April is Counseling Awareness Month. It’s a chance for counselors to tell others about what, why, and how they do what they do.

Professional counselors, along with other types of therapists, use talk therapy to help people feel better and be healthier. At one time, talk therapy held a stigma because of the myths surrounding it, but that’s not the case anymore. Nowadays, talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is an accepted treatment for a multitude of mental illnesses and issues. However, there still exists a belief that psychotherapy is for people with “real” or “big” problems, rather than for everyday individuals struggling with stress or mood disorders. Psychotherapy, though, can benefit just about anyone.

Each person’s individual needs will dictate which type of therapist will be most beneficial to him or her.

Types of therapists include:

  • Counselors who tend to focus on their clients’ wellness, career development, empowerment, and strengths, although they can also diagnose and treat mental illness.
  • Psychologists who are similar to counselors, but they’ve studied psychology more deeply and can also administer tests and assessments to both diagnose any mental illness and to figure out how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.
  • Psychiatrists have studied psychology but are also a licensed medical doctor, which means that they’re able to prescribe medications if needed.

Counseling Awareness Month 2015 is focusing on four specific types of counselors: mental health, school & college, substance abuse, and career. However, these are far from the only types of psychotherapy available.

Psychotherapy can take place in either a group setting or an individual setting. Group psychotherapy often works well for people who can also benefit from social skills. For example, anger management or eating disorder psychotherapy can both work well in a group setting, because it allows the participants to discuss similar issues and get support from others. Family therapy often takes place in a group setting, too, since this allows the entire family to work out issues together.

Individual psychotherapy is one-on-one therapy between a patient and his or her counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. In some cases, individual psychotherapy may simply be an open discussion, but there are lots of possibilities.

For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on identifying and altering the thoughts that lead to unwanted feelings or behaviors. Dialectic behavior therapy involves exercises in which opposing views are discussed until a balanced middle-ground can be found. Animal-assisted psychotherapy is even becoming more widespread.

Also, one of the goals of Counseling Awareness Month is to highlight the diversity among professional counselors, which is a good thing for anyone considering psychotherapy. Not only are there lots of types of therapy, but there are so many therapists that everyone can find someone they click with.

At their core, all types of psychotherapy attempt to achieve the same goal. The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) describe this goal, saying:

“Psychotherapy, or ‘talk therapy’, is a way to treat people with a mental disorder by helping them understand their illness. It teaches people strategies and gives them tools to deal with stress and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Psychotherapy helps patients manage their symptoms better and function at their best in everyday life.”

Talk therapy can be beneficial to just about anyone, but it can be especially beneficial to people struggling with a chronic pain condition.

Physical and mental health are closely linked. If someone was suffering from both depression and a physical condition, such as difficulty breathing, he or she wouldn’t think of treating the depression but ignoring the physical condition. Similarly, someone being treated for a physical condition shouldn’t ignore his or her depression.

Chronic pain, especially, increases the risk of developing a mental illness, and depression is known to be common among people who suffer from chronic pain. In fact, in some cases, chronic pain may actually be a symptom of untreated mental illness, so it can be difficult to tell what’s going on without professional help. Additionally, the symptoms of depression, like fatigue and sleep changes, are also often experienced by people with chronic pain.

Because chronic pain and depression are so closely linked, having one significantly increases the risk for the other. However, if you’re struggling with both of these conditions, the link between them can work in your favor, too. Treating one can often lessen the other, and treating both can lead to even bigger improvements.

Knowing when to seek help from a counselor or other psychotherapist can be difficult.

Take some time during Counseling Awareness Month to determine if you need help. If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, it may be time to consider psychotherapy.

  • Have you experienced overwhelming, prolonged helplessness or sadness?
  • Does it seem like your problems never get better, even though you (and maybe your family and friends) try hard?
  • Is it difficult for you to concentrate or to carry out everyday activities?
  • Are you always expecting the worst or worrying about everything?
  • Do you find yourself using (or being tempted to use) alcohol or drugs so much that you harm yourself or others?
  • Are you doing other things to harm yourself or others, such as being aggressive and damaging relationships?

Also, thinking about death or suicide is a big sign that you should ask for help, because therapists really can help. Studies have shown that even when patients have already attempted suicide, psychotherapy can seriously lower the risk for future suicide attempts.

Finding a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist is easy.

Perhaps the simplest way to find a professional therapist is to ask your physician. Talk about the issues you’re having, and your physician should be able to recommend a local specialist whom he or she thinks would be a good fit. Alternatively, you can find your own counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist through a website like Psychology Today or Network Therapy. If your physician makes a recommendation, go along with it. If you’re finding help yourself, consider talking to counselor first. Professional counselors tend to cost less, and if he or she thinks that you would do better with a psychologist or psychiatrist instead, he or she will tell you – and perhaps be able to recommend someone, too.

When you have your first session with your therapist, expect to be asked about your pain, where it’s located, and several other details about it. You’ll also probably be asked about any sources of stress or worry in your life. Your therapist’s job is to help you, and he or she can’t do that without information. Your therapist might teach you relaxation techniques or coping skills, address feelings of anxiety or depression that accompany your pain, and offer suggestions to help you make your day to day life easier.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is also a common type of treatment for people with chronic pain and depression. Additionally, your therapist will let you know if any medications might be helpful. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications if needed, but if you’re seeing a counselor or psychologist, he or she might refer you to a psychiatrist or else coordinate with your physician to make sure you get what you need.

How have you benefitted from psychotherapy in the past? Will you be looking into it during Counseling Awareness Month? 

Image by ryan melaugh via Flickr

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