When we think of therapy, we often think of it as being of use solely to people who are struggling with a serious mental illness. But while therapy is a necessity for individuals who are coping with any sort of mental disorder, I think we should also be open to the idea that therapy can help your overall health, regardless of who you are or how well you may be doing emotionally. Therapy is different for everyone — as someone who has struggled with anxiety disorder and an eating disorder, it's saved my life during times of crisis. But I'm glad I stuck with my sessions for long after I was "out of the woods," because it did more than help me when I was actively struggling — it also provided me with a safe space to strengthen myself emotionally.
We go to our physicians for a checkup each year even if we feel great physically, so why not give the same attention to our mental health? I don't know anyone who doesn't have their share of stressors in their lives — and stress can impact our physical health in subtle ways that we don't even realize. Therapy can help us get a handle on that. Plus, the bottom line is that we're all human and we all have problems and issues that we'd presumably like to address. There's no better place to do this than in the office of a mental health professional who can help us move forward in areas of our lives where we feel stuck.
Here are five reasons therapy can benefit your overall health:
1. It Helps You Process Emotions In A Healthy Manner
First and foremost, therapy is a safe place to freely and openly express your emotions without fear of judgement. Putting our feelings into words is an important and healthy practice that allows us to process the emotions and then move forward.
According to a study lead by Matthew D. Lieberman, associate professor of psychology at UCLA, there's a neurological explanation for why expressing our feelings is so important: "When you put feelings into words, you're activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala... In the same way you hit the brake when you're driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses."
Although research is ongoing, Lieberman suggests that therapy may even strengthen the prefrontal region of the brain. No matter what, having an outlet to discuss our feelings on a weekly or bi-weekly basis allows us to talk about our emotions regularly rather than suppressing them and letting negative feelings fester.
2. You'll Be Held Accountable For Your Decisions & Actions
Typically, you and your therapist will work together in your first few sessions to establish some goals and discuss things you'd like to improve about yourself and your life. For example, you may recognize that you're not assertive enough in your personal or professional life and need some help getting to a place where you feel comfortable standing up for yourself when necessary. You may be worried that you have some seriously unhealthy habits that are having a negative impact on your health, or you may have come to a difficult crossroads in a relationship and recognize that you need to take steps to improve it or cut it off.
In each session, you can address the progress you've made over the past several weeks. For example, were you able to use your therapist's tips to stand up for yourself, even about something small? Did you make a conscious effort to stay away from your unhealthy habit and engage in another activity instead? If not, you can talk about why things didn't go well — and sometimes you may have to confront the fact that you need to really work hard on these issues. Often, knowing that we're going to have to answer to someone about our decisions is the push we need. It's certainly not a therapist's job to berate us when we don't improve by leaps and bounds every single week, but it is their job to hold us accountable — and this is actually really empowering, because it reminds us that we have way more control over our lives than we sometimes believe.
3. It'll Help You Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms
When we haven't spent time developing healthy coping mechanisms, it's easy to self-medicate during times of extreme stress or grief. It's not uncommon to turn to alcohol, drugs, disordered eating, or high-risk behaviors when we're going through a high-stress period. And everyone goes through these rough patches — we get thrown major curveballs at work, experience a devastating breakup, and lose people close to us. Although some people are more likely to self-medicate than others, pretty much everyone engages in unhealthy behaviors from time to time.
An important part of therapy is finding healthy ways to cope with the common stressors we all experience, like a disagreement with a friend or a tough day at work. Coping strategies run the gamut and are different for all of us — yoga, journaling, drawing, and taking a walk with a friend are a few examples. If we incorporate these habits into our everyday lives, we'll be better equipped to take care of ourselves when confronted with a serious, incredibly upsetting situation.
4. Improving Your Mental Health Will Benefit Your Physical Health
Our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked. There's a reason that individuals who suffer from mental illnesses often experience intense physical side effects like headaches, nausea, joint pain, and insomnia. Again, while therapy is a necessity for those with a mental illness, it can definitely improve everyone's health. Physical pain is often a constant companion for people suffering from a mental disorder. For others, it may not be a daily struggle, but stress compromises our physical health and I don't know anyone who doesn't experience stress fairly often. Therapy isn't a magical fix, but it does help us handle problems in a manner that will reduce our overall stress level — and that means fewer headaches and sleepless nights.
5. You'll Be Better Equipped To Handle Whatever Life Throws At You
Therapy is crucial when we're going through a major crisis, but it can be hugely helpful to address certain problems, learn to process our emotions, and develop effective coping strategies when we're in a good place emotionally. In fact, sometimes therapy teaches us the best long-term lessons when we're doing "well" overall. When a person is in crisis, a therapist's top priority is to make sure their patient is safe and help them get through each day — and this invaluable support has undoubtedly saved many lives, including my own.
Some of the best work can be done when we're doing well but recognize that we could use support and advice regarding certain aspects of our lives — because we all have our weaknesses. When we're not in crisis, our sessions can focus solely on taking the necessary steps to become stronger people. When we do this, we'll be far better equipped to handle the painful events life throws at all of us from time to time. It will, of course, still be deeply upsetting, but we won't feel adrift and unable to express ourselves. But therapy strengthens us as people and leaves us with a number of healthy coping mechanisms at our disposal.