Tips for Working with Vegan Clients By April Lang, LCSW on 5/7/19 - 2:52 PM

What do you do when a potential new client calls and asks if you work with vegan clients? Perhaps you say no because you never have before (or didn’t know you had) and don’t know much, if anything, about veganism. Maybe you say yes but are not sure what working with a vegan client might entail and figure you’ll wing it and hope for the best. And then it’s highly possible that no one has ever asked you that question. I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t have experience working with every issue nor with every population that contacts us. However, as veganism continues to grow, it’s increasingly likely that we’ll be finding more vegans reaching out to us.

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The one question I am continuously asked is, does eating a diet free of animal products in itself make a person vegan? The short answer is no. The longer answer is eating plant-based is a major part of being vegan, but veganism isn’t just about what people eat; it’s about the way one views and treats all animals, human and non-human. People following a vegan lifestyle can’t help thinking about the exploitation of animals because they’re continuously confronted with it. Sitting next to people eating meat, walking behind someone wearing fur or leather, or overhearing conversations about hunting and fishing trips or visits to circuses and zoos, are all constant reminders. In my clinical experience, the thought of institutionalized animal exploitation is what prompts many vegans with whom I have worked to seek therapy for depression, anxiety, relationship issues and sometimes, trauma. How these issues may manifest in a session can be illustrated in my work with Tessa, a former client.

When 32 year-old Tessa contacted me, she announced that she was vegan and had been searching for either a vegan therapist or, she quipped, one who was “vegan-friendly, like a restaurant.” Consequently, I had a hunch her issue(s) would be vegan-related. However, I had worked with individuals requesting a vegan-friendly therapist where that wasn’t the focus-?they just wanted assurance I would be supportive, if the issue came up. And it did come up with Tessa. Parenthetically, my therapeutic style is direct and eclectic. I have been influenced by various therapeutic approaches, including psychodynamic, Somatic Experiencing, hypnotherapy, cognitive/behavioral, ecotherapy, Internal Family Systems, and Existentialism. I believe we must look not only inside ourselves for what ails us but also to our relationship with the world around us. In this context, I work with individuals who are grappling with a wide variety of issues including, but not limited to relationships, life transitions, animal bereavement and ethical veganism, which is both a mindset and lifestyle practiced by people who care deeply about all animals and oppose harming them in any way.

Tessa smiled weakly as she slumped onto my couch, silent for a few moments. She had been feeling “very low, very anxious. My heart races or my stomach feels like someone’s on a trampoline.” Her difficulties began after watching two videos detailing animal exploitation–she used the words, “animal abuse.” She transitioned to a vegan lifestyle after seeing the second video. Tessa felt immense guilt “that she had been part of the problem,” chastised herself for “not knowing sooner,” and felt “hopeless about the situation.” When confronted with the frequent images of animal abuse on social media, she’d break down. Often these images would spontaneously pop into her mind.

When discussing this subject with family and friends, responses were dismissive of her and/or the issue: “there are more important things to worry about”, “you’re being way too sensitive”, “get a life!”

Before reaching out to me, she had been seeing another therapist. While the “person was very nice,” her questions repeatedly intimated that the root of Tessa’s problems lay elsewhere. Consistently feeling misunderstood, Tessa ultimately decided to find a therapist “who got that someone could be depressed thinking about all the abused animals in the world.”

In working with Tessa, I took a three-prong approach. My first goal was validation that sensitivity to animal exploitation could lead to depression and anxiety. She also needed to trust I could handle her intense emotions, without judgment.

My next objective was helping her find effective ways to calm herself when triggered by disturbing images, thoughts, or conversations. I used various techniques, including several from somatic experiencing and hypnotherapy. For example, I helped her transform distressing images into ones less fraught. Intrusive thoughts about animal abuse were attenuated by both diverse breathing techniques and anxiety-reducing visualization exercises. To recharge and reset, she created a mental image of a special place, one filled with calming images, sounds, and smells. Formerly a meditator, I suggested she resume her practice to help let go of unwelcome thoughts. Reducing her time on social media was also discussed.

The third prong was to address her hopelessness by exploring options for helping animals. Because everyone has different talents, interests, and time constraints it was important that whatever actions we came up with were realistic. Being a “people person”, she decided to research animal welfare groups whose focus was public outreach. Tessa loved planning and hosting parties so organizing fund-raising events for animal organizations sounded appealing.

Within a few months, Tessa began feeling better. She now had tools for calming her mind and nervous system and strategies for advocating for animals. Perhaps most importantly, she felt she had been understood.

As you can see, the techniques for working with vegan clients are the same we’d use with anyone else. So with this newfound knowledge and an open mind, the next time someone calls and asks if you know anything about working with vegans, you can say, absolutely!  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist