About four years ago, a new patient came to see me for a psychiatric consultation because he felt stuck. He’d been in therapy for 15 years, despite the fact that the depression and anxiety that first drove him to seek help had long ago faded. Instead of working on problems related to his symptoms, he and his therapist chatted about his vacations, house renovations, and office gripes. His therapist had become, in effect, an expensive and especially supportive friend. And yet, when I asked if he was considering quitting treatment, he grew hesitant, even anxious. “It’s just baked into my life,” he told me.
Among those who can afford it, regular psychotherapy is often viewed as a lifelong project, like working out or going to the dentist. Studies suggest that most therapy clients can measure their treatments in months instead of years, but a solid chunk of current and former patients expect therapy to last indefinitely. Therapists and clients alike, along with celebrities and media outlets, have endorsed the idea of going to therapy for extended stretches, or when you’re feeling fine. I’ve seen this myself with friends who are basically healthy and think of having a therapist as somewhat like having a physical trainer. The problem is, some of the most commonly sought versions of psychotherapy are simply not designed for long-term use.
Therapy comes in many varieties, but they all share a common goal: to eventually end treatment because you feel and function well enough to thrive on your own. Stopping doesn’t even need to be permanent. If you’ve been going to therapy for a long time, and you’re no longer in acute distress, and you have few symptoms that bother you, consider taking a break. You might be pleasantly surprised by how much you learn about yourself.
Therapy, in both the short and long term, can be life-altering. Short-term therapy tends to be focused on a particular problem, such as a depressed mood or social anxiety. In cognitive behavioral therapy, usually used for depressive and anxiety disorders, a clinician helps a client relieve negative feelings by correcting the distorted beliefs that he has about himself. In dialectical behavior therapy, commonly used to treat borderline personality disorder, patients learn skills to manage powerful emotions, which helps improve their mood and relationships. Both treatments typically last less than a year. If you start to get rusty or feel especially challenged by life events that come your way, you simply return for another brief stint. Termination is expected and normal.
Some types of therapy, such as psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis, are designed to last for several years—but not forever. The main goal of these therapies is much more ambitious than symptom relief; they aim to uncover the unconscious causes of suffering and to change a client’s fundamental character. At least one well-regarded study found that long-term therapy is both highly effective and superior to briefer treatment for people diagnosed with a clinically significant psychiatric illness; other papers have shown less conclusive evidence for long-term therapy. And few studies compare short and extended treatment for clients with milder symptoms.
In fact, there’s reason to believe that talk therapy in the absence of acute symptoms may sometimes cause harm. Excessive self-focus—easily facilitated in a setting in which you’re literally paying to talk about your feelings—can increase your anxiety, especially when it substitutes for tangible actions. If your neurotic or depressive symptoms are relatively mild (meaning they don’t really interfere with your daily functioning), you might be better served by spending less time in a therapist’s office and more time connecting with friends, pursuing a hobby, or volunteering. Therapists are trained to use the tools they’ve learned for certain types of problems, and many of the stress-inducing minutiae of daily life are not among them. For example, if you mention to your therapist that you’re having trouble being efficient at work, he might decide to teach you a stress-reduction technique, but your colleagues or boss might provide more specific strategies for improving your performance.
One of my childhood friends, whose parents were both psychoanalysts, went to weekly therapy appointments while we were growing up. He was a happy, energetic kid, but his parents wanted him and his sister to be better acquainted with their inner lives, to help them deal with whatever adversity came their way. My friend and his sister both grew up to be successful adults, but also highly anxious and neurotic ones. I imagine their parents would say the kids would have been worse without the therapy—after all, mental illness ran in their family. But I can find no substantial clinical evidence supporting this kind of “preventive” psychotherapy.
Beginning therapy in the first place is, to be clear, a privilege. Therapy is not covered by many insurance plans, and a very large number of people who could benefit from it can’t afford it for any duration. Only 47 percent of Americans with a psychiatric illness received any form of treatment in 2021; in fact, federal estimates suggest that the United States is several thousand mental-health professionals short, a gap that is likely to grow in the coming years. Stopping therapy when you’re ready opens up space for others who might need this scarce service more than you do.
I do not mean to suggest that a therapy vacation should be considered lightly, or that it’s for everyone. If you have a serious mental-health disorder, such as major depression or bipolar disorder, you should discuss with your mental-health provider whether ending therapy is appropriate for your individual situation. (Keep in mind that your therapist might not be ready to quit when you are. Aside from a financial incentive to continue treatment, parting with a charming, low-maintenance patient is not so easy.) My rule of thumb is that you should have minimal to no symptoms of your illness for six months or so before even considering a pause. Should you and your therapist agree that stopping is reasonable, a temporary break with a clear expiration date is ideal. At any time, if you’re feeling worse, you can always go back.
Psychiatrists do something similar with psychiatric meds: For example, when I prescribe a depressed patient an antidepressant, and then they remain stable and free of symptoms for several years, I usually consider tapering the medication to determine whether it’s still necessary for the patient’s well-being. I would do this only for patients who are at a low risk of relapse—for example, people who’ve had just one or two episodes, rather than many over a lifetime. Pausing therapy should be even less risky: The beautiful thing about therapy is that, unlike a drug, it equips you with new knowledge and skills, which you carry with you when you leave.
About a year after my patient and I first talked about ending therapy, I ran into him in a café. He told me that stopping had taken him six months, but now he was thriving. Maybe you, like my patient, are daunted by the idea of quitting cold turkey. If so, consider taking a vacation from treatment instead. It might be the perfect way to see how far you’ve really come.