How To Tell If You Need To Start Doing Online Therapy

The coronavirus pandemic can take a toll on your mental health. Here are the signs you should talk to a therapist about it.

It's been one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Explore HuffPost's Bent Not Broken project to learn how the coronavirus has disrupted our mental health, and how to manage our well-being moving forward.

Rarely leaving the house, doom-scrolling through social media, experiencing mood swings and insomnia, engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms ... the venn diagram of “daily life during the coronavirus pandemic” and “depression” may seem like a perfect circle.

At a time when everyone is feeling the toll of a global health and economic crisis, keeping on top of the particulars of your own mental well-being can seem irrelevant. Still, there’s a difference between experiencing sadness about the current state of the world or feeling a little off because of a disrupted routine versus struggling to function on a daily basis, or even giving in to self-destructive tendencies.

There may be days, weeks or months of lockdown left, and it’s essential to preserve your mental health. Here’s how to check in on yourself and know when you might need professional help through virtual therapy:

Spend a few moments each day examining how you’re feeling

The first step to figuring out if you’re really not doing OK is to get in the habit of paying attention to how you’re feeling, said Leslie Becker-Phelps, a psychologist and the author of ”Bouncing Back From Rejection.”

Becker-Phelps offered an acronym to guide this self-awareness: STEAM, which stands for sensations, thoughts, emotions, actions and mentalizing (an attempt to understand and empathize with your feelings).

The first prompts a check-in with your body to gauge its stress response.

Becker-Phelps suggested asking yourself questions such as: “Is my heart beating fast? Am I feeling nauseated? Am I having trouble breathing?”

Then, take stock of your thoughts and emotions by noting the difference between having an occasional negative thought or concern and “getting tied up in negative thinking or future anxieties, and you’re not able to think about any of the positive things or pull yourself out of it,” Becker-Phelps told HuffPost.

Assess how your actions are affecting yourself and others. If you’re lashing out at loved ones or thinking about causing yourself harm, that’s a big sign you need to talk with someone.

Finally, empathize with yourself. Recognize that “if you try to help yourself and it’s not effective, or you feel like it’s too much and it’s affecting your quality of life, it’s time to ask for help,” she said.

Teletherapy can help you navigate issues — including anxiety, depression and substance use — around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Delmaine Donson via Getty Images
Teletherapy can help you