First things first, I’m a firm believer that everyone should go to therapy at least once in their lives. According to the American Psychological Association, therapy (specifically psychotherapy or “talk therapy”) helps patients develop skills and habits to continually improve their mental health and, because of this, the benefits of therapy usually continue past the point of treatment completion. It’s important that we prioritize our mental and emotional well-being, especially during the era of COVID-19, quarantine, and the effect it has had on countless students’ daily lives.
I didn't realize how difficult it would be
Around three years ago, I began the process of finding the right therapist for me. I was in a study abroad program after my home island of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. It was my first time traveling alone, my first time in the U.S., and my first time living with a stranger, all while still processing my first time witnessing a natural disaster up close. Needless to say, it was a lot of change in very little time, and it had a drastic impact on my mental health.
The first thing I noticed was how frequently anxious I felt. Anxiety isn’t something completely new to me. As a hardcore perfectionist, I’m used to worrying a lot about everything. Plus, being a college student in itself is stressful enough. This was different, though. The smallest things made me break down, I struggled to get a good night’s rest, and panic attacks became frequent. I ended up going to the university’s counseling center and making an appointment.
If I’m being honest, it didn’t help much. Long story short, I sat on a comfy couch every week and ranted about my worries while the therapist hummed, nodded, and offered me soft-spoken advice that I felt like I already knew. When I returned home from the program, I tried again and made an appointment with the psychology services at my university. This time, after I was having a particularly good week, the therapist said I was doing better and that we were pretty much ready to close my case. But wait, I thought, I’m just having a good week! That doesn’t mean I’m fixed! I still feel hopeless! I felt disheartened. Even though a professional was telling me I was doing better, it didn’t feel like I was. Was it my fault that I wasn’t noticing a change?
I tried for the third time after the pandemic hit. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this had a drastic effect on my mental health. In a study done by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 71 percent of the college students interviewed said they experienced signs of increased stress, anxiety, and depression due to the pandemic. At one point, I even took to cutting off my own hair as a coping mechanism.
Despite my failed attempts, I was willing to keep trying
I’m glad I kept trying, because I ended up finding a therapist who understood my needs, adapted to them, was endlessly patient, and worked with me to identify the underlying issues we needed to focus on — even despite it being through virtual means because of social distancing restrictions.
Then came the real work. If you haven’t been to therapy before, it can be a weird experience. The idea of sharing your emotions and thoughts so openly with what is essentially a stranger can be scary, and it was for me. I was so used to people assuming I had my life together that being this vulnerable and admitting that I actually didn’t have my life together was difficult.
Sometimes, it’s even more difficult to accept that you have to put in work for therapy to be effective. A lot of people tend to assume that therapists are there to “fix” your problems, and then you’re done and happy and good to go. But that’s not how it works. First of all, there is no “fixing” your mental health. Instead, you learn how to understand your brain and the way you think, and develop skills that help you be mindful of yourself and recognize when you need to regain balance.
Working on your mental health is a lifelong practice
Therapists are there to help you untangle your thoughts and process them in a comprehensible way. They are there to help you understand yourself better, but only you can take the steps to better your mental well-being. This is why it’s been so important to constantly remind myself why I’m doing this. I want to know myself better, to be kinder and more patient with myself, and to live a balanced and healthy life.
I’m half a year into therapy right now, and I couldn’t have imagined how rewarding it would feel. The pace at which I’m making progress doesn’t matter; the mere fact that I’m prioritizing myself and my health is enough to keep me going. It hasn’t been easy, and though I have learned so much about myself in these past few months, I know there’s still a long way to go. But I know that it’s worth it every step of the way.