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How To Get The Most Out Of Therapy

How To Get The Most Out Of Therapy

Written by: Andrew da Roza

Deciding to see a therapist is a big step – and staying in therapy requires a commitment to effect real change.   

It is not surprising that many hesitate before starting therapy. 

Some may be wondering how talking to a stranger can change their lives for the better. 

They may not know which therapist they ought to approach – and what they should be looking for in a therapist.

Others may hesitate because they are anxiously thinking ahead: “what happens if I don’t like the therapist?”; “what if the therapist doesn’t understand my struggle?”; “what if I don’t think that enough progress is being made?”.

They may also be wondering if they can change their therapist and if they can have more than one therapist. 

If you are struggling with these questions, thankfully, there may be some answers that put your mind at rest and give you the confidence to seek a therapist and engage in the healing process. 

 

Choosing the Therapist – The Qualifications 

Most clients can articulate why they wish to seek therapy – and have clear ideas about what is causing them distress or difficulty.

Clients with clinically diagnosable mental illnesses may have already sought help from a family member, friend, doctor, psychiatrist or religious leader. They may have even “Googled” their symptoms.  

If specialist help is needed, choosing a therapist with the relevant qualifications and experience will be the first step. 

In addition, you may wish to choose a therapist you are more likely to be comfortable with based on the therapist’s language ability, gender, culture and so on. 

 

What should I look for in a Therapist?

Research has shown that the positive connection a client makes with their therapist accounts for 36%-50% of the changes clients experience as a result of treatment. (1)(2) 

Sometimes called the “therapeutic alliance”, this is experienced by clients as liking and trusting their therapist.  

Some will bond strongly with therapists if they demonstrate empathy, warmth, unconditional regard and respect. They would like their therapist to be open, non-judgmental and curious about the clients’ struggles – to have a strong desire to “walk in the clients’ shoes”. 

Such clients make good progress in therapy when they feel understood and heard – as well as valued. 

Others may seek therapists who are good communicators and are well informed about the issues the clients are facing. They tend to bond with therapists who are able to impart and discuss information; offer practical suggestions; articulate action plans, goals and timelines; and support the clients in their motivation to take action to effect positive change. 

Many also seek insights into themselves, their emotions, the ways they react to people or situations; and their perspectives and intrusive thought patterns. 

By being more present with what arises in themselves, they seek to take more control over their own lives – to respond to people and situations instead of habitually reacting to them – and to accept and let go what they cannot control. 

These clients appreciate therapists who can assist in self-discovery. Therapists who are able to help articulate their “inner worlds,” and to reframe them. Therapists who empower them to navigate this “world” with more ease and confidence by playing to their strengths, rather than dwelling on what they perceive as their weaknesses. 

Interestingly, studies have repeatedly shown that the type of therapy used for individual therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, person centered therapy and so on) has only a marginal effect on the outcomes of therapy (3)(4)(5).     

So, the key to choosing a therapist involves articulating what you expect from therapy and your therapist, and what kind of person you think will best meet your emotional and other needs. 

It would be helpful to articulate what you want the therapist to do (and not do); and what your end goal or “vision” for therapy is. You can do this by first asking yourself the question: “what changes am I seeking that will make a real positive difference in my life?”. 

Many benefit from putting all this in writing and bringing it to the first therapy session to discuss it with the therapist. 

 

Beginning Therapy – And then Changing the Therapist 

On the first meeting with a therapist, some clients – though this may be rare – simply do not like or trust the therapist, or that they do not have the experience or knowledge to assist them.

It also sometimes happens that a client feels that the therapist is not present or really hearing the client’s narrative. 

Worst still, they may see the therapist jumping to conclusions – or solutions. They may feel disrespected and “unheard” – and that they are being left behind, while the therapist is “racing” ahead of them. 

Other clients may feel that the therapist is judging them or telling them what to do, think or feel – and not to do, think or feel. The clients may feel anxious, disempowered, dismissed, angry or offended. 

If this happens to you, let your therapist know. If you don’t see any change in their approach, rest assured that changing therapists is likely to be helpful. 

 

Changing Therapists Along the Way 

One situation that you may wish to avoid though, is changing therapists regularly. This is because continuity in therapy is one of the keys to progress. 

Therapy is very much a journey. 

Whether the goal is self-discovery, empowerment, executing action plans to change behaviour, building confidence, or managing anxiety or depression. The journey has stages, and keeping the same guide on this journey is likely to facilitate progress.

If you are in the middle of your therapeutic journey, and you wish to change therapists, it would be helpful to articulate clearly why you want to do this. 

Is the therapeutic bond broken – and cannot be fixed? Is there little or no progress in your clearly articulated goals? Have you changed the goals and discussed them with your therapist – and it is clear that the therapist will not be able to assist? 

Some clients simply feel that therapy has become “stale”; or they feel as though they are attending therapy to “tick the box” and to show others that they are willing and able to change. 

Whatever the reasons, write them down. Discussing them openly and honestly with your therapist is likely to help. 

If you wish to make a change, ask the therapist for a referral to another therapist, and give permission to the current therapist to brief the new therapist. You may wish to join in this discussion.  

This is more likely to ensure that your therapeutic journey continues without disruption. 

One situation you may wish to be conscious of, is changing therapists solely because the therapeutic work has become difficult. “Jumping ship” may not be the answer. 

There is no doubt that therapy can be very challenging – perhaps the most challenging thing you have ever done. 

The challenge could arise because the insights are uncomfortable (or even painful); the changes in behaviour require a lot of motivation to sustain; a change in perspective seems counterintuitive; or because the anxiety, intrusive rumination or low mood seem relentless.  

Changing therapists may not be the answer – and may simply delay or disrupt the difficult therapeutic work ahead of you.

It is likely to be more helpful to articulate these challenges, write them down and discuss them with your therapist.    

 

Having more than one therapist

Some clients may need more than one therapist. 

A client may have an individual therapist who assists the client on their own personal journey. 

They may also have a couples’ therapist to address their relationship with their partner. In that event, the therapist treats the couplehood as “the client” – and provides equal support to both parties and works towards their joint goals.  

Other clients may also have a family therapist to address the relationships within the family. Again, the therapist will see the family as “the client” and assist with the family goals.

Couples and family therapists tend to provide specific modes of therapy, which have proved effective for couples and families.  

In the case of individual, couple and family therapy, in most cases, it is generally considered unethical and a conflict of interest for one therapist to play all three roles. 

The therapist cannot best serve the client’s, couples’, and family’s interests while wearing all three “hats”. 

Once a therapist tries to do this, they may (for example) feel obliged to keep secrets from one person in the couplehood or others in the family. This may reinforce the unhealthy dynamics of secrets and deceit that brought the clients to therapy in the first place.

Conflicts of interest create confusion, anxiety, anger and disappointment for clients. 

Keeping to ethical boundaries is more likely to ensure that the therapeutic journey is not sabotaged. 

Unethical conflicts of interest also arise if a client is seeing two different individual therapists.

Broadly, therapists are obliged to decline to see a client if they already have an individual therapist they are actively working with. 

Having two therapists engaged in the same work exposes clients to confusion, anxiety and conflict, and is likely to disrupt a client’s progress in their therapeutic journey. 

If you are considering seeing two therapists for individual therapy, it would be helpful to clearly articulate why you think this will assist – and to discuss this openly with the therapists.

Some clients may change therapists to “find the right answer”; the “best answer”; or the answer that fits their “view of the world”. That “view” may be the same “view” that has been causing them the trouble – and motivated them to seek therapy in the first place. 

All this is worthy of open and honest discussion and exploration. 

Another situation in which other therapists may be involved occurs when a client has an individual therapist and also attends group therapy. Group therapy can be a very effective way to continue the therapeutic journey, once progress has been made in individual therapy. 

Again, therapists commonly use specific modes of therapy for groups. 

 

Working with Multiple Therapists 

If you are working with multiple therapists, it is helpful to let them know who else you are working with, and what goals you (e.g. as an individual, couple or a family member) have agreed to pursue with the other therapists.

From time to time, it will assist to share with your therapists what you took away from the other therapy sessions, how the sessions are progressing and what plans you have agreed with the therapists.

It is always open to you to ask the therapists to communicate with each other and to coordinate treatment. 

It is also your right to maintain confidentiality and not to coordinate treatment – but “dovetailing” these different therapy sessions is more likely to help optimize your outcomes.

The Promises Healthcare website provides assistance to clients to identify their issues and provides photographs, names, languages, qualifications and experience of the specialists who can assist: https://promises.com.sg/about-us/our-team/

We hope that you will be able to find the right help from us.

 


  1. Horvath, A.O., Del Re, A.C., Fluckiger, C., and Symonds, D. (2011). Alliance in individual psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 48, 9-16. Doi:10.1037/a0022186
  2. Duncan, B. (2014). On becoming a better therapist – evidence-based practice one client at a time. (2nd Ed.) Chapter 1, pp.23-24. The American Psychological Association, Washington DC. 
  3. Stiles, W.B., Barkham, M., Mellor-Clark, J., & Connel, J. (2008). Effectiveness of cognative-behavuoural, person-centred and psychodynamic therapies in the UK primary-care routine practice. Psychological Medicine, 38, pp 677-688. Doi:10.1017/S0033291707001511
  4. Benish, S.G., Imel, Z.E., & Wampold, B.E. (2008). The relative efficacy of bona fide psychotherapies for treating post-traumatic stress disorder: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons. Clinical Psychological Review, 28, 746-758. Doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2007.10.005. 
  5. Duncan, B. (2014). On becoming a better therapist – evidence-based practice one client at a time. (2nd Ed.) Chapter 1, pp.9-12. The American Psychological Association, Washington DC. 
Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Bipolar and Schizophrenia – Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery

Written by: Dr. Joseph Leong Jern-Yi

Understanding Bipolar & Schizophrenia

Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were considered severe mental illnesses with no recovery in the past. This is not true in modern psychiatry as we have developed more effective treatments such as medications (psycho-pharmacology) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) which help patients improve their quality of life as well as reduce symptoms and restore function.

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may have similar symptoms which are disturbances in thinking, feelings and behaviour. The major difference is that bipolar disorder is classified as a mood disorder whereas schizophrenia is classified as a psychotic disorder. Mental healthcare professionals make diagnoses based on reports of patients, caregivers, or other information sources as well as observations made during the assessment interview.

Experts have also formulated that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may be a spectrum disorder with schizophrenia on one end and bipolar disorder on the other end with schizoaffective disorder in the middle of the spectrum.

What is more important however is not the exact diagnosis alone but rather the identification of symptoms so that treatment can be effectively targeted at the relief of the symptoms, restoring function and improving quality of life. This targeted symptom approach has proven to be one of the most effective ways of helping persons recover from these brain conditions.

Let’s discuss some of the common symptoms –

Delusions, which are untrue, unshakable, and unshared beliefs which can exist in both brain conditions.

For example, delusions of persecution which are beliefs of being targeted, being followed, being sabotaged (persecutory) are common in schizophrenia while delusions of grandiosity such as believing that they are particularly important persons and have special powers or ability to save the world (grandiose delusions) are more common in bipolar disorder. For persons with schizoaffective disorder, they might have both persecutory and grandiose delusions at the same time. It also has an underlying co-occurring mood disorder.  

Hallucinations which are perceptual disturbances such as hearing voices which are not heard by others, seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things which are not present are more likely to happen in schizophrenia.

Severe mood swings and manic episodes where the person has fast speech and high energy levels are associated with abnormal spending, socialising, exercising, or expanding businesses with the need for very little sleep over a few days and weeks are more likely to happen in bipolar disorder.

More than half a century ago, most persons suffering from these brain conditions were isolated and confined to asylums as there were no effective treatments until the discovery of medications that can change brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters which are chemicals responsible for brain and other bodily functions were discovered. Noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine disturbances were more likely causes in bipolar disorder while dopamine imbalance was a more probable cause of schizophrenia. See https://dana.org/article/neurotransmitters/

 

The Help Of Modern Medicine

Modern psychopharmacology offers an array of medications which can act on various neurotransmitter sites in the brain. Several medications and several rounds of adjustment and fine-tuning may often be needed to achieve stabilisation with medications with relief of symptoms. This is best done collaboratively with the patient, psychiatrist, and caregiver at the consultation with all the medications brought in for review.

Adjusting to a new medication through an effective therapeutic trial may take at least 2 weeks, starting with the lowest dose and increasing dosing to a maximised symptom relief dose over 2 months. 

Medications need to be taken daily to be effective, and this is best done using a pill box and with supervision from a loved one. Medications are served by nurses in the inpatient hospital setting who ensure that the correct dose is directly observed to be taken by the patient – however, this is often lacking in the outpatient setting leading to the return of the symptoms causing distress and dysfunction.

