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Why It Matters if Your Therapist Uses Evidence-Based Treatment

There are so many therapists out there. When you're struggling with your mental health and require services, this search can be so overwhelming. How do you know if you're getting treatment that will really help?

If you are struggling with a psychiatric disorder, life-limiting fears, or serious difficulties such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts, I urge you to find a therapist who is firmly committed to evidence-based treatment.

Evidence-based treatments are forms of psychotherapy that have been studied extensively in scientific research. Psychologists have been doing this kind of research for decades. Many thousands of people out there have been willing to let scientists study their responses to psychotherapy, so that psychologists could test out what kinds of treatment are most effective.

All of us now have those people to thank. Their willingness to let something so deeply personal be studied scientifically has led to major discoveries about what helps people recover from mental health problems.

Science? For my emotional struggles?

Kinda strange, right? Even the word "science" feels cold and clinical, conjuring up images of lab rats and microscopes. Believe me, psychotherapy research doesn't look like that at all. I've been a therapist for people in these studies in the past, and I'll let you know - good psychotherapy can't help but involve the deep, real, messy parts of life like intense emotion, fear, hope, and connection. Your therapist is in a real relationship with you. It's kind of like you're both out there in uncharted waters, trying to find your way to shore.

Now imagine - all of those people out there who've been a part of research studies have helped create a compass and a map for your therapist. They've let us study their lives, their emotions, their physiological responses, and even their brains, to help us navigate these waters. Because of them, the therapist doesn't just help you row the boat, but has tools to guide you to shore.

Think about it - how can anyone know if what they are doing is working?

How do we know if cancer treatment works? Should the stories of people on an internet forum that a particular diet reduced their cancer convince you to ignore your doctor's advice? If you meet a few people who smoked for fifty years and never contracted lung cancer, is that good evidence that you can take up smoking without worry of the risk of cancer?

Evidence-based psychotherapy doesn't just create a map and compass based on a few people's experiences. We look at the effects of psychotherapy in many, many people before we can confidently say the treatment works. Psychologists also make sure that improvement in psychotherapy isn't just a placebo effect, by comparing the treatment to what is called a control condition.

Unfortunately, many therapists out there have not been appropriately trained in science-based approaches. Therapists who don't use evidence-based treatments often rely on their intuition and experience, but they're not using the map and compass that have been tested. They'll help you row the boat, but getting to shore without a map and compass will probably take a very long time. It's hard to know if their approach is leading you the right direction.

That may be okay if all you need right now is someone to really listen and hear you. Maybe you already have your own map, and just need someone in the boat with you. Having a listener is powerful in and of itself, and it can help us when we're going through major life stress and just need a place to spill. Maybe you want exploration without the need to make change right now.

Therapists using evidence-based treatments offer listening and support, but ultimately are there to help you work toward reduced symptoms and better quality of life. They are specialists in helping you change your life. Because of scientific research, we know what kinds of therapy help people change and improve.

If you're looking for more than a listener, you need evidence-based psychotherapy.

How do you know if your therapist is offering evidenced-based treatments?

There is a bit of a problem - therapists out there will claim they offer science-backed treatments, but sometimes they are using pseudoscience, as is the case for treatments like conversion therapy and recovered memory techniques. It's easy to claim that a treatment is based in evidence, but some treatments are not only "snake oil" but actually can cause harm.

The first thing I would do, if you know or think you know what your diagnosis is: check out the Society of Clinical Psychology's list of evidence-based treatments here. Click on your diagnosis and then click on the treatments on that page to learn more. This page even gives self-help resources if you are having trouble finding an evidence-based therapist in your community.

Once you learn which treatments are evidence-based for your difficulties, ask any potential therapist if they have received training in and have successfully used that treatment. For example, "What is your training background in exposure and response prevention to treat OCD?" And then ask, "What's your experience using this approach with clients?" If the therapist hesitates, or hedges, ask if they have any colleagues with more background in that area. They are professionals and should help you find what you really need.

In general, therapists who emphasize that they use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tend to be committed to evidence-based treatment. They shouldn't just say they "do CBT" but should say things that indicate a real commitment to the treatment, such as "I am devoted to providing evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy" or "I ensure that I use empirically-based CBT interventions in clinical care." I know these words are very jargony, but they are good cues to indicate that you'll get effective care. Here are some directories where you are likely to find qualified evidence-based service providers:

At the Anxiety and Trauma Clinic of Atlanta, you can rest assured that you will receive the highest standard of evidence-based treatment, with a therapist who specializes in effective psychotherapy for complex anxiety and trauma-related disorders. Feel free to call or fill out the form below if you would like to learn more.


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