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Anxiety symptoms

5 ‘Homework’ Exercises to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Therapy can change your life, but only insofar as you’re willing to let it. The truth is that an hour or two a week sitting in a therapist’s office talking about your problems is unlikely to change anything at all about your existence. It’s what happens in between sessions that matters most. Many good therapists give their clients specific homework assignments to encourage them to practice the skills they learn in therapy as part of their everyday lives. These five homework assignments can save you time and money by helping you cultivate the skills you wish to master as quickly as possible.

Cultivate Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to live in the present moment, and research consistently shows that this skill can expedite the process of recovery while making everyday stress easier. Some strategies for cultivating mindfulness include:

  • Meditating for 10-20 minutes every day.
  • Slowing down and taking deep breaths for one minute every hour.
  • Taking time to ground yourself in your surroundings by noting where you are, how it feels, and what you’re doing a few times each day.
  • Doing a muscle relaxation exercise each day.

Notice Your Automatic Thoughts

A lifetime of stress teaches us all some bad skills. Whether you realize it or not, you probably have a number of automatic thoughts that undermine your wellness. Maybe you tell yourself your fat, or constantly reiterate that your significant other is going to leave you. Taking time to notice these automatic thoughts can help you understand how they harm you. Once a day, sit down and contemplate the most common negative thoughts you experience. Then consider an alternative, positive replacement. For instance, if you constantly tell yourself, “You’re a failure,” consider something like “You are trying your best and getting better every day” instead. These subtle changes in thinking can add up to big changes in your quality of life.

Change Your Relationship(s)

If one of the reasons you are in therapy is that your relationships are troubled, take every opportunity you can to change the way you relate to people. Every relationship problem requires at least two participants, so by changing your own behavior, you can steadily work toward changing the other person’s behavior, too. Some strategies to try include:

  • Commit to doing something, anything different in a troubled relationship. For instance, if your mother is needlessly intrusive and you’re not sure what to do, try calling her less, or only spending time with her when she is unobtrusive.
  • Say something nice to your significant other each day.
  • Commit to stopping all criticism of your children or spouse for at least a week.
  • Schedule a weekly date with your best friend, cousin, or another person who is a positive influence in your life.
  • Don’t forget about your relationship with your pets! Take your dog for a walk each day, or commit to 15 minutes of play time with your cat.

Set Positive Goals

You won’t get better if you’re not steadily setting, and striving for, specific goals. Sit down with your therapist and make a list of long and short-term goals. Then break these goals into actionable weekly, monthly, and daily steps. For instance, if yo want to lose weight, you might commit to giving up one soda each day for a week, then doing yoga one day a week the next week, then steadily increasing your exercise load until you’re running almost every day. Goals are achieved through lots of small steps, and by breaking daunting ambitions into manageable steps, you bring your dreams closer to reality.

Stop Yourself From Automatically Reacting

Life teaches us a number of skills, but sometimes those skills no longer serve us. You might have learned from your alcoholic father to constantly monitor other people for signs of anger. But maybe now, that fear affects your romantic relationships. Consider the ways you automatically react to things—with anger, fear, or aggression, for instance, then commit to stopping at least one automatic reaction a week. By steadily monitoring yourself, and thinking before you react, you slowly learn new skills that will serve you better.