One question I am regularly asked is, “how long should I expect therapy to last?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question can vary greatly from person to person, as well as from presenting problem to presenting problem. For example, though two people may seek therapy services from a clinical psychologist aimed at decreasing symptoms of anxiety, the time it takes for each person to make improvements may be completely different depending upon a variety of factors such as their motivation to make changes, their support system (i.e. family, friends, etc.), personal insight, and even their comfort level with the therapy process. Additional factors may include the severity of each individual’s symptoms, the type of anxiety being addressed, or other confounding difficulties (i.e. attention difficulties, interpersonal problems, etc.) that may exacerbate the situation.
Due to the number of variables that come into play with respect to the reasons why individuals seek therapy services, I typically discuss the possible avenues available to clients with respect to the duration and frequency of treatment when the question is raised about how long one should expect to participate in therapy. Some examples of potential therapeutic avenues include a one-time consultation with a clinical psychologist, brief therapy with a clear focus of treatment (typically around 8 sessions), or longer term services that can last from several months to several years. Those seeking a one-time consultation might need education about a particular topic, want to explore their specific symptoms or situation with a psychologist to determine if further intervention is warranted, or simply need to be heard and validated on a particular topic. Individuals seeking brief therapy services usually have a specific goal in mind that can be adequately concentrated on within the specified time period. For example, specific phobias can often be treated over the course of a specified number of sessions as it lends itself to step by step therapeutic intervention. However, it is important to realize that it is not uncommon for individuals to begin treatment for one particular area only to discover that they could benefit from services that are more comprehensive and long-term. Of course, the decision to continue services is left to the client. Finally, those seeking longer term therapy services often come in with the understanding that therapy is a process and that improvements can wax and wane over time. It is important to recognize that those who choose longer term therapy services do not necessarily have more severe psychological distress or interpersonal difficulties, though this type of treatment is what I would likely recommend for individuals experiencing a great deal of internal distress.
My recommendation for those seeking psychological services is to discuss the possible avenues available to you with respect to your particular situation and presenting concerns during your first session. One of the essential aspects of the therapy process is open, honest communication between therapist and client; therefore, I encourage you to discuss your thoughts and feelings about the length and frequency of therapy. For example, it is not uncommon for individuals to begin visiting with a psychologist on a weekly basis and then move to every other week sessions once the relationship is established and clinical progress is regularly being made. It is hoped that by knowing that the logistics of the therapy process are up for discussion each client who comes through our doors feels in control of their treatment and educated about the process.
Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist