As a culture, we’re more familiar with what goes into getting healthy physically than what it takes to get healthy mentally. However, these processes are more similar than you might think. Here are 6 reasons why going to therapy is like going to the gym.
Going to therapy is an active process.
When we go to the gym we expect to work. We expect to expend some energy, probably sweat, and most likely get a little out of breath and feel our muscles working. If we’ve never been to the gym before, we might expect to hire a personal trainer or use a published training program in order to know what exercises to do.
Therapy is an active process too. You probably won’t break a sweat, but you’ll be active internally, engaging in a cycle of reflection, communication, listening, and reflecting again. Your therapist is like your personal trainer, helping to design a program that will help you get from where you are to where you want to be. They’ll be right there with you, and you still have to do the work.
There's a sweet spot for intensity.
At the gym, if it’s your first day there and you try to match the weights of a more experienced lifter, you’ll be discouraged at best and injured at worst. Even though we all have an ego that wants us to look good and feel like we compare well to others, we have to honour our current capability in order to achieve a feeling of success that keeps us coming back and building up our strength even more.
In trauma-informed therapy, we call the same concept working within the window of tolerance. If we dive immediately into the most traumatic memory you have, there’s a risk of becoming overwhelmed, discouraged and possibly retraumatized. On the other hand, if we build up a sense of safety first, we can have a more successful experience processing that memory.
Our body gives us valuable feedback when we go to therapy or to the gym.
When we’re doing physical exercise, a process called proprioception sends information from our muscles and joints back to our brain to give us a sense of where we are in space. This helps us coordinate our movements and learn new exercises. Learning how to feel each muscle as it’s working helps us make sure we’re working effectively and preventing injury.
When we’re doing therapy (and at other times too) our body is also communicating with us about our internal experience through a process called interoception. This is why we get those butterflies in our belly when we’re nervous, or the lump in our throat when we’re sad. Just like at the gym, learning how to feel these sensations gives us valuable information about our experience and what it means to us.
Our mind doesn’t always like it, especially at first.
Humans are wired to conserve energy and maintain homeostasis. This is adaptive in an evolutionary environment where it was hard to find food and our literal survival depended on our safety and belonging in the group. However, it also means that there’s a bit of a hump to get over when we want to change. The little voice inside that says “let’s just not do the workout today” or “I’d rather watch tiktoks” is voting for staying still and sticking with what’s familiar even when that might not actually help you in the long run.
We build strength and capacity over time.
Just like there’s skill and strength involved in working out, there’s skill and strength involved in improving your mental health. In therapy, the development of that skill and strength happens on the inside so it’s harder to be objective about it, but it’s still there. Growth of these skills or strengths can look like identifying your emotions more easily, or being able to notice more physical sensations than you could before, or beginning to hold boundaries with other people, or managing your impulsive behaviour in a way that is in alignment with your values more often. There are so many ways this can show up, and it’s often gradual and hard to notice at first. Having a therapist who can reflect these changes back to you can make a big difference.
What we do outside the gym or therapy office matters too.
If you know any gym people, or watch their videos on social media, you know that they’re often very careful about their lifestyle. They’re getting a full 8 hours of sleep so that they can recover from their tough workouts, eating their protein and drinking enough water. They care about nutrition and know that it matters.
These things make a huge difference when you’re working on improving your mental health too, and can often be some of the easier things to change.
Staying motivated to keep at it, whether at the gym or in therapy, depends on your expectations and mindset. Growth and change take time, effort and care. Knowing what to expect can help you make the most of your investment and increase the chance that you'll achieve the results you're looking for.