 

Bipolar & Schizophrenia Treatment Methods

Comparing bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to other brain conditions may be helpful in understanding how one can better achieve remission and recovery. 

Epilepsy is a brain condition where there are electrical firing of neurons causing disturbances in thinking, feeling and behaviour. To stay in control of oneself, the doctor may recommend various combinations of anti-epileptic medications to prevent another seizure. In fact, the model of kindling in epilepsy has been used to understand mental health treatment in this highly readable resource essay – https://aeon.co/essays/should-the-kindling-concept-direct-mental-health-treatment

If you speak to someone with experience with epilepsy, they will tell you about ‘warning signs’ and the ‘confusional state’ after a breakthrough seizure.

Similarly, for those struggling with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, one becomes more aware of ‘warning signs’, and ‘confusional states’ through direct feedback from loved ones who are observant and psycho-educated by healthcare professionals. Charting, monitoring and sharing your experience are key to success in achieving remission and recovery. Use this mood chart and share it with your mental healthcare professionals for more in-depth analysis – https://loricalabresemd.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Personalized-Mood_Chart.pdf

Symptoms management starts with monitoring your symptoms and the response to the treatment – what makes it better, what makes it worse, whether it is mild, moderate or severe. The frequency, intensity and severity can be charted so that effective treatment of psycho-pharmacology (active use of medications) and psycho-social interventions (psycho-therapy and psycho-social rehabilitation) can be targeted to achieve the best outcome for you.

 

Recovery Is Possible

Your mental healthcare professional can coach and pace you so that it will not be overwhelming. Recovery starts with taking it one day at a time. Be gentle with yourself. Learn to trust and entrust your healing to people who care about you. Learning from feedback as well as charting, monitoring and sharing your experience with loved ones – trusted family or friends or co-workers greatly enhance effectiveness.

Atomic habits by James Clear is an excellent book which illustrates the importance of charting, monitoring and shaping your habits, on the premise of improving 1% daily leading to more than 365% improvement in one year. This is Youtube illustrates how that can happen – “How to become 37.78 times better at anything”. 

There are many services available at Promises Healthcare and Community Partners which can help reduce symptoms, restore function, and improve quality of life. Recovery is possible and becomes a reality with appropriate support and adequate skill training. With the right help and support, persons in recovery can live meaningful and satisfying lives.

Here are some real stories that illustrate many facets of mental health and recovery:

An Interview with Honeycombers to debunk the stigma around mental health medication

An Interview with Honeycombers to debunk the stigma around mental health medication

What are the stereotypes surrounding mental health medication? We talk to an expert and patients to debunk the myths

Dr Jacob Rajesh Speaks with Expat Living on the misconceptions of psychiatric medication

Dr Jacob Rajesh Speaks with Expat Living on the misconceptions of psychiatric medication

Psychiatry Questions … Answered!

What are some commonly used psychiatric medications?

Depression is a very common disorder, affecting between five to ten percent of people, so we use antidepressants quite often. The medications we’ve been using for the past 25 years are called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These newer generation drugs have much fewer side effects than those used in the past.

They do have some side effects though, the most common being gastric distress, nausea, headaches and insomnia. Some people also report sexual dysfunction and decreased libido. However, these side effects can be managed once the medication and dose is adjusted. SSRIs are usually more tolerated than older antidepressants.

Another group of drugs is the antipsychotics, which are used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. The second generation antipsychotics have fewer side effects than older ones, along with fewer cognitive effects and extrapyramidal side effects such as causing tremors or stiffness. However, side effects such as weight gain, increased blood sugar and increased cholesterol can occur with some of these drugs; these side effects need to be screened for on a regular basis

promises healthcare psychiatric medicine and antidepressants

Is psychiatric medication an alternative to therapy? Or do they work hand in hand?

Medication and therapy usually work hand in hand. Being medication-compliant is another important part of the mental health recovery treatment as it helps bring stabilisation to the chemical and biological changes in the sufferer that cause the disorder.

For depression, we prescribe medication for moderate or severe symptoms if it’s causing impairment or distress. We also recommend psychotherapy in its various forms: cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, interpersonal therapy or family therapy, depending on the psychosocial stressors.

For bipolar disorder or psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, medications are the mainstays of treatment. However, psychotherapy methods can also help with regulating emotions and give handles to help regulate distorted thoughts when mild symptoms occur. Psychological therapy also plays a role for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders. Here, psychotherapy has a much more important role.

