If you're thinking about seeing a therapist to improve your mental health, you may have questions about what therapists do and how they can help you with your concerns.
Therapists use many different approaches to help their patients. However, all qualified therapists follow a general formula for interacting with those who come to them for help.
Explore the question, “what does a therapist do?” and learn how a qualified therapist can help you improve your overall well-being and lead a happier life.
What is a Therapist?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a therapist is “an individual who has been trained in and practices one or more types of therapy to treat mental health…”
Essentially, a therapist is someone who undergoes specialized education and training in order to diagnose mental health conditions and help people improve their mental health.
To practice psychotherapy, therapists must earn a bachelor’s degree, typically in psychology, and a master's degree in counseling.
To earn the title of Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), therapists must also complete a required number of supervised clinical hours in and pass a state licensure exam.
Therapists may choose to focus in one specific area of behavioral or mental health to provide specialized care for their patients. A few of these specialties include:
- Grief counseling
- Marriage counseling
- Family therapy
- Addiction counseling
What Does a Therapist Do?
A therapist helps you address mental health issues and improve your mental state through a combination of therapeutic approaches. In general, therapists perform the following actions during therapy:
- Diagnose mental health conditions
- Help you manage symptoms of mental health conditions
- Provide objective, non-judgmental support
- Listen to and analyze your challenges
- Process grief and trauma
- Teach conflict resolution, communication, and coping skills
- Offer non-directive guidance
- Analyze past events’ effect on the present
- Provide a safe, comforting space for emotional expression
Therapists perform these actions under the umbrella of many different treatment approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and humanistic therapy.
Many therapists use a combination of approaches to help you address your mental health, depending on your goals and preferences.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the belief that your thoughts and underlying beliefs affect your outward behavior.
It focuses heavily on identifying disordered or unhelpful thought patterns and shifting them to change your behavioral choices.
For example, if you struggle with choosing unhealthy romantic partners, your therapist may use a cognitive behavioral approach to help you examine your underlying thoughts and how they motivate you to behave a certain way within relationships.
Psychodynamic therapy is an approach that seeks to help you change your problematic thoughts and behaviors by examining your unconscious motivations.
With a psychodynamic approach, your therapist may encourage you to reflect on feelings and thoughts that are motivating your actions so that you can make conscious changes.
The humanistic therapy approach promotes the idea that embracing your true self leads to a happy, fulfilling life.
It also focuses on the belief that with unconditional acceptance and support, you can overcome your obstacles and become the best version of yourself.
If your therapist uses a humanistic approach, you will likely feel respected, validated, heard, and empowered during your sessions.
When Should You See a Therapist?
The truth is that almost everyone can benefit from working with a therapist. Therapy is not just for people living with diagnosed mental health conditions or who have other “issues” with their mental health.
Therapists can help you sort out your thoughts and emotions and deal with stressful situations and transitions. They can also act as a source of unbiased support for everyday challenges related to your job or relationships.
Although therapy is beneficial for almost everyone, there are certain circumstances that indicate a trip to a therapist is necessary.
If you are dealing with any of the following feelings, circumstances, or situations, seeing a therapist can help you address your struggles and improve your quality of life.
- You are going through a breakup, separation, or divorce
- You are having trouble regulating your emotions
- You experience an adverse change in sleeping or eating patterns
- You are unable to form or maintain friendships or romantic relationships
- You are dealing with substance abuse or other type of addiction
- You feel lost and unmotivated in life
- You have recently experienced trauma or are grieving
- Your feelings of anxiety or depression are impacting your quality of life
How Can Working with a Therapist Help?
The APA reports that 75% of people who seek therapy experience some type of benefit.
Working with a qualified therapist can help you improve your mental health so that you feel happier and more content with your life. Therapy can also help you address behavioral issues that positively impact your physical health and emotional health.
The following are benefits you can gain from working with a therapist:
Better Emotional Regulation
When you work with a therapist, you can learn how to regulate your emotions more effectively.
This is because your therapist will likely help you develop coping skills that help you identify and process your emotions, rather than bottle them up or allow them to explode.
Emotional regulation does not mean that you turn off your feelings; rather, it means that you can deal with your emotions in a way that doesn’t disrupt your life and make it hard to function.
Undergoing therapy helps you engage in healthier behaviors that improve your physical and mental health.
A qualified therapist can help you end addiction to harmful substances or behaviors. They can help you recognize your thought and behavior patterns in relationships or other areas of your life and work to implement new, healthier options.
More Fulfilling Relationships
When you seek therapy for relationships issues, you can greatly improve your interactions with others.
Therapists can teach you communication skills that help you develop deeper connections with important people in your life.
They can also help you identify troublesome relationship patterns so you can actively work to change to a healthier dynamic.
One significant benefit of working with a therapist is that you’ll achieve clarity around many aspects of your life.
Therapy helps you see patterns, thoughts, and behaviors more clearly, which allows you to make intentional choices rather than acting out of emotions like fear and anxiety.
You may feel as if a fog has been lifted when you attend therapy and that you can finally see your way forward in life.
Improve Overall Well-Being
When you work with a therapist to address mental and emotional issues, you improve your overall well-being.
Mental stress affects every part of your body – your hormones, your physical health, and your central nervous system – which is why seeing a therapist who is trained to help you reduce mental and emotional stress is important to your health.
Additional Considerations for Working With a Therapist
Before you start working with a therapist, there are a few factors to consider.
First, it may take a few tries to find the right therapist. Many people visit two or three therapists before settling on a practitioner with whom they feel comfortable.
Find a few therapists online with good reviews and ask if they provide a free consultation.
Speak with a handful of therapists on the phone to ask what types of treatment approaches they use and get an overall sense of whether you want to work with them.
Second, when you start therapy, you will likely feel worse before you feel better.
Most people need to attend therapy for around six to twelve weeks before they notice a shift in their feelings.
A good therapist will challenge you to explore scary feelings and thoughts in a safe way; however, this can cause you to feel a bit dysregulated at first.
Third, it is vital that you choose a therapist who specializes in the problems that you are seeking help with.
For example, if you are dealing with grief from the loss of a spouse, working with a general practitioner may not give you the type of in-depth help you need.
Alternatively, if you see a marriage and family therapist for addiction issues, you may miss out on important healing elements of addiction-focused treatment.
Finally, know that all therapists must abide by a professional code of ethics. This code of ethics says that therapists must engage with their clients with integrity and use sound judgment when providing treatment. Look out for red flags when seeing a new therapist, including feeling uncomfortable, pressured, judged, or harassed by your therapist.
Trust the Therapy Process
Seeking help from a qualified therapist is an important part of taking care of your mental health.
While it can feel intimidating to start therapy, the right therapist can help you feel comfortable and safe during the process. They will take the time to listen to your concerns, understand your goals for therapy, and involve you in the therapeutic process.
Effective therapy helps you work through past traumas, develop coping skills, and support behavioral changes that lead to you living a more healthy, vibrant, and intentional life.