Sick about going to counseling

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,

Fear not! It's not unusual for people to feel uncomfortable or scared about counseling, as there are a variety of reasons why someone may experience apprehensiveness to therapy. This could include, but is not limited to, being afraid of opening up to a stranger, feeling that only certain types of people go to therapy, having grown up in a culture that shames people who see a counselor, or that their issues need to be earth-shattering to justify seeking professional help. While it's perfectly normal to experience fear, there are things you can try to overcome it or sit with it as you move forward with therapy. Recognizing and naming your fear is often helpful when trying to find a solution, along with reflecting on it and preparing a little for what to expect during a session.

Prior to going, it may be helpful to understand why you feel fear of seeking help from a mental health professional. Are you nervous about their response to your concerns? Are you fearful of receiving a particular diagnosis? Are you concerned that people in your life will find out you're seeking help for mental health? Those may just be a few potential reasons. If you're able to think about why you feel so scared in the first place, it can help you to understand what the barrier may be so you can start to address it. 

It may also be helpful to think about what people get from the experience of seeing a mental health professional. While there are certainly people seeking support to help then manage their mental health, others may just need someone to talk through tough decisions, to learn how to help a friend in need, to gain perspective from an objective ear, or to cope with a difficult experience. No matter what your reasons, chances are that by taking that leap of faith, you'll get connected with resources and support to help you overcome whatever challenges you're facing. Perhaps hearing a little bit about the potential benefits of counseling can allay some of your fears. One of the reasons some people like counseling is the opportunity to have someone listen to you and only you without distractions and interruptions. But, if the thought of having to talk about yourself makes you feel even more anxious, some of these other benefits may appeal to you:

  • A gossip and judgment-free space: Mental health professionals abide by strict confidentiality guidelines (unlike even your best-intentioned friends and family). Your specific mental health professional can give you more details on the confidentiality policy, but you certainly don't have to worry about everyone and their mother hearing about what you're going through. 
  • Academic or job support: Mental health is just as vital as physical health when it comes to managing your everyday life. A mental health professional may be able to connect you with additional resources and skills training — such as time management resources, social skills training, or relaxation exercises — that might help enormously in improving your ability to manage school, work, or other day-to-day tasks that might be affected by your mental health.
  • An opportunity for self-respect: Seeking help is a sign of strength, as everyone needs support from time to time. Considering counseling can be a sign that you value and prioritize your well-being.

When thinking about the reasons that people seek mental health support, do you see any connections between those reasons and your fears? Are there misalignments with how your values fit together and the potential benefits of support? Are there ways that you can still acknowledge that fear and turn in the paperwork anyway, even if it's scary? Rather than trying to eliminate the fear, that may be something you choose to talk about with the mental health professional you see. You can explain to them that you find the process scary and that you found it challenging to turn in the paperwork. They may be able to help you through the process and provide appropriate support so that you can continue to get the care that you need. 

If you find that your fears are associated with the logistics of navigating a new health care space and using your counseling center's services, you can always call to the office, give a quick visit to a drop-in location, or peruse a review of their website to help ease your mind. If you're not even sure where to start, reading Types of therapists in the Go Ask Alice! archives for a quick guide on what different types of therapy have to offer may be a helpful start. Also, your mental health professional is there to help you! If you don't "click" with the first counselor you try, it's totally your decision to try someone new. You can also always be honest with your provider if you don't want to talk about a certain topic. It's your health and your brain, after all! 

Furthermore, if you still find that the thought of heading to a counseling center sends you running to the bathroom or has you sweating bullets, you may want to consider ways you can help ease yourself into that first session. This could include asking a trusted friend to come along and wait for you in the waiting room, or maybe planning a nice meal or an outing with friends as a "reward" for yourself after the session. You may also want to think about scheduling your appointment for a day and time when you will have plenty of time to relax before and after. Additionally, you can always tell your therapist during the first session about your fear and nerves about the session. That way, they can help you work through those feelings.

Overall, counseling is kind of like a workout for your brain to help keep it in good shape. It's healthy and normal to stretch and exercise the heart, lungs, and other muscles, so why not do the same for your thoughts and feelings? After taking that first step through the mental health professional's door, you might find that the fear is replaced by a sense of relief and comfort.

Remember: you and your health are always worth the effort.

Last updated Jul 01, 2022
Originally published Sep 28, 2001