Reframing therapy as a workout for the mind

I should start by saying I don't mean literally - although I have had clients say how tired they feel post sessions, on a similar level to exerting themselves physically.


Recently I was asked, “How do they know when they are cured?” Which was followed with, “But surely they shouldn't need counselling for that long?!” This got me thinking, in a society that is starting to speak more openly about mental health but has been openly encouraging, celebrating and valuing physical health, perhaps it would be easier to think about counselling in the same way we think about working out.

Thinking about therapy as a workout

I have worked in short-term and open-ended counselling and I see the benefits of both. And here is where the gym analogy comes in. I think of short-term therapy like someone wanting to focus on one thing in particular; to get washboard abs or ballooning biceps. There may be other benefits as a by-product but the focus is on one element.

Long-term work is like going to see a Personal Trainer (PT) knowing you aren't feeling quite right in your body or struggling with how you look and wanting a complete body transformation. You probably wouldn’t expect this to take a just few months to see the overall results you want.

The work takes time, it’s difficult, it’s rewarding; sometimes enjoyable and sometimes painful. Incrementally, over time you will feel something shifting. You may feel differently about yourself and how you inhabit your body. There may also be dips when once again it feels harder than normal. You don't want to go even if you know there's the potential to feel better after. You may feel like giving up. Maybe you do give up because it feels to hard to get the results you want to see. You may stick with it. It may be when a friend notices a change that you are able to reflect on it.

Whilst I am talking about the process of working out the above sounds akin to the therapeutic process. Those who have experienced it will probably recognise at least some of these feelings and thoughts.

Just like with this physical transformation, the work will always to some extent be ongoing. You may need to go back to therapy at some point, just like you may need to revisit a PT to help you get back on track. However, you will also carry the work with you and know what to do to help yourself. You will have a new relationship with yourself thanks to your trainer or therapist and be able to carry their insight with you. This is the investment of the work, that there is an internal voice you take from counselling that you are able to hold on to, which helps reform old patterns and guides you to a more beneficial way of being.

Finally, the ‘cure’ - well if we went to the gym would we expect to be cured? No, we would accept this idea of a work in progress, that it was ongoing, that our body was not a fixed entity. We do not just go to a PT for a year and expect to stay in that same physical shape, even if we work on it ourselves. Just like if we see a counsellor for a year we will not stay in that mental state. We are all human, working processes, that hope by doing some work on ourselves we may better our situation, physical and/or mental.

As with all topics on counselling and therapy, this topic is nuanced, more so than can be conveyed in a short article. However, I think putting it into this analogy is useful. It can feel like physical transformations, which do involve psychological change too, can be easier to see and monitor - more tangible. And perhaps it feels more familiar, having grown up with the Jane Fonda workout VHS from a young age I was aware I was meant to move my body and keep it healthy. Yet no one spoke to me about my mind and how to keep that healthy.

However, I like to think that shifts in therapy can be seen too, both in relation to societies changing habits and in the results we see within ourselves from counselling. In ourselves it can be felt in relation to the healthy boundaries we start to place in our lives for ourselves, in shifts in our relationships and dynamics to others and in transforming previous unhelpful, even harmful, patterns.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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