Can Depression Get Worse During Therapy?

Therapy can be a complex process with many ups and downs. Many people believe that therapy is supposed to make you feel better. While that’s generally true, however, there are times when therapy can make you feel worse.

Key takeaways:

One of the most challenging things about therapy is that it can often dredge old memories and feelings that you’d rather keep buried. This can be extremely painful and make you feel worse before you start feeling better.

Still, in the long run, therapy is beneficial in making you feel better and developing healthier coping skills. Feeling worse after therapy is completely normal, and there are several things you can do to manage this experience during therapy.

Why can therapy make depression worse?

When it comes to therapy, progress isn’t always linear. You may sometimes find that you’re healing and feeling better, only to experience a setback or decline weeks later.

There are a few reasons why therapy might make you feel worse.

Challenging memories and emotions

Therapy can be a difficult and emotionally challenging process. It often involves talking about the past and reflecting on how your experiences have shaped your current situation.

Whether you had a traumatic experience as a child or need to process past relationships and challenges, you’re guaranteed to process some difficult emotions in therapy. Dredging up old memories and challenging emotions can bring about many uncomfortable feelings, leaving you feeling worse than when you started.

Old coping patterns

We all develop coping skills to deal with what life throws at us. Those coping skills might help us in the short term but lead to problems in the long run. One of the most beneficial parts of working with a therapist is having the opportunity to evaluate past coping mechanisms and develop new, more beneficial ones.

However, releasing old coping patterns and adopting new ones isn’t always an easy process. It can be difficult to let go of the things that have helped us get through tough times in the past, even if they're no longer serving us well. You might find that this experience makes your depression worse in the short term.

Changing when others aren’t

Relationships and connections to others are fundamental to what makes us human. You might find that those relationship dynamics change when you’re in therapy. Change is at the heart of therapy, and that can be difficult for some people to accept.

Many people report encountering resistance from friends and family when they set new boundaries or adopt new coping mechanisms. Encountering this resistance might make you feel worse in the short term, but will be worth it in the long run.

Why feeling worse in therapy is good

Feeling worse during therapy might make you think that you’re doing something wrong or that therapy isn’t working. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

It can feel counterintuitive, but feeling worse in therapy can be a sign that therapy is working. Here's why:

You're finally facing your problems

For a long time, you may have been avoiding your problems or numbing yourself with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Therapy forces you to meet your problems head-on, which can be painful. In therapy, you will learn how to deal with your problems in a healthy way. You will also learn how to communicate better and how to manage your emotions. This process might make your depression worse initially, but it’s worth it in the end.

You're no longer numbing yourself

If you've been using unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs to numb yourself, or simply dissociate from your negative emotions, therapy will help you deal with your feelings more productively. This can be difficult at first, and you may find the flood of emotions overwhelming initially, but it's an important step forward in the long run.

You're challenging your negative beliefs

Many of our problems are caused by negative thoughts we have about ourselves. These beliefs can be so ingrained that we're not even aware of them. But they can have a huge impact on our lives, dictating how we interact with others and how we see ourselves. In therapy, we often explore these beliefs and start to challenge them. This can be a difficult and painful process, but it's essential if we want to change our lives for the better. As we challenge our beliefs, we may start to feel worse before we feel better.

It’s important to remember that healing is a process, and it doesn’t always happen in a straight line. There will be ups and downs, but as long as you’re trying and still showing up, you’re making progress.

How to cope with feeling worse during therapy

If you’re feeling like your depression is getting worse in therapy, there are several things you can do.

  1. Don’t quit therapy: You might think that therapy isn’t working for you or doing more harm than good. If you feel worse after therapy, it’s vitally important that you stick with it.
  2. Talk to your therapist: If you’re feeling worse after starting therapy, it’s important to talk to your therapist about it. They can help you to understand why you’re feeling worse and how to address it. They also might be able to adopt a different approach that you’d find more helpful.
  3. Ask for support: Tell your friends, family, and other people in your life what you’re going through. Ask them to support you during this challenging time.

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