5 Long-Term Benefits of Therapy
Thank you to Anne Floyd and Rob Winkler and for authoring this article! It speaks to the value of Mental Fitness and how to Nurture your Mental Health.
In a society that is often focused on material things, it’s easy to justify spending that improves our attractiveness. We have a natural incentive to care about what we look like: physical appearance is emphasized as the end-all be-all virtually everywhere we get our media. We buy gym memberships to look a certain way, as though mirroring the physical perfection we see in the media will magically make us happy. Going to the gym is also seen as the main route to “getting healthy” – and improving psychological health is not emphasized in the same way. Why?
Likely, the reason why psychological health is deemphasized is because improving it isn’t seen to have the same effect on our appearance as the gym. However, even the claim that therapy doesn’t impact our appearance can be contested: research has shown that our mental health affects how others perceive our physical appearance – and whether they want to befriend us (Rosenblatt & Greenberg, 1988; Chancellor, Layous, Margolis, & Lyubomirsky, 2017). Another (perhaps less superficial) argument for the importance of therapy is the buoyancy effect. Therapy helps us through difficult times, which are inevitable given that life is unpredictable, often strange, and frequently painful. As a protective factor, therapy can help smooth the bumps in the road – as well as make a good thing even better. Intrigued but not yet convinced? Read 5 reasons how therapy positively impacts long-term psychological health.
1. Therapy can help you learn life-long coping skills.
Great, you’re thinking, but what exactly are coping skills? Coping skills are anything that helps you through difficult times, whether it’s not getting the promotion you deserve, anxiety about driving, or the death of a loved one. Therapists are educated and trained to help foster the natural coping skills everyone has. Coping skills will look a little different from person to person because everyone is unique. For example, I’m a writer, so I like to journal my thoughts as a way of coping – but someone else might find aromatherapy and bubble baths to be more relaxing. We’re all different, and that’s okay – but it also means that there is no “one size fits all” coping skill.
Therapists can also teach coping skills that might not be as innate. For example, cognitive behavioral therapists will often teach their clients that what they say to themselves has enormous influence on how they feel & how others respond to them. Attachment-focused therapists might ask their clients to think differently about how they interact with people in their lives. Person-centered therapists encourage their clients to treat themselves with unconditional positive regard and practice radical self-acceptance. Regardless of the modality of therapy, the idea is to bolster your personal strengths – often using evidence-based practices the therapist has taught you. Psychologist Rob Winkler agrees, asserting that “better coping leads to better responses and better responses lead to better experiences, which create more opportunity and prosperity in all aspects of our lives.” So while it may not seem as exciting as getting six-pack abs, learning coping skills improves your life exponentially in the long-run.
2. Therapy can change how you interact with people in your life – in a good way.
Sometimes we’re not aware of just how many ways we’re negatively impacting our relationships. We might snap and call our partner names when we’re mad and then forget about it after the fight, not realizing the effect that it has on our partner. On the other side of things, maybe we’re so used to keeping our feelings bottled inside that we have a hard time being assertive with the people we love. A therapist can help balance the way we communicate with our loved ones to improve our relationships. For example, for a client who has a hard time being assertive, a DBT therapist might teach the “Dear Man” skill. In a nutshell, “Dear Man” is a skill that helps a client describe what they want and advocate for themselves in a non-judgmental way.
It can also be useful to hear another person’s input on the important relationships in your life. Are you getting what you want out of your partner – do they make you feel fulfilled? Are your expectations reasonable, or do you think that your partner should be your everything? Or maybe you’re doing everything “right” but there are still ways you could make your connection stronger. A therapist, especially a therapist specialized in family and relationship counseling, can give you the tools and support you need to make changes that will positively impact your relationships. Increasing the positivity of your relationships builds to a more fruitful long-term future – because when it comes down to it, life is about having fulfilling relationships with the people you love and being able to successfully navigate relationships with people you don’t.
3. Therapy can make you feel happier.
True happiness is an elusive thing, and many times people chase the external – money, success, a fancy car – to try to achieve it. Even though it’s an old cliché, there’s truth to the statement that money can’t buy you happiness. Having too little money can cause unhappiness, but money doesn’t have an inherent value that makes our lives more fulfilled. Buying fancy things might give us a temporary thrill or a sense of satisfaction; however, these feelings don’t last and tend to scratch at the surface of true happiness. No one has ever claimed, for example, that the meaning of life is a car; the meaning of life is thought to have more breadth and importance than that.
