Is It Okay To Pause Therapy? Understanding The Risks And Benefits

Updated October 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attending therapy sessions regularly can be an important part of improving and maintaining your mental health. Sometimes life gets in the way, though, and you may find that you need to step away for a short time. You might also feel the need for a break from the emotionally taxing work of counseling if it is especially taxing emotionally. Is it alright to pause therapy in these situations? And how can you minimize the impact on your progress in treatment?

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Online Therapy Can Be A Convenient Way To Stay Consistent

When you plan ahead and handle it carefully, a pause in therapy doesn’t necessarily have to negatively affect your course of treatment. Some may even benefit from taking time to reflect on what they’ve learned so far and how they want to move forward. If you decide you want to pause, it may be helpful to give your therapist ample notice, and you may want to discuss how you can continue to work on your mental health while you’re away. With the right preparations, taking a break from therapy doesn’t have to derail your treatment.

Why Pause Therapy?

Although regular participation in therapy sessions is often important for getting the best possible treatment outcome, there may be times when it’s appropriate to press pause. Here are some common reasons clients may request breaks from mental health counseling:

Scheduling Difficulties

You may be feeling swamped with work or family responsibilities to the point that it feels impossible to fit counseling sessions into your schedule. This may not be an ideal situation for a pause, since mental health care can be even more important when the pressures of daily life are mounting up. In these cases, online therapy may be easier to fit into your schedule than in-office therapy, given that you don’t have to commute to a therapist’s office. However, you may decide that if you also can’t fit online therapy into your schedule at this time, the stress of trying to make time for therapy outweighs the benefits. In that case, it may make sense to wait until things are a bit less hectic and schedule a limited break with the guidance of your current therapist.

Life Events

Another reason you might feel the need to take a break is if you’re undergoing a major life transition, such as having a child, moving to a new city, beginning a new job, or preparing to get married. These major changes can impact many areas of your life, and you may feel that you need time to adjust to the new situation and reassess your schedule. 

If you do take a break for this reason, once again, it may be worth considering what you can do to maintain your mental wellness during this time. Even very positive life changes can be major sources of emotional stress and put strain on relationships, and therapy can be a self-care tool that may be helpful when you’re navigating through such changes. 

Travel

You might also have travel plans that will take you away from therapy for an extended period. This could be something you plan yourself, like a long vacation or an extended trip, or something that comes up, like a temporary out-of-town work assignment. Note that travel may not always force you to pause therapy. If you get counseling through an online service like BetterHelp, you can connect with your treatment provider anywhere you have internet connection.

Financial Strain

In an ideal world, no one would have to interrupt mental health care due to lack of funds. But in reality, people sometimes have to make hard choices about whether therapy is affordable for them. However, you might want to talk with your treatment provider before pausing for this reason to explore your options. In some cases, a therapist may be able to offer temporary reductions in cost for clients who are having financial difficulty. Also, some online therapy services offer a sliding scale fee structure to treat people of all income levels.

Recharging Emotionally

Therapy sometimes calls on us to confront traumatic events, emotional blockages, or uncomfortable realizations about ourselves. Although this process may be necessary for healing, it can also be emotionally exhausting at times. After a particularly intense series of sessions, you might feel the need to press pause. You may feel that it would be helpful to take time to recharge emotionally and sort through your feelings about what’s come up so far in therapy. 

Before deciding that this is a sign you need a break, you might mention this concern to your therapist, who may adjust therapy as needed or help you form a plan to take care of yourself during a break.

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Assessing Whether To Continue

Different people can will have different experiences in therapy, and the length of time needed for treatment can vary widely from one person and situation to the next. Some people may need longer-term treatment, while others may find that they make significant progress in a shorter amount of time. The American Psychological Association reports that around 15 to 20 sessions are often sufficient for recovery for 50% of patients. If you think you’ve experienced the positive results you were seeking, you may decide that taking a pause on therapy would make sense for you. 

Are There Risks To Pausing Therapy?

The situations discussed above can all be valid reasons for putting therapy on hold temporarily, but what are the possible downsides? 

Interruptions in treatment may sometimes cause clients to lose ground, perhaps because the emotional coping skills they were learning are no longer being reinforced with regular sessions. 

There’s also a chance that what you intend as a short break from therapy might turn into a permanent break, which could have negative effects if this happens before an individual has achieved adequate improvement or symptom relief and developed new thought patterns. Research has found that ending treatment prematurely “hinders the effective delivery of mental health services across various settings, consumer populations, and treatment modalities.”.

