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How to find the right therapist

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No longer a taboo, one in three Stylist readers has had therapy. But how do you find a form that fits?

It was when I burst into uncontrollable tears during a yoga class that I realised I needed help,” says Jo, 33, a graphic designer from London, who felt trapped in her job, lonely and directionless. “For months I’d been increasingly stressed out over the tiniest things, being unable to sleep and constantly snapping at friends and family, but I didn’t realise until that moment that I was out of my depth.”

Seeing a therapist is never an easy decision. Like Jo, many of us just don’t realise how seriously we’re suffering until we reach a critical juncture. After all, how do you know you’ve reached the point when friends alone can’t help you get past a traumatic event, or when you and your partner need professional help to stop arguing? Then there are the problems we tend to face alone when seeing a therapist could help us cope much better. Curbing an eating disorder, coping with bereavement, facing commitment issues or even handling a debilitating phobia are precisely the obstacles therapists can help us overcome.

There was a time when seeing a therapist was something we Brits thought was only for those with serious mental health problems (or neurotic New Yorkers). But now, thanks to our embracing of the let’s-talk-about-it culture and the booming self-help industry – worth over £60million in the UK alone – the stigma of seeking emotional help is fading. In fact, the results of Stylist’s reader census last November, which had 10,000 responses, found that a third of you have had or are currently in therapy, while a further 44% would consider it in the future. Furthermore, latest figures from the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists show 94% of us now believe it’s acceptable to turn to talking cures for conditions such as anxiety, compared to just 67% in 2004.

Women in particular are more likely than men to seek help. The most recent research for the Office of National Statistics showed that 29% of women compared to 17% of men had received some kind of therapy, with women between the ages of 35 and 54 most likely to ask for professional help to deal with conditions such as anxiety and depression.* So the stigma of being in therapy has really lifted. But once you actually decide it’s the route for you, how do you methodically go about finding the right therapist for your problem, your personality and your lifestyle?

“With so many different therapies available – 831 at the last count – finding the right type can be overwhelming,” agrees clinical psychologist Dr Jay Watts. “One in five women abandon psychotherapy after their first visit, often because the client doesn’t connect with the therapist.” Catherine, 37, a management consultant from Bristol, felt more distressed after the therapy she tried than if she’d dealt with her problems alone. “I was suffering from depression after my dad died suddenly,” says Catherine. “A friend recommended an art therapy class where we were encouraged to express our feelings in paintings, but channelling my grief onto canvas only made me more angry and sad. Eventually I stopped going.”

The reality is, like most things in life, it pays to do your research. “It’s not just helpful to know what kinds of therapy work for particular issues, but also it helps you to work out if the therapy you’re opting for is a good fit with your personality,” says Professor Stephen Joseph, author of Theories Of Counselling And Psychotherapy: An Introduction To The Different Approaches. “If you have difficulty articulating your feelings, for example, you might feel uncomfortable with any form of group therapy where sharing your troubles with strangers is part of the healing process. And if you fundamentally don’t believe it is possible to completely reprogramme the way you think, you might not feel convinced that cognitive behavioural therapy is the way to go.”

One thing therapists do agree on is that you shouldn’t give up if the first session you try doesn’t work out for you.

“Sometimes, an unsuccessful therapy session can give the client a sense of what they will respond better to, which can be incredibly useful,” says Dr Watts. “If you are suffering, it’s important to know there are a range of helpful options out there, and keep on trying until you find the right approach.” In fact, you might find the therapist who didn’t work for you is a good person to suggest a new tack. “Therapists want to help you, but they also want to work within their level of competence,” says Nicola Barden, head of counselling at Portsmouth University. “It isn’t in the interests of a reputable practitioner to proceed with treatment if they don’t believe it will benefit you. Trust your instincts.”

Start off by considering how much you are prepared to spend. Finding out what therapy you can afford can be helpful guide to narrowing down your options. At the outset, ask potential therapists how many sessions you are likely to need and the costs involved. Costs vary from £10 per hour to hundreds of pounds for top Harley Street therapists. Alternatively, your employer may offer a counselling scheme, with a limited number of free sessions. Some psychotherapists and professional bodies charge on a sliding scale, so you can get help at a price appropriate to your income. Ask your GP about getting therapy on the NHS, or whether they know of local charities which offer low cost or free therapy.

With the practicalities in place, your next step is to interview a few different therapists. Though the dynamic of asking someone for help can be intimidating, remember that you are the one in the driving seat. It can help to think of this stage as speed dating. “Ask potential candidates why their brand of therapy could work for you and what professional bodies they answer to,” says Barden.

And just like dating, it’s not enough to commit to someone who’s merely good on paper – you need someone who you have chemistry with for you to really connect. “At your first appointment your therapist should demonstrate that they are a good listener; someone with whom you feel you can be honest and open with,” advises Professor Joseph. “Ultimately, your therapist should give you space in which to reflect on yourself,” adds Barden. “Their job in the first meeting is to help you to find a focused way to deal with your primary problem in a specific time frame.” Without question, getting the right help from the right source can help you turn your life around.

