A beginner’s guide to Individual Counselling
What is Individual Counselling, and how does it work?
Individual counselling means sitting one-on-one with a professional counsellor, also known as a psychotherapist (or just a therapist). Folks attend 50-minute or 80-minute sessions, during which you two will interact in a warm and kind yet very intentional environment designed to improve your well-being and life quality.
What to expect and how to prepare for your first session?
Feeling nervous or anxious before your first session isn’t only common. It’s literally what everyone feels. Even as a therapist for over a decade, I feel nervous before counselling sessions.
The best preparation is to do your best to let go of the effort to control how things will go. We don’t need you to write notes, collect your thoughts or wear your best outfit. Counselling is about landing in a safe and non-judgmental environment. It’s about the pleasant surprise of being received positively, exactly like you are.
Who can benefit from Individual Counselling, and who should avoid it?
Counselling is most helpful for those who have accepted—or are close to accepting but could use a nudge—that there is something that could really stand to change in their life. Transformation occurs best when someone has recognized that while they cannot change others, they can achieve greater peace, deeper emotional regulation, stronger confidence and boundaries, more insightful life purpose and closer relationships for themselves.
Counselling is less helpful for those who have the belief that their life problems are entirely because of others and that they wouldn’t benefit from any growth themselves. If someone believes that they have already reached their highest level of healing and that everyone around them is the problem, they may not be at a stage of readiness to look at where their power is to create change.
Please note, this is not to victim blame for survivors of trauma. We are not endorsing some sort of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ model. On the contrary, we are looking for a way to compassionately empower autonomy and restore belief in self-love and capability.
Common misconceptions about Individual Counselling
Separating fact from fiction and understanding the reality of therapy
I very commonly hear folks say things like isn’t therapy just an expensive conversation? or shouldn’t I be able to work things out on my own?
A lot of these misunderstandings come from understanding counselling as talk therapy. If the process was just a discussion and advice, the above concerns would be very good points.
In the late 1990s, however, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk helped to change our understanding of what therapy really is. His brain research began to guide how the practice could be more effective, revealing what counselling is really doing when it is at its best.
Talk therapy is very misleading because a lot of the change is actually happening in the rest of the body. Meeting with a Thrive Counsellor means working with someone who is not only warm and accepting but is constantly intending to help redirect your attention towards releasing physical pain—clusters of nervous system energy known as somatic trauma.
Talking is part of it, but as The Body Keeps The Score articulates, it’s really the physical and automatic pathways of our brain and body that keep us stuck in self-defeating patterns of trying to avoid our own emotional injuries.
In terms of ‘working things out on our own,’ this is a persistent idea in society. The problem is, as humans, we are not very good at thinking. We are designed to resolve problems dialogically—between ourselves, another or a community. It is only in the modern information age that folks are constantly isolated to the point that constant fight or flight signals in the body feel normal.
We know from neuroscience (I recommend Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Relationship) that chronic isolation is actually frightening to the point that we simply get sick and disconnect from identity, purpose and greater health. Counsellors are like the jumper cables on the battery of your brain’s connection mechanism, activating something called the ventral vagal nerve pathway. This area of the nervous system helps us know who we are, what we want, and how to better seek out quality relationships that are safe and grounding.
Overcoming the stigma of Individual Counselling
Why seeking help is a sign of strength, and how to overcome the fear of judgment?
I have led groups of traumatized war veterans for 11 years now. I can tell you a number of times infantry soldiers told us that sharing their stories with the group was more frightening than entering a firefight. The fear of judgment and the grip of shame is so ancient and powerful that it gets the jump on our nervous systems and really can simulate the threat of danger or death.
But that is precisely why there is so much at stake here.
Seeking help is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It is willfully facing what you are afraid of so that you can be yourself more fully, can be more available to those you love, or have the courage to find people to love in the first place.
The stigmatic idea that help-seeking is shameful is so flawed I don’t even know where to start. We are utterly designed to connect to others, and most of the sickness we feel in the first place comes from the pain of rejection, abandonment and betrayal. We are community designed and Thrive when connected to others, so it’s absolutely critical to get out of the idea that raising your hand and saying hey… I’m not OK is a bad thing.
This is the beacon of hope so that those who care can help you get yourself back. It is perhaps one of the most important things you can do to restore trust and self-love.
Choosing the right therapist for Individual Counselling
How to research and compare therapists, what to look for in a therapist, and how to find the right fit for you?
While I go over this in detail in this recent article, I’ll share some brief notes here of what I recommend:
Ask your network, search Google or use Psychology Today as a very broad first look at who you might like to work with. Read lots of bios, and look at lots of photos, all the while paying attention to something important:
How do they make you feel? Stay tuned for those whose faces and words give you a twinge of safety, emotion or excitement. These are hints that there is something deeper in how they come across that will facilitate an effective therapeutic relationship—this being the biggest predictor of change.
