders or concerns, a specific type of trauma or issue requires a specialist in that area.
Your Therapist Doesn’t Understand Your Point of View
Even if you don’t need a specialist, you still want to find someone who understands how the things in your life have shaped you. The circumstances we’re born into greatly influence our lived experience.
Someone born white has a different experience than a person of color. A woman has different experiences than a man. Someone who is trans has a different experience than someone who is cisgender. Someone born into poverty has a different experience than someone born wealthy.
Because of that, meeting with a therapist who is unable to acknowledge the way your circumstances have impacted your mental health can be frustrating. As a result, a woman may feel more understood by a female therapist, and a POC may feel more understood by another person of color.
That doesn’t mean you need to find a therapist who is exactly like you. However, there may be things in your life that you know affect your mental health. Someone who has first-hand experience or is trained in those issues is better equipped to walk through them with you.
Your Therapist Isn’t Very Good
Like any profession, there are good therapists, and there are bad therapists. I’ve had my share of both, and I distinctly remember one therapist I didn’t stay with long. I was explaining my history of eating disorders to her.
She then asked about my height and weight, checked her BMI chart, and told me she didn’t understand because I wasn’t “that overweight.” I did not leave that session feeling any better.
If you’re wondering whether the problem lies with your therapist, there are red flags you can watch out for. A few of them include a therapist who:
- Doesn’t listen or is constantly distracted in session
- Makes you feel judged
- Is pushy about their beliefs
- Isn’t respectful of your background or journey
- Breaks confidentiality in a situation other than an emergency
If you decide that a therapist isn’t right for you, you don’t have to make a big deal of “breaking up” with them. It’s okay to cancel your appointment and let them know you aren’t interested in rescheduling.
If they try to force an answer out of you, or if they’ve otherwise overstepped their boundaries, you’re within your right to report them if you so choose. The process varies by state, but if you search “[Your state] report a therapist,” you should be able to find resources.
How To Find a Good Therapist
Whether you’re just starting your therapy journey or looking to switch to a new provider, searching for a therapist can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are several options to help guide you:
- Google it. For many of us, the first thing we do when looking for options is to turn to a search engine. Start by searching for something like “[Your location] [Your main problem] therapist.” The results often show reviews, the provider’s phone number, and their website.
- Use an online directory. Sites like GoodTherapy and TherapyTribe allow you to narrow your search by things like location, gender, specialty, and insurance policy.
- Ask for a referral. Your primary care physician may be able to help connect you with therapists and therapy centers they’ve worked with in the past.
- Search your insurance database. Generally speaking, dealing with insurance is the worst. However, your insurance database can help find in-network local therapists and determine how much you may have to pay out of pocket.
- Ask people you trust. This allows you to get the inside scoop on a therapist so you can get an idea if they might be the right fit.
Whatever option you decide to utilize, always check with your insurance company to avoid any nasty surprises. A search for reviews is also worthwhile and could save you time in the long run.
You Haven’t Found the Right Type of Therapy
For many of us, when we think of “therapy,” we think of laying back on a couch, staring at the ceiling as the therapist scribbles notes on their clipboard, and every so often asks, “And how do you feel about that?”
While sitting and talking with a therapist is the most common form of psychotherapy, there are several others:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a step up from basic therapy. In CBT, you and your therapist work together to identify patterns of thought and behavior and develop a plan on how to overcome them.
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IP). This therapy deals with interpersonal problems or conflicts. It’s most commonly used for help with relationships, major life changes, and the loss of a loved one.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). The goal of this therapy is to help you see things from the perspective of others. Therapists work to help their clients understand that two things that seem in direct contradiction of each other can co-exist in some form. DBT is meant to shift the client from an “either-or” perspective to a “both-and” perspective.
- Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. Based on Freud’s research, this type of therapy is more intense than the ones listed above but slightly less intense than psychoanalysis. This therapy aims to use deep conversation to expose unconscious thoughts.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This type of therapy is a little different than the ones above. Primarily used for patients with PTSD, it uses bilateral stimulation to lessen the negative emotions surrounding the traumatic event(s). Patients recall their trauma while the therapist uses sounds or motions in front of the patient’s eyes to stimulate both sides of the brain.
Your therapist may recommend one of these therapies for you based on your particular needs. If you feel like your therapy progress is plateauing, it’s worthwhile to ask about a shift in the type of therapy to help you gain a new perspective.
There are also forms of alternative therapy that are a little different from traditional forms. You may be able to find group therapy sessions that enable you to find a community of people who are working towards a goal themselves.
For example, iPrevail is a program well-suited for those who are looking for interactive classes, structured behavioral tools, and round-the-clock access to a therapist. It is also excellent for those on a budget.
You Haven’t Given in to the Process
There are times when therapy is less of an option and more an obligation. Parents might force their kids to go, or it could be court-ordered or part of a treatment program. But sometimes, even if we want to be there, we’re not able to get in the right mindset.
