How to Survive the Highs and Lows of Therapy


If you’ve ever been to therapy, you know that sometimes it can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  Therapy can start off really good, but it can quickly take a nosedive.  Sometimes you feel relief, and then it turns to pain and grief.

If you’ve not been to therapy before, consider yourself warned.  This isn’t meant to deter you from starting, but rather to be completely transparent about what therapy is and isn’t, and to give you realistic expectations.

I once had a client come in for three sessions, and leave feeling on top of the world.  She would email me, and say things like, “This is wonderful, I feel so great, and I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner”.  She told everyone how amazing therapy was.  Then, the fourth session hit.  This same client left in a mess of tears, pain, and hurt.  She emailed me after that session and asked me, “Why do I feel so awful and how long will this last?”  She had reached the hard part of therapy.  The part that we don’t talk about enough.

Why Are There Highs and Lows?

The truth is, therapy isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.  There are going to be really tough sessions.  Let’s talk about why this is.

It’s very common for clients to come in, tell me their story, and feel like a 100-pound weight was lifted off of their chest.  Sometimes just telling someone about your pain can feel freeing and validating.  The initial “high” of therapy is a real thing.  These first few sessions are also used to build trust and a bond between yourself and your therapist.  When trust is established, real work can begin.

Here come the lows.  My job as a therapist is to help you see blind spots you can’t see yourself.  This means asking you questions, digging, and examining.  This also means talking about really hard, and really painful things.  We as a species have a tendency to stuff or ignore things that are bad and hurtful, and therapy makes you stir it all back up.  Oftentimes this means the negative emotions, grief, and feelings related to any traumas also come bubbling back to the surface.  It’s not unusual to feel like you are crashing and burning at some point during your therapy experience.  Remember that when this happens, you are not alone!

Sometimes it Gets Worse Before it Gets Better

One of my favorite things to work with clients on is shame.  Shame is that feeling of not being good enough, not measuring up, feeling worthless, or feeling like a failure.  To some extent, we probably all experience a little shame.

When I work with clients on shame, we start backward.  We talk about childhood experiences that have shaped them now into the adults they are.  Sometimes this means talking about times they were bullied, felt not good enough, or felt they disappointed their parent(s).  Shame work stirs up a lot of childhood wounds that are painful.  It’s not unusual for clients to re-experience their feelings all over again.  Sometimes this also means that nightmares start, flashbacks occur, and anger/sadness resurfaces.  Sometimes this means that the grieving process starts all over again.

Therapy isn’t meant to torture you.  But sometimes it has to get worse before it can get better.  If you’ve not dealt with some of the hurt from the past, you’re continuing to carry the baggage around with you.  In order to free yourself and let it go, you’ve got to work through it.  As hard as it may be, you have to trust the process.

Ripping the Band-Aid Off

I once had a client tell me he had two feelings: happy and angry.  That’s it.  Imagine his surprise when we spent a whole session talking about how his father abandoned him, and he sobbed the whole session.  We identified that day that he also feels grief, sadness, disappointment, guilt, and blame, among many other feelings.  My point is, therapy often rips a Band-Aid off of a bullet hole.  The bullet hole is gushing, just waiting for someone to come along and peel it away.  Once that happens, it’s amazing the things that can come out.

This particular client had a lot more than just two feelings.  I’m sure if we are being honest, you probably do too.  Sometimes ripping the Band-Aid off will help you uncover so many things about yourself that you didn’t know were there.  Or maybe you have an idea that something feels “off”, but you can’t put your finger on it.  Regardless, sometimes it takes the help of someone else to rip the Band-Aid off so you can begin to heal.  This doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, but you do have support to help you get through it.

Don’t Quit Therapy

If you start therapy, commit to seeing it through to the end.  This means when it’s hard and you feel like crap, KEEP GOING.  Too many clients get to the challenging and painful parts when we are just beginning to uncover some things, and then they quit.  It happens all the time.  Just because your therapist hits a nerve, doesn’t mean it’s always going to hurt.  Trust them to help you work through the pain and negative feelings you may be experiencing.

When you decide to start therapy, make sure you are good and ready.  Set goals for yourself, take notes in and outside of the sessions and do your homework.  This is an investment in yourself and your future.  Take it seriously, just like you would any other commitment.

Remember that you are worth this.  You are worth the time, energy, tears, and frustration.  You are worthy and valuable, and you deserve to be the healthiest version of yourself you can be.  The person you were meant to be.

If you’re reading this, and realize you’re ready to begin, please reach out.  

*Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling. Christy enjoys doing marriage/couples counseling, individual counseling, premarital counseling. She also provides family counseling, teen and adolescent counseling.

Journey to Joy Counseling serves the Indianapolis area, including Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.