People who go to therapy have a variety of methods for processing and implementing the lessons they learn from their discussions with mental health professionals.
One approach that has gained traction is recording therapy sessions and then listening back to them later. It’s difficult to recall everything that’s said during an appointment, so some people believe listening to a recording aids their memory and allows them to process more of the discussion. For others, the listening process is therapeutic in itself and can provide a sense of calm in moments of panic or uncertainty outside of sessions.
While there are have been some studies into this technique, professionals aren’t necessarily in agreement on the benefits and drawbacks. Some are also concerned that modern technology and circumstances can allow clients to covertly record their sessions without the counselor’s knowledge.
HuffPost asked therapists for their thoughts on the practice ― the pros, cons and other considerations. (While the comments they shared are generally geared toward audio recordings, many can apply to video as well.)
Here’s what you should know about recording therapy sessions:
This is not a common practice ― but that could change
Every therapist HuffPost spoke to noted that recording therapy sessions is not a common practice for clients.
“Some clients may take notes, but recording is not something that happens a lot,” said Nicole M. Ward, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
Brief notes can be helpful for behavior modification issues like breaking bad habits and adopting better ones. Some therapists offer their clients printouts illustrating relevant concepts as well.
“It is more common, if anyone is recording, for it to be the therapist,” Ward said. “Some therapists may record sessions, but that is with client knowledge and permission.”
Recorded sessions can be a training tool for therapists to review their work with clinical supervisors and meet requirements for evidence-based treatment practices. Such recordings are generally obtained with client consent, securely stored and destroyed after use.
“I have not heard of clients recording sessions without telling their therapist, although I imagine with the increase of teletherapy services being offered due to the pandemic, this issue will become increasingly important for therapists and clients to navigate together,” said Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California.
“With video and phone sessions becoming more common, therapists may want to consider proactively raising the topic of session recordings with their clients before beginning sessions to make sure the client is aware of their policy on recording sessions,” Stuempfig said.
There are privacy concerns
“Generally, it is not a good idea to record the therapy session,” said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “Once a client records a session, there is no ethical mandate that compels the client to keep that recording private, the same way professional ethics and federal law require the therapist to keep the contents of the therapy session confidential. If shared, knowingly (e.g., on social media) or unknowingly (e.g., a snooping spouse), it would be easy for others to take the therapist’s words out of context.”
If it’s a group therapy session, recording the discussions may violate the privacy of the others present as well.
When a client records a session, there’s always the possibility that the file could fall into the wrong hands. Thus, it can compromise the confidentiality of therapy sessions ― breaching the trust involved in the client-therapist relationship and potentially bringing psychological harm.
“Confidentiality is at the heart of the therapeutic relationship ― it is what makes the relationship completely unique and unlike any other dynamic,” Stuempfig said. “The client needs to know that what they share is absolutely going to be kept private, giving the client the peace of mind needed to share their innermost fears, past traumas, insecurities and worries without being concerned about judgment.”
It may hinder the therapeutic process
As a client, knowing that you’re recording a session may take you out of the moment. You may also misinterpret the session after reviewing the recording or fail to get the full experience by only listening to portions of it.
“The client may be embarrassed by how they present and over-analyze what they say and how they say it, which can be a hindrance to the therapeutic process,” said Saniyyah Mayo, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Clients may also become upset after listening to themselves being challenged or confronted by their therapist.”
Another upsetting drawback is that it could be emotionally damaging to replay the recording without the supervision of a therapist if you processed traumatic events during the session.
“That would be something that should be discussed thoroughly between therapist and client before either party agrees to recording the session,” Stuempfig said.
The client may over-invest in the therapist’s words
“Recording a session therapeutically may make you over-invest in the therapist and their magical powers to heal you and under-invest in your part of the work,” said U.K.-based psychotherapist Noel McDermott.
He advised focusing on what happens outside of therapy and understanding the ways that things you learn in sessions help you manage real-life occurrences more effectively.
Clients also shouldn’t hyper-focus on the literal interpretation of the therapist’s words without context.