Make a short list of around three and request free chats. Once again, pay attention to who feels best.
Note: Things like credentials and approaches are, of course, still important. If you’re looking for an IFS practitioner, you’ll obviously need to put weight on this. It is just my suggestion that the lion’s share of the energy be placed on how they make you feel since even the most brilliant and highly trained therapist will create slow change if you feel frightened and misunderstood in their presence.
Setting goals and tracking progress in Individual Counselling
How to define your goals, measure your progress, and make the most of your therapy sessions?
Measuring progress in counselling is different than losing weight or making sales. It is about learning to more safely relate to our emotions—something more abstract than measuring something outward and physical.
To this end, we encourage people to embrace that healing from anxiety, depression, and trauma is about learning where to ‘take off the armour’ and ‘put down the sword.’ The hyper-intellectual, progress-obsessed pursuits of modern society have us in constant fight or flight mode, wrestling with to-do lists and exhausting our logical left-brains.
The very process of tabulating goals and progress often has a lot to do with the very burnout I’ve seen in my clients. The desperate urge to control everything results from having endured unsafe circumstances.
We want to help you into a safe experience by taking your hands off the wheel a bit. What would it be like to trust the process instead of trying to manhandle it into something?
Now many may say I’m paying good money. How can you ask me not to measure goals?
Returning to my first paragraph, it’s more about changing how we measure goals. Shifting from a task-obsessed left brain, let’s start to listen to a flow-oriented right brain. The body. Feelings. Intuitive signals.
You can tell counselling is ‘working’ when: Situations feel less triggering. You ‘came down’ quicker from a bad feeling. You decided to take more time for yourself than work. You set a boundary with a family member. You feel less need to escape the moment. Sharing scary personal feelings feels easier.
Insurance coverage for Individual Counselling
What to know before starting therapy and how to check if your insurance covers it?
Folks often reach out and ask us questions like do you take Sunlife? Within most counselling practices, it’s not that we take insurance, but rather do insurance policies cover us. Since the pandemic, most insurance plans do now cover Registered Counselling in British Columbia (I cannot speak for other provinces).
We strongly encourage you however to log into your plan or give them a ring and ask do you cover counselling. If you know the specific counsellor you’ll be working with, you may wish to ask if they cover the specific type of counsellor they are. For instance, at Thrive, we have Registered Clinical Counsellors, Canadian Certified Counsellors, and Registered Therapeutic Counsellors—all just meaning they have registered with different governing bodies. In most cases, however, if they cover counselling, they’ll cover all three.
Please note we are not Psychologists or Social Workers. If you only see these two designations, it means that counselling is most likely not covered.
Individual Counselling Guide FAQs:
Can Individual Counselling help with anxiety and stress-related problems?
Yes. The counselling used at Thrive is informed by neuroscience and is intended to help clients ‘de-escalate’ from short-term and chronic stress—something we often call ‘activation’ of the nervous system. The process and methods we use help individuals, couples and families to exist more often in their ‘sweet spot’ of body energy: Not ‘too hot’ (anxiety) and not ‘too cold’ (depression).
Can Individual Counselling help with depression and other mood disorders?
Yes. Similar to the above answer surrounding anxiety, the same thing applies. The only difference with depression is that we’re helping individuals out of their ‘collapse and shut down’ circuitry—an even more anxious response to danger than anxiety. A safe therapeutic relationship with meaningful goals related to identity, purpose and relationship can help people out of depressed states.
Can Individual Counselling help with addiction and substance abuse?
Our position is that addiction most often has to do with the best attempts to feel better, manage pain in the body and feel a sense of chemical balance. Because our work is about liberating trauma from the body, this often results in less need to escape the present into self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Can Individual Counselling help with eating disorders and body image issues?
Yes. These particular issues are best supported by counsellors with training particularly suited to relationships with food and the body. Indeed, folks can feel better as a result of counselling when their therapist can help them to safely examine and untie the knots related to eating and self-image.
Can Individual Counselling help with trauma and PTSD?
Definitely! Our entire clinic is founded on a foundation of trauma theory and an understanding of what happens in the nervous system when someone is experiencing the effects of post-traumatic stress. If you choose to work with us to treat trauma, you’ll first be met with psychoeducation around the brain and body before moving into a treatment based on Judith Herman’s Triphasic Theory of Trauma.
Can Individual Counselling help with relationship problems and communication issues?
Yes, but it’s not the ideal tool for the job. While individual therapy can help folks to better speak their needs and boundaries and to articulate themselves confidently and clearly, it is limiting if we aren’t actively working with the others involved. For this, we recommend relationship or couples counselling.
Carson Kivari is the Founder and Clinic Director of Thrive Downtown, with 17 years of experience helping individuals and couples overcome anxiety, depression, and burnout. He guides clients on a journey of self-exploration and trauma release to find purpose, connection, and safety. Take the first step towards healing and contact Carson today to schedule a session.