By Karen Kochenburg, LCSW

Therapist stares at calendar.

I’ve got two clients right now. Granted, the most I can fit into my part-time private practice is six per week, but right now I’m averaging less than one per week. Very low.

According to colleagues who work in private practice and mental health agencies, it seems that the early months of the year tend to be slow for new referrals across many branches of the field.

I had the double-whammy of terminating with several clients before the holiday season, which brought my client count crashing down. For those who rely on a steady stream of clients in order to pay the bills, times like these can be very stressful and concerning. And they don’t just happen according to set calendar dates. Things can be moving along swimmingly and then suddenly the client load shifts inexplicably and you find yourself with more free time than you might prefer.

The following are some reframes and positive thinking about this trying, but common, situation:

1. This may be a sign that it’s time for a vacation.

Therapists tend to be “other-focused” and often forget to give themselves the rest and relaxation they need to be available and attentive to those who seek their help. A low time can signify a great opportunity to relax and recharge. Rather than going toward guilt and fear, you may choose to see this time as a gift for all the hard work you’ve been doing. Shift active clients to the same days and get out of town for the rest of the week to a place that inspires, invigorates, or replenishes your soul.

If leaving town is not possible, give yourself permission to loaf, rest, and be completely unproductive for a few days. For those unfamiliar to loafing, here are some ideas: sit on the couch and dive into a reality TV marathon; read one of those novels that’s been sitting on the shelf too long; cook up a double batch of your family’s secret lasagna recipe. It’s even okay to gain a couple pounds in the process! You know what you need to refresh yourself—we all have different ways of stoking our own inner fire. Giving yourself a few days of wild abandon from “shoulds” and routines is a constructive and healthy way to take advantage of the low season and allow it to uplift you.

2. Sleep! Don’t be afraid to catch up on your sleep.

There is nothing lazy, time-wasting, or irresponsible about it. It is a documented fact that adequate sleep is healing, creativity-boosting, and necessary for peak functioning. The low season is a good time to re-establish a healthy sleep schedule and make it a habit. Sometimes this requires a detoxification from pharmaceuticals, an adjustment of late-night TV or social habits, or a shift in diet. Reconnecting with high-quality sleep will boost your energy, slow the aging process and center your faculties to put you on solid ground for the next chapter of your life.

3. When we rest and revive, we often find our brains tuning in more strongly to our natural creativity.

You might notice new ideas hatching for your work, business, or personal life. Perhaps there is an area of your life that has been unintentionally neglected. You may find new inspiration for some of your other interests and life roles, such as spouse, friend, parent, entrepreneur, chef, horticulturalist… you get the picture. Your work as a clinician is important, but your life as a whole is your purpose on earth. When time, energy, and mental/emotional resources are freed up, new ventures often naturally emerge to fill the space.

I use a concept called “the fourth option”, which came about in my work with a particular client. We use our minds very productively to brainstorm solutions to life’s challenges, but the list of options we create is naturally limited by our human capacity to perceive and to know. For some reason, it seems that we tend to think in threes and come up with a list of three answers to our own questions. I like to suggest that people acknowledge and hold space open for a mysterious “fourth option” to arise, as if from nowhere. When we open our minds and remind ourselves that we don’t know the “whys and wherefores” of every circumstance, we open the door to unique opportunities and previously unanticipated possibilities. And, believe it or not, they do appear!

4. Sometimes a low season leads to putting pressure on ourselves to expand our marketing and find ways to conjure new clients out of thin air.

If your amount of referrals has always been less than you would prefer, perhaps it’s a good time to refresh your advertising strategy. However, if you are typically satisfied with your number of new clients, then the low season is not a result of a poor marketing plan and you might choose to relieve yourself of that pressure during a downturn. Instead, you might open yourself to other opportunities that allow you to share your skills in different ways. There are countless endeavors requiring people with expertise, a few of which are speaking engagements, writing gigs, expert witness services, legal mediation, and certainly a slew of volunteer opportunities in various fields. It might be a great time to step outside the office (either physically or mentally) and shower the world with your gifts in other ways.

We’ve heard the axiom, in many different ways, that when one door closes, a window of opportunity opens. Look back on your life and make note of all the times this philosophy has come to pass. I anticipate that you will identify many. A low season in therapeutic practice is a chance to loosen up and allow new adventures to come your way. Resist the impulse to tighten up and fret about all the “what ifs” that spring instantly to mind. It can be hard to trust that the bills will somehow be paid, but as you live your life as a whole being and expand your energy into the other areas of your human experience, you are cooperating with Life and aligning yourself with true prosperity.

In closing, I will ask you to remember the standard wisdom that resonates with so many therapists: we get exactly what we need and we need what we get. Think of the client who walks in the door with the same question you’ve been bandying about all week. Or the problem at work that so closely parallels the struggle you are grappling with in your own family. The low season is merely an indicator that there is currently something else calling for your time and attention.  Do what you can to greet it joyfully and open-heartedly and watch with delightful anticipation what transpires.