How Can I Tell if Therapy is Working?
We're sharing some of the most common benchmarks therapists may use to track their client's progress.
Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support from a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.
If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call 1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).
More than ever, mental health support has become a priority for many people in Canada and worldwide. A recent survey from Statistics Canada found that one in four, or a quarter of all Canadians had experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in spring 2021, up from 21 per cent in fall 2020.
Working with a mental health practitioner can provide clients with several benefits, including a reduction in symptoms. However, it can often be difficult to detect changes when they're slow and gradual, and progress can be difficult to quantify.
3 signs therapy is working for you
To help you better understand how therapy works, we're sharing some of the most common benchmarks therapists may use to track their client's progress over time and how to ensure treatment has tangible positive effects on your life.
1. Symptoms have decreased
Danny Seto, a Registered Psychotherapist and Registered Marriage and Family therapist on the Inkblot platform says that many of his clients have turned to therapy to reduce the physical symptoms they regularly experience due to their mental health condition.
“Often, my clients will have symptoms or body sensations,” Seto says. “When we get anxious, your heart starts beating faster, your breathing changes, and it can eventually lead to a panic attack. So, people come to therapy because they want to be able to control those symptoms and learn coping skills to help with that and mindfulness training.”
Seto notes that a sign indicating regular therapy sessions may be having a positive effect on your life can be the reduction of these symptoms, which often result from a mental health condition.
“You’ll know therapy is having an effect if your symptoms are decreasing,” he says. “If we look at the example of anxiety and panic, your heart rate slowly goes to normal, and breathing goes back to normal when employing the tools learned in the session.”
2. Tangible changes are occurring in your life
According to Seto, another effective way to track progress in therapy is to use your recent life experiences, activities and achievements as a gauge.
For example, suppose a patient has recently landed a great new job, found a partner, or stepped outside their comfort zone in a major way. In that case, this can demonstrate the positive effects of regular therapy sessions. “One of my clients who recently lost his job was able to find another job after learning active problem-solving strategies in session — so it could be a big change like that. Or if we’re talking about someone with agoraphobia, it could be a minor change such as looking out the window or another tangible action step that they haven’t been able to take for a long time,” Seto says.
3. Comments from friends and family
Another tangible sign of improvement resulting from therapy is receiving positive feedback from friends, family members, co-workers, or anyone else in your community. According to Seto, comments from friends, family members, and others in your life show definite progress as others notice the healthy changes you’ve been making.
“The third sign that therapy is working is observations from other people. Self-reporting is generally not a good indicator of progress,” Seto notes. “You may start getting more compliments such as, ‘I noticed you’ve seemed happier in the past few months,’ ‘you’re smiling more,’ or maybe your boss comments on the fact that you haven’t been absent from work for the past two months.”
How to track your progress in therapy
When it comes to tracking progress in a tangible, measurable way, Seto counsels his clients to begin therapy by setting goals using the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) method. Setting firm SMART goals from the beginning can make it much easier to stay on track and make changes to your plan as needed.
Seto asks clients to set three SMART goals during his first session with them. He then asks clients to work towards those goals during each weekly session and within their daily lives. Once the client reaches one of the goals with tangible evidence to prove it, they can let go of that goal and move on to the next.
“For example, a SMART goal could be ‘to have meaningful conversations with my wife that do not entail arguing about the COVID vaccine,’” he says. “That goal fits all five requirements: it’s very specific, you can measure it, it’s attainable, and so on. However, if I was to set a goal like ‘improving my communication skills,’ that’s very broad and difficult to quantify.”
Once the client has set their three SMART goals, Seto says he will then draft a treatment plan for the client to review and approve. After six or eight sessions together, he says he will re-evaluate the plan to ensure adequate progress is being made.
What happens after multiple successful therapy sessions?
Once the client has found that their symptoms have diminished significantly and reached the SMART goals they set, they may feel unclear on the next steps. Recommendations on this point can vary, depending on the therapist and type of therapy.
Seto says he prefers to operate using the brief therapy model, which focuses on solving a specific problem within the span of a limited number of sessions.
“It really does depend, but in general, I like to go according to the brief model, beginning with 12 sessions. Some people prefer to work with the same therapist for three, five or even ten years from a relational perspective, but this can also lead to dependency issues over time,” Seto cautions.
Take the first step towards effective mental health solutions with Inkblot Therapy
The positive effects of therapy will vary depending on the individual, practitioner and the particular mental health challenge involved. However, tracking progress tangibly and measurably is possible, and an experienced therapist will be able to help you accomplish this. Inkblot Therapy makes connecting with a practitioner simple using our unique matching system. We'll direct you to a provider selection page where matches will be ranked based on effectiveness and your individual needs by answering a series of questions.
Book a counselling session with Inkblot Therapy and start your journey towards better mental health today.