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Why Therapy Doesn’t Work

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

You wake up in a panic.

Heart is racing, palms are sweaty, hands are cold, and you can barely catch your breath.

You feel like you’re having a heart attack and you’re not ready to rule out that possibility just yet.

You grab your phone and, though you know it could make matters worse, you reluctantly, yet desperately, start Googling your symptoms. You wait patiently for the word “HEART ATTACK” to appear on the screen and when it doesn’t, you’re temporarily relieved.

“Well if it’s not a heart attack, certainly I MUST be dying of SOMETHING!”

And just as you start beating yourself up for not getting around to creating that will you’ve been conveniently not been thinking about, there it is on your hand-held screen…you’re having a panic attack.

Right then and there you start googling “therapists who treat panic attacks near me” and you’re suddenly inundated with tons of pictures and profiles that all look the same and that panicky, out-of-control, certain death feeling starts to creep back in.

You go through the annoying process of elimination ruling out the first line of prospects who either look like your mother, look like they have questionable motives, look like they’re going to put a spell on you and ask for your first born in sacrifice, too old, too young, too whatever other reason your panicked mind will make up because right now you’re having a hard enough time trusting yourself!

Finally, you decide on someone who doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out and go running for the hills and you make an appointment.

Fast forward to 3 months into anxiety therapy and you feel a little bit better but you’re still struggling substantially. You’re not getting much relief from panic attacks and now depression starts to set in because you’re feeling hopeless.

You and your counselor discuss your lack of progress but you shrug it off by saying you’re too busy, can’t focus, and your attention is needed elsewhere.

It’s just too hard.

You decide to give it another month and when that month comes, you decide to throw in the towel and decide right then and there that therapy is a hoax, not helpful, and, in some ways, made things worse.

So you go back to suffering and feeling even more hopeless.

What went wrong?

So many of your friends and family swear by therapy and credit it for saving their lives, relationships, marriages, etc.

Was I cheated? Is something wrong with me? Was I just not paired with the right therapist? Am I bound to be a depressed, neurotic, anxious mess for the rest of my life?


Over the next 5 years you decide to try to make a go of it on your own. You read self-help books, you join support groups, you start trying to open up to your friends and family more, and you even participated in a weekend workshop that promised to help release that long-standing pain and suffering.

It worked but a few months later you were feeling like you were right back where you started.

The panic attacks return and you’re flooded with a sense of deep shame, hopelessness, worthlessness, and feeling fundamentally flawed and defective.

Thoughts of suicide creep into your mind but you quickly acknowledge that while it’s an appealing way to get out of the pain, it’s not how you want to go.

Because deep down, you know there’s more to you. You have fight left in you. You have untapped potential that you just haven’t been able to find yet.

And so…you keep going


You decide to give therapy another go and this time, it works!

Within a few months, you start to notice regaining small glimpses of yourself. You experience brief periods of joy. You start making plans for the future and some of them actually stick! It doesn’t seem like others have taken notice yet but you feel it.

You’re changing. Shifting. You’re more self-aware…self-actualizing. Your path is still not 100% clear but you’re following it and it feels good.

You can’t help but wonder…why didn’t it work the first time I tried counseling? I don’t feel like I did anything that was that much different. Why am I getting better now?

Allow me to provide some clarity.

Here are the top 5 reasons why therapy might not have worked the first time:

1) You weren’t ready – it’s hard to know what to expect the first time you go to anxiety counseling. It might seem intrusive and invasive, especially if you’re not used to opening up on such a deep level.

It’s important to keep in mind that while this first experience might’ve seemed like a wash, barring traumatic experiences, it likely really wasn’t. If anything, it set the foundation for future work to be done and might’ve exposed some blind spots that you didn’t even know were there.

The road to recovery and healing is NEVER linear and it is typically bumpy, unpredictable, and full of setbacks. If you’re the type of person that likes order and predictability, therapy can sometimes seem disruptive and it’s not unusual for things to get worse before they get better.

Forgive yourself. Practice some self-compassion. Therapy is hard. Take a break but don’t give up. You are different from how you were years ago. The next time will be different.

2) You were too committed to old ways of thinking – a skilled therapist will challenge you on your current, dysfunctional ways of thinking in an attempt to encourage you to adopt new, helpful ways of thinking. Sometimes this can be a difficult process because habits are there for a reason and they don’t like to move very easily. Expect these old ways of thinking to show up in different ways as you travel down your road of healing.

Most people would rather cling to their current ways of thinking and acting because they don’t want to risk failure, looking stupid, or feeling embarrassed. The paradox is that taking this risk is the only way that true change happens. Your therapist is there to help ease you through this process. You do not need to do it alone.

3) Your life was not stable – perhaps you were in a state of crisis at the time you tried anxiety therapy and you just weren’t able to devote the time and attention to yourself that was necessary. Just getting through one day at a time was the best you could do.

That’s ok.

Maybe the purpose of counseling at that time was just to help you get through that crisis. Perhaps the second or subsequent round(s) is to focus on you and learning the skills that lead to lasting change.

4) You were not paired with the right therapist – starting therapy is a nerve-racking experience as it is. You just want to get out of pain and sometimes you have no choice but to just choose someone who seems like they could be helpful.

Sometimes this gamble pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.

It is not uncommon to “shop around” for a mental health therapist with whom you are going to click and someone you feel truly gets you. Age, experience, gender, personality, and treatment approach are all things to consider when interviewing a therapist (yes, it’s a good idea to interview your counselor).

5) You were doing it for the wrong reasons – quite regularly I get contacted by a family member and/or friend who is searching for a therapist on behalf of a loved one. This is certainly understandable when that loved one is in crisis and is experiencing difficulty completing everyday tasks. Further, the individual calling on their behalf is concerned and typically wants to help their loved one get out of pain.

While there is nothing wrong with this, I make it a point to connect with the loved one individually to ensure that therapy is, in fact, something they are wanting and ready to commit.

It is important to get clear on who is desiring counseling and why.

Sometimes parents become so frustrated and hopeless with their unruly and unappreciative teenager that they send their child to therapy “to be fixed” because they themselves have become resigned from being able to help them.

While this sentiment is certainly understandable, perhaps family therapy is the better option to ensure the true problem is being addressed.

Further, it removes the resentment from the individual who might feel singled out as being the one with the problem and being forced to go to individual therapy when the problem is shared between multiple parties.

Lastly, sometimes an abusive partner might be suggesting that their partner start counseling in an effort to further pathologize them. This can be further damaging if not caught early and addressed.

Therapy is not likely to yield positive results if these scenarios are not well vetted and addressed from the beginning.

If any of this material resonates with you, you are not alone.

Counseling is a challenging yet deeply fruitful process that requires readiness, willingness, and an appropriate match between client and therapist.

If you’ve had a less than desirable experience with a therapist but you’re ready and willing to give it another chance, contact us today for a free phone consultation to see if we’re a good fit.

Our mission is to help people get out of pain and find the joy and purpose in life.

If we’re not the best fit, we are happy to provide you with a list of referral sources so that you are able to find a therapist that is the best fit for you.

Counseling Services in Charlotte, NC

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