How does psychotherapy actually work?

Are you struggling to manage the day to day? Feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled? Are you battling a “foggy” brain, do you find it hard to make decisions, are you worried or sad or strangely irritable? Maybe you’ve thought about going for therapy. But you’re held back from committing to the process because you’re wondering: “how does psychotherapy actually work?”

If you no longer feel like ‘yourself’, or if something has changed for the worse in how you manage your life, your work and your relationships, psychotherapy can help. This article will explain how the process of psychotherapy works and what you can expect from a psychologist in Dubai or elsewhere.

Psychotherapy is talk therapy

Psychotherapy (often known simply as “therapy”) is a broad term which involves different kinds of talk therapy to improve your mental health and wellbeing, to help you find healing from painful experiences, to improve your relationships and allow you to function better. As psychologist Jennifer Kunst puts it, in Psychology Today, the client and the therapist get together and talk – one offers help and the other receives it.

Therapy also helps with specific types of mental illnesses or clinical disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Different types of therapy may be specifically suited to different kinds of problems, and therapy sessions can range from group therapy or family therapy to couples therapy and individual therapy.

How long is a session with a psychologist?

Traditionally, a ‘therapy hour’ is 50 minutes in duration, but modern psychologists offer sessions ranging from 45 minutes to 90 minutes long, depending on their psychotherapy approach, their personal style and theoretical orientation.

How many sessions do I need with a therapist?

Most therapists agree that (even for short-term therapy) you need to commit to a minimum of 8 – 12 sessions to see some of the benefits of therapy. Although even one session can be helpful, it takes time to build a relationship of trust and collaboration in which true healing and change can occur. Depending on your specific difficulties and concerns, ongoing therapy can last for weeks, months or even years.

How do I find a psychologist?

Psychotherapy is offered by various kinds of professionals – it’s always best to seek help from a licensed mental health professional such as a registered psychologist.

How does psychotherapy actually work? It’s the relationship that heals

Psychologists have different approaches and use different methodologies depending on their training and specialisation, which might seem confusing. But research suggests that it’s not really the type of therapy that makes the most difference, the healing happens in the relationship between the therapist and the client. So, when you’re searching for a therapist, it’s really important to find someone that you feel like you’ll “click” with, rather than someone with a particular therapeutical approach.

Remember that the therapeutical process is a vital, dynamic, collaborative one. One that has the power to transform and bring about lasting change. To figure out how and whether psychotherapy actually works for you as an individual, you need to find the right person to walk with you on your journey of self-exploration.

So, take the time to look for someone that you can connect with. Read their bio, look at their photo, read articles that they wrote to get a sense of who they are and how they work. Most psychologists offer a free 15-minute phone consultation, so take advantage of this and have a chat before committing to an appointment.

The main types of therapy

There are many types of therapy available in the UAE, but generally, they fall broadly into the following broad therapeutical approaches:

Psychoanalysis/Psychodynamic psychotherapy – this is the oldest type of therapy. It looks at how your unconscious mind affects your actions. Psychodynamic therapists are interested in how the past impacts the present, so it explores your childhood experiences as well as the relationship patterns that formed. 

Psychodynamic therapy often includes techniques like free association (speaking about anything that comes to mind). Research shows that people significantly improve their mental health while engaging in a course of psychodynamic therapy, and what is more, they continue to get better afterwards.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – this is a present-focused, action-oriented approach, which doesn’t spend much time on the past. It uncovers unhelpful patterns of thinking and focuses on changing the behaviours linked to these.

The therapist builds a collaborative approach with their client, using psycho-education, techniques and strategies. Clients are often expected to do homework and take an active role in changing their negative thought patterns and behaviours. There is much evidence supporting CBT for a variety of mental health difficulties.

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy is a newer approach that integrates CBT skills but also focuses on acceptance and emotional regulation. It is supported by evidence for the treatment of borderline personality disorder, trauma, self-harming behaviours and has been also been adapted for other mental illnesses.

Humanistic Therapy –  this people-centred approach leans into the philosophy that people are capable of making healthy, rational choices and moving towards authenticity and self-realisation for themselves. Therapists offer their empathy, care, and concern, and walk with their clients on their search for meaning and true self-acceptance

Integrative Therapy – nearly all therapists fall into this category to some extent, because they will combine several approaches depending on the needs of their client, even if they have a dominant theoretical standpoint. Some therapists don’t choose one particular approach at all but combine elements from different schools of thought.

Combined psychotherapy and medication work faster and better for many illnesses

Psychotherapy may work best in conjunction with medication for the treatment of mental disorders such as clinical anxiety or clinical depression. However, medication can only be prescribed by specific medical doctors, such as psychiatrists and family medicine specialists. Your psychologist can refer you to the appropriate medical doctor.

Your secrets are safe

Confidentiality is a basic principle of registered psychologists, who are trained to hold the highest ethical standards. The only time that confidentiality might not apply is if some kind of danger is present, if the psychologist is required by law to provide certain information, or if the client consents to certain information being shared (such as a referral to another medical professional). In the UAE, all psychology clinics are subject to legal requirements about keeping proper medical/clinical records, which may be inspected from time to time.

Yes, psychotherapy really does work

There is a large body of evidence to prove that psychotherapy works. Thanks to modern advances in neuro imaging, it is possible to physically see positive changes to the brain after a course of psychotherapy sessions. Most people who choose to go for therapy will benefit from the process, and show improvements in their thinking patterns, behaviours, relationships with others, and overall wellbeing.

Engaging in a therapy process might seem daunting in terms of the time, the cost, and the need to talk about difficult, private matters that you’d sometimes rather keep buried. It takes openness, courage, and a willingness to be vulnerable to develop trust in your relationship with your psychotherapist, especially if you have experienced difficult relationships in the past.

Your psychologist is trained to provide a safe space in which to talk about your difficulties and to help you to move forward in a positive way. Psychotherapy is an evidence-based investment in yourself with scientifically proven returns.

I hope this article goes a long way towards answering the question of how does psychotherapy actually work (in Dubai and the rest of the world!). If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to set up a breakthrough online therapy session with me so I can address your concerns. You can also find out more about online psychotherapy here.


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