How long before psychological therapy starts working?

Often, a patient’s fears associated with participating in psychotherapy complicate the initiation of treatment. They also often ask the question of how long it will take for treatment to show any progress. Find out more here.

How long before psychological therapy starts working?

Last update: June 15, 2023

When people ask for psychological help, they often ask how long it will take for it to start functioning. Normally, the patient will notice changes during the first three sessions. Indeed, in this stage, they usually experience some relief because they feel understood and form an alliance with the therapist who guides them on their journey.

However, significant progress depends on each patient’s circumstances. They also depend on the psychologist and the type of methodological strategy he implements. There are also some mental conditions that require longer treatment times. For example, personality disorders or major depression.

Cognitive behavioral therapies that focus on specific problems are usually the shortest treatments.

Factors that determine how long it takes for psychotherapy to work

Taking the first step and going to therapy it is often an exercise in courage. Indeed, the individual may have to overcome many fears simply to make it to the waiting room. It’s not an easy process for everyone because it can be a painful undertaking and/or it also has an economic cost.

This makes some patients want to get results as soon as possible. In these cases it is useful to know that there are many variables that mediate the long-awaited therapeutic progress.

A review conducted by the University of Zurich (Switzerland) states that improving the accuracy of estimating the number of sessions a patient might need would represent progress in the field of mental health. For example, in the UK, the minimum tends to range from eight to 20 meetings.

However, again, every patient is different. Consequently, he is not always easy to tell when they might be ready to end therapy.

The woman in the consultation asks how long it takes for psychological therapy to take effect
When starting psychological therapy, many people expect rapid progress, but this is not always possible.

1. What does the American Psychological Association say?

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released data on the number of sessions it takes for a patient to feel the change. They offered the following information:

  • If 15 to 20 sessions are done, 50% of patients will be able to continue on their own.
  • Because of their susceptibility to relapse, some disorders require longer therapeutic intervention.
  • People with personality disorders require treatment at various stages in their lives.
  • There are some psychological therapies which, due to their approach, require fewer sessions and, in some cases, can be just as effective. For example, brief strategic therapy.

2. It depends on the personal reality of each patient

To know how long it takes for psychological therapy to work, you need to consider how long it takes for a patient to seek specialist help. Normally, the type of problem interacts with other variables that shorten or prolong the intervention.

The density and quality of the support circle or the perception of the disturbance are factors that weigh heavily in this sense. The following variables should also be considered:

  • Anxiety disorders and phobias benefit from shorter therapies and progress is noticed more quickly.
  • Clinical disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or major depression may require multiple sessions.
  • The number of sessions a patient requests also depends on their openness, personality and commitment to the therapeutic process.
  • Sometimes, the patient might show great resistance to the therapy. This means they take longer to show improvement.

Normally, the psychologist establishes with the patient during the first session the objectives to be achieved and the more or less necessary sessions for him. Progress manifests itself progressively.

3. Some therapies show faster results

Psychological therapy allows the patient to develop new tools, skills and techniques for coping with problems. The strategy changes depending on the type of therapy received. There are different schools and models of therapy and each one progresses at its own pace.

Cognitive-behavioral approaches offer relatively quick results. A study published in the journal Frontiers in psychology highlights that this is the most researched model and one of those supported for multiple psychological needs.

On the other hand, there are also brief strategic therapies, such as those developed by Giorgio Nardone. It usually lasts between five and 12 sessions and demonstrates the first results in the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. It is worth noting that psychodynamics is relevant when considering which therapies tend to be the most extensive.

4. The psychologist is an essential element

The psychologist is critical to the patient’s progress. In some cases, an empathetic and comfortable connection with the professional is not achieved. This will be noticed during the first three to five sessions. There are various factors that can cause a distance between specialist and patient.

If this happens, the patient should look for another option. There are many highly trained psychologists with whom they will be able to achieve well-being in good time.

5. Depends on the patient’s views on psychological therapy

Patients’ perception of the psychotherapy process will influence whether or not they notice the benefits sooner or later. Unfortunately, myths about this dimension still persist. This can make it difficult to achieve treatment goals. It must be taken into account that:

  • Therapy is not a passive process where the patient only has to listen to the professional.
  • The function of psychologists is not to solve patients’ problems or to do their work for them.
  • The process is not always linear. There are necessary setbacks that demonstrate where the more complex conflicts are that need to be addressed.
  • Psychotherapy is a learning exercise with which to integrate new tools to deal with the present and any future ups and downs.

Psychological therapy is not intended to repair patients, but to empower them so that, with the tools learned, they can face their problems. Knowing this will mean that they will notice progress in the therapeutic process much sooner.

Lies with a man inside wondering how long it takes for psychological therapy to take effect
On average, progress in psychological therapy begins to be felt from the third session.

Commitment influences how long it takes for psychological therapy to start working

Patients often notice little progress after the first three sessions. Indeed, this amount is often sufficient for the patient to identify some progress. They are also able to internalize some strategies that improve their coping skills, so they can begin to heal their wounds.

From this point the journey begins. And the patient and the psychologist, with their commitment and effort, begin to address the deepest needs of the patient.

Difficult moments will continue to appear but the patient must not give up. Indeed, to heal properlya little more suffering is always needed before wounds can heal forever. No one should ever give up on therapy. It is the best possible ally for our well-being.

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