How to Get the Most Out of Your Sessions with a Psychologist

Whether you are looking for longer-term support for trauma, or looking for some usable strategies for panic or weight loss, seeing a psychologist can be intimidating. Many worry about the stigma associated with therapy, and even without that it can be an expensive investment where the outcomes can be uncertain. So what is the best approach to take to help you get the most out of your sessions?

  1. Remember that you are in charge of your treatment. A psychologist brings years of training and clinical experience to help you understand yourself and feel better, but that doesn't mean they'll always get things right. If your psychologist gets something wrong, they're not aligning with your goals, you don’t understand their approach, or you have doubts about whether therapy will work, make sure you tell them. Any good psychologist is wide open to feedback and recognizes that they don’t always get it right. What they care most about is knowing you and your situation better so they can assist. Be open and honest by sharing your thoughts and feelings about your experiences both inside and outside of therapy.
  2. Take notes. Many therapy sessions can be a blend of ideas, information, strategies, perspectives, feelings, and insights. Some of these turn out to be incredibly important, while others aren’t. Clients who take a few notes during or after session tend to remember more of what was discussed, they tend to apply more of those things in practice, and tend to get better faster.
  3. Have an agenda. Therapy should be focused with clear goals for each session, so try to prepare beforehand. Reflect on the issues you want to discuss and jot down any questions or concerns you may have. Did you and your therapist agree on some things you were going to try between sessions? If so, be prepared to talk about how that went, what worked and what didn’t work. Outcome research shows that when therapy involves actual tasks outside session, the gains are bigger. If there were important things that happened between sessions that you want to tell your therapist, have a think about them beforehand and decide which of these are important or relevant enough to discuss.
  4. Follow through with "homework". Arguably one of the most important things you can do to get the biggest bang for your buck in treatment is to implement the strategies or recommendations discussed in therapy outside of the session and be ready to report back on progress. Even if things don't work out, that's okay; the next step is usually to troubleshoot in order to figure out how to succeed on your next attempt.
  5. Measure outcomes. Psychologists who routinely measure progress (every session) with their clients get better outcomes than those who don’t. So knowing your goals is important, but so is knowing how you will measuring that goal. Do you want to be able to give that talk in front of your workmates and feel confident, do you want the nightmares to stop?  Whatever your goal for therapy, you should also ask how you will measure progress and how you will know when you've achieved it (your psychologist can help you with this).
  6. Keep going with therapy while it is helpful. Research shows that most clients make the biggest gains in therapy in the early sessions. This often means you can expect to start feeling better quickly. But research also shows that longer a client stays in therapy, the more improvement they can expect and the lower the likelihood of lapsing back into old patterns. So if you are feeling that therapy is working, stick with it.
  7. Don’t keep going to therapy that isn’t helping. Unfortunately, the outcome research also reflects that some people do not benefit from therapy.  If you feel like you are just “checking in” with your psychologist and not really getting any better, then it is important to ask yourself if you would benefits from seeing someone else. Long-term therapy can be incredibly powerful and beneficial, and some problems take longer than others, but this should be something you and your therapist have agreed to in advance, and that therapy should still have structure, a trajectory, and show progress. But if therapy was agreed to as being short term and it's dragging on without improvement, then you should review the treatment plan with your psychologist.