Overcoming Anxiety About Your First Visit to a Psychologist

By Shonda Lackey, Ph.D.

With New Year’s right around the corner, you may have decided that now is the time to get some professional help in an area of your life that’s not going as well as you would like.

You may already have been referred or might be in the process of searching for a psychologist. Perhaps you’re somewhat nervous about what will happen during your first visit. This is common. However, you don’t have to let your anxiety prevent you from receiving help. Reviewing the answers to frequently asked questions may make your first visit a little easier.

How do I know if I should see a psychologist?

A good time to seek help from a psychologist is when you feel overwhelmed, can no longer cope on your own, and are motivated to work with a professional who can help you overcome your problems. Other signs include experiencing severe and persistent symptoms that interfere with your ability to function at work, home, school, or in social settings.

How can I find a psychologist?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are currently approximately 85,000 licensed psychologists that practice in the United States. Psychologists who offer mental health services work in many different settings including private practice, hospitals, community health centers, schools, and colleges. There are several ways to locate a psychologist. You may want to ask a supportive friend or family member to recommend a psychologist. You can also get a referral from one of your medical doctors. Alternatively, you can search online. It may be helpful to use specific search terms that narrow your choices by location and the reason you are seeking treatment.

What type of training do psychologists have?

Psychologists typically have doctoral degrees (Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.) and have obtained the highest level of training in their field. According to the APA, this means that in addition to their four years in college, psychologists also have an average of seven years of graduate training. Training involves coursework and years of practical experience treating patients under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Practical experience may refer to a practicum, an externship, an internship, or a postdoctoral fellowship. Licensed psychologists have passed a national exam that allows them to practice independently.

How can a psychologist help?

Psychologists help by providing psychotherapy which is also known as talk therapy. Psychotherapy most often takes place individually but may also include group therapy depending on the issues you want to work on. The specific techniques psychologists use to help you depend on their theoretical orientation – the type of therapy they are trained to practice. Some of the most popular types of therapy are rational emotive behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and psychodynamic therapy. Regardless of a psychologist’s orientation, he or she will create a safe place for you to feel comfortable exploring self-defeating patterns of behavior. Your psychologist will work with you to develop healthy ways to cope with your problems so that you can achieve your goals and have more successful personal and professional relationships. Psychologists also provide psychological testing to gain more insight into barriers that may be preventing you from reaching your full potential. For example, someone might seek psychological testing to determine if he or she has a learning disability and would benefit from accommodations in college. In a few states, psychologists also prescribe medication in addition to offering psychotherapy and psychological testing.

Will my psychologist be able to understand my experiences?

Your psychologist may be different from you in terms of age, gender, race, social class, and a number of other variables. Despite these differences, a psychologist does not have to match you on every variable in order to understand what you’ve been through. Nor does a psychologist have to have experienced issues similar to the ones you are facing. Even if you and your psychologist share several demographic variables, that doesn’t mean you will automatically have a great working relationship. In order to understand your experiences, a psychologist remains nonjudgmental, asks questions, and listens to your responses. Being open about your experiences helps your psychologist empathize with you. It may also be helpful to seek out a psychologist who specializes in helping people overcome the issues you are experiencing.

Does therapy work?

Research studies have shown that therapy is effective in alleviating many problems. Sometimes, psychologists will also coordinate your treatment with other medical professionals to include medication. The key to successful therapy is a collaborative effort between you and your psychologist. Your psychologist will offer support and guidance, but you also do the work which includes open communication and a willingness to consider and practice more adaptive ways of dealing with life’s challenges.

What will happen during my first visit?

A typical visit or session usually lasts between 45 and 60 minutes. During the first meeting, your psychologist will probably ask you to complete some paperwork about your history. In order to determine the best way to help you, he or she will also ask you questions about your history and why you’re seeking treatment. Your first meeting is also an opportunity for you to determine if you believe the psychologist will be a good fit for you. You can do this by asking questions about the psychologist’s experience helping people overcome issues like the ones you are facing. If you and your psychologist agree to work together, your psychologist will explain how therapy will work and will set a schedule for you to meet consistently, which is usually on a weekly basis. There will also be time for you to ask questions. In some cases, the psychologist may offer you a referral to another psychologist who can provide you with more specialized treatment.

Despite the anxiety that is sometimes associated with seeing a psychologist, it is important to seek help when you are overwhelmed and can no longer cope on your own. By seeking help, you have taken the first step towards achieving your goals and living a more fulfilling life.

A version of this article first appeared on HealthWorks Collective.

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