Being sad, anxious, overwhelmed and a host of other difficult emotions are a part of life, and we shouldn’t be “pathologize” them, says Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director at Lighthouse Arabia.
The number one thing we should do when difficult emotions arise is to have an honest conversation about them.
“There are times when what you need is to talk to a trusted friend, other times we need more support and learn some coping skills,” she advises. “It is important that you assess yourself honestly and not dismiss your feelings in the fear of looking ‘weak’ or not reach out and get help because ‘what will people say.'”
Should you decide to reach out, we asked Dr Afridi to walk us through what someone trying therapy for the first time might expect.
What kinds of people come for therapy, and for what issues?
Dr Afridi says children as young as two can see a therapist for behavioral or neurodevelopment issues, where the therapist would work with the child and the parents. Older children and adolescents most commonly see a therapist for issues such as difficulties with social skills, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety or depression-related issues that could stem from academic pressure, parental divorce or relationship difficulties. Dr Afridi’s four children – aged 13, 11, 10 and 3 – all see their own therapist to help their “emotional vocabulary and their emotional intelligence.”
“These are not skills kids learn on their own these days, due to heavy social media and technology usage,” she says. “It’s important for them to connect to themselves and think about who they are, what they value and where they are headed in a disciplined fashion such as in the therapy room. While I can do these things with my children, I think having a place where they can speak without reservation and having another person on their ‘life team’ is helpful.
“Adults come in whenever they are struggling with a variety of issues. The main ones we see in Dubai are relationship difficulties, adjustment issues, work stress, life balance, anger management, grief, life purpose, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. They can also come to learn parenting skills or for mindfulness meditation. Some come in simply to get perspective and understand themselves better.
“It is important to note that you do not need ‘an issue’ to see a therapist. Sometimes working through daily life events, or processing your thoughts and emotions with an unbiased third party, can be helpful. You do not have to wait for life to get very heavy before you consider therapy.”
What can people expect out of their first therapy session?
“I think it’s important to come to the first session having reflected on what you want to talk about. That can be overwhelming at times, so start with ‘what was the issue that made you pick up the phone and call’ and work from there. I advise clients to do a timeline of major life events, relationships and how they felt during those time periods. You can choose to work backwards from the present day, or start with your childhood and move forward. Do not worry if you do not have a clear idea — a qualified professional will guide you.”
What can people expect out of dedicating themselves to therapy for a set period of time?
“Research shows that with most evidence-based therapies you can see some relief of difficult symptoms within eight to 10 sessions. There are times when people start to feel better during the third or fourth session and they might stop coming to therapy because they no longer are ‘feeling bad.’ However, I would recommend seeing though eight to 10 sessions and not just focus on getting rid of symptoms. Focus on learning skills that will help you manage the difficult symptoms when they arise again — because they usually do. There are people who come in every time they feel bad, talk things through and then leave when they feel better — this is the ‘fire fighting approach’ and there is a much more beneficial approach to therapy than symptom alleviation.”
What if the therapist doesn’t feel right, or says something you don’t like, or you just don’t like them?
“Therapy is a form of human interaction and thus it is fallible. Whenever there is a human interaction you have to consider chemistry and comfort, as well as to build room in for misunderstandings. We do our best to understand but we can obviously be wrong at times. It is important for you to help your therapist understand or to communicate openly about whether you feel judged or misunderstood.
“There are also times when you just feel you don’t ‘click’ with your therapist. I always tell my clients that we are about to go on a journey together. So it is important that they feel comfortable, and confident about the person they are going on a journey with. Just because it does not work with one therapist — maybe you don’t like their energy, or their voice or the way they remind you of your ex or any other reason — ask your therapist to recommend someone else. Sometimes you can go through three or four therapists before you find one that you like.”
What do I do if I need to talk to someone but I can’t afford the fee or the time?
“There are options — support groups, workshops, and group therapy at The LightHouse. These tend to be low-cost or no-cost options.”
What happens if the therapy starts to uncover something I don’t want to face?
“Doing ‘the work’ of therapy takes courages and living authentically requires bravery. Some people think that a therapy session is alway supposed to make you feel better. However, that is not the case. Like surgery, sometimes before you can heal, you have to endure some pain. If you are in therapy for a longer period and your goal is to heal or learn about yourself, it is likely you will ‘visit dark places.’ But this is why you are with a qualified professional who is trained to go to those places and help you navigate and not let you get overwhelmed. Once you have visited those dark places and talked about those experiences, chances are they will not feel so scary or as heavy as before.”
How long are most people in therapy and how often do they need it?
“People can be in therapy for eight weeks and sometimes for years. The frequency is most often once a week for 60 minutes. However, sometimes during times of high stress or crisis, frequency or duration can increase. The length of therapy will depend on what the client’s goal is. If the goal is to reduce symptoms and ‘feel better,’ that can happen within eight to 10 weeks with most evidence-based therapies. If the goal is to learn more about yourself, integrate parts of yourself that you may have denied for years, or heal from wounds from the past or present, that can be a longer journey. There are some people who choose to continue with therapy long after their symptoms have alleviated because they find that it’s one hour they give to themselves during the week when they reflect on their actions and emotions and it helps them stay conscious and clear.”
Featured photo: Cherry Laithang/Unsplash