What to Do When Your Therapist is Away
Like anyone else, therapists, counsellors and psychologists need regular breaks, in order to be happy and healthy, as well as to work to their optimum. This said, as soon as they begin working with a client they are obligated to look out for the client’s safety and wellbeing until such a time that the therapy comes to an end. Part of this includes working with a client to help them feel comfortable functioning in their absence, be that between sessions or when they are away.
The winter break is coming up and your therapist might be looking to take some time off. Or perhaps, like anyone else, your therapist may become ill or need to spend some time away from work due to an unforeseen event. It’s not always easy being left to deal with life without them, for whatever reason. For some people, the idea of their therapist being unavailable may even trigger old feelings of abandonment - the very thing they might be covering in their sessions. If that feels like it might be you, or if you are feeling slightly anxious about the prospect of a prolonged gap between sessions, then read on for some top tips for handling this.
- Firstly and most importantly, if you reach a crisis point whilst your therapist is away (and even in between normal sessions), you should be aware of appropriate services and hotlines that can help you deal with this, 24/7. In the UK, some of those hotlines include the Samaritans and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. In Germany, there is the Suicide Hotline. In France, try Les Conduites Suicidaires. If I’ve not listed your current location here, please do search online as chances are your country will also have free crisis hotlines which you can call at any time for a confidential chat and support.
Remember, if you are at risk of harming yourself or someone else, you can also head to your local A&E (emergency) department who will take care of you.
- It’s important that you chat to your therapist before they go away (if possible) about when and how you can communicate with them between sessions, if at all. Usually therapists cover this when you start working with them, but if you or they have forgotten then please do bring it up with them at your next session, so that you are aware. Likewise, you could take a look at your contract, where these details should be clearly laid out.
Some therapists are happy to take crisis calls between sessions and some are not. Some may be responsive via email or text, whereas others may switch off entirely when they are away. It’s important that you know their policy, in order to be prepared. It’s also imperative that you respect your therapist’s boundaries.
- Talk to your therapist before they leave about how you feel about the upcoming break. As ever, you can share with them all of your feelings, safe in the knowledge that you will not be judged for them. If you are angry, tell them. If you are sad, afraid or disappointed, let them know. It may be the case that these feelings reveal something deeper that might be beneficial to your work together. Understanding this and naming your feelings might also make it easier for you to deal with them in your therapist’s absence.
- Some therapists might recommend a practitioner you can speak with during their absence. It’s not that common, particularly if you don’t request it yourself, but if you feel this might be helpful then it’s worth talking to your therapist. This said, remember it can take weeks and months for your therapist to understand you and your thought and behaviour patterns - it may end up being more frustrating to find yourself “back at square one” than it is simply to allow yourself a break.
- Speaking of which, embracing the time off is also a legitimate response. As you would on your own holiday, you may choose to enjoy the rest whilst your therapist is away. Perhaps you can use the opportunity as a chance to reflect on how far you’ve come and what you’ve learnt? Remember, your therapist is there to help provide you with the tools to tackle life yourself - every inch of progress you’ve made so far is down to you applying those techniques. You can absolutely do that in their absence and, in fact, doing so may help build your confidence in your own abilities. Again, you could speak to your therapist about doing this in the sessions leading up to the break.
- It may be worth jotting down a plan of how you’ll look after yourself (physically and mentally) in advance - either alone or with the help of your therapist. Eating well, exercising and sleeping enough will certainly help put you on a good path. You can think about which other activities and exercises may (or may not) help you over the upcoming weeks. Try to consider what you’ll do if things feel like they’re becoming unmanageable - who you can turn to, perhaps a close friend or family member? Again, the crisis lines above may be useful.
- It’s worth taking it slow in the sessions leading up to the break, as it can be very uncomfortable covering new ground or exposing something traumatic and then being unable to access support for a long period of time. As always, you can broach this with your therapist - they should understand.
- Talk to your loved ones (if you feel comfortable) about how you feel about your therapist being unavailable for a while. They may be able to step up and offer you some more support during this period. Alternatively, you could have a look online to find a support group - there are many out there, and it may be very helpful to speak with others in a similar situation.
- Journal lots. Explore how you are feeling about taking a break from therapy. You could even write a letter to your therapist explaining this - whether you share it with them or not is up to you, of course. Likewise, whilst they’re away you could continue with this practice and see what feelings have been thrown up for you and how you’ve coped with the time off.
- Make some nice plans for that period, so that you have lots of fun ways to take your mind off things and focus on other aspects of your life. For instance, you could reach out to your friends or family, or you may decide to dedicate more time to a hobby, such as reading or painting.
It’s not always easy when the person you have come to rely on each week is unavailable, but it’s important to remember that you do have the tools to self-soothe - that’s part of what you’ve been working on during your therapy so far. Try to have faith in yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Wishing you luck, and a restful holiday period yourself!
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.
Stillpoint is an organisation that aims to make psychology more publicly accessible, through events, online content and a virtual community for the psychologically curious.