How Long Should I Commit to Therapy?

Samantha Waldman, MHC

A question I’m often faced with when I consult with prospective clients, especially those who are new to the therapy process, is about how long you should expect to be in therapy. While this may seem like a pretty straight forward question, it’s actually quite complex and varies based on a variety of different factors.

What do I want to work on?

Some people come to therapy for a very specific issue. For example, Jane struggles with panic attacks that typically occur when experiencing social anxiety. Jane wants to work on identifying triggers and developing coping skills to help her deal with her panic attacks. Since Jane has a pretty specific, behaviorally based goal in mind for her work, she might expect a shorter period of time in therapy. This is what clinicians refer to as “solution focused” therapy, which has more focus on targeting and changing specific experiences or behavior for the client. Even with a more focused goal in mind, its important to remember that there is still no guarantee that you will complete your work in a specific amount of time. Numerous factors, such as the frequency of your sessions or the modality of the therapist, can all impact the length of time spent in therapy. 

There are also plenty of instances where goals for the work are less defined. For example, John has decided to begin therapy because of a persistent feeling that something is missing in his life. Although he’s unable to fully identify where this feeling is coming from, he is able to note how it impacts his day to day life, and his ability to connect to others. As John’s situation is not as behaviorally based and clearly defined, he may expect to spend a longer time exploring his life experiences in therapy, both past and present, in a less structured way to see how this may be impacting his current situation. This all makes it harder to predict exactly how long it may take John to work through these feelings.

Therapy can be an ongoing process

I find that people new to therapy sometimes consider it a one-time deal. They think, “I’ll come in for a certain period of time, my goals will be reached, and I’ll move on.” While this is definitely the experience for some individuals, some people move in and out of therapy over the course of their life, as different things come up from them. If you came into therapy and feel like you reached the goals you outlined for yourself, that doesn’t mean that your journey in therapy needs to be over for good. New obstacles and changes are always occurring over the course of our lives, and reengaging in therapy after taking a period of time off can be a helpful way to move through it. Other therapy clients choose to look at therapy as a long-term commitment that is a part of their self-care routine, participating in ongoing services for years. 

Developing a trusting relationship with your therapist matters 

Another important aspect to consider when assessing how long to expect in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. It is my belief that in order for therapy to be effective, there has to be a trusting and authentic relationship between the therapist and the client. Building this relationship takes time and the early parts of therapy are often spent getting to know the client and building rapport, rather than focusing in on solving specific problems.

The most honest answer I can provide clients when asking how long to expect in therapy is it really just depends. That being said, when I consult with people who are beginning therapy for the first time, I always encourage them to make about a six month commitment as a jumping off point, and seeing where the work moves from there.