“A therapist is just a person with professional training, and I worry that, with the wrong person, [recording a session] could idealize a therapist as being all-knowing,” said Meg Gitlin, a psychotherapist and the voice behind therapy insight Instagram City Therapist. “While this is a common occurrence in the therapeutic relationship, I could imagine access to sessions could intensify this deification of or dedication to the therapist. Just like anyone else, therapists are flawed and misspeak or misunderstand, and preservation of these sessions without an understanding of this could be detrimental to growth.”
It’s important to discuss recording sessions with the therapist
“If a client did want to record a session, they should ask the therapist’s permission to do so,” Delawalla said. “Recording sessions without the therapist’s consent would represent a breach of the therapeutic relationship.”
It may also be illegal, depending on what state you’re in. That’s the case in California, which has a “two party consent” requirement for recordings, so both the therapist and the client (and anyone else in the session if there are multiple clients) would be required to sign a consent form.
“As therapists, we do not have a legal or ethical obligation to allow a client to record sessions ― it is left up to the therapist’s discretion,” Stuempfig explained. “Before recording a session, it would be crucial for the therapist and client to discuss the potential risks involved, such as a break in confidentiality or emotional damage if replaying a session without live support from their therapist.”
If you feel compelled to record your therapy sessions, Delawalla recommended reflecting on the reasons you want to do this.
She advised asking yourself: “What purpose does the recording serve? Is it a way to distance yourself from the strong emotions that might come up in a session with the knowledge that you can go over it later? Is it that the pace of therapy is too quick and it seems like you don’t have time to fully process a topic or understand a technique before the therapist moves on to something else? Is it that the revelations in therapy only make sense when the therapist says it in those words in session but if you think about them later, it no longer fits?”
“Under any of these circumstances, it would be more beneficial to bring up these underlying concerns with your therapist and work through them together,” Delawalla said.
And if you are tempted to secretly record sessions, it may also be helpful to examine why you don’t feel comfortable talking to your therapist about potentially recording your conversations.
There are ways to make it beneficial
Recording therapy sessions can be helpful, assuming it’s part of a client and therapist’s mutual understanding of their goals and follows a meaningful conversation about the benefits, purpose and potential harm. The key is to be collaborative and approach it on a session-by-session basis.
“It could be beneficial if the client uses it for their own private use to reflect later,” Ward said. “A client may also use it to track their personal growth throughout the therapeutic process.”
Gitlin said that recording and replaying sessions could indicate a client’s commitment to self-improvement and therapy and help them master specific skills they learn in sessions. For these same reasons, she encourages clients to take notes so they may better integrate changes discussed in therapy into their everyday lives.
“I received the request [to record sessions] from a client for the first time last week and was encouraging of them taking whatever measures they wanted to make the most out of our time together,” Gitlin said. “Therapy is notoriously expensive and can be time-consuming, and it’s important to me as a clinician to respect the clients’ use of our time together.”
Stuempfig agreed, noting that recordings may remind clients about their goals outside the therapy room, without the constraints of a time-limited session.
“The reality is that therapy sessions are typically only 50 minutes long and oftentimes, clients are flooded by intense emotions throughout the session and many different topics are usually covered in that short time span,” she said. “When clouded by emotion, it can be hard to recall specific details of what was discussed. It could be helpful for a client to have a recording to play back when they are in a calm, relaxed state and can better incorporate the positive changes or practice skills discussed in session.”
It could be helpful for people with memory disorders
“Recording therapy sessions could also be beneficial for memory-impaired individuals such as people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or individuals with dementia,” Stuempfig said.
If someone has severe challenges with memory, it may be useful to have a recording of a session, especially if it focused on implementing specific strategies to aid memory, Delawalla noted.
“Or, if the therapist is using guided meditation or a progressive muscle relaxation script to treat anxiety, it would be beneficial to have a recording to be able to use the script between sessions,” she added.
It may help with couples counseling
Mayo noted that recording a session can also be beneficial in the context of couples or group counseling ― assuming you have the consent of your therapist and any other people in the session with you.
“It can allow a client to see how they present in session especially with couples,” she said. “I have recorded sessions with the couple’s consent to show them how they verbally attack one another. Many times people do not realize how they speak or present until watching or hearing it played back on audio or video. Recording sessions can be used as a tool to teach effective skills such as communication, body language, and/or facial expressions.”