Many people don’t consider therapy an option for themselves because they think their problems are not big enough. Sometimes, people think therapy is only for those who are on medication for mood disorders, who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, or who are in a relationship or family crisis. While people in these scenarios certainly benefit from therapy, it can also improve the lives of those who are in less serious, intense, or urgent situations.
The truth is, anyone can benefit from therapy—even when there are no apparent problems in their lives. But sometimes it can be hard to identify when it’s a good time to take the plunge. If you’ve been wondering, here are a few scenarios that suggest it’s time to go to therapy, from my experience working with individuals, couples, and families.
You’re experiencing a transition
As therapists, we often see clients come to therapy when they are going through transitions of some sort. These may be monumental life transitions such as getting engaged or married, having a baby, or dealing with a loss (death, divorce, separation). People might also benefit from therapy around other significant transitions that we don’t always see as occasions for therapy, like going to college, starting a new job, becoming empty-nesters, or retiring. Perhaps you’re even having trouble with a daily transition, like helping your child get out the door for school every morning. Clients may come into therapy in anticipation of or preparation for a transition (e.g., pre-marital therapy), while they are going through the transition, or after it has occurred.
The reason these are good occasions for therapy is that transitions—from getting out of bed in the morning to a family member getting engaged—inherently involve change, and change can be hard. If a seemingly simple, daily transition is wearing on you or your family, therapy can help give you strategies to improve this daily struggle. Maybe you are nervous about an upcoming life transition, or you feel good about it but you want to be as prepared as you can be—therapy can help set you up for success.
If you’re already in the midst of a transition and you’re having a hard time adjusting (either emotionally or logistically), therapy can give you tools to help you through it. If you’ve been through a transition recently and are still grieving it or are confused by your own or others’ emotions about it, therapy can help you process. Whatever the case may be, just know that it is extremely common to want or need a little extra support in the form of therapy when going through transitions.
Something that happened in the past feels unresolved
Another reason people come to therapy is awareness of past wounds or trauma. Past traumas could include abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one, serious injury or illness, or domestic violence that happened during childhood or earlier in life. Past wounds may not be as obvious, but may include unhealthy patterns from your family of origin, repeated interpersonal conflict, financial or legal struggles, and your own or your parents’ relationship issues including infidelity or divorce. Therapists often refer to these as “small ‘t’ trauma.” Keep in mind that many adults had adverse experiences in childhood; even something that you think “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be trauma might be worth a second look, even if it seems trivial compared to larger-scale trauma you see in the lives around you.
Past wounds may seem to be just that—in the past. But often, people think about these past wounds or traumas, even if they don’t appear to be affecting their current day-to-day lives. If thinking about something that happened in the past distresses you, you think about it frequently, it’s getting in the way of another aspect of life, or you’ve just never talked to anyone about it, you can process that past wound in therapy. Therapy can also help you identify any habits or ways of functioning that you may be using to cope with past wounds—even ones that you’re unaware are related.
Something is getting in the way of everyday life
Especially when you’re going through a transition, dealing with past wounds, or just not feeling like yourself, a telltale sign it’s time to go to therapy is that your mental health is getting in the way of at least one aspect of your everyday life. This might include basic care like sleep, nutrition, and hygiene, or interpersonal aspects of life like your social engagements, romantic relationship, parenting, or work. Another telltale sign might be that habits like heavy drinking, drug use, a sex addiction, or even “good” things like exercise or work have started to take over your life (these can become coping mechanisms). It’s normal to feel stress in response to life’s ups and downs. But when life’s fluctuations interfere with your job performance, day-to-day functioning (like getting out of bed, falling asleep, eating), or your marriage, it can be really helpful to find a therapist.
A few months after I had my second child, I knew it was time to see my own therapist when I was so anxious about my kids’ sleep that I wasn’t able to fall asleep even when they were sleeping. If that wasn’t enough already to signal it was time to go to therapy (which it was), I had missed a work deadline (which was unlike me), and I had started to feel that I wasn’t the mom I had been or knew I could be to my daughters. Any one of these by itself could have raised a flag that it was time to see a therapist, as my anxiety and overwhelm were getting in the way of at least one aspect of life.
On the other hand, keeping it together in everyday life doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not time to go to therapy. Many people, especially those not familiar with the experience of opening up emotionally, are able to “power through” many accomplishments without acknowledging a growing sense that all is not right. The problem with this method is that, sooner or later, it will become too much to bear. If you’re struggling internally but you don’t know why, don’t hesitate to give therapy a shot.
You want to go
At the end of the day, you don’t have to have a specific reason that you “need” to go to therapy or have something you are struggling with. If you want to go to therapy—or even if you’ve itched to give it a try because you suspect that you could benefit from it—then go! You don’t have to meet any criteria for mood disorders or mental illnesses to go to therapy. The beauty of therapy is that you may go in with one thing (or even nothing) in mind, but it may end up helping other areas of your life, too.
If one of the above reasons rings true to you, it’s probably a good time to reach out to a therapist. Deciding to go to therapy is a courageous first step; now keep going—getting back to yourself is worth it!