How Do I Know If I Need Therapy?

There are certain situations where mental health help can be incredibly useful. Here are some of them.
Illustration: Yukai Du for HuffPost; Photos: Getty

This piece is part of HuffPost’s international series on therapy. It originally appeared on HuffPost Canada.

For some people, the decision to seek out therapy is an easy one — they’ve received a mental health diagnosis they know they can’t handle on their own, or they want to try out a certain kind of therapy.

But you don’t need to have a specific diagnosis to benefit from therapy. “Most of us have relationships that are in need of some rehab, and most of us have some habits or behaviors that we would like to shift or change,” Toronto-based psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton, who works with both individuals and couples, told HuffPost Canada.

She said there are several commonalities that have driven her clients to seek out therapy. Read on to find out if therapy is something that might help you, too.

You’ve gone through a big life change

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Change of any kind — even if it’s positive — can lead to emotional and physical stress. Change creates confusion, according to psychotherapist Hans Loewald, because you’re all of a sudden in a situation where you don’t know what to expect.

It’s obviously going to rattle your sense of self to deal with a painful change, like the death of someone close to you, finding out your long-term partner has been cheating or receiving a life-altering medical diagnosis.

But sometimes even good changes can be overwhelming, Singleton said. If you’re feeling overburdened or anxious in a new job, or overwhelmed with a new baby, seeking help might be a good idea. It’s common to start doubting yourself when you’re given new responsibilities, especially with a big life change that’s made of many smaller changes to your day-to-day life or routine. A professional can help you through a situation that feels insurmountable.

You’re repeating unhealthy behavior or thought patterns

There are so many different kinds of destructive behaviors — drug or alcohol abuse, self harm, starving yourself, binge eating, choosing the wrong kinds of romantic partners, having unsafe sex or engaging in violent confrontations.

Everyone makes missteps, and occasionally veering into risky behavior (even for periods of time) is common. But when you can’t stop the behavior, if it’s interfering with your ability to function properly in your daily life, or it’s negatively affecting your relationships, it’s time to pause and seek help.

“Therapy can help you examine your actions, better understand their motivations, and formulate a plan for change,” Singleton has written.

For some people, the stakes might not seem as big — maybe your behavior isn’t unhealthy but your thoughts are, and they are constant. If you’re caught in a cycle of shame, cruel self-talk or unhealthy fantasies, there are many therapeutic practices that work to interrupt the cycle.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, is commonly suggested for people with low self-esteem. CBT invites you to identify negative thoughts — “everyone hates me” — and interrogate or “reality test” them, in Singleton’s words. What concrete proof do you have that people hate you? What assumptions are inherent in that thought, and what are some other possible explanations for the way you feel? The more you engage in that kind of questioning, the more you’re able to dismantle that negative self-talk.

Mindfulness-based therapy is also a good approach, Singleton said. It will typically blend CBT techniques with tactics like meditation and breathing exercises. By focusing on where you are right now, as opposed to getting lost in destructive thoughts, you can learn to “distract yourself or move on from these thoughts,” she explained.

You feel like your life is being interrupted by trauma from your past

Some people who experience trauma are affected by it in immediate and obvious ways. But post-traumatic stress can manifest in many different ways. It can be subtle and insidious, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many people will have some combination of both instant and delayed reactions, and in some cases those delayed reactions can happen long after the fact.

The types of delayed reactions trauma survivors might endure include intrusive memories or flashbacks, self-blame, preoccupation with the event, depression, emotional detachment, sleep disturbances, magical thinking as a way to prevent future trauma, and hopelessness.

There’s no single way to “get over” past trauma, but if you can’t stop thinking about your trauma, or you’re isolating yourself because of fear it will happen again, there are ways to cope. According to the Mayo Clinic, cognitive therapy can help with thought patterns that are keeping you stuck. Exposure therapy, also common for trauma, will confront the traumatic memory itself as a way to move beyond it. A therapist can also help you come up with a system to de-escalate panic and stress if it recurs.

You have big decisions to make

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If you’re having a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to get a divorce, have a baby or stop drinking, it might be a choice that’s too big to make on your own. In situations like these, “your family and friends may be too invested to provide honest counsel,” Singleton wrote.

A good therapist won’t make the choice for you — that’s not their job. What they will do is work with you so that you can figure out the right answer for yourself. A therapist provides you with support, a neutral space to talk and tools to figure out what it is you really want.

They might help you by breaking down “all-or-nothing” thinking — there’s no “right” or “wrong” decision about whether to have a child, for instance. There are two choices that could both be right, and your job is to figure out which one you’re more suited to. So many of our choices are weighted by expectations from our families and friends, our partners or society at large — a therapist can help you better understand what will actually work for you.

Your relationship feels unhealthy or has just ended

It can be easy to forget or minimize when you’re not living through it, but heartbreak can be incredibly painful. That’s normal.

“Relationships provide us with identity and meaning,” Singleton said. A therapist can help you either strengthen or leave a bad relationship, and can help with coping techniques if it ends.

A therapist can also help you examine the specific issues in your relationship. Do you unconsciously seek out partners with the same unhealthy qualities? Have you experienced the same kinds of issues in different relationships? If you feel like you’re repeating the same mistakes, that’s a sign that you could use some help.

Couples therapy can also be a good way to maintain a happy relationship. You don’t need to be in crisis to seek out a therapist who can help you ensure you’re communicating effectively, showing your partner you care in a way that will resonate with them and handling conflict in healthy ways.

Your physical health is interfering with your mental health

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In situations where your physical well-being is tied to your mental state — for things like insomnia, weight loss, menopause and so on — therapy can help. “Therapists aren’t medical doctors, but we often help clients manage challenging illness, temporary or chronic medical conditions, and various physical symptoms or conditions,” Singleton wrote.

If a physical condition is negatively affecting your mental state — if you’re living with chronic pain, for example, and it’s taking a toll on your mood — a therapist might be able to help you with coping mechanisms. If you’re suffering from insomnia, there may be some emotional reasons that a therapist can help you address.

You’re worried you might have a mental illness

If this is something you’re worried about, or if you read a list of symptoms of a specific illness and you feel like it applies to you, make sure you see a doctor or mental health professional. Contact a crisis line as soon as possible if you’re thinking about harming yourself.

You want to make sure you maintain your mental well-being

If you don’t feel that you’re suffering or struggling, you may not feel you need any help. But most people do have challenges to contend with, and not everyone has healthy strategies in place to deal with stress, heartbreak or grief when they pop up unwelcome and unexpected. “Therapy is a significant investment in yourself,” Singleton said.

If it’s something you’re thinking about, the best approach is to talk to a therapist first. Most offer free exploratory calls — Singleton said she actually insists on it. That gives people the chance to both explain why they’re seeking therapy and voice any misgivings they might have about the process.

You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.