However, a 2017 study  examined the effects of missing therapy sessions and concluded that it was unplanned no-shows, not cancellations, that had a negative effect on symptom change. Only unplanned no-shows led to worsening symptoms of mental illness. Planned absences didn’t seem to have this effect. This may suggest that if you know in advance that you’re going to need to pause therapy, you may be able to plan ahead and mitigate any possible negative effects.

Planning For A Pause From Therapy

Below are a few ways you may be able to reduce or avoid negative impacts on your mental health when pausing therapy:

1. Notify Your Therapist As Far In Advance As Possible

The more notice you give before putting therapy on hold, the more time you and your therapist will have to get ready for the change. If possible, it may be helpful to attend at least one more session before your break begins. This may help the transition feel less abrupt and help you mentally prepare. 

Also, if you take medication prescribed by a doctor for a mental health condition, it may be helpful to discuss your plan to pause therapy with your doctor, who may want to see you after a certain time away from therapy to assess how you’re doing.

2. Look For Alternate Resources

Even if you won’t be able to work with your current therapist during your time away, there may be other sources of help available. When pausing therapy due to financial reasons, for example, you might want to see if you can find free support groups or low-cost counseling through organizations you trust. You might also want to ask your therapist to recommend resources like self-help books, online wellness advice, and other tools you can use while you’re not in treatment. 

3. Practice While You Pause

Many kinds of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),  involve “homework” that your counselor asks you to do between sessions. This kind of regular practice may be even more important when you’re not receiving regular counseling. If you decide to pause therapy, it may be a good idea to develop a daily plan (with help from your therapist) for continuing to work on your mental health even during this pause. Possible exercises might include:

  • Journaling about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings
  • Practicing meditation
  • Scheduling brief moments throughout the day to reflect on your mood and behavior
  • Getting physical exercise
  • Practicing gratitude.
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Online Therapy Can Be A Convenient Way To Stay Consistent

4. Set A Return Date

Setting a fixed date at which you plan to resume therapy might help you avoid simply drifting away from it permanently. If the point of your time off is to consider whether your therapy is complete, you might resolve to make up your mind within a specific time frame. Or, if you’re not sure you’ll have the time or money for therapy, you can at least decide to take another look at your schedule and your finances in a few weeks or months.

5. Plan For The Hard Times

Some days without therapy will likely be more difficult than others. If you’ve been receiving treatment for substance use, for example, there might be times when you’re strongly tempted to relapse. You will probably want to talk in advance with your therapist about how to handle these difficulties, and what to do if you feel in urgent need of help. They may be able to give you options to get in touch with them, or at least point you toward some crisis resources.

Online Therapy May Help You Avoid A Pause

In some cases, taking a break from therapy can make sense, but in other cases, you may want to continue therapy but feel like you have to pause because of certain obstacles, —such as frequent travel, financial difficulty, new childcare needs, or scheduling difficulties. In these situations, online therapy can be a useful option to consider that can allow you to continue therapy until you overcome them. 

With online therapy, you can meet with a therapist from home or anywhere you have an internet connection, which may make it easier to schedule and continue therapy, even if you are traveling often or have a new baby at home. Also, online therapy tends to be more affordable than in-office counseling without insurance.

Research has also demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy for a of mental health concerns. For instance, one such study conducted a comprehensive review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of internet-based psychotherapeutic interventions, and it found that face-to-face and online treatment were equally effective. A study published in 2017 found that online therapy was effective for generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance use disorder, among other conditions.  Working with a therapist online could be an effective excellent way to avoid a gap in treatment.

Takeaway

There can be a variety of reasons why someone might choose to pause therapy, such as scheduling difficulties, major life events, financial difficulty, frequent travel, or a need to recharge emotionally. If you need to take time off from treatment, planning ahead with your therapist may help protect your mental health during your break from therapy. You and your therapist may be able to come up with a strategy to continue managing your mental health in the meantime. Also, you may find that online therapy offers a way to continue receiving support instead of pausing therapy. With BetterHelp, you may qualify for financial assistance to receive help from a licensed therapist. 

Also, BetterHelp allows you to be matched with an online therapist who has experience helping people with the specific challenges you’re facing. Take the first step toward connecting with an online therapist and reach out to BetterHelp today. Remote therapy may also offer a helpful way to avoid some common obstacles and continue therapy without needing to pause.

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