Many people are eager to know before they start counselling: how many sessions will I need? In this article, you’ll discover what to expect when you begin therapy.
As you’ll discover, there is not always an exact answer because it depends on different factors. I can tell you that one or two sessions are unlikely to be enough. It takes time to learn the knowledge and skills to feel better.
You won’t necessarily benefit from being in therapy for the long term, either. Therapy is useful when you stay in it for long enough to learn how to cope and address the issues that you came to counselling from the start.
You also don’t want to be in counselling longer than needed. When that happens, therapy stops being useful, and you may become dependent on your therapist. It’s about getting the right balance so you’ve learned enough to keep making progress independently and minimising the risk of relapse without ongoing support.
How long does it take to feel better?
I appreciate that you may be looking for an exact number, but because counselling is about helping people, you cannot apply a precise formula. It’s like calculating how long it will take to travel from London to Birmingham. The answer will vary depending on numerous factors, including:
- Which day you travel and what time.
- Which route you take.
- How fast you go.
- Weather conditions.
There are some things you can control and other things you cannot. You can control whether you come to your appointments and how much work you put in each day to fix the problem. You can’t control how easily you’ll find the travel or what happens in your life throughout therapy. What you do and what happens in your life will influence how quickly you start feeling better.
It depends on your goals.
When you have fewer goals, then you have less work to do. For example, if you want to tackle problems at work, you’d expect it to take less time. Compared to addressing multiple issues in your relationships, well-being and personal growth, it would likely be a longer commitment.
Progress also depends on how much you’ve suffered in the past. When you have been through more traumas and relationship breakdowns, it may take longer to work through their harmful effects.
Often though, we get stuck. Our minds imprison us as we try to survive or avoid upsetting memories. We develop unhelpful habits to help us stay in control. The trouble is that we make a deal with the devil. Instead of setting us free, control keeps us under the influence of our emotions. Instead of ‘you’ having your feelings, your feelings have you.
When you are rigid, you limit your life. You give it over to managing your anxiety, depression or stress. You fight to stay in control by avoiding situations and people that make you feel uncomfortable.
When people start therapy, they often say, “I just want to be happy, more relaxed or less depressed.” These goals make sense because I want to feel these things too. The trouble is that they aren’t very effective goals.
It works much better to develop goals that describe the life you want to live. For example, I want to be more loving in my relationships or take on more challenges in my work. Life goals give you a compass point, a direction to move in. They connect you with a purpose that will make your life more fulfilling. Often we need to take risks to benefit from the rewards.
We always start with an Initial Consultation.
The place to begin is by sitting down with your therapist either in-person, online or on the telephone for an initial consultation. Usually, it lasts for one hour, and it’s an opportunity to:
- Describe your difficulties in more detail
- Organise your thoughts about what you want from life
- Receive feedback from a specialist psychotherapist, psychologist or counsellor
- Ask questions about what happens in counselling and psychotherapy
- Build a rapport with a professional counsellor
- Agree on a plan to tackle the issues and reach your goals
After you’ve completed the initial consultation, you can decide if you want to continue with treatment. Psychotherapy is a powerful approach to resolving struggles with your mental health, relationships and problems at work. It takes patience, persistence and practice. It won’t be easy, but I suspect you know that already. If it were, then you’d have resolved it by now.
Speaking to a counsellor lets you take advantage of the opportunity to gain the knowledge, skills and support you need to recover from what has happened in your life and turn it in a different direction.
What is the average number of sessions?
At Openforwards, we have many years of experience treating distress and emotional suffering. We’ve learned that people rarely acquire all they need in less than six sessions.
Many people will reach their goals in around 12 to 20 sessions. And many others benefit from longer-term work over several years. We’re flexible to work with you as long as you need and will support you as long as it helps.
At the start, it will help to see your therapist either weekly or fortnightly. As you learn new skills and notice some improvements, you can space out the sessions to give you more time to implement them.
How will I know if I am making progress?
You and your therapist must know if you’re making progress. Counselling and psychotherapy are about changing something. It is about reaching the goals you want to achieve and becoming the person you want to be. You will know if you are making progress when your habits change.
We don’t suffer because of problems; that is part of life. We suffer when we get stuck with the same issue repeatedly.
Being on a merry-go-round with your fears, frustrations, hurt, shame, and sadness is painful. You want to get off but don’t know how to do it. Decent therapy will teach you how to relate more effectively to your thoughts and feelings so that you can do something different that improves your well-being and your relationships.
How do you know if you are making progress?
