Taking what you’ve learned in therapy and using those skills in real life can help you make progress toward your goals. That’s why some of the most important work you’ll do throughout your therapy journey is in between sessions.
It’s not always easy to stay on track in between sessions, but there are tools you can use to help you stay focused on your mental health and therapy goals in your day-to-day life. Here are a few to consider.
You may experience uncomfortable emotions and feelings while working toward your therapy goals outside of sessions. This is a normal part of the therapy journey, and coping mechanisms can help you work through these feelings and ultimately feel better.
Finding the coping skills that work best for you takes practice and patience. Consider practicing the following coping mechanisms to see if any are right for you. You can always ask your therapist for more examples of coping mechanisms to try out.
If you’re dealing with a stressful situation or are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, deep breathing can help you remain in control and get through stress more efficiently. To practice deep breathing, try this:
Deep breathing can also help you relax your muscles and calm down.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings on paper can help you clear your mind, explore your emotions, identify any negative thoughts or behaviors, and more. So if you’re feeling like you need an outlet or a way to destress, consider taking the time to journal. Journaling on a regular basis is not only a great way to cope, but can also help you reach your therapy goals.
To get started with journaling, follow these prompts.
Your mental and physical health are connected. That means the healthier you feel physically, the healthier you’ll feel mentally, and vice versa. So it’s important to take care of your physical health while also focusing on your mental health and therapy goals.
Getting your heart rate up can bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. So if you’re feeling stressed, worried, or experiencing other negative feelings, participating in a physical activity can improve your mood.
Physical activity doesn’t have to mean spending hours in the gym. Simply taking your dog for a walk or doing yard work gets your body moving and can be beneficial for your whole health.
Deep breathing, journaling, and exercising can all be calming activities. However, anything you do that brings you joy and calms you down is a great coping mechanism. Calming activities look different for everyone. For some people it could be calling a friend or cooking. For others, it could be meditating or painting. You may already know the best activities that can calm you down, but if not, take some time to explore activities that make you happy and have a positive effect on your feelings and mood. Then, take part in those activities when you’re feeling down or experiencing challenging emotions, and see if they have a calming effect.
Perhaps a more challenging, yet deeply impactful, coping mechanism to learn is mental reframing. Mental reframing involves thinking about an emotion in a different way. For example, if your flight gets delayed on your way to vacation, you might feel frustrated that you won’t be getting to your destination as soon as you hoped. But instead of feeling angry, you can reframe your thinking to focus on what’s true and positive — you’ll still get to where you’re going, and you can use the extra time at the airport to call a friend to catch up, listen to a new audio book or podcast, meditate, or take part in another activity you enjoy. This skill may take some time to master, but can be an effective one to lean on when negative experiences occur.
Feeling supported throughout your therapy journey — both during and outside of sessions — is key to your well-being and to reaching your therapy goals. A support system is a network of people you can lean on for emotional and practical support during difficult times. These are people you trust and can rely on, such as your therapist, family members, friends, or even colleagues and neighbors.
It’s not always easy to be social when you feel down or anxious, but talking through your feelings or simply spending time with those in your support system when you’re dealing with challenges outside of therapy can bring positivity into your life, help you work through your emotions, and help you feel better overall.
If you need help building a support system, consider joining support groups, online or in person, for people who are having similar experiences to you. Or, you can join other types of groups, such as a sports team or book club to meet new people who can positively influence you. Another option is to reconnect with an old friend or family member you fell out of touch with if you feel they could be a strong support for you. You can always call your therapist if you feel their support would be best.
Depending on your circumstances, you may work with your therapist to develop a safety plan and identify resources you can rely on in case a mental health-related crisis occurs in between therapy sessions. Sometimes crises can be the result of a stressful or unexpected life experience, worsening mental health symptoms, or reasons you may not be able to point to.
A safety plan can help you engage your coping skills and resources outside of therapy to minimize the risk of a situation getting to a crisis stage, or it can help you get immediate help in case you experience a crisis outside of therapy. Your safety plan may include where to go for intensive treatment and how to get there, how to take time off work or school and explain your absence to others, and what methods you can use to calm yourself in a crisis. You can also ask your therapist for a list of emergency resources.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis now, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find free resources here.
Write down your safety plan and emergency resources and keep this information where you can easily find it. You may never have to use them, but it’s important to know where they are during a challenging situation or mental health-related crisis so you can access support right away.
In a non-life-threatening situation, you can call your therapist to see if you can get a session scheduled with them as soon as possible, or to discuss possible changes to your treatment plan, especially if it involves taking medication.
The most challenging part of your therapy journey may be the time you spend outside of your therapist's office. Some of the most difficult work may be done in between sessions, and it’s normal to feel like you’re losing progress at times or having to deal with past symptoms. Remember that the therapy journey isn’t linear, and that you may experience some roadblocks along the way. That’s why it’s so important to have a toolbox of skills, support, and resources you can use if things get tough in between sessions.
You never have to deal with mental health challenges alone. So ask for help when you need it, whether it’s from your therapist or someone in your support system.
Ackerman, C. (2017, October 4). 10+ Coping skills worksheets for adults and youth (+ PDFs). PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/coping-skills-worksheets/
Mayo Clinic. (2022, August 3). Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469#:~:text=Regular%20 exercise%20can%20 increase%20self,by%20stress%2C%20depression%20and%20anxiety.
Nair, M. (2020, February 13). What is a support system? University of the People. https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/what-is-a-support-system/
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). What to do in a crisis. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Living-with-a-Mental-Health-Condition/What-to-Do-In-a-Crisis
Pombo, E. (2019, February 1). Self-help techniques for coping with mental illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/January-2019/Self-Help-Techniques-for-Coping-with-Mental-Illness