Your Expectations Are Off
Therapy can be wonderfully healing, but it’s not an instant cure. For therapy to be effective, it takes time, dedication, and reflection. If you go to therapy expecting one session to cure your depression, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
In the same vein, if your therapist is using a program or method you’re unfamiliar with, you may end up feeling caught off guard. After your initial visit, a good therapist should sit with you and explain what their plan is for your therapy based on your individual goals. If they don’t, it’s okay to speak up and ask. Knowing what to expect will help put you at ease for future sessions.
You Aren’t Being Vulnerable
You could have the best therapist in the world, but if you aren’t willing to be open and honest with them, they can only help you so much. Vulnerability can be intensely uncomfortable for some of us. Frustratingly, the reason we struggle to be vulnerable may be the same reason that brought us to therapy in the first place.
There isn’t a simple cure to help you become more vulnerable. The therapist has a part to play as well. They need to prove to you that you can trust them. It may help to start small and work your way toward the big things. If you’re comfortable, you can also tell your therapist that you’re struggling to be vulnerable, and they may be able to offer help with this.
You’re Processing Trauma
Sometimes, we go to therapy because we’re depressed or anxious. Sometimes we go to therapy because we have traumatic events in our lives. Sometimes it’s both. Regardless, the intense emotions we feel during therapy can often make us feel worse after.
You’re Reliving Your Trauma
Dealing with emotional trauma isn’t all that different than dealing with physical trauma. Reliving your emotions for your therapist can take you to a dark place and be emotionally draining. If you’ve had a particularly intense therapy session, it’s no surprise that you might feel worse afterward.
You’re Uncovering New Trauma
Have you ever been speaking with your therapist, telling her a story from your childhood, only to watch their eyes grow wide and their jaw drop? If so, you know what it’s like to discover that something you thought was normal growing up was actually not normal at all.
This is often the case when we grow up in a dysfunctional home. The more you really examine your childhood, the more you may discover that the things that make for an amusing story were only possible because your parents were abusive or neglectful.
This new insight may give you an “aha” moment, but it can also make you bitter and angry. While your therapist may give you tools to cope with this new knowledge, sometimes you just need to process it.
You Aren’t Feeling Your Feelings
I used to hate it when people told me to “feel my feelings.” What was that supposed to mean? They’re called feelings for a reason.
As it turns out, when people tell you to feel your feelings, they mean to physically feel your emotions and allow yourself to process them. There are a few steps to this:
- Identify the emotion. Often we need this when the emotion is negative, but this can be done with positive emotions, too. Put a label on it, like angry, sad, excited, disappointed, or scared.
- Feel the emotion. Feeling the emotion is the part where we often get stuck. Take a moment. Sit somewhere quiet and close your eyes. Identify where the feeling resides in your body and the effects it’s having. Don’t try to push the emotions away. Breathe and notice all the sensations happening in your body. Focus on these physical sensations for several minutes.
- Dig a little deeper. Once you feel ready, begin to examine the emotion. Don’t place blame on yourself or anyone else. Instead, keep it simple so you can get to the core of the emotion.
- Be kind to yourself. For some of us, this may be the most difficult step. If you’re struggling to be compassionate toward yourself, try looking at it from another perspective. Think how you might treat a close friend going through something similar. What advice would you give? How would you advise them to take care of themselves?
Self Care After Therapy
After a rough therapy session, the best thing you can do is give yourself a little TLC. There are several things you can try to help you recover:
- Drink water. If you’re a crier, you need to rehydrate. Even if you’re not, most of us don’t drink enough water anyway, so hydration is always good.
- Give yourself time. If possible, try to schedule your therapy session separate from the other things in your day. You don’t want to go straight from therapy to work or a meeting or picking up the kids.
- Pamper yourself. This may mean different things to different people, but do what you need to relax. Take a bubble bath, get a massage, go for a walk, whatever will help unclench your jaw and drop your shoulders.
- Find a pick-me-up. Maybe that’s your after-therapy Starbucks or a little retail therapy, something to send a little dopamine your way after a draining session.
- Try not to dissociate. At least, not until you’ve felt your feelings. Dissociation essentially means to find something to completely distract us from what we’re feeling. And while it’s not a bad thing, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up doing more harm than good.
Self-care doesn’t eliminate the bad feelings after a challenging therapy session, but it does help you process and reduce them so you can ultimately heal them.
- Talkspace: 25 Signs of a Bad Therapist: You Deserve Better
- PsychCentral: How To Find the Right Therapist: 10 Tips
- GoodTherapy: Find a Therapist
- TherapyTribe: Find a Therapist
- American Psychological Association: How Do I Find a Good Therapist?
- PsychCentral: What Are the Different Types of Psychotherapy?
- CAMH: Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Psychology Today: Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- American Psychological Association: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
- American Psychoanalytic Association: Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
- GoodTherapy: Vulnerability
- TalkSpace: Why You Might Feel Bad (Or Worse) After Therapy
- Psychology Today: The Key Skill We Rarely Learn: How to Feel Your Feelings