Tough Stuff

Your zero stress, step-by-step guide to therapy

Saying it loud for the people in the back: There's zero shame in getting help when you need it. Here's what you need to know as you embark on any new mental health journey.

You've heard it a million times...the pandemic has been hard. And if you're feeling all sorts of sad, lonely, anxious and angry—that's totally normal. Intense emotions are all part of growing up. But some tough times require extra help to overcome. That's where therapy comes in.

"Basically, therapy helps you learn better coping skills and strategies for navigating the world," explains Dr. Samantha Boardman, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Simple enough. And you don't need to be in the middle of a crisis to get some help. Read on for exactly how to get the support you need.

Step 1: Decide if you need therapy

"We don't suddenly wake up one day and feel depressed or anxious," explains Dr. Boardman. And while the feelings may creep up on you, they'll be noticeably different from how you usually feel.

"If your feelings are interfering with schoolwork, friends, sports, extracurriculars or you're not interested in things you typically like to do, your mental health may be suffering," she says.

Other red flags? You have a constant stomachache, can't sleep, don't want to get out of bed or you're not eating or you're overeating. "Sometimes your body knows something is off before your brain does," Dr. Boardman shares.

And take note of how long these feelings last. "if it's longer than two weeks, it's best to talk to a therapist," says psychotherapist Dr. Annette Nunez. Meaning, at that point, it's more than just a bad day or a stressful week.

Step 2: Ask for help

It can be scary to admit that you're not feeling your best, but it doesn't have to be. Talk to an adult you trust and feel comfortable with. Maybe it's your mom or dad, maybe it's a school counselor or a friend's parent.

"check in with them and explain that you're not feeling great," suggests well-being consultant Suzann Pileggi Pawelski. At first, the person you're confiding in might try to cheer you up or remind you everyone's having a hard time right now. This is where being specific about how you're feeling can be helpful. ("Mom, I understand the pandemic has made things stressful for everyone. But I don't feel like myself and it's affecting my grades and my friendships. I'd like to talk to a professional about it.") Then they can help you find the help you need. "If you find your concerns being brushed off at first, bring it up again or speak to another trusted adult," says Dr. Boardman. "Convey that this is important to you."

Step 3: Find a therapist

Consulting your regular doctor is usually a good place to start. They'll check if there's a physical issue, like a food allergy or hormonal imbalance that might be making you feel low energy or extra edgy, since mental and physical health are very connected. Once that's ruled out, your doctor or school counselor should be able to recommend therapists.

"You might need to meet with a few therapists before you find the right match," shares Dr. Nunez. These initial consultations can happen in person, by phone or over Zoom. They're meant for you to get to know one another and decide if you can see this person being your confidant.

"Trust your gut," continues Dr. Nunez. "If you don't feel comfortable with the therapist, find another one."

You want them to feel like a favorite teacher, someone you can share anything with, but who will hold you accountable for the choices you make, too. It can be awkward to meet with any therapist at first—it may take a few meetings to see if you vibe.

Step 4: Start therapy

Lots of therapists are doing virtual sessions these days, so be ready to Zoom or have a phone call.

During your first consultation, you'll be asked a lot of questions, from simple things about your hobbies and school to deeper questions about what's been bothering you and what's going on in your head.

"Your therapist should help you set some mental health goals so they can check in to see if you're making progress," says Dr. Boardman. Between sessions, your therapist might give you an assignment like repeating affirmations, journaling or finding inspiration.

Step 5: Get the most out of your sessions

"You can't just run a marathon without training," says Dr. Boardman. The same rule applies to therapy—it takes practice. "You won't magically feel better without doing the homework your therapist gives you," she says.

When you put the work in, you should eventually start to see a change. "You may notice that you're not as anxious before a test, or you're not feeling so isolated," explains Dr. Nunez. Whatever feelings caused you to seek help should start to become less intense.

If you aren't feeling better after a handful of sessions, it's important to speak up. You may need a different kind of therapy or you may need a bit of extra help in the form of medication.

Regardless, it's important to know that you won't offend your therapist by sharing that you're not improving. Being honest and upfront will help you get exactly what you need.

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that a version of this story originally ran in our April/May 2021 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

All GIFs via Giphy, Slider: @thatsappywriter/Instagram

by Erin Reimel | 5/1/2021