Recently, I was chatting with a friend about how things had been going with me and my therapist, when she made a simple, off-hand comment about her own therapy routine: After her appointment, she always walks across the street to the grocery store.
Beyond mere logistical convenience, the exercise serves an important purpose. "I like walking around that familiar place, not talking to anyone, just grabbing what I’ll need for the rest of the week. It allows me to reflect alone before I go home to my partner," Lena* said. She added that, if she speaks with her therapist over the phone rather than in person, she’ll make herself a meal or snack when they hang up. "Having some time to myself, and filling this basic need really allows me to process my thoughts," she shared.
The conversation made me realize that I, too, do the same thing every time I see my therapist — namely, I listen to paranormal podcasts and go to the farmer’s market — and doing so helps me feel like I have the chance to decompress. Though it might not seem like much, finding even a moment of quiet after therapy can help me rehash what was covered during the last session.
When I asked another friend, Jess*, what she likes to do after therapy, she explained that she actually can’t run errands or spend time at home, like me or Lena. “I have to go to work right after my appointment, but I find that I’m always a little calmer or less triggered by otherwise stressful things in the first few hours of the morning.” However, she adds that she and her partner, who is also in therapy, will debrief their appointments at the end of the day: “We talk about what we talked about, which I know is weird, but it does help me remember and reflect on what was discussed.”
Though we all go about it differently, all three of us have developed routines that ultimately help us process the work we did during our therapy appointments. To determine whether establishing a “post-therapy ritual,” so to speak is truly beneficial, InStyle tapped two mental health experts to discuss the concept further.
Why Setting Time After Therapy to Process Is So Important
If you’d rather sit quietly with a cup of tea than run errands after therapy, don’t worry — there’s no one correct way to spend your time after therapy. “There isn’t a prescription for how somebody might [reflect on their session],” Vaile Wright, Ph.D., a psychologist and the American Psychological Association’s director of research and special projects says. “Ideally, from a therapist’s perspective, you’d want somebody to leave therapy and have some space and time to reflect on what was talked about, analyze their own behaviors, and think about how they might take new skills they’ve been taught and integrate them into their life.” She adds that, as long as what you do after therapy is done with this intention in mind — to think critically about the role therapy’s playing in your life — you’re on the right track.
In other words, a productive post-therapy routine is one that not only helps reinforce the work you did during your session but also gives you a chance to check in with yourself and your needs following your session (whatever they may be) before carrying on with your day and week. With that in mind, everyone’s routine will look a little different.
Your Routine Doesn’t Have to Address Therapy Directly
On one hand, you may want to get right down to identifying where you can implement what you’ve learned in the coming weeks. For example, you might consider how you can act more mindfully, set firmer boundaries with others, or create distance between yourself and your anxiety triggers. “A lot of what is hard [about therapy] is being able to sit with negative feelings and not push them away,” Dr. Wright says. “Having some routine — taking a walk, grocery shopping, sitting and grabbing a coffee, [can] facilitate that process.”
On the other hand, you may feel better if you can get some distance from what was covered. This is particularly relevant if someone is in therapy for trauma or severe anxiety, or if they’ve just spent the appointment discussing something particularly sensitive, says Ellen V. A. Papanikolaou, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and the North Atlantic Regional Director of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. In these cases, she may actually encourage them to table that topic until the next time they meet. In the meantime, she says to “find some other form of self-care,” which could be watching a comedy or grabbing coffee with a friend. She refers to these activities as healthy forms of distraction, in the sense that you’re going about them intentionally, in order to return to a frame of mind that helps you go about your day. “There’s some content that requires the safety and security of the therapy office and connection with the counselor [in order to address],” Papanikolaou explains.
What to Do If You Don’t Have Time to Decompress
Papanikolaou also points out that, like Jess, some people’s schedules might not allow them to ease back into their day — those who see their therapist right before work, for example, may have to hurry to a meeting or brave rush hour traffic right after their appointments. Luckily, she adds that any free time you may have between sessions is an opportunity to reflect and apply the techniques you learned during your last meeting to your everyday life and behavior. In fact, she may bring an appointment to a close by asking, “What can we take between sessions and apply the next time we meet?” Dr. Wright echoes this advice: “Most of the work in therapy actually happens outside of the therapy session.”
So, even if you can’t establish a personal routine immediately after your appointments, maybe you can find time throughout the week to check in. “There have been times when I’ve said, ‘Okay, we’re going to see each other next week, so what can you do each day to attend to yourself?” Papanikolaou says, adding that she’s suggested that some clients try bookending their days with a little reflective work, setting an intention for the day ahead, and then checking in before bed to recognize their successes and plan for further improvements.
The Bottom Line
The main takeaway? Find what works for you — and stick with it. Whether your instinct is to journal or spend an hour browsing Target after seeing your therapist, as long as it helps you feel grounded, energized, and able to return to the rest of your day, it’s an activity worth keeping up. “You’re giving yourself that space, that time, to pull everything together — it’s a smart way of approaching [therapy],” Dr. Wright says. And if you’re interested in developing a consistent routine after therapy but aren’t sure what will serve your needs best, talk to your therapist.
*Name has been changed