We often think of therapy as a last resort or crisis center. When things have turned dire, after we’ve exhausted all our options, then it’s time to contact a professional.
But the sooner you get help, the better. For starters, waiting too long can chip away at the motivation and energy we need to create significant, lasting change, said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Waiting too long also means that negative patterns or behaviors become more entrenched, taking more time, money and effort for improvement, she said. And it means needlessly living with extra suffering and stress.
Thorn likened it to a physical wound: “If you treat it early on, you will likely heal quickly, more fully, and with less trauma. If you wait and let the wound fester and become infected, the treatment process becomes a lot more complicated and difficult.”
Plus, therapy can be valuable in so many ways. Below, Thorn shared three subtle signs it might be time to see a therapist.
1. You’re not functioning the way you’d like to.
“Most of the clients I see are people that you would likely never expect see a therapist,” said Thorn. “But, they’ve noticed that life isn’t flowing the way they’d like it to.” For instance, they might be maintaining commitments but it’s becoming harder and they’re feeling less fulfilled than they’d like, Thorn said.
She stressed the importance of not comparing yourself to people you think “need” therapy. Instead, consider if you’re functioning at your best, she said. If you aren’t, therapy might help.
According to Thorn, you can ask these other questions to explore your functioning:
- Am I satisfied with my relationships?
- Do I have unexplained aches and pains? (Usually, this is a sign of anxiety, depression, stress or being burnt out. It could be because your self-care is non-existent; you’re not getting enough relaxation, fun or spiritual growth.)
- Am I having trouble sleeping?
- Do I have interests or hobbies I find enjoyable?
- Do I have a good sense of self?
- Do I feel more negative emotions than positive emotions?
2. You feel stuck.
You might feel like you’re not moving forward in a specific area of your life or in general, she said. Stuck can have many faces. Thorn shared these examples:
- A couple keeps disagreeing over just about everything. They can’t stop criticizing or being negative with each other.
- A parent has tried many different ways to connect with their teen to no avail. They’ve also tried to get them to respect the rules, but they’re not getting through.
- A person feels like they go unnoticed or are in the background in their relationships and at work. They’d like to get promoted or have additional responsibility at work. They’d like to be included in social circles and have their loved ones consider their thoughts and opinions more.
3. You’d like to learn a new skill.
“Therapists can be the best teachers for many aspects of life, and part of their job is to tailor their lessons specifically to you,” Thorn said. She shared these examples of things you might want to learn:
- Communicate more effectively
- Organize and set goals
- Become a more engaging parent
- Reframe negative self-talk
- Manage anxiety and stress
- Identify your own triggers for anger, addiction or other negative patterns, and cope with these triggers in healthy ways
- Cope with symptoms of trauma
- Assert yourself so you can form new friendships, build intimacy in romantic relationships or be more successful in the workplace
- Practice self-care.
We often think that we need to have a diagnosable mental illness to seek help, Thorn said. Because things aren’t necessarily bad or terrible, we don’t reach out. Or we worry about the stigma of reaching out — therapy is for “crazy” or “unstable” people.
But therapy is for anyone.
“Seeking help to better yourself in any way is one of the healthiest things you can do,” Thorn said. “The fact that [someone] recognized that they weren’t happy with something in their life and sought support shows a tremendous strength, and exhibits their commitment and level of care and respect for themselves and their relationships.”
As she added, we rarely think people are strange if they seek medical help for physical ailments, join a yoga class, hire a personal trainer or seek spiritual guidance from a religious leader.
“So, we shouldn’t hold talking to someone to improve our mental and emotional state to a different or lower standard. It’s all part of taking care of ourselves and the relationships that matter most to us, and that is always worth the time, money, and energy it may take.”
Stay tuned for part two, where we share four more subtle signs, along with tips for finding a good therapist.
Office worker stuck in a jar photo available from Shutterstock