Managing Negativity: When to Seek Professional HelpJanuary 31 , 2014

Does the thought of seeing a therapist fill you with dread or give your ego a big hit?  If you are experiencing a lot of negative emotions in your life, seeing a mental health professional may be just the ticket to get through this recurring negativity in a constructive and helpful way.

Caveat/Notice/Limit of Liability/Etc

People are very careful in the mental health fields.  I’m a coach. On my first day of coach training, I was told to start seeing clients immediately with no supervision.   In the licensed medical/helping professions, practitioners are in training for years and must complete state and national licensing exams before being able to see clients without supervision.  This makes sense because many of their clients (also sometimes called patients) can be from the unstable side of the mental health continuum and there are risks that they may hurt themselves or others if their mental health professional isn’t well-trained and careful.   So understand that this post is simply my view on this subject – it’s the opinion of one person who’s on his own journey and who’s coached a few others through the ups and downs of getting professional mental health support. [“Cover Your Ass” rant complete 😉 ]

The important signs

The formal list of potential signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety is very long (including near-universal experiences such as irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances and ‘excessive worry’), likely capturing most of us in its breadth.   So how can we know when it’s time to take the signs seriously and make that initial appointment? Here’s the very clear ‘it’s time to get help’ list:  if you have suicidal thoughts or think often about hurting yourself or someone else; if your ability to function at work or in your relationships has taken a major dive; if you find yourself reaching for the wine bottle or other drugs on a regular basis or if you find you are isolating yourself from the people you care about.  These are all signs that it’s time to consider reaching out to a professional for help.

Why else?

But there are many reasons to find a good therapist long before suicidal thoughts or substance abuse rear their ugly heads.   Hiring a professional will put you on the proactive path of facing what’s troubling you instead of running away.  It can lead to incredible growth and self-understanding.  You’ll get important insights into your unconscious and reactive patterns to the people and events in your life.   Doing this work can put you on a path towards making long-term positive change.

You’ll also get access to someone who’s seen hundreds of clients during their training and career.  They have seen everything before and likely taken other clients through similar journeys to yours.  They can provide amazing context that what you are facing has been faced by many before and make suggestions for how to move through it.  And they will act as a mirror reflecting back things that you may not notice and bringing otherwise invisible patterns to the surface.

They will also bring a realistic perspective on how long and how much effort it takes to make real change.  As a perfectionist, I was impatient to fix my problems and get back to ‘regular life’.  Over the two years that I’ve been working with my therapist, I’ve come to realize that these challenges are a part of me and aren’t going away anytime soon.  But I’ve learned how to manage them and better recognize when they are trying to influence my life in a way I don’t want them to.

Be aware

My biggest caveat about the mental health profession is that traditional psychology is about diagnosing disease and figuring out a path to ‘cure’.  And while some treatment orientations have moved away from this, if you are hoping to get your treatment paid for by your health insurance then your therapist has to have a diagnosis.  So be ready for that.

When I started seeing my therapist, she used words like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist and other concepts with lots of negative connotations.  It was a shock to me to have these words associated with competent, capable, functional little ole me.  It shook my sense of self.  But it was also incredibly freeing for me to define some of my traits in this negative way.  I had been trying to ‘happy’ my way through the hard stuff for years to only limited success.  By defining some of my struggles as a disorder, it opened up a whole new set of tools that I’d ignored for years because they were for ‘sick people.’  It also helped me take my treatment more seriously.  My own self-awareness and growth has taken a huge jump over these last couple years as a result.

How to choose

If you are ready to start going down this path, you can find a list of therapists here  and your health insurance may have a list of recommended helping professionals.  Or if you know someone else who’s gone through this, ask for their recommendations.  As you read through profiles or websites, see if there are any that specialize in the challenges your are facing or in your age group.  Read the descriptions and pick a few that might work for you.  Then have an initial conversation.  Some will chat with you on the phone while others will want you to come in for an initial session.  In those initial interactions, you are looking for some connection, trust and that you feel safe with them.  You’ll be sharing a lot of intimate details of your life for this to be effective, so you need to feel you can trust this person.  And you want to have someone who will push you at times and help you face things you subconsciously may be avoiding.  So trust is important, but so is honesty…

Avoid psychiatrists as your first pass.  In my experience, psychiatrists (the MDs of the mental health world) are great at managing medications and their side effects, but are generally not trained to do the hard work of therapy with you.  They just don’t have that kind of time (or at least the costs would be prohibitively expensive) to get into that level of detail.

Coaching vs. Therapy

I’d be remiss in my self-promotion duties if I didn’t mention coaching here.  The coaching mindset is around moving forward towards the change you want in your life.  And coaching and the mental health field are becoming more and more alike.  Many psychologists and therapists are adding coaching to their portfolio of services and coaches manage through negative emotions with their clients all the time.  Generally if you are wrestling with what feels like deep personal challenges that are dominated by negative emotions, if you fall into any of the categories in ‘the important signs’ above or if want insurance to pay for this work, you’ll be better off going through the psychologist/therapy route.   If there are other changes you want to make, either group can help you get there.  Just find a person you trust and who has helped others find what you are looking for.

Your task

Take a minute now to think about your life.  Are you experiencing any of the get-help-now symptoms?  Do you want to take a proactive role in getting through a negative experience?  If so, consider bringing on a therapist or other mental health professional.  Take a look at some of the resources for therapists in your area and see if any of them pull you in or talk to a friend who’s gone down this path to find out what they learned and how they changed.  Good luck!!!

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach

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