Therapy 101
July 9, 2020

How long does therapy take to work?

Written by
Two Chairs Content Team
Reviewed by
Kristen Colley, LMFT
Updated on
July 25, 2023

One of the first considerations when exploring therapy as a solution is the length of treatment, or time before symptoms will begin to heal. Understandably, those seeking therapy want to understand the cost—in time, energy, and money—and scope of the endeavor. There isn’t one clear answer for how long therapy takes to work. To start, each person may have his or her own definition of ‘work.’ One may explore therapy to examine an acute issue, while another may be visiting a therapist to address chronic problems or conditions.

It’s essential for anyone considering therapy to have an open, collaborative relationship with the chosen therapist in order to understand how long therapy treatment is projected to last, and when to know if it’s effective. During your conversations, you should be regularly checking in on goals of treatment, progress, and planning. In this way, you’ll be clued into your own journey and have a better idea of the type, cadence, and duration of your treatment.

There are many factors to consider when it comes to mapping out the details, including length, of your own journey in therapy. We’ll also explore what to look for in order to measure progress and healing.

When will I know therapy is working for me?

The question of when to expect results from therapy is one that’s likely to be asked both before seeking treatment, as well as during. There are a number of variables to explore with your therapist in order to best understand how long you should expect to be in treatment, and how to define success.

Understand your reason for treatment

Dr. James Hawkins of Good Medicine says some types of problems will likely need more treatment sessions that others. “In general clients who want help with more severe problems will probably need more treatment sessions to achieve recovery,” states Hawkins. “By more severe, I'm referring to variables like the extent and intensity of symptoms at presentation, how long the problem has been going on for, and how resistant it has proved to previous attempts at therapy. Relevant too is the overall quality of the client's it's not just the severity of the presenting problems that govern speed of response, but also the strengths and resources the client has more generally in other areas of their life.”

Your treatment roadmap will look different depending on the reason you’ve sought therapy, as well as your day-to-day environment and what you’re hoping to gain from therapy sessions.

Personal goals

In addition to factoring in specific mental health conditions, disorders, and experiences, your specific goals in seeking treatment will affect how long you spend in therapy. While the ultimate goal is likely full recovery, some may simply seek temporary, tangible improvements.

If you're wondering what to talk about in therapy, one thing you can discuss with your therapist is how long they expect you to be in care based on your goals and what you're going through, among other factors.

Your therapist’s style

Therapists vary in type, techniques, and plans of treatment. Addressing the question of ‘when will therapy work for me?’ with your therapist is a great starting point for establishing regular check-ins about your progress. Other therapist-specific factors to explore and continue keeping tabs on include:

  • Making headway: Everyone grows, heals, and recovers at different speeds. In addition to speaking with your therapist about what progress should look like for you (such as benchmarks, milestones, etc.), ask your therapist for additional resources to explore more about what you’re going through—like books, podcasts, or studies.
  • Dependency: Fear of dependency keeps many away from starting therapy in the first place. While those with more involved treatment plans (such as longer or very frequent scheduled sessions) may see therapy as a large part of daily life, being afraid of developing dependency on therapy shouldn’t be a worry. While dependency on therapy could prolong therapy treatment, qualified and effective therapists will make your progress and independence a priority throughout sessions.
  • Engagement: How often do you and your therapist circle back on how sessions are going? Asking for regular feedback and truly engaging in your treatment is a solid way to understand what your treatment timeline looks like and align on your goals with your therapist.

An ongoing conversation

Scheduling a cadence of check-ins about where you fall on the treatment timeline may help you better understand if and when therapy is working for you. You and your therapist should agree on time and method for touching base about progress and goals. Often during treatment another issue may arise, separate or in some correlation to the original issue you first sought help—this may alter the course of your treatment, but shouldn’t be seen as a setback. Though if you believe you aren’t progressing as you’d hoped, make sure to speak with your therapist.

At Two Chairs, we make this easy by basing our model in Measurement-Based Care, which you can read more about below. Before every session, we'll ask you to report on how therapy is going for you in your mental health check-ins. That opens up a dialogue for you and their therapist to talk about your care, giving you the chance to collaborate with them in reaching your goals.

Digging into the data

As we’ve explored, everyone is different when it comes to progress in therapy, and when to know whether it’s ‘working’ for them. There have been some studies conducted to measure averages and explore data across different sets of those in treatment.

Michael Lambert, author of Bergin and Garfield's Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change says, ”Therapy is highly efficient for a large minority of clients, perhaps 30% of whom attain a lasting benefit after only three sessions.” He also speaks to when monitoring for improvement, “...It appears 50% of patients respond by the 8th session and 75% are predicted to need at least 14 sessions to experience this degree of relief.”

The American Psychological Association published statistics regarding how long it may take for treatment to work. Their data states:

  • “Recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.”
  • “There are a growing number of specific psychological treatments of moderate duration (e.g., 12 to 16 weekly sessions) that have been scientifically shown to result in clinically significant improvements.”
  • “In practice, patients and therapists sometimes prefer to continue treatment over longer periods (e.g., 20 to 30 sessions over six months), to achieve more complete symptom remission and to feel confident in the skills needed to maintain treatment gains.”
  • “Clinical research evidence suggests that people with co-occurring conditions or certain personality difficulties may require longer treatment (e.g., 12 to 18 months) for therapy to be effective. There are a few individuals with chronic problems who may require extensive treatment support (e.g., maintenance therapy to reduce risk of psychiatric re-hospitalization), but such patients are a minority of those who need or seek treatment.”

At Two Chairs, we've found that 74% of our clients experience meaningful improvement in their symptoms after 12 therapy sessions.

How to track your progress in therapy

A data-driven method of therapy helps quantify progress, further establishing forward movement and growth in treatment. Two Chairs specializes in a Measurement-Based Care (MBC) approach to therapy, using self-reported client data to tailor care and track progress in therapy over time—which can lead to better outcomes, faster. It’s estimated that clients who engage in care that incorporates MBC fare 76% better than clients in usual care, and they benefit from care in about half of the time as usual care¹. Overall, the benefits of MBC are indisputable, and yet it is estimated that less than 20% of mental health providers in the U.S. incorporate measures into their care and only 5% do so based on industry best practices².

Those who engage in an MBC approach to therapy may feel empowered by tracking progress and self-reflection on a regular and ongoing basis. In addition, with MBC, measurement goes beyond that of just symptoms, and highlights the quality of the relationship between a client and a therapist—a core aspect in the therapeutic process.

The amount of time needed for therapy to work varies greatly. Factors that have an influence on time needed for therapy to work include personal goals, rate of progress, your specific therapist’s style of treatment, as well as environmental circumstances. While complete recovery is a motivating driver of treatment, considering your own progress should be top of mind. Book your matching appointment to learn how Two Chairs can start helping you today.

¹Lambert, M.J. (2017). Maximizing psychotherapy outcome beyond evidence-based medicine. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 86, 80-89.

²Lewis, C.C., et al. (2019). Implementing measurement-based care in behavioral health: A review. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(3), 324-335.

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