How Therapy Works: Nadia Alvarez
I met my friend Nadia through my sister, and as long as I've known her, she has been a positive, calming presence. She's kind, empathetic, and super intelligent, all of which likely make her the ideal personality type for her chosen profession: licensed therapist.
If you're like me and have never been to therapy, aren't you curious about it? What is it like? What can I expect? Will it really help? Nadia was kind enough to let me bounce some of these questions off her.
How did you decide that you wanted to pursue therapy as a career?
I always loved the idea of understanding people more so when I started college I floated among anthropology, psychology, sociology classes - and kind of loved them all. The class that really helped me make the decision was my Psychology of Human Sexuality class. I found it immensely empowering to take ownership of my sexuality as a woman and, in particular, a woman of color. After that, I committed to psychology and eventually that led me to clinical psychology where I use a culture- and gender-inclusive approach to mindfulness-based therapy.
What have been your biggest challenges and victories so far in this field?
One of the biggest challenges I think many therapists have in the beginning of their careers is towing the line between professional objectivity and empathy. It is easy to care too much at first and that can actually harm the therapeutic relationship. So learning early on to maintain those boundaries was difficult but definitely helped me grow as a therapist.
The victories are seeing my clients make choices that reflect growth and self-care. There is nothing more fulfilling that someone who starts to realize their self-worth and potential.
What are the biggest misconceptions about therapy that you have come across? (Does everyone lay down on a leather sofa like in the movies??)
Haha no, you don't lay down, unless you want to!
Normally, my adult clients choose to sit but I have had some of my younger clients lie on the couch or the floor. But, yes, there is usually a couch (mine is not leather) and a chair that a client can choose from to sit on.
Aside from that, the other big misconception is that your therapist is there to tell you what to do or give specific advice. Instead, the therapist is there to create a space for you to better understand situations/relationships/yourself so you that you can make your own decisions in a way that is more informed and potentially wiser than previous attempts.
Why should people go to therapy? Do you find that most people would benefit from therapy? Or is it only people with minor/major traumas they need to overcome?
Anyone can benefit from therapy. It is a space that is safe to talk about the stuff you don't necessarily feel safe talking about with other people. That may have to do with trauma, but, it may also be worries and fears you have. I have found that therapy can be really helpful for people who are not in crisis because they have the space to work on the little stuff that can build up over time. When a person is in crisis, that's all you really focus on so the other stuff may not get the attention it would otherwise. I tell my clients that taking care of your mental is similar to taking care of your car. If you get in a big accident, the car has to be in the shop for a long time because a lot needs work. Once the work is done you take back on the road by yourself. But, at the same time, even if there hasn't been a big accident, you still take your car in for tune ups, oil changes, etc. It keeps the car running smoothly. The same with our mental health and therapy.
What should one expect from a typical therapy session?
Your first session is usually an intake session, so the therapist will probably ask you a lot of questions about what is bringing you in, your history, work, social relationships, substance use, previous treatment, your family history, your goals for therapy to get a bigger picture of what is going on. After that, for the most part you bring up what is going on with some guidance from the therapist to keep you on track with the goals that you have set. The therapist will try and connect the dots on how things might be related, reflect on patterns they are noticing, normalize experiences, provide psycho-education, or even in some cases give "homework." Some therapists are more directive others let you take the driver's seat, it will depend on their orientation (the lens they practice from).
Do people ask you to diagnose them in social settings all the time? Do you mind?
Oh man. Yes. The first thing people say when they find out I am therapist is something like "Are you diagnosing me right now?" "What am I thinking?" "I better watch what I say around you!" The reality is that while I am not actively diagnosing every person I meet, I do see the world in part through my therapist background. However, it is unethical to diagnose someone not in treatment so I try to give more general guidance and advice. I am always happy share information and offer support.
You specialize in marriage and family counseling - can you give me your biggest piece of marriage advice?
Pay attention to your partner. The Gottmans (leading researchers in Marriage Therapy) describes as being essential in maintaining happy, long-lasting relationships is "turning towards" your partner's emotional bids and being mindful, aware, and responsive to the small interactions that the two of you have. It can be as simple as your partner asking you to check out something they have been working on. Positively responding to the bid is looking and commenting positively on what they show you: "Whoa, that's awesome babe, good job" even if you are tired or don't get why they care so much about it. It matters to them, and they matter to you so share in those moments with them.
With politics, violence, social media, people are STRESSED these days. What should we do?
Unplug. Turn the tv off. Log off of social media and news outlets. It is important to stay informed but the way the news if presented to us through all of these mediums, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or even traumatized. So take a break from it and engage in self-care like going outside and spending time in nature. Hang out with friends and family and have a politics-free night. Take care of your health: exercise, drink water, eat vegetables. It sounds small, but they are all ways we can insulate and attend to our needs so we have the strength to face the things we need to when we walk out the door.
Thanks so much, Nadia!