You have a standing appointment with your therapist. You may count on that regularly to help you tackle any challenges that you encounter. But what happens if your therapist goes on vacation or needs to take an extended leave?
If you rely on seeing the same person week after week, finding out that you will have to spend a period of time without their support can be daunting. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make this transition easier.
Here are some tips on how to handle it when your therapist takes a break:
Create a personalized leave plan ahead of time with your therapist
Brittany Fagan, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach in Atlanta, suggested that clients work with their therapist prior to their leave to “develop a written plan in the event that they are triggered, based on your strengths, coping skills and available resources.”
To do this, take a moment to consider your past and current triggers and how you have been able to navigate them successfully. “If there are areas that you are still concerned with managing, use the last one to three sessions before your therapist goes on leave to address them or learn specific coping mechanisms,” she said.
Get the details on their leave
In most cases, your therapist will provide you with relevant information about their absence, explained Ana Jovanovic, a psychologist with Parenting Pod, a resource catering to the mental well-being of families. She noted that the reason therapists do this is to manage your expectations about the continuation of your work while they’re gone.
Per Jovanovic, if your therapist does not share this information with you themselves, it may be useful for you to ask them about:
The duration of their absence
The nature of their absence (for example, they may be traveling and be physically absent yet available for online check-ins, or they may be completely unavailable)
Their availability during their absence (are they available to answer emails, return phone calls or have online sessions or not?)
Their availability after their absence
“This may prove to be very valuable in deciding whether to wait for their return or to look for other resources in their absence,” she said.
Accept your emotions around the situation
A relationship between a therapist and a client is often incredibly deep, so leaving such a strong and meaningful connection ― even if it’s just for a few weeks or months ― can feel disorienting, said Ashley Kreze, a registered clinical counselor and psychotherapist based in Vancouver.
Feeling confused, sad, anxious, scared, lonely or angry in this situation is completely normal. Kreze said it’s important not to criticize yourself for having these emotions.
“Don’t try to push them or run away from them. Instead, let yourself feel them and discuss them with your therapist,” she said. “Since the relationship between you and your therapist is built upon trust, acceptance, and confidentiality, discussing these hurtful emotions may provide some level of understanding and, more importantly, comfort and healing. This situation is exactly what your therapist is there to help you with ― so don’t be afraid to use it therapeutically.”
Ask for a recommendation for a stand-in
When your therapist takes a leave, they will likely refer you to someone who is covering their practice or another therapist for you to see in their absence, said Sharon Saline, a licensed clinical psychologist and ADHD expert in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Ideally, she said, you would give your therapist permission to talk to this person ahead of time so they have some idea of what your general concerns are and how you’ve been working on them in therapy. Saline added that it can be helpful to use this time to see someone who does adjunctive work that would support your work with your therapist but not replace it.
“For example, I’ve seen a few people who wanted more specialized work on ADHD and improving executive functioning skills while their primary therapist was away. We focused on these areas as a complement to the other treatment they were receiving,” she explained.
If you don’t want to hop in with a new therapist, another alternative could be to join a therapy group, support group or online group, said Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist in Chicago.
Swap your appointment time for another healthy activity
Use your standing appointment time to do something good for your health, suggested Nancy Irwin, a psychologist with Seasons in Malibu, a Southern California-based addiction facility.
“During the hour you would normally have therapy, do something that is self-caring: meditate, get a massage, read, work out,” she said.
As an added exercise, Irwin suggested visualizing or journaling what you would share if you were in therapy during this time and saving that for when you return to normal sessions.
Assess your daily habits before your therapist leaves
“Consider your current day-to-day lifestyle and think about what areas you can change to decrease your overall stress while your therapist is on leave,” Fagan said.
This includes doing a life assessment ahead of time with your therapist and considering making some slight changes to make life more manageable to the point you feel more in control. “For example, adhering to a better sleep schedule, adding an extra exercise class or gym day, not working overtime or not over-scheduling yourself,” she said.
Take a break
It’s OK to pause therapy every so often, especially if you have been in treatment for a while, Jackson said. She noted, however, that this advice does not apply to everyone.
“Those who are at higher risk for relapse into destructive or negative places or are at risk for self or other harm are some examples of those who must continue treatment with another practitioner while their therapist is away,” she said.
Overall, look at it as an opportunity to practice what you have learned
Although your therapist’s leave can be a pretty scary thing, it’s also a time to examine your progress, Kreze said.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity to practice your psychological coping skills on your own and get to know yourself even better,” she said.
This can also be a time for evaluating areas where you’re still struggling. But the most important thing to do while your therapist is gone, she added, is “continue practicing what you have learned in therapy, whether it’s with a new therapist or on your own.”