Warning: Good Therapy May Come With Side Effects

Date Posted: September 14, 2015
Warning: Good Therapy May Come With Side Effects

After 30 years in the mental health field, I am well aware of the many spokes on the wheel most patients have to address before they can reach the gold standard of mental and emotional health. Although it shouldn’t have to be, comprehensive, holistic treatment can be labor intensive and time consuming. Both recovering individuals and recovering couples notoriously don’t anticipate this on their quest for optimal health and can feel gobsmacked when they discover the reality.

Believe me, I wish optimal health and emotional freedom were easier and faster to achieve for those in need, but I haven’t seen it happen without time, committed effort, and a willingness to go to any lengths. If you have been living in chronic stress, are physically and emotionally unwell, or your recovering relationship has been circling the drain for a long time, these truths are unavoidable. I’m not here to deter you from getting the help you need, I’m here to prepare you for any “side effects” you may face on your recovery path. The days of one-stop shopping are over if you are looking for health and happiness from top to bottom.

The good news is that if you and your partner are in the right hands, (and, there may be many of them) or in the right support group, nine times out of ten, your goals can be met. Ultimately, though, the key to success lies in your hands as a recovering couple. However, I don’t want you to be shocked when you learn what it can take to keep your boat afloat. Insight, a good cry, and an hour of clear communication in the therapy room are just a few of the things on the list that most recovering couples need.

I work with many couples, recovering or not, each week. After therapy has begun, it often becomes apparent that one or both partners are in need of individual work to achieve the results they are seeking. For example, one partner may suffer from historical trauma that requires somatic work (e.g., EMDR) to clear the trauma from the limbic system before the couple’s sex life can improve. Or one partner may have an untreated mental or mood disorder issue that can benefit from the attention of a psychiatrist who can assess and prescribe medication. Even something like an unhealthy diet can be a roadblock that needs to be removed before the recovering couple can make progress. How can you expect to go on long romantic walks or joyful jogs on the beach if you’re not taking good care of your body?

If you and your recovering partner have been sitting on unaddressed problems, your therapy may make you feel worse before it makes you feel better. The unearthing of resentments; the beginning of full, honest self-expression between partners; and the addressing of historical pain from childhood can open up many cans of worms.You may have to face the unresolved bad feelings before you can feel the joy and happiness that lie underneath them. It’s no wonder you’ve been avoiding dealing with this stuff!

I can’t tell you how many times patients have come back and said, “I feel like therapy is causing me more problems, not less. I feel worse than ever, and my partner and I are fighting more than ever!”

My retort is always to smile and say, “Great! It sounds like we’re getting somewhere!”

Don’t be afraid if you and your partner feel turned upside down for a while after starting therapy. This can be a side effect of good therapy. Let your therapist explain the method to his or her madness, and help you make sense out of the side effects you are experiencing. For example, one partner complained that he felt like he had been going crazy since couple therapy started. I reminded him that his initial complaint was that his partner never expressed her true feelings. He just hadn’t anticipated the side effect of her anger when she was given permission to release those feelings. She was now walking around saying, “Too bad! These are my feelings! And, I’m very mad at you!” I told him to hang onto his hat because underneath that rage was the potential for greater love from her than he had ever felt. Three months later, after weathering the storm, his wife started looking like a new woman, and both reported that their connection was stronger and more authentic than it had ever been.

Just as a good cleanse can cause uncomfortable side effects before your gut does right by you, so can good therapy. Hang tight. Wait, watch and see!

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