Preparing for your first therapy session can be a daunting prospect – it's normal to be unsure about what to expect, and to feel nervous about opening yourself up to someone unknown. Of course, experiences of therapy will vary from person to person, and there's no hard and fast rule to preparing yourself for a session, but we've put together a few words of advice from some of our therapists, to help put your mind at ease.
Ultimately, your first session is an opportunity for you and the therapist to get to know each other, to establish an idea of your difficulties and what you're hoping to gain from therapy, and to decide whether they're the right therapist to help you achieve your goals.
There's no set way to prepare for this, but Registered Psychologist Ruth Ann Harpur-Lewis says: "It can be a good idea to write down the key problems and think about what you might like to get out of therapy."
Making notes or even a list can help you to process your own thoughts and feel clearer about what you want to say, as well as giving you a starting point for the conversation.
On a practical level, Registered Psychotherapist Diane Adderley recommends drinking plenty of water: "Keeping yourself hydrated can help combat anxiety. If possible, give yourself some quiet time before the session, perhaps the evening before, to think about what you want to achieve."
She adds: "Some people choose to find the consulting room premises in advance so there are no worries about getting lost on the day itself. Give yourself plenty of time to arrive, and take some slow, deep breaths to calm yourself."
It may also be useful to look up some information about the particular therapy in advance, so you know what to expect, either on the RSCPP website or by searching for information about your particular issue and its most common forms of treatment. Of course, your therapist may be able to recommend more specific reading, so it's worth asking ahead of the session.
The first session is an important time for you to find out how the therapist works, as well as giving them an understanding of your needs. "At the beginning your therapist will explain about confidentiality, session times, cost and cancellations," says Registered Counsellor Barbara Kelly.
"They may want to gather some general information from you, but then you'll be invited to talk about what's brought you to therapy and what you're hoping for from it," she adds. They should explain their approach and the type of therapy they use, as well as practical details of their contract, and how many sessions are likely to be required.
If you have any concerns, Barbara says: "be prepared to ask your therapist any questions, for example about their qualifications and training. They'll be happy to put your mind at ease."
Again, there's no fixed way you 'should' feel after the session – it's the start of a journey, which is unique to everyone. By the end of your first session you will have a clearer idea of what you can expect if you continue with that therapist, but you may still have mixed or conflicting feelings about the experience.
"Some people find it a huge relief; others feel hopeful and positive about the future. Some may find they feel overwhelmed, embarrassed or upset if they're talking about something they've been bottling up for a long time," Ruth says. "Any reaction is fine, and it can be helpful to let the therapist know how you're finding the session."
Barbara advises "allowing yourself some time after the session to rest and reflect on your thoughts. If you've been talking about distressing events or difficult feelings, you may feel drained at the end."
You may initially find it difficult to open up to your therapist – this is perfectly normal and can take time (check out our guide to establishing trust with your therapist.) Or you may even decide that the particular therapy or therapist are not the best fit for you. Discussing these concerns with your therapist will help you get your feelings clear in your mind, and they will be able to recommend an appropriate next step.
Remember that attending the first session does not commit you to further sessions. Accredited Counsellor Peter Leitch recommends shopping around if the first therapist you contact doesn't feel right for you. "You will be expending time, energy and money, and you will also be sharing your troubles and vulnerabilities with a complete stranger," he says.
"The therapeutic relationship is unlike any other - the therapist is professionally trained and knowledgeable across a wide range of human problems. Yet it doesn't naturally follow that every therapist will be a good fit for your personality, your interpersonal style and your problem," Peter adds. "Gut feeling is usually more accurate than not. Trust yours."