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How to know if it’s time to stop therapy, according to therapists themselves

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Tiffany AyudaDecember 16, 2019

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Whether you’re processing grief, going through a breakup, or experiencing depression, practically anyone can benefit from therapy at some point in their lives. Depending on the type of therapy a person pursues (from standard “talk” therapy to something more focused like EMDR), it can help them get more comfortable talking about uncomfortable things and teach them how to cope with difficult situations. But for many patients, there eventually comes an endpoint to their therapeutic journey.

“There’s still an idea floating around that you go to therapy because you need to or because you’re not equipped to handle challenges without a therapist. I approach my own therapy—and also the way I offer therapy to my clients—not from the lens of ‘do they need this,’ but ‘will this make their life easier?’” says Katherine Schafler, LMHC, a New York City-based psychotherapist who is currently working on her first book.

To that end, many people may reach a point where they feel like their life is indeed easier, thanks to the skills and learnings they’ve obtained from their sessions. And that’s typically a sign that’s it’s time to move on—at least for now, Schafler says. “I don’t subscribe to one-and-done therapy. It’s great that you went to therapy for a year after your divorce, for example, but now it’s six years later. Maybe a lot happened between now and then,” she says. “Breaks are healthy for most people.”

But how exactly do you know when it’s time to stop or take a break from therapy? We talked to therapists themselves to find out.

What are the signs that you should stop therapy?

Before you decide it’s time to stop, you have to be in tune with what you’re hoping to get out of therapy in the first place—because otherwise you have no benchmark with which to judge your progress. “One of the things that should be going on is identifying why you’re in therapy,” says Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC, a TalkSpace psychotherapist. “We’re having an ongoing conversation about pushing you out into the world,” she says.

When you’re ready to end therapy, both you and your therapist should thus have a sense that things are starting to wind down, Dr. Cirbus says. “You don’t have to be completely symptom-free to end therapy. It’s knowing that you can have a life that’s manageable without having a therapist there,” she says.

In more concrete terms, some signals that it’s possibly time to stop therapy include reaching the goals that you’ve been talking about with your therapist, says Schafler, feeling good about the support system you’ve set in place, as well as feeling more confident about how to respond to triggers and hurdles you encounter in your day-to-day life.

“A lot of people go to therapy without a specific goal in mind but intuitively feel that they’ve successfully moved through the reason they engaged in therapy in the first place. This intuitive sense counts too,” Schafler adds.

There are other hints though that might not be so clear-cut—which is why it’s so important to keep having conversations with your therapist about how you’re progressing. For example, if you’re struggling to think about what you should talk to your therapist about each week, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to move on. Are you uncomfortable addressing issues, or is it because you don’t feel like there’s anything notable to bring up? “Talk to your therapist about your struggle. It could be that you’re so overwhelmed you don’t know where to begin, or that you don’t have anything that feels salient to you and you’re having a lot of difficulty saying goodbye,” Schafler says.

How to manage the transition post-therapy

Once you and your therapist agree on termination—the name for ending a course of therapy—you’ll agree on the date of your last session and gradually reduce the number of times you meet until then. During this transitional period, Dr. Cirbus recommends creating a maintenance plan that includes joining a community, like a support group, run club, or writers workshop. “It’s good to give yourself a refresh of everything you’ve already learned in therapy. What ways are you going to support yourself? How are you going to manage anxiety? What are your triggers and warning signs?” she says. This is particularly important, Schafler says, for people who have experienced depression, addiction, and other chronic issues.

This phase is also a good time to reflect and think about what you would like to focus on during the remaining sessions with your therapist. “Approaching the situation from an informed place is really useful. I usually send my clients articles on what to consider before, during and after termination,” Schafler says. “Therapy is a pretty intimate relationship. Both therapists and clients become attached to each other. That’s sort of the point. Saying goodbye to those attachments can bring a lot of useful work to the surface.”

A month or so after your last session, Schafler says it’s a good idea to set up a follow-up date with your therapist so you can touch base about how you’re feeling after ending things. “You can check in via email, a quick call, or an in-person session. Often, it’s not anything that happens during this call or follow-up session that’s so impactful but knowing that you have it and that if anything comes up, you’ll have a container space to explore it—and potentially change your mind—later,” Schafler says.

No matter your decision, know that seeking—and learning from—therapy is an admirable pursuit. “Seeking counsel is a long-standing tradition that all the best leaders and influencers smartly engage in. The strongest people are the ones who connect to support,” says Schafler.

How common is it to lie during therapy? Here are the deets. And here’s how to deal with that intense emotional hangover than can come after intense therapy sessions.

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