Virtual Therapy Is the New Lunch Break – but Transitioning Back to Work Can Be Tricky
Imagine being brave enough to bring up a difficult issue in a therapy session, spending time working your way through it (no doorknob confessions here), perhaps tearfully – only to have the session end and have to immediately join a camera-on or IRL work meeting. Maybe you don’t have to imagine it. In the world of virtual therapy, this is many people’s reality, myself included.
When the pandemic began in 2020, virtual therapy became a first (and often only) choice for many. A 2020 study by the American Psychological Association found that just 36 percent of responding members used telehealth to see clients before the onset of the pandemic. After, however, 81 percent of responding members saw 75 percent or more of their clients using telehealth.
And even now that the WHO has ended its declaration of COVID as a public health emergency, many people are continuing virtual therapy. For some, virtual therapy is more accessible. Not having to worry about commuting to and from a therapist’s office makes it possible to say yes to those middle-of-the-day appointments that felt almost impossible before virtual therapy.
But the downside is that without the buffer of commuting time, people who take virtual therapy appointments during the workday are left to manage an abrupt transition from their appointment back into work. Depending on what you covered during your session, that can be an overwhelming transition.
In an ideal world, everyone’s teammates would be understanding if you had to stretch your hour-long lunch break to two hours to regroup after an intense virtual therapy session. But in reality, this isn’t a luxury many have access to. But not having time to process your feelings can be damaging to your mental health and impact your output at work, says Edmonia Doe, CEO of The Bloom Wellness and Therapy Center in Atlanta.
“You may find it difficult to focus on work or feel overwhelmed by the demands of your job,” Doe says. She adds that this can lead to lower productivity at work and miscommunications with work colleagues.
Personally, I haven’t yet mastered the art of making a smooth transition from a triggering therapy session to being engaged at work. So I asked real-life therapists for their best tips for making the adjustment easier.
Create a Buffer
Planning ahead is one way to make the transition from therapy to work easier, says Doe. You can do this by creating what she calls a “mindful minute” to gradually transition. “This can mean scheduling your therapy session earlier in the day or carving out some quiet time before diving into work tasks,” she says.
In other words, while it can seem as though one of the biggest perks of virtual therapy is the fact that you can cram it into any 45- to 60-minute opening on your calendar, it’s not the best idea to sandwich sessions in between meetings. Block off an additional five to 15 minutes before and after your session to prepare and process. If it’s not possible, then maybe that isn’t the best window for a session after all. It’s important to be realistic about what your schedule allows; therapy isn’t as effective when sessions are rushed or you’re not able to fully be present, and the aftercare is as important as the actual talking time.
Get Some Sunlight
If you have a shorter window of time post-therapy to transition back to work, you can help the process by getting outside or even just sitting by a sunny window for a short while, says Melissa Ifill, a therapist and coach.
“Give yourself a few minutes to just get up and to go outside and to be in the sun,” she says. “The sun often can send clues to the body to reset because of the warmth. And so it could bring you out of the mind and just put you in a space of mindfulness that can also be calming.”
Listen to Calming Music
Again, this is the perfect fix for days when you have just a few minutes after therapy to decompress and pivot back to work. “Listening to calming music or sounds can help ease any residual tension or anxiety from the therapy session and help you relax,” Doe says.
This suggestion is one I resonate with most. On some days, a three-minute song was all I had time for after a session, but it did the trick to help me unwind after a tough session and mentally transition back to work. I usually play soundtracks from the NBC series “This Is Us” or meditation music from Spotify.
Ask Your Therapist For Wind-Down Time
Tell your therapist that you’ve been struggling to mentally switch back to work mode, and ask for suggestions – or ask to reserve five or so minutes at the end of each session to process the session together, says Nikquan Lewis, a relationship and sex therapist and the owner of Intimate Connections, PLLC, located in Katy, TX. This is especially helpful if you sometimes feel like your sessions end abruptly and getting back into the swing of your day feels like an uphill battle.
“A good practice in general is for you and your therapist to prioritize leaving a few minutes at the end of session to engage in deep-breathing exercises and discuss journal prompts for homework to assist you with processing between sessions,” Lewis says.
Create a Mindfulness Kit
Create a mindfulness kit, which comprises things that help engage your five senses (sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing) to use after sessions, Lewis suggests.
For instance, you could have something for smell that makes you feel relaxed, like an essential oil, your favorite hand lotion, or even a CBD oil. You could also add a bell or a toy that makes a sound you love. Finally, add some beautiful calming images, Lewis says. “A picture of something or some place that you love on your phone, or focus on a picture in your office and think about what it reminds you of and how it makes you feel.”
It can be a larger kit if you work from home, or a few items that are easy to toss into your work bag if you are working in-office. After a therapy session, pull out your kit and spend a few minutes getting grounded by interacting with the items.
Do a Quick Journal Entry
We sometimes envision journaling being a long and introspective process, but it doesn’t always have to be. Within this context, it could be a five- to 10-minute exercise to summarize how you’re feeling and what you learned about yourself in the session. It may also help you feel some emotional relief.
“Journaling helps to facilitate emotional regulation by giving yourself permission to authentically express your feelings without interruption or judgment,” says Nicole Carter, a therapist in Sacramento, CA.
Carter suggests using a summary format that identifies three things you learned about yourself and main takeaways from the session. This is something I find helpful, and it gives me talking points for my next session.
Come Back to the Session Later
The above techniques for self-soothing are like placeholders; they can help walk you down from emotional overwhelm in the moment so you can focus on your day. But you may still need to spend more time later, after work, to further explore the feelings that came up during therapy through practices like journaling or talking to a friend, Ifill says.
“What we like to do is stuff things as opposed to compartmentalizing things,” she explains. “If you don’t address [feelings] in between the therapy session in some way, when you have your follow-up session, especially if you’re having it at work again, it can feel just as intense and not necessarily less intense.”
Ifill says that since therapy sessions are only around 45 minutes once or a few times a month, it’s important to spend additional time during the week processing what came up. “Saving all of the work for [your therapy sessions] is really limiting,” Ifill says. You can ask your therapist for tips about how to keep growing outside of sessions – they might give you homework or exercises you can work on during free time or even bring into your day-to-day life.
At the end of the day, it can be tough to balance the work we do for ourselves and the work we do for others. But it’s worth finding the strategies that work for you, since therapy often helps us become happier and healthier, which benefits all our relationships – work included.