5 benefits of asking for homework in therapy

Most therapists agree that doing work outside of therapy sessions is crucial to feeling better, but it’s hard to know what those efforts should look like.

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By Kristen Parisi

The decision to enter into any sort of mental health treatment is never easy. When I went back to therapy over a year ago, I went at the encouragement of friends who noticed I wasn’t acting like myself and that I seemed depressed.

It wasn’t my first foray into therapy. My first experience was right after I was paralyzed in a car accident at 5 years old. After that, I had nominal success when I was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in high school. However, now in my early 30s, my problems kept creeping back to the surface.

Similar to countless others, these recurring problems had manifested in ways that impacted my daily life and self-esteem at work and in relationships.

I wanted therapy this time to truly give me the tools I needed to handle my illness better. I had to try a new approach: I asked for assignments of things I should work on for the following week. Every therapist I talk to says doing work outside of therapy is crucial to feeling better, but sometimes it’s hard to know what those efforts should look like. Asking for weekly “homework assignments” can provide concrete direction and focus of how to continue the work, and it has been the single best thing I’ve done for my depression recovery.

Most weeks are different, and at the worst of my depression I was having three sessions a week, so the homework assignments were as simple as writing down one thing I like about myself, or leaving the house for 10 minutes every day. While these may sound like easy tasks, anyone who has struggled with severe depression will tell you it can feel impossible to take these baby steps.

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Here’s five benefits I experienced:

1. It provides pride and control in the process.

Having more of a stake in my therapy journey has been awesome for my self-esteem. When I was at my sickest, completing my homework gave me a sense of accomplishment, even if I felt like I didn’t get much else done.

2. It’s easier to track progress.

In therapy, there are peaks and valleys of progress, triumphs and frustrations. But in looking at what my assignments were a year ago versus now, it’s a huge indicator of how far I have come. It’s no longer hard to come up with a few things I’m proud of and we can look back and say, “OK, I’ve worked on this and feel good about it. What’s next?”

3. You will learn a lot.

These assignments have helped me learn about how the brain works, about myself and lessened the stigma I had put on myself for having a mental illness. The key is to stay focused, and frequently check your homework assignments and make sure they point back to whatever goals you have.

4. It helps the bond between you and your therapist.

Everyone grows and learns differently. My homework is probably vastly different from what yours would be and that’s completely OK. Finding out what works for you will help your therapist get to know you in a different way. Personally, it gives my therapist and I a great starting point for every session, and has a clear deliverable for the next time we speak.

5. It will help you progress faster.

Look at it this way: When you start working with a personal trainer, do you only work out that one or two days a week when you meet, or are you working out outside of your sessions? Sure you will still make some progress eventually, but it will take you longer if you don’t do the work in between. The same goes for therapy. Neither one can be rushed, but there must be consistent effort, day in and day out.

I know how hard it is to make the choice to seek help. It’s hard to walk into that room for the first time, or recognize there’s something going on. So many people who are confused or suffering, do so alone. This may not work for everyone, but therapy homework has set me up for success and I hope can do the same for many others.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line. Or if you or a loved one needs help with depression, visit SAMHSA.gov or call the hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).