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How To Tell If You Are Making Progress In Therapy

725521_70463323It’s safe to say one of the main goals of therapy is to teach you how to help yourself so you don’t actually have to be in therapy, at least not for a moment longer than necessary.

If you don’t have a diagnosis which requires ongoing therapy, then ask yourself: When will I have made enough progress in therapy that I can move on?

When you have made the changes you set out to make, both you and your therapist should take a closer look and see if it is time for you to end therapy.

How do you recognize you’ve made these changes? The first step is to create a treatment plan at the beginning and to refer to it throughout the course of therapy.

(Read more about the mental health treatment plan, here.)

Your treatment plan will help you to isolate behaviors, feelings or thoughts that you want to change; then, the listed objectives and goals will be held as the standards by which your therapeutic achievements can be measured. If your treatment plan is comprehensive you will find it far easier to make both objective and subjective assessments about your progress.

Without a treatment plan as the starting point it will be challenging, if not impossible, to accurately measure improvements – kind of like trying to measure out a cup of water in an old boot. If you have no measuring marks, you will likely be way off the mark.

Questions must be asked to determine if you did indeed make the necessary changes called for in your treatment plan, such as, “Did I achieve objective A?” and “Has goal B become a part of my life?”

There are other essential questions you need to ask about your progress. Your therapist and you should touch base and answer questions such as these, below, many times over the course of therapy:

  • Do I have longer and longer periods of maintaining positive changes? (For example, if you are depressed and your goal is to move from recognizing and experiencing the symptoms of depression to managing depression, you may measure your success by asking if either the duration of your depression or the severity of it have lessened).
  • Have these changes happened within a reasonable treatment time frame?
  • Is there additional progress that may not be listed on the treatment plan that my therapist or I have observed? What is it?
  • Have I developed the skills I need to manage the problems in my life with minimal support, that is, without regular therapy sessions?

There are also other methods that can help you, over time, keep track of your progress. If appropriate, your therapist may ask you to rate your progress regarding your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This can help you more closely measure your therapeutic achievements.

Let’s say your therapist asks you to rate feelings of anxiety on a scale of 1-to-10, ten being the most extreme; one being no anxiety at all – a state of total calmness. You may be asked to use this system to rate your feelings as they occur under various stressors. By becoming aware when anxiety is mounting, for example and by learning techniques to manage the anxiety before it spirals out of control, you should notice that your “ratings” begin to go down – which is a good thing!

Therefore if you begin therapy with an anxiety rating of nine when coping with stressful situations, and over time you have worked your way down to a three or four, you have made measurable and real progress. This system is designed to function in the structure of a popular operational model called “pre-test, test, and post-test.”

A less definitive but deeper way to understand and recognize positive change is to develop a greater personal awareness of your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Ultimately, this will help you understand who you are and what you need to do so you can continue to grow and improve. Your therapist should help you accomplish this by recommending one or more methods – including a therapy journal.

By learning how to articulate your thoughts and feelings, recording them either on paper or on audio or video tape, and analyzing them, you will become more aware over time. As you become more aware, you will recognize the changes you have made and begin to understand their implications at a deeper level. You will also be better able to replicate methods that lead to positive change.

Questions that will help you recognize change at a deeper level, and that can be explored in therapy, might include:

  • Do I reflect more positively about traumatic situations in my life than I did in the past?
  • Do I more often feel at peace?
  • Am I better able to manage negative feelings and respond to life’s challenges with courage and optimism?
  • Do I feel “together” for more sustained periods of time (could be hours, days, weeks or months depending on where you started)?
  • Am I more frequently able to understand the consequences of my behavior/actions and do these potential consequences influence my behavior/actions in advance?
  • Am I more frequently able to put myself in others’ shoes and not personalize their actions?

The questions above are only suggestions. Your therapist will help you develop questions that will reflect your specific, personal needs.

*This post is adapted from an excerpt of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Ge Better, and Move On (HCI) by Richard and C.R. Zwolinski

How To Tell If You Are Making Progress In Therapy

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2016). How To Tell If You Are Making Progress In Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Mar 2016
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