Dear Alice,

I am scared to seek counseling. The papers are on my desk for me to turn in to the counseling center. But, something is holding me back, I'm not sure what. Do you have any suggestion as to how I can make the final step? There is something about getting past that initial first step that scares me to the point of nausea.

Dear Reader,

It is not unusual for people to be scared about seeking counseling. This can be for lots of reasons. Many people's culture or upbringing tells them that they should be able to handle their problems on their own, or that talking with a counselor is shameful. Some feel that only "crazy" people go for therapy (and don't want that label), or feel that their issues need to be earth-shattering to justify professional help. Others worry that going for counseling will make their problems all the more "real" — they'll be forced to look them in the face, and that can be very frightening. There are also those who fear that trying therapy once means going for the rest of their lives... which it doesn't.

The truth is that people talk with counselors and professional therapists for many different reasons. Especially on college campuses, where the services are usually free or very low-cost, it's not uncommon for students to come in to counseling centers simply to talk through tough decisions, learn how to help a friend in need, gain the perspective of an objective ear, or cope with an especially difficult experience. Of course, there are also many people who seek help for issues that they have been struggling with for a long time or that create a lot of anguish in their lives. The point is, the reasons people visit counseling centers are as varied as the people themselves, and much of the benefit of going is to learn to care for oneself in an atmosphere that is non-judgmental and supportive.

In fact, that's part of what can make going for counseling so great: how incredible is it to have someone listen to you, and only you, for fifty minutes without distractions and interruptions, or the listener insisting how "the same thing happened to me just the other day," or something else that can make you feel like your situation isn't special. 

Here are some other ways to look at it, too: like lots of things (trying a new sport, driving or walking a new route, talking with a new acquaintance, kissing), getting through that first time seems impossible, but with time and practice, things gradually start to feel as comfortable as tying shoelaces... well, almost at least. Another idea is to think of counseling as a workout for your brain. It's normal to stretch and exercise the heart, lungs, and other muscles — why not do the same for our thoughts and feelings?

Perhaps just knowing all of this can help you motivate yourself to take that final step, fill out the papers, make an appointment, and keep it. Not only is it okay to see a counselor, it is a sign of strength and self-respect. If you have other concerns about using your counseling center's services, a call to the office or a visit to their Web site might help ease your mind. For example, counselors abide by strict confidentiality guidelines. Speak with your therapist at the beginning of your session to find out how issues of insurance, parental communication (if you are under 18), or academic affairs are handled. At Columbia, no information about your counseling is shared with anyone unless you sign a written consent form. You can learn more about Columbia's Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) on the Health Services at Columbia Web site or by dialing x4-2878.

If you still find that the thought of heading to the center sends you running to the bathroom, you might try:

  • Asking a trusted friend to come along and wait for you in the waiting room. Purchasing your favorite magazine, especially for use while you wait for your appointment.
  • Meeting a friend right before or right after your appointment for a nice meal or another "reward."
  • Scheduling your appointment for a day and time when you will have plenty of time to relax before and after. You might even want to try some simple relaxation techniques to ease your queasy stomach. The response to Wedding bell butterflies has instructions for Quick Calm, a deep breathing exercise.
  • Focusing on the positive reasons for getting counseling: taking care of yourself, feeling better in the long run, being proactive, tackling your fears, and learning new things about yourself.

Many people feel as you do when they consider going for counseling. After taking that final step, however, the fear is often replaced by a great sense of relief and comfort. Visiting the counseling center can be a way of reminding yourself that you are worth that effort.


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