Updated: Aug 23, 2022
The answer for those who appreciate brevity: Now.
The answer for those who appreciate reflection: Please continue reading.
This is an important question. One of the most difficult aspects of emotional distress is not knowing when to reach out for support. This uncertainty can prolong a person’s suffering, and that’s a big deal - often with significant consequences. While this question is important, it’s also narrowly framed. It distracts from the deeper questions a person is likely asking themselves, and that’s what this post will take the time to explore.
So, what are the deeper questions? Well, many people wonder if they’re struggling enough to justify starting therapy. Conversely, some people wonder if they’ve waited too long and are beyond help. Others simply wonder if they’re emotionally ready for the process. Unfortunately, these questions arise when a person feels depressed, anxious, tired, overwhelmed, and stuck. It’s no wonder a recent study found that it takes most people eleven years from the first signs of psychological distress to reach out for support. That’s a long time to wait for relief. Hopefully the information here provides clarity for those who are circling around the questions beneath the question: When should I seek psychological support?
Is it too soon? Am I struggling enough to justify starting therapy?
Reaching out for support from a non-judgmental, good listener who is trained in mental health is beneficial for most people, and sooner tends to be better than later. If you’re hurting, even if only a little, you qualify for emotional support. Speaking with a therapist can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, strengthen relationships, and increase self-compassion.
It’s also worth taking a moment to appreciate the power of prevention. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This quote is often used in medical settings, and it’s similar to the adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” These sentiments apply to mental health too. Reaching out for support when things feel difficult but relatively manageable may prevent minor emotional aches and pains from turning into more severe symptoms and consequences down the road.
In short, it’s common for a person to look back on their experience in therapy and wish they’d started sooner. If you’re concerned a therapist will minimize your pain or criticize you for reaching out for support, they very likely won’t. And if they do, promptly find yourself a new therapist.
Have I waited too long? Can therapy even help me now?
If you’re asking yourself this question, please reach out for support. You haven’t waited too long, and therapy can help. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms it’s important to reach out for psychological support now:
Strong emotions that are negatively impacting your ability to function; emotions may be chronic or come on suddenly and intensely
Newfound and persistent difficulty concentrating; feeling mentally drained; feeling as if you’re going in circles
Changes in sleep that exacerbate feelings of depression, hopelessness, or anxiety
Changes in perception or an altered sense of reality
Difficulty abstaining from behaviors you know to be destructive to your overall well-being (excessive drug or alcohol use, binge eating, addictive behaviors in general)
Thoughts of harming or killing yourself or others; thoughts may be vague or specific, fleeting or persistent.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, therapy is likely the best place to fully process what you’re going through. If you’re reluctant to contact a therapist, it can be helpful to explore the thoughts and feelings that prevent you from reaching out for psychological support. In the meantime, it’s important to reach out to at least one supportive person in your life. If that feels difficult, it’s again important to explore why. In case you relate to this struggle, consider this: When a loved one reaches out to you, how does that typically make you feel? It likely makes you feel entrusted, respected, and closer to that person. It likely makes you happy to help because you can relate to human suffering. You’re not a burden, and you’re not alone. Wherever and with whomever, allow yourself to feel supported by someone who has your best interest at heart.
Am I emotionally ready?
If you’re asking yourself this question, even if only subconsciously, you’re clearly aware that therapy can be challenging at times. If that’s you, I have good news and bad news. The good news: You’re probably more ready than you realize! The bad news: You’re probably as ready as you’ll ever be so if that’s the only thing holding you back….
If you’ve never asked yourself this question, that’s understandable! Afterall, therapy is generally discussed as something people engage in to feel better - not something that may cause additional pain. However, as we know from the world of medicine, mending ourselves often involves a little pain. Medications often come with side effects, and a surgeon can’t treat an ailment without drawing a little blood. Obviously there should be no blood in therapy, but you get the idea - the only way out is through.
The reason therapy can sometimes feel challenging is because psychologists often help their clients unearth painful memories, thoughts, and emotions. They do this because they understand that helping a person access and experience these pain points is often the only way to treat them. It’s through this process that thoughts and feelings become less covert and unruly and more likely to evolve in ways that are beneficial for a person’s overall well-being.
Before you stop reading and abandon your thoughts about reaching out for support, it’s helpful to consider a few additional points. First, psychologists differ in terms of how they view and treat emotional distress, with some therapists preferring to work more beneath the surface than others. For example, psychologists with a psychodynamic approach are more likely to encourage exploration beneath the surface. It’s reasonable to ask your therapist how they view and treat emotional distress. Second, if we continue with the surgeon analogy, psychologists know when and where to cut, how deeply to go at any given moment, and how to help a person contain an outpouring of blood, sweat, and tears (seriously though, there should be no blood in therapy). Essentially, you’re in good hands. Finally, it’s important to highlight that you decide the pace and depth of the work you do in therapy. If you’re not in a chapter of your life where you’re able to dig a little deeper, that’s okay. Therapy can still be helpful. It’s important to know that you have the right to talk openly with your psychologist about how therapy feels for you. Psychologists aren’t put off by clients expressing themselves and advocating for their needs. These are strengths that are honored and respected in a therapeutic setting.
If you decide to speak with a psychologist you can feel confident you'll be met with compassion and research-backed strategies for managing emotional distress. Psychologists offer a unique combination of evidence-based interventions in a setting that’s warm and collaborative. Psychologists are knowledgeable, kind, and steady - traits you want when reaching out for psychological support. Like anything worthwhile, therapy is a process, and that’s all the more reason to start today.
"The path won’t appear until you start walking." ~Rumi