Psychotherapy is often described as an art as much as it is a science. The professional relationship between a therapist and their client can be a tricky one. Especially when it comes to bad habits of either the therapist or the client.
One of these bad habits is especially frustrating to clients — a therapist’s constant yawns during session. People often read into a yawn far more than what is usually meant — or not meant — by the behavior.
Part of the problem is yawning itself — we don’t really know why people yawn in the first place. So a person often will assume the worst — “I’m boring him with what I’m talking about.”
But that’s often not the case.
The only thing we know for certain about why humans yawn is that there are a lot of theories. The most popular theory is that we yawn when we’re bored or tired. This theory suggests that when we’re bored or tired, we tend not to breathe as deeply as we do when we’re thinking or engaged with an activity or conversation. Therefore our brains are becoming oxygen-deprived. The theory is that the act of yawning increases oxygen in the blood, which in turn increases oxygen to the brain.
Another set of theories focuses on the impact of yawning behavior on our lungs. One idea is that yawning helps keeps our lungs lubricated with an oil-like substance called surfactant. Another lung-focused theory is that yawning stretches our lungs, which is like flexing a muscle. You don’t do it very often, but it feels good when you do.
One of the more popular theories is that there is some important social component to yawning. Guggisberg and colleagues (2011) noted, “The only specific effect of yawning that could be demonstrated so far is its contagiousness in humans, some non-human primates, and possibly dogs, whereas all studies investigating physiological consequences of yawns were unable to observe specific yawn-induced effects in the individual of any species.” In other words, none of the physiological reasons for yawning really pan out when looked at by researchers.
Yet other researchers suggest there is an evolutionary reason for yawning — one that is no longer serving its evolutionary purpose. Whatever that purpose may have been.
Yawns are, however, socially contagious, and we still don’t quite understand why that is.
If you come away from this entry scratching your head about the purpose and meaning of yawns, you’re not alone. As you can tell by this cursory look at the research, we are basically still in the dark about why they occur in the first place, what purpose they serve, and why they can be socially contagious.
Psychotherapy and Yawning
This suggests two things about yawning in psychotherapy. The first is that we shouldn’t be too hard on a therapist who has a yawning fit while in session. There’s no hard evidence yawning is directly related to boredom or our mind’s focus. We all have certainly observed a correlation there, but our self-observation is often unreliable.
Second, although we don’t know why people yawn or what purpose yawning serves, a therapist should always be at their professional best when seeing clients. That means coping well with stress, dealing with counter-transference and practice issues as they arise, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This latter point means eating right, getting some regular exercise and getting a regular 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
If a therapist is doing all of these things, and still gets an attack of “the yawns” while in session, give them a break the first few times it happens. But if it seems to happen every time you’re in session, consider changing appointment times. There are certain times throughout the day that a person can become more tired than usual, such as first thing in the morning, late afternoon (often after 4:00 pm), and right after lunch (early afternoon).
If that doesn’t seem to impact the amount they yawn, consider talking to the therapist directly about this behavior. While it may seem petty to some, or not really relevant to the reason a person is in therapy, it can negatively impact the therapeutic relationship in subtle (and not so subtle) ways. It’s best to bring it out into the open and talk about it.
Yawning is rarely something most of us have much control over. Keep that in mind before you read into your therapist’s yawns, and understand that he or she likely doesn’t find you boring — they just can’t help themselves sometimes.
Guggisberg AG, Mathis J, Schnider A, Hess CW. (2011). Why do we yawn? The importance of evidence for specific yawn-induced effects. Neurosci Biobehav Rev., 35, 1302-4.