The image of the bearded therapist sitting in a wingback chair, nodding and repeating, “How do you feel about that?” to a patient reclined on a couch is a hard one to shake, perhaps with good reason. Although the couch and the doctor may be different, therapy can be a vital part of a person’s health. We wanted to take a moment during Counseling Awareness Month to talk about the benefits of individual and group therapy.

Therapy comes in many different forms. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to be patient when trying to find the right fit. The first factor to look at is whether you want to see a counselor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.

  • Counselor: Counselors have at least a master’s level degree in counseling. They are trained to focus on empowering clients and generally deal with things like making choices, working through difficult decisions, relationships, and other stage-of-life concerns. When people speak about seeing a therapist, this is most often the type of therapist they are talking about.
  • Psychologists: Psychologists have a post-graduate degree in psychology and are able to perform the same functions of a counselor, but they also often focus on research as well. Psychologists generally specialize in one of three areas: clinical, counseling, or school psychology.
  • Psychiatrists: Of the three types of therapists, psychiatrists have the highest level of education, a doctoral degree in psychiatry that allows them to prescribe medications related to therapy. Psychiatrists may specialize in any number of fields, such as adolescent psychiatry, and they have completed a residency program as well.

Each of these three types of counselors is able to conduct either individual or group therapy. There are pros and cons to each setting, and it is important to consider which might work best for you.

Individual therapy

  • Pros: Individual therapy is completely focused on you and whatever it is you are going through. Because of this, the therapist is more able to offer suggestions and ideas specific to your situation. It is also easier to build a relationship with a therapist as an individual. This can lead to a deeper understanding between the two of you, as the therapist can follow you through whatever changes occur in your life. An individual therapist can be a vital support structure, especially in times of need or in cases of extreme distress.
  • Cons: In individual therapy, the relationship with the therapist is paramount. You may find that you need to meet with several therapists before you find the right fit. If you are experiencing a crisis and need help urgently, this can be a difficult task, especially if you aren’t feeling up to the task of interviewing multiple people. Just as a deep relationship with an individual therapist is a pro, it can also be a con in the sense that there is nowhere to hide. Once your therapist gets to know you, it will be nearly impossible to fool them or to avoid their questions. Since self-discovery and problem-solving are goals of therapy, this is a good thing in the long run, but it can be uncomfortable at times.

Group therapy

  • Pros: With group therapy, you get an immediate sense of belonging. Whatever it is you are struggling through, the group shows that you are not alone. With conditions like chronic pain, this can truly be a lifesaver for both chronic pain patients and their families and caregivers. Chronic pain is an invisible illness, one that can be very isolating. Finding a group that understands your struggle and can relate to it can give you a sense of hope. Although still valuable, building a relationship with the therapist leading the group becomes less important, as the people in the group can also offer support and guidance.
  • Cons: Again, something that is a pro can also be a con with group therapy. Yes, you have many people who understand what you are going through, but this means that the focus is less on the specifics of what you are dealing with and more about the dynamic of the group. While this can be refreshing and very helpful, if there is a specific issue you need to address, it may not happen in a group session. The dynamics of the group can be challenging if you are not comfortable around people.

So how do you find a therapist that is right for you?

  • Ask your doctor: If you are working with a doctor for your chronic pain, they should be able to recommend a therapist or group who specializes in working with chronic pain patients. They may also be able to recommend support groups that can help.
  • Ask your friends: Chances are good that you have friends or family members who have seen a therapist at one point or another. This can be a sensitive subject for many people, but seeking counseling is an empowered decision. If you approach them in that way, explaining that you can see how they have benefitted, they are more likely to open up and share their experience.
  • Ask your insurance company: Most states now offer health insurance that covers a certain number of annual visits for just the cost of a co-pay. If money is a consideration, it is important to make sure the therapist you choose is covered under your health plan. If you find a therapist you love and they are not in your health plan, discuss payment options. Some therapists will offer sliding-scale fees or work with you online for a couple visits instead of always meeting in person.

The benefits of counseling are immeasurable. Counseling can help improve the quality of your life and brighten your outlook, giving you tools to work through daily challenges. Counseling can even save your life.

For a therapist near you, start online, then share any recommendations you have for therapists in your area. Make Counseling Awareness Month the month you get the support you need.

Image by Pascal via Flickr

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