Progress in your life might look like any number of things. Here are a few ideas:
- Ending a meaningless relationship
- Leaving an unrewarding job
- Asking for help
- Letting somebody know when you feel upset or angry
- Trying a new activity
- Connecting with people and purpose instead of drinking to escape
- Choosing what you want instead of trying to keep others happy
- Doing something scary
- Practising self-compassion
- Going to bed earlier and staying awake in the day
- Saying no
- Practising patience instead of losing your temper
- Scheduling some exercise
The road to recovery can be up and down, back and forth
We’d all like our recovery or progress to be quick. We’d like to see that graph with a straight line going up, indicating constant improvement. Sadly, real change is a little different. You can take two steps forward and three steps back. Some days you feel OK, while others feel low or highly anxious.
When your mood swings up and down, it can be hard to know whether you’re going in the right direction. You can start to feel better, and then you feel worse. While you may want your emotions to be more stable, you cannot be happy, relaxed or confident the entire time.
Much like the weather, the way we feel changes moment by moment. When we are happy, we relish it. However, when we cry, despair, feel frustrated or anxious, we wonder what is wrong. We see the feelings we don’t like as problems to be solved.
It is a trap. The more you try to fix your emotions, the more suffering you create for yourself. Sadness, guilt, embarrassment, fear and anger are not problems to be solved. They are merely road signs trying to give you information about what you need to do. By letting go of controlling your emotions, you’ll spare yourself unnecessary distress.
Practice makes Permanent
Changing your behaviour is hard because old habits stick. Many people start new routines only to revert to old ways as the days, weeks, and months go by. When you’ve got back pain, you’re more likely to do the exercises your physiotherapist taught you. And, when the problem disappears, you quickly lose awareness of the need to maintain your strength and flexibility. Similarly, with our mental health, we can fall back into unhealthy routines.
The trick is to keep practising. There is no arrival because self-care is like housework. It will always need your attention. When you do a little bit daily, your home stays clean and tidy.
Practice something new often, and it becomes part of who you are. There is no golden rule for how long it takes to form a new habit. Research suggests it can take anywhere between 60 days and 200 days. It’s a myth that it takes just a couple of weeks. We need to keep practising, and we need to keep doing the work. Try not to give yourself a hard time when you falter. You’re just human. Instead, be kind. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off so you can try again today.
Persistence is vital
Unexpected events happen in your life. You or a family member will get unwell. Something important will break, and you’ll need to spend money to fix it. You might lose your job, or someone in a position of power mistreats you. There is a lot in life that you cannot control.
When the going gets tough, people will naturally struggle, and we stop doing the things that keep us fit and healthy. We laze about more, we withdraw from friends, and we close the door to new opportunities. Again, while understandable, it’s also a trap. Disconnection, inactivity and escapism will backfire, and you’ll feel worse in the days ahead.
We must keep going. Be aware of your mind when it tells you that you need to feel different first before you can try something uncomfortable. We don’t need more motivation or confidence to get up and get going. We don’t need to feel less anxious before we do something scary, and we don’t need to feel less depressed before we do something fun. Persistence is vital, and it often helps to dig deep and compassionately move your feet to change your predicament.
How we support you
Life is often hard. It is even harder when you’re alone, isolated or lonely. No matter how strong or resilient anyone is, we all need support. You aren’t a bear; you didn’t evolve to walk the wilderness alone. You are human, and you need a small group’s help, protection and belonging. That is who you are, and it is all of us.
Our team of therapists, counsellors and psychologists will support you to keep practising the skills that make a difference. Lean on us because that is why we are here.
The number of counselling sessions you’ll need depends on a range of factors, including:
- Your number of goals
- How much you’ve suffered in the past
- Whether you live in a safe and stable environment
- Getting clear about the life you want to build
We always start with an initial consultation, and you’ll have therapy appointments once a week or a fortnight. Our clients usually benefit from 12 to 20 sessions; many will also work with us for several years. As time passes, we space the sessions to monthly or six weekly before agreeing on an ending.
You’ll know when you’ve made progress when you can track changes in your habits. Life gets better when you build new healthier routines and ways of communicating.
The road to recovery or progress is rarely a straight line. Your moods can be up and down, and the better you get at letting go of control, the happier you’ll be.
Practice, persistence and patience are essential friends on the road to change. When we feel alright, we naturally take good care of ourselves. However, when life gets tough, we start to disconnect and get idle, which usually makes us feel worse.
Humans do better when they belong to a supportive social group. Stay connected, and lean on your friends, family and loved ones. Work with a counsellor to build the knowledge and skills you didn’t learn in school.
I appreciate that counselling can seem a bit of a mystery, mainly because therapists are unclear in describing how it works. Many things also need experiencing before they make sense. Riding a bike, swimming in the water and playing a musical instrument can’t be taught through words alone; you need to do it to learn it. Therapy is similar; we must dip our toes and experience how to have it. Gradually absorb yourself in it, and you’ll discover the benefits.