Posted on June 23, 2020
Before starting therapy, you're likely wondering how long it takes. While it's different for everyone, read on to learn more about how different treatments work.
Therapy is not one-size-fits-all. As much as we’d love a clear path and a plan, it’s not so simple. So how long does therapy take? The length of time therapy takes truly depends on the individual, treatment methods, and the goals of the person seeking therapy. There are also symptoms, and the history of those symptoms that will determine the length of therapy. For these reasons, therapy could last anywhere from just a few sessions to years.
Some people come to therapy with a specific problem and might find that one or two sessions are sufficient. Other people come to therapy with more complicated issues and may feel they need a few months or more to understand and resolve their issues. Others have deep-seated trauma or difficult feelings and may reap the benefits of therapy from longer-term counseling. The length of treatment may also vary depending on the type of therapy you choose. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy or couples therapy tends to be short to medium term. In contrast, psychoanalytically-oriented therapies may involve more medium to longer-term work that could last years.
Regardless of what brings you to each therapy session, or the type of treatment you pursue, it is important to remember that it is always your decision as when to stop. A good way to avoid confusion is to discuss and establish your goals with your therapist. Clarifying what you want from the experience can help you determine when you have met your goals and when you are ready to stop individual therapy. If you don’t have a therapist yet, consider using a therapy matching service to start you on your road to counseling.
Generally speaking, when people have little to no trauma present in their childhoods, therapy might not require long-term treatment. Patients with a more benign background usually seek out therapy to address very specific and often recent traumas such as rape, abortion, mugging, or car accident; a loss such as a death, job loss, or divorce; or a dilemma, like being unhappy in a relationship or job. In cases such as those, even just having someone to talk to about the issues, grieving the losses, and receiving compassionate understanding and insight can alleviate negative feelings and behaviors.
If you’re wondering how long it takes for therapy to work, it depends on how much and how deeply you want to make use of psychotherapy. When it comes to how often you should go to therapy, it can be one session, or six months or more of weekly sessions. Even if the most immediate issues are resolved or quelled, your emotions and experiences are a deep well. You might find that you enjoyed the experience enough to continue with your sessions to try and tackle additional problems or explore more about yourself.
However, when people have a history of extreme trauma, abuse, or neglect, they generally need several years in individual therapy, or even more. Trauma from important relationships early in life, like parents, is difficult to work through and requires another committed and consistently trustworthy person to help repair those wounds. It’s usually a much slower process of developing trust in the therapist and transforming childhood ways of coping into more effective ways.
Recent research indicates that on average, 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures. A growing number of specific psychological treatments of moderate duration (e.g., 12 to 16 weekly sessions) have been scientifically shown to result in clinically significant improvements.
In practice, patients and therapists sometimes prefer to continue treatment over longer periods (e.g., 20 to 30 sessions over six months), to achieve more complete symptom remission and to feel confident in the skills needed to maintain treatment gains. Clinical research evidence suggests that people with co-occurring conditions or certain personality difficulties may require a longer average number of therapy sessions (e.g., 12-18 months) for counseling to be effective.
It should be noted that one of the signs of a good therapist is a willingness to fully understand their client and provide them with the treatment necessary to get better - no matter how long it takes.
The length of therapy treatment for anxiety depends on the method used. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are the most widely-used therapy for anxiety disorders. Research has shown these methods to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among many other conditions.
CBT works by addressing negative patterns and distortions in the way we look at the world and ourselves. It treats the patient in two ways. Cognitive therapy examines how negative thoughts, or cognitions, contribute to anxiety. Behavior therapy examines how you behave and react in situations that trigger anxiety. Exposure therapy exposes a patient to the situations or objects they fear. The idea is that through repeated exposures, the patient will feel an increasing sense of control over the situation and anxiety will diminish.
Both approaches are meant to be short-term with a plan established at the beginning of treatment with your therapist. They can range anywhere from just a few sessions to a couple of months of work.
Talk therapy can be an extremely effective treatment for depression, but unlike therapy for anxiety, it isn’t always as contained. Whereas therapy for anxiety is more structured and short-term, depression can be trickier to treat in just a few sessions. However, what is learned in psychotherapy gives a person skills and insight to feel better and help prevent depression from coming back once the patient is feeling better.
There are many types of therapy available, but most types of therapy for depression teach practical therapy techniques for reframing negative thinking and employing behavioral skills in combating depression. Therapy is helpful in working through the root of depression, revealing why a patient feels a certain way, triggers for depression, and solutions to stay healthy. For that reason, therapy for depression can be open-ended and potentially last months to even years.
Yes, it does. In fact, research has generally found a positive relationship between a longer treatment length and clinical outcomes. No matter how long you engage in treatment, it’s important that you have a sufficient amount of treatment and reasonable expectations for treatment length before deciding treatment is not working. If you believe there isn’t enough progress being made after a reasonable period of treatment, it is always appropriate to discuss your treatment with another licensed therapist and/or request a re-evaluation of the treatment plan with your therapist to assure that treatment is helpful to you.
Ready to get started on your journey of healing? With some key therapy tips and a great therapist, you’ll get the most out of your sessions. Reach out to Advekit to get matched with a therapist today.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.