Starting therapy can seem overwhelming, but the more you know, the easier it will be. Here’s what to expect at your first psychologist appointment.
If you’ve decided to see a psychologist or a psychotherapist, you may be feeling mixed emotions. The first step to reaching out and finding help can be challenging, so try to show yourself compassion and patience.
Psychotherapy — also called talk therapy — offers a safe space to work through concerns you may not feel comfortable sharing elsewhere. Therapy can benefit many mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool to help you navigate the challenges of daily life, work on stress management, and develop effective coping strategies.
Nevertheless, starting therapy — especially that very first session — can feel intimidating. To help you manage any stress or fear, here’s a rundown of what to expect from every stage of the process.
Every psychologist’s consultation process is slightly different.
During your first appointment, you and your therapist will ask each other questions and sort out the logistics of your treatment plan.
During your first session, you’ll also get a sense of your therapist’s style. This first meeting is sometimes known as an “intake session.”
Here’s a few things that may happen during this session.
Your therapist will have questions for you
Your new psychologist may ask you a variety of questions during your consultation. They will likely want to know:
- what prompted you to seek treatment
- your background
- your life circumstances
- any past treatment you’ve sought
- your goals for therapy
There may be some subjects you’re not comfortable discussing yet. If so, it’s absolutely fine to set boundaries and communicate your limits to your therapist. Boundaries could be critical if you’re living with trauma.
Therapy is a safe space and is designed to work for you. You get to set the pace.
You may have questions for your therapist
During your intake session, you can ask any burning questions you may have about therapy in general or about your therapist in particular.
One question you may want to ask is what type of therapy your therapist practices. There are various treatment approaches within psychotherapy, including:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- interpersonal therapy
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- psychodynamic therapy
- humanistic therapy
- eclectic therapy
- art and music therapies
Knowing which approach(es) your therapist takes or specializes in will help you understand what future sessions may look like.
They might ask you to fill out forms
Before or during your intake session, your therapist may give you an “Informed Consent” document to sign, confirming your agreement to enter into therapy.
This document will typically include:
- your therapist’s name and licensing information
- their practice policies and fees
- the anticipated course of therapy
- information about the limits of confidentiality and patient rights
You might also be asked to fill out additional questionnaires. These might involve questions about your medical and mental health history and your current state of mind.
Try to answer as honestly and comfortably as you can. The more your therapist knows upfront, the more effective care they can provide you.
It’s essential to read through the agreement carefully, and you’re entitled to copies of any documents you sign.
They might ask for insurance or financial information
It’s a good idea to have your health insurance information handy for the intake session. Your insurance information will help your therapist give you the most accurate information about coverage and costs.
If your therapist offers sliding scale options, they may also ask you for financial information so that they can determine your fee.
Your time is valuable — and so is your therapist’s. You’ll want to understand your therapist’s cancellation policy, late fees, and billing practices.
Psychology vs. psychiatry: What’s the difference?
Psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t quite the same. While both diagnose and treat mental health conditions, they each use different tools and approaches.
Psychiatrists are doctors who may incorporate talk therapy into your treatment plan. Unlike therapists, they can prescribe medications, other medical treatments, and order lab work.
The title “therapist” is an umbrella term for mental health professionals including counselors and psychologists. Therapists usually use talk and behavioral therapies.
Therapists and psychiatrists often work together to provide the most effective care for their patients.
You’ll want to decide what will make you most comfortable as you begin therapy.
For some people, that will mean preparing thoroughly and bringing notes. Other people may simply go into the session and be open to the feelings that come up in the moment.
If you’d like to be prepared, you could spend some time before your first session deciding what you’d like to discuss. If you’re seeking therapy because of a particular experience — a bereavement, traumatic event, or a life transition — it might be helpful to take a few notes along to remind you of the specific topics you want to address.
Some helpful questions could include:
- What are your goals for therapy?
- Is there a particular outcome that you’re seeking?
- Would you prefer your therapy to be short term and focused or more open-ended?
- What coping strategies are working for you right now, and what do you want to change?
After your first session, you’ll likely have a good sense of your therapist’s approach and whether they’re a good fit for you.
You can decide whether you want to continue sessions with them or try a different therapist.
If you stay with your therapist, you can decide how frequently you want to attend sessions. The general rule of thumb is that sessions should be weekly. Some therapists’ policies don’t allow for fewer sessions, especially in the beginning.
Some people may need to attend therapy more than once a week. Other people may have a treatment plan that allows for sessions every other week or even once a month.
Some therapists may assign homework. This is particularly common in CBT. If you’re not comfortable with homework, consider addressing this with your therapist early on.
Starting therapy is a powerful step toward healing, stability, self-actualization, and much more.
Therapy’s not an overnight fix, so you might not feel a noticeable difference after just one session. Achieving your desired outcomes will require commitment and consistency.
According to the American Psychological Association, half who seek therapy each year will need between 15 and 20 sessions. Some people feel better right away. For others, it’s a much longer process.
As you begin delving into difficult memories or subjects, you might feel worse after your early sessions. One way to think of this is like the soreness you feel after an intense workout or a deep tissue massage — the pain is part of the healing process.
For some people, starting therapy is the hardest step. Consider showing yourself grace and compassion. You’re not alone in this.