Does Therapy Really Work? Here’s What The Science Says

It has become increasingly common in everyday parlance to say “Get help”. But how? Therapy is not widely available. When available, it can come across as prohibitively expensive. So, many people therefore wonder, “Does therapy actually work?”

Swarnima Bhattacharya
Nov 10, 2023 14:04 IST
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We have all grown up on a steady internalisation that delving deep into emotions is not important, and therapy is unnecessary, or that wanting help is a testament to fundamental weakness or failure. Since then, however, the world has learnt much more about mental health. Depression is the fourth largest contributor to the global burden of disease. Approximately 280 million people in the world have depression. It is about 50% more common among women than among men.


Worldwide, more than 10% of pregnant women and new mothers experience depression. It has become increasingly common in everyday parlance to say “Get help”. But how? Therapy or forms of counselling are not widely available. When available, it can come across as prohibitively expensive. So, many people therefore wonder, “Does therapy actually work?”

The short answer to this dilemma is, that yes, research shows that therapy does work. 75 percent of people who go to therapy report seeing benefits. But the question is, does it work for you? How do you make it work? What does “work” even mean? And most importantly, how do you even know if it is working? These are valid questions, and therapy is a daunting process to commit to.


Here are some things to keep in mind as you give therapy a shot:

Therapy does not help “immediately” 

Except for those strong painkillers, arguably most medicines also require us to swallow the pill and wait for a while before we finally get relief. And even then, we must make a whole variety of changes in habits, lifestyle and unhealthy patterns if we wish to make a complete and sustainable recovery. It is the very same with therapy.

Your therapy sessions give you moments of relief, catharsis and insight. But it is a continued process which requires a certain amount of self-work. Committing to this process shows improvement over time.


Say yes to the right person- While psychotherapists have similar standard qualifications, that does not necessarily mean they will all be a good fit for you. Just like, when visiting a gynaecologist, even if they will have the same clinical prescription for your condition, each doctor will have a vastly different approach. So choose a therapist whose approach suits you, and gives you that feeling of safety in your gut. You can also choose therapists based on specialisations you resonate with, such as those well-versed in relationship issues, childhood trauma, or anxiety. Because therapy is a process, feedback can and should be a part of it. If something is not working, tell them so, and change the approach together.

It is definitely different than talking to friends - We have all come across those Instagram posts that say speaking to your sister or best friend is the only therapy you need. That is a vast oversimplification. Firstly, you are doing your friends no favours by treating them as quasi-therapists, and secondly, therapists are not your friends.

Psychotherapy is an objective process led by a medical practitioner, who is trained to identify and help with trauma, depression, anxiety and so much more. While it looks like you are “just talking”, you are actually also reflecting, verbalising, identifying triggers, displaying patterns, and giving space to thoughts that do not get light in the common din of the everyday. That lets a healthcare practitioner help you objectively.

sex and the city

What “success” looks like in therapy, can evolve - Therapy is dynamic. Whether or not it is working, can be something as simple as feeling cathartic, to as long-term as you understanding your reactions, patterns, relationships and thoughts better. Or it can be as basic as this being the only space where you can “let it out”. As with every other health need, needs at therapy can also evolve.

Say you visit a nutritionist. Your first goal may be to fix your meal timings, then identify food sensitivities and then it can evolve to holistically treating your gut. And you might find them helpful for the initial goals but not for later. This can similarly happen with therapy. You might want to start out with something as basic as exploring this space and sharing what is overwhelming you in the present moment, be it workplace stress or relationship issues. 

Later, as you feel better able to cope with this, you might have other goals like managing negative emotions or trying to untangle a difficult relationship. It's important to be conscious of this evolution. It gives you a perspective on your own growth. 

Leave aside your fear of judgement - It is an approach I have used personally, and have advised other friends who were worried that the therapist will judge you on the basis of what you say. I say, half-jokingly to myself and others, a doctor probably does not judge you because you broke your arm, or because you got a tummy ache. So think of your therapist as another health practitioner, and take advantage of that time and space to express and ask questions you are otherwise afraid to say out loud.

While the majority of people who take therapy see benefits both in the short and long term, it is important to remember that it is absolutely okay if you feel it is not working for you. It can be because the therapist was not a good fit, or you are not in a place in life where therapy can benefit greatly, or you simply do not have the right support system that will help you assimilate your takeaways from therapy.

And sometimes, the systemic issues around us – war, genocide, the climate crisis, homophobia, sexual abuse - can all feel so overwhelming that within this context, therapy feels ineffective. If you are feeling that, it is okay. Many people also start, leave off in the middle, and pick it up again later and find it a more useful process. The first step to therapy being beneficial is to know that you have the agency to choose what works for you.

Swarnima Bhattacharya is the Co-founder & Chief Product Officer of Gytree. Views expressed by the author are their own

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