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Challenging myths about . . . therapy

Misguided depictions of therapy on TV or in novels can hold a person back from securing the support they need

Checking in with ourselves is something we have all become quite familiar with over the past number of years as we understand the importance of advocating for our own mental wellbeing. We meditate, journal, ground ourselves, and have learned the benefit of offloading and venting with friends. But there are times when our minds are a little too jumbled to make sense of it all. So, where do we go and what do we do to unknot some of these thoughts?

Therapy is much more than offloading with our friends. It is the safe, comfortable, and supportive space we need to unknot. Yet, many of us are ill-informed about what a therapy session looks like and how it can benefit us.

Misconceptions about much-needed therapy have the potential to hold a person back from securing the support they need. What we know about therapy, psychotherapists, and the entire process of mental health recovery often comes from the misguided depictions on TV, movies, or in novels. The portrayal of therapy as pointless, slow to work or not working at all, or therapists as being inept are fabrications that are harmful, damaging, and offensive. With depression, anxiety, and other complex mental health conditions pervasive in society, these falsehoods about therapy need to be addressed so we can educate, and support those who are vulnerable. The widespread stigma concerning mental health needs to be addressed and so Dr Damien Lowry, Senior Counselling Psychologist and Chartered Member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, helps to debunk some of the more prevalent myths about therapy.

1) Myth — I’m not depressed so I don’t need therapy

Understanding our mental wellbeing can be complicated. We are guided towards believing that depression must mean that someone sits in a persistent state of sadness. However, depression does not always have low mood at the forefront. Depression can cause irritability, poor appetite, poor sleeping pattern, low energy, and diminishing motivation. Physical symptoms can include headaches, stomach upsets, and back pain.


Depression, however, is not the only reason to pursue therapy. Therapy clients seek support for a number of reasons including self-doubt, anxiety, big life-changes, confidence, and relationship issues.

“Therapy is something that someone will potentially consider for a whole suite of reasons, only one of which is the experience of mood symptoms,” says Dr Lowry. “Some people engage with therapy because they have significant distress, and they want to address an acute issue. Some do it as part of an ongoing chronic form of wellbeing maintenance, similar to getting a massage on a regular basis.”

2) Myth — Therapy is all talk and talking won’t help

Therapy is often considered to be a passive support with all listening on the part of the psychotherapist and all talk on our part. And yes, while there is plenty of talking in therapy it is not inactive. The expectation that a therapist will quietly ponder our life, make notes, repeat our sentiment, and nod their head does not measure up to the reality of modern-day therapy, which is an engaged and supportive experience.

“Therapy can be a lot of talking, though some aspects of it might also be behavioural,” says Dr Lowry. “It’s simply incorrect to say it won’t help, because the evidence obtained over many research trials suggests that it does. While psychological therapy involves talking, it’s not just that and it can involve behavioural changes too. Often, it’s behavioural change that helps to bring about cognitive change or changes to one’s outlook or belief system.”

Therapy can often be about setting goals and monitoring the progress of a client. It is connected and active, and most importantly effective.

3) Myth — Therapy will make me worse

Therapy can be a difficult experience. For those who experienced childhood or adult trauma, reliving those experiences, and turning their attention toward them and the feelings of the trauma can provoke anxiety and be an upsetting encounter. But this is why, we engage with these thoughts and emotions with the support of an experience therapist who can guide and advocate for us when those experiences become intrusive. Therapy can be complicated which can be a delaying factor in seeking out a therapist, however, therapy will not make a person worse.

“This is unlikely, particularly in the care of a skilled and experienced psychologist,” says Dr Lowry. “What can happen, however, is that someone can perhaps feel worse before they feel better, similar to how a person might feel if they begin working out physically. Looking at and delving into our source of distress is likely to increase our emotional response. Nevertheless, the amelioration of our emotional distress is unlikely to happen unless we do so. And the evidence suggests that talking about problems, whether it’s in the context of therapy or not, helps ameliorate those problems.”

4) Myth — My problems are not big enough or serious enough for therapy

How bad do we need to be before we look for support? It can be difficult to admit that we need help or that we are vulnerable. The stigma of mental health holds us back from making that call that could change our life. We are led to believe that we must be at rock bottom before we ask for help, that our problems are not big enough or serious enough for therapy.

Our mental wellbeing calls for us to continually check in and recognise when things are a little harder, how we truly feel about our experiences, and about our position in life. When it comes to our mental health, prevention is often better than the cure, and therapy is that gentle guiding hand that can help us stay afloat. Therapy equips us with the emotional tools to carry on, to protect our wellbeing, and to do something positive for ourselves.

Myths Series

  1. Ageing
  2. ADHD
  3. Grief
  4. Sexual health
  5. Loneliness
  6. Introverts
  7. Imposter syndrome
  8. Mental health
  9. Rage in motherhood
  10. Therapy
  11. PTSD
  12. Food safety
  13. Endometriosis
  14. Pregnancy
  15. Frozen shoulder
  16. Thyroid gland
  17. Eating disorders
  18. Chronic pain
  19. Pelvic floor
  20. OCD
  21. Happiness
  22. Physiotherapy
Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family