Find The Right Therapist

Therapy has changed since Freud’s chaise longue… this checklist finds the best fit for you

COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY

“CBT is about escaping negative thought patterns and reprogramming your cognitive process so that feeling confident becomes second nature,” explains Professor Stephen Joseph from Nottingham University. CBT therapists usually focus on current problems and practical solutions.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

If you suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder, CBT can help you take a step back from irrational thoughts. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence also suggests CBT for coping with chronic illness, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

THE DETAILS

Your GP may be able to refer you for NHS treatment, though waiting lists can be over six months long. Typically, private sessions cost from £40 to £100. Those with phobias or mild anxiety need up to six weekly sessions, but deeply-rooted problems such as eating disorders or OCD may take more than six months.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Look for someone recognised by the British Association for Behavioural Cognitive Psychotherapies (babcp.com). CBT can deliver results quickly, so it’s worth asking friends for a recommendation.

PSYCHOANALYSIS

Also known as psychodynamic therapy, psychoanalysis helps you understand your unconscious mind and delves into childhood events that might affect your adult behaviour. “Your therapist will say very little [in order] to encourage you to reveal what is important to you,” says Professor Joseph.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

The Mental Health Foundation says psychoanalysis can help with eating disorders, addictions, post-traumatic stress, chronic health problems and depression. “It can help medically unexplained symptoms that might be caused by a deep-rooted psychological problem, or damaging patterns, such as falling for the wrong type of man,” says Dr Jay Watts, a senior lecturer at City University.

THE DETAILS

Psychoanalysis often takes over a year and as a result it can be expensive. NHS courses are available – ask your GP for a referral. On average, private sessions cost from £35 to £70.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Your therapist’s training should be approved by The Institute of Psychoanalysis (psychoanalysis.org.uk) or the Council for Psychoanalysis and Jungian Analysis (cpja.org.uk).“This treatment can make you anxious because it explores the deepest parts of the psyche, and the earliest childhood experiences. It's not for everyone, but can be incredibly beneficial and life enhancing" says Dr Watts.

COUPLES AND FAMILY THERAPY

With your partner or family present, you work together to understand each other’s experiences and appreciate each other’s needs. Interrupting is frowned upon, and the therapist encourages everyone to focus on their own feelings rather than blaming others. You can also attend on your own to help yourself overcome domestic problems.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

Useful in a relationship breakdown (whether between partners, family members or friends), the National Institute of Clinical Excellence also recommends it for issues affecting the whole family, including mental health problems like schizophrenia and eating disorders.

THE DETAILS

Some charities offer subsidised counselling, while private sessions cost between £30 and £100. Sessions can be weekly, fortnightly or monthly and take place over three to 12 months. Couples or families can be given exercises to practise at home.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Relate is a good starting point (relate.org.uk) and your therapist should be registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy (psychotherapy.org.uk). “You should start seeing improvements after five sessions,” says Dr Marilyn Wedge, author of Pills Are Not For Preschoolers.

PERSON-CENTRED THERAPY

Your therapist takes a holistic approach to wellbeing, covering your physical health, relationships with friends and family, work, lifestyle and spiritual beliefs as well as your emotions. By exploring all these parts of your life, your therapist helps you establish direction. “The aim is to help you to discover your ‘authentic’ self so you can live your life to the full,” says Professor Joseph.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

If you have been bereaved, PCT can help you move on. If you are shy or self-critical, it can help rebuild self-esteem and assertiveness. “If you lack warm, supportive relationships then the humanistic approach is very powerful,” adds Dr Watts.

THE DETAILS

Private sessions cost from £35 to £100 per hour. According to the Mental Health Foundation this kind of in-depth therapy takes several months.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Head to The British Psychological Society (bps.org.uk) or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (bacp.co.uk). “Above all, your therapist should listen to you without judgment,” says Professor Joseph.

HYPNOTHERAPY

Hypnosis sends you into a supremely relaxed state to help change behaviour or overcome past traumas. A typical session involves discussing how you’d like to feel afterwards, then during relaxation your hypnotherapist makes suggestions relating to your goal and the changes you wish to make, before bringing you back to a normal level of alertness.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

Anxiety and insomnia can be eased by hypnotherapy because it is so relaxing. The British Society of Clinical Hypnosis (bsch.org.uk) says that if your problem is due to a bad habit, accumulated stress or unresolved events in your past then hypnotherapy can help to reprogramme your unconscious mind to resolve the issues.

THE DETAILS

As hypnotherapy puts suggestions in your subconscious that remain afterwards, a person needs three sessions on average to help address a problem. NHS treatment is rare: private sessions cost between £50 and £90.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Your therapist’s training should be recognised by the British Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Amanda Pumo, a hypnotherapist in Nottingham, says, “Shop around and talk to several candidates over the phone before committing to an appointment.”

ART THERAPY

Your artistic abilities aren’t being judged – the treatment comes from the process of painting, dance, drama or making music. Your initial consultation will involve outlining your reasons for seeking help to the therapist. Afterwards, you discuss the art you created and any emotional connections you make to it.

WHEN CAN IT HELP?

According to the Mental Health Foundation, art therapy helps you release repressed emotions. “If you find it hard to articulate your feelings, expressing yourself physically can provide real release,” says Barden.

THE DETAILS

NHS art therapy is only available in certain parts of the country so check with your GP. Private classes cost between £25 and £75 and courses typically last for six to 20 sessions.

FIND THE RIGHT PERSON

Art therapists should be trained in art processes and they must be accredited to the British Association of Art Therapists (baat.org). Sessions often take place in a group so you need to feel comfortable making art in this environment. Ask your group leader what approaches they favour to discuss the art afterwards to make sure you’ll feel at ease.

Picture credit: Rex

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