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How long does it take for therapy to work?

How many therapy sessions you need will be different from one person to another. The type and duration of treatment for psychological issues must be tailored to the nature and severity of the individual’s problems and symptoms. How long it takes for therapy to work depends on multiple factors and, as a result, there is no definite answer.

Factors influencing the length of therapy

The following factors, and/or a mix of all or some of them are some of the aspects that can have an impact on the duration of therapy:

• Type of therapy: some therapy models are lengthy (e.g., psychoanalysis), while others aim to be short-term and time-limited (e.g., cognitive-behavioural therapy, also known as CBT).

• Type of disorder: treatment for different psychological issues varies in length. For example, CBT for anorexia nervosa can be longer than CBT for anxiety.

• History of the disorder: problems developed recently are, generally, quicker to treat than issues that have been present for years.

• The severity of the symptoms: more intense and frequent symptoms can be more difficult to treat than milder symptomatology. For instance, therapy for mild anxiety is usually quicker than for severe anxiety.

• Comorbidities: clients that come to therapy with several conditions may require more therapy sessions than those affected by a unique disorder. As an example, treatment for both depression and anxiety might be longer than only anxiety or only depression.

• Current circumstances: things like having social support, financial stability, physical health, or other current circumstances can also impact the process of therapy.

• Events during therapy: changes and problems that come up in between sessions can change the length and even the focus and goals of therapy.

• Your goals: the goals you want to achieve will also determine the duration of therapy. If you have simple goals, you will be able to accomplish them faster than if you have numerous and more complex objectives.

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How many therapy sessions do I need?

As a consequence of these factors and others, it is difficult to determine the average number of therapy sessions. Some people can achieve their goals in as little as 6 sessions or even less, while others might need to work for several years. Often people require a few months of therapy to improve their situation.

Therapy is a process, and it can take time to learn the skills required to manage one’s emotions and problems more skillfully. In the same way, you don’t want to be in therapy in the long term either. The idea of therapy is to acquire the knowledge needed to cope better with life, and then use that knowledge without the need of your therapist. The goal is not to solve all your problems in therapy, but to learn enough skills for you to generalise and apply to any issue.

When does therapy start working?

It is possible to see changes from your very first session. However, this is not a rule, and once again, individual differences and circumstances play a role. Some people might require many more sessions to start seeing progress. Sometimes positive changes are happening early but are not evident until later. In other cases, the seed is planted during therapy, but it takes even longer to grow.

In some instances, some people can find the first few sessions overwhelming, since you are talking about difficult topics. Opening up about your thoughts and emotions can be difficult at the beginning, but it is the only way to feel better in the long term.