Before you go
• Do a background check.
There are three basic types of psychological professionals. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental-health issues and can prescribe medications (best if you have a mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or definitely want to use medication); psychologists have usually earned Ph.D.s and also specialize in mental-health issues (best if you don't think the issue you're facing, whether it's anxiety or an eating disorder, will require meds); licensed clinical social workers have master's degrees and specialize in very specific areas like self-esteem, relationship counseling and so on (best if you need help in one particular area, and again, don't think you need medication).
To find a reputable therapist, call the American Psychological Association's referral service at (800) 964-2000. You can also locate groups devoted to specific conditions online, such as the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, which has a doctor-finder feature on its website (www.adaa.org).
• Write down your major concerns.
Therapy can be challenging, and a first visit can be especially tough because you don't know each other. Write down a clear outline of what you want help with. If you're feeling really uneasy, simply hand the notes to the therapist when you first meet.
During the visit
• Make sure the two of you mesh.
"During your first visit, don't focus too much on the content of the conversation," suggests Faith Tanney, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. "Instead, see if you're comfortable talking with the therapist, and make sure you don't feel judged or disrespected."
• Evaluate her MO.
There are dozens of different types of therapy -- everything from art therapy to hypnosis -- so it's important to make sure that what your doc practices jibes with your needs. For example, if she insists that all of her stress-management clients meditate and you know you'll never comply, it's best to check out someone else.