What are some of the misconceptions people have about psychiatric medication?

The most common misconception is that all psychiatric medications make you feel like a zombie – you can’t function, you can’t go to work, your mental faculties are affected. While some of the older generation antipsychotic medications can cause mental fogginess, there are newer ones with fewer side effects. Some people also believe that if they start taking medication, they might become addicted. It is usually the benzodiazepine class of drugs that are addictive in the long term; antidepressants aren’t addictive in the long term. We also see many patients who’ve been taking medication on a long-term basis, but we work with them to minimise side effects. We do this by adjusting the dosage, changing the class of drugs used and lifestyle modification. It’s also worth mentioning that psychologists cannot prescribe any of these drugs, only psychiatrists can.

Can you tell us more about new techniques like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation?

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) uses electromagnetic waves to stimulate the brain. Unlike electroconvulsive therapy, which is more for people with severe psychotic depression, TMS doesn’t require any sedation. The patient simply sits in a chair and has a device placed at specific parts of the brain where it sends small electromagnetic waves. It is an outpatient procedure and there aren’t usually any side effects.

TMS is used primarily for people with depression who haven’t responded to antidepressants or have severe side effects from medication. It’s not usually a first-line procedure.

Is it as effective as antidepressants?

It works in combination with them. If that alone isn’t helping, TMS can augment the medication. It can also help by itself, but once the treatment stops the patient can relapse, so it’s better to take medication along with it.

What are some psychiatric issues that people may not realise they have?

Many people don’t realise that depression or anxiety disorders are mental illnesses. They think it’s a weakness in their own personality or the result of external stressors they can’t handle. The stigma of mental disorders also plays a big part. People tend to be quick to seek help for physical issues but still feel uncomfortable seeing a psychiatrist. I think it’s becoming more accepted though. There’s a misconception that psychiatrists just provide medication.

What else do they do?

Psychiatrists work in teams. The team-based approach is very important because we have psychiatrists who are qualified doctors along with psychologists who are trained in psychotherapy. We also have social workers, case managers and occupational therapists.

It’s a misconception that psychiatrists cannot do therapy. There are many psychiatrists who are trained in many forms of therapy, but the psychologists are the professionals who study these critical areas in depth. We refer the patients to them because it is their area of expertise.

What would you tell someone who is unsure about seeking help?

Don’t be ashamed of your symptoms or be self-critical. Many feel their symptoms stem from a weak personality or an inability to handle stress. People need to understand that mental health issues can occur for people who’ve done everything right – people with a good job, a good family life, good support and no financial issues. Depression is a biological response and it can happen without any external stressors so there is no shame in seeking help.

Dr Rajesh is a Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, a provider that offers a wide range of psychiatric and psychological services for patients of all ages. Promises is also the only private centre in Singapore to offer Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

For more information on psychiatric medication and treatments offered by Promises Healthcare, click here.
#09-22/23 Novena Medical Center | 6397 7309

This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of Expat Living and was published on their website. 

 


Dinesh Ajith

Dinesh is a seasoned writer and editor with seven years of experience covering travel, restaurants and bars. His interests include film photography, cheesy 90s monster flicks, and scouring the island for under-the-radar craft beer bars.

An Interview with ANZA magazine on how psychological testing can help your child

An Interview with ANZA magazine on how psychological testing can help your child

Raising a child is demanding – their emotions and personality trait can change frequently. As a parent, how can you tell if your child’s behaviour is part of growing up or a cause for concern?
Child psychologists at Promises, Tan Su-Lynn and SC Anbarasu speak to the editorial team at ANZA about psychological tests for children and adolescents which help parents better understand the strengths and challenges their child has in areas of cognitive, behavioural, learning and socio-emotional functioning.
Learn more about the types of tests and what goes into one at
An Interview with HoneyKids Asia on the whats and hows of ADHD in Children

An Interview with HoneyKids Asia on the whats and hows of ADHD in Children

While most of us may be familiar with the term ADHD or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, we may be unfamiliar with the challenges and struggles a child diagnosed with ADHD goes through.
Our senior psychologists from the Child and Adolescent team, S. C. Anbarasu and Tan Su-Lynn, spoke to the editorial team at HoneyKids Asia to shed more light on ADHD, how it affects kids, what are the early symptoms, and how parents can support a child with a diagnosis.