So how does therapy help you feel happier on a deeper level? Talking over your past, present, and future with a therapist can lead to greater self-understanding. While self-understanding doesn’t always imply self-acceptance, it is the first step towards truly embracing who you are at the core. A related concept is self-compassion. Greater self-compassion helps you handle the bumps in the road that inevitably happen in life without getting stuck in a mire of negativity. Therapists, especially person-centered therapists, often emphasize self-acceptance and self-compassion – and talk us through techniques for increasing both. Learning self-compassion in therapy has tangible benefits: High self-compassion has been found to lead to more health-promoting behaviors (Sirois, Hirsch, & Kitner, 2015), nurture well-being (Neely, Schallert, Mohammed, Roberts, & Chen, 2009), increase empathy and altruism (Neff & Pommier, 2012), and provide a buffer against anxiety (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007).
4. Through its link to happiness, therapy leads to more productivity.
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains how positive emotions lead to greater productivity: “Happiness gives us a real chemical edge…How? Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels” (44). In other words, feeling positive emotions allows you to work harder and learn more because of the “feel good” chemicals in your brain. While productivity isn’t everything, most of us have too much to do and not enough time to do it, especially those of us with demanding jobs or those of us with kids. Increasing your levels of happiness—and with it, your productivity—not only helps you in your career but also helps you cope with the messiness and hectic pace of life.
Therapy can also help you discover obstacles blocking you from performing at your best. These types of road blocks (e.g., perfectionism or overthinking) are challenges a therapist can help you work through to find an effective solution. You and your therapist can also discuss time-management skills and whether changing negative long-term habits—such as poor prioritization or inaccurate assessments—could help with your focus and productivity. These types of changes can lead to long-term benefits such as increased work performance, greater feelings of self-efficacy, and improved relationships. For more information, check out Shawn Achor’s TED Talk “The happy secret to better work.”
5. Therapy can help improve chronic stress.
The ways that therapy can improve long-term stress are numerous. A therapist can teach you methods of calming your body and mind, which might include techniques such as guided visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing. Therapists can also help problem-solve the sources of your stress and teach you stress-reduction techniques. They can introduce you to new concepts such as radical acceptance – that many things in your life are beyond your control and acceptance is the key to reducing your suffering. Best of all, once you learn these techniques, you carry them with you into the rest of your life. In other words, stress relief in the short-term can build into long-term patterns of stress management.
Crucially, a therapist can also be a sounding board who listens to you talk about your life and validates your feelings. This isn’t the same thing as agreeing with you and supporting your every decision, but it can be more valuable – because it nurtures the idea that you’re important, your feelings are worth listening to, and you’re understood. Social support has been shown to be essential for mental health, and, perhaps as importantly, lacking in situations where mental health issues are present. In both the short- and long-term, social support soothes the mind and improves health– as evidenced by numerous studies (Berkman, 1995; Cohen and Janicki-Deverts, 2009; Umberson and Montez, 2010). In short, therapists are effective social support, and feeling supported leads to greater psychological health.
I hope that this blog is an invitation to reexamine how we consider therapy in a wider context. Our culture is ready to accept going to the gym as a way to improve physical health; why not embrace therapy as a way of improving psychological health? Think of therapy as a method of self-improvement, a life-affirming way to make positive changes instead of stagnating. Therapy is not about fixing something that is broken: instead, it is about embracing what we have in order to reach our full, prosperous potential as human beings.
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. New York City, New York: Penguin Random House.
Berkman, L.F. (1995). “The Role of Social Relations in Health Promotion.” Psychosomatic Medicine 57, 245-54.
Chancellor, J., Layous, K., Margolis, S., & Lyubormirsky, S. (2017). “Clustering by Well-Being in Workplace Social Networks: Homophily and Social Contagion.” Emotion 17(8), 1166-1180.
Cohen, S., & Janicki-Deverts, D. (2009). “Can We Improve Our Physical Health by Altering our Social Networks?” Perspectives on Psychological Science 4, 375-78.
Neely, M.E., Schallert, D.L., Mohammed, S.S., Roberts, R.M., & Chen, Y. (2009). “Self-Kindness when Facing Stress: The Role of Self-Compassion, Goal Regulation, and Support in College Students’ Well-Being.” Motiv Emot 33, 88-97.
Neff, K.D., Kirkpatrick, K.L., Rude, S.S. (2007). “Self-Compassion and Adaptive Psychological Functioning.” Jounral of Research in Personality 41, 139-154.
Neff, K.D., & Pommier, E. (2012). “The Relationship between Self-Compassion and Other-Focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators.” Self and Identity, 1-17.
Rosenblatt, A., & Greenberg, J. (1988). “Depression and Interpersonal Attraction: The Role of Perceived Similarity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55, 112-119.
Sirois, F.M., Hirsch, J.K., & Kitner, R. (2015). “Self-Compassion, Affect, and Health-Promoting Behaviors.” Health Psychology 34(6), 661-669.
Umberson, D., & Montez, J.K. (2010). “Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51, S54-66.