How Therapy Helps

Seven ways professional support has made a difference in the lives of real people

What immediately comes to mind when you think of therapy? Lying down on a leather couch to talk about your mother with a stone-faced psychologist? If your view of therapy veers toward the negative (or stereotypical), you're not alone.

"Therapy has so often gotten a bad rap," says Silvina Irwin, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in the Los Angeles area. "We have a society that overly values 'pulling yourself up [by] the bootstraps.' A common fear is that to seek help is to admit that you are weak, or that you will be perceived as being weak." And, of course, it can be intimidating to think about discussing your most intimate struggles with someone you don't know. Still, says Irwin, when people are able to overcome fears about therapy, the benefits can be profound.

To demystify the idea of talk therapy, I spoke with people around the country who were willing to share how it has helped them. Here's what they had to say:

"The best part was hearing, 'This is totally normal. You are totally normal.'"

"I sought therapy after I didn't feel 'right' after having my first daughter," explains Elizabeth*, a 35-year-old event planner in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, who experienced postpartum depression and anxiety. "The best part of the process was hearing, 'This is totally normal. You are totally normal.' My therapist helped me get through that period and emerge a stronger person – and a much stronger mom."

"It helped having someone to share thoughts with, without judgment."

"One day, essentially out of nowhere, I started having severe depression and panic attacks," says Jake 37, a marketing executive from Rhode Island. "I felt like I was at the bottom of the darkest hole imaginable. It helped having someone to share thoughts with, without judgment. It's been 12 years and, with talk therapy and medication, I have come to a place where I am very rarely stressed (other than the normal stressors), have no panic attacks of any severity, and [have] very little depression."

"Therapy gave us a toolbox to navigate through difficult times."

"I knew I had a lot of baggage I was bringing to my marriage," says Jorge, 46, a full-time dad in Los Angeles. "I wanted to address the things I felt might be detrimental in a partnership through couples therapy. The best part was having solutions to things that would trouble us during the week, awaiting us in our next session. Therapy gave me – and us as a couple – a toolbox to navigate through difficult times and new experiences in marriage and starting a family."

“Therapy makes me feel proactive and in control of my own health."

Jenna, a 38-year-old attorney in Santa Monica, California, has lived with a chronic illness for most of her life. She began psychotherapy as a child to manage the emotions that came with it. "My illness has been the cause of a lot of anxiety," says McAndrew, "and anxiety can exacerbate my symptoms. So therapy was always about improving my physical and emotional health. The best part of the process is having a neutral person to listen and to reflect back to me what I might not realize and giving me tools to tackle it. It also makes me feel proactive and in control of my own health. It improved my relationship with my husband, and has allowed me to be more empathetic of friends who are struggling with all sorts of health issues, including mental health."

"Therapy has made me more self-aware."

After Jessica Farrell's son was stillborn in 2008, she turned to therapy not only to help her with her grief, but also for support during her next pregnancy. "Therapy has made me more self-aware," explains the 31-year-old teacher and mother of three from Clifton, New Jersey. "I am able to figure out what causes me anxiety and situations that I should avoid, while accepting that it is ok to do this. Even when nothing hectic or upsetting is going on, it is always great to have someone completely on the outside to talk to. I'm comfortable discussing anything at all with [my therapist]."

"It was great to have someone validate that I was having a rough time."

"After learning my mom was terminally ill, I started going through the grieving process before she even passed," says Rachel, 35, a therapist in Wilmington, North Carolina. "I knew I wanted someone that did biofeedback. I needed a way to calm myself, and I knew biofeedback was proven to help anxiety. My therapist was so accepting. It was great to have someone validate that I was having a rough time and needed to re-center myself."

"Therapy has made me more resilient."

"The best thing [about therapy] was knowing that I had found someone to talk to," says Laura, a 48-year-old artist in Bangor, Maine, who endured sexual abuse a child and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. "Therapy has given me the tools to work my way through some painful memories. It has allowed me to safely explore what happened in my childhood and learn to accept who I am today. I feel like I am better able to manage stress and anxiety, and that I am more resilient."

*Most sources asked that we not use their real names or last names.