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Since becoming a counselor, it has continued to surprise me how many misconceptions there are out there about counseling and mental health care. In fact, one of the very first clients I ever had asked me if he had to lay down on a couch during sessions. I suppose it didn’t help matters any that I actually had a couch in my office at the time. But, no, he didn’t have to lay down on a couch. Not long after that, I replaced my couch with a pair of nice chairs, which was kind of a shame. It was a comfy couch.
As a counselor, I hear a lot about the stigma of going to counseling. As though it is a sign of weakness to admit there has been some kind of upheaval in someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that is now affecting the normal flow of their life, many times I have had clients who have come for counseling, usually at the behest of someone else, ask me if coming to counseling means they are crazy. My typical response is, “There’s no such thing as crazy.” After their quizzical look or follow up question of, “Seriously?”, I tell them all they are experiencing is a collection of symptoms. Those symptoms may have any of several interesting names like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or the often mis-self-diagnosed Bipolar Disorder. And while these symptoms have a name, it is not their name. These symptoms may vary in severity or duration, and yes, some of them can be very extreme in their presentation, but experiencing them and admitting to their existence does not make a person weak. Nor does it mean a fundamental shift in their identity as a person. But, in all honesty, it will likely mean making changes in how they approach life in general.
This is where your counselor comes in. Your counselor can partner with you to help you manage, cope, or lessen your symptoms through a treatment plan that is tailored to you as an individual experiencing your particular set of symptoms. Most likely it will not involve stretching out on a couch. But it may involve your willingness to be open about what may be hurting you. It may mean talking about difficult things. It may mean learning new skills and techniques that have been shown to help others who have experienced your particular set of symptoms.
That’s right. You’re not alone. For your set of symptoms to have a name, a lot of other people had to have also experienced these same set of symptoms. And because of this, treatments have been designed to help. Treatments that your counselor may already be familiar with or can become familiar with.
All to help you.
“Well, how long do I have to come?”
That’s another common question, and the truth is it can vary. Going back to the notion of being weak for seeking out counseling, I usually ask clients if they think a person is weak if they go to the doctor for a broken leg or a serious illness. The answer is usually no. And if we go to the doctor for a broken leg or pneumonia, we generally only go for as long as is necessary. In other words, until we are better. It’s the same with counseling. Depending on the goals of therapy and the severity of the symptoms, as few as six sessions may be enough. For others it may take longer. The important part is to formulate goals for treatment so that once they are met, the counselor and client will know treatment is no longer needed.
If you are reading this, and you are on the fence about coming for counseling, let me present you with this question: If it’s not weakness to be treated for a broken leg, why would it be weakness to admit you are struggling with something less obvious to the outside world? I’ve noticed over the years that mental health is often spoken of as though it is detached from our bodies, as though our thoughts and feelings are out there in the cloud somewhere. But the truth is, they are right here in our heads. Our brains are physical just like our legs and arms and the noses on our faces. When we face troubles that cause us stress, or anxiety, or fear what goes on in our brains as a result can cause several different kinds of ailments. Left untreated, things like stress lead to panic attacks, heart troubles, tense muscles, poor sleep, and, if you are one who grinds their teeth, dental troubles. Just to name a few.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t go to your doctor or dentist to have these symptoms checked out, but it is worth considering the possibility that your symptoms have a mental health component to them. Which, hello, a counselor can help you with.
Yes, talking about personal things with a counselor can be difficult, particularly about past hurts or trauma. After all, you don’t know this person across from you. However, that can sometimes be a good thing. In some cases, things may be spoken about that have never been spoken of before. Talking to someone who has no connection to you personally in a warm, safe environment can be a very freeing experience that starts you on the path to improved mental wellness. And just like a physician, a dentist, or a physical therapist, counselors are here to help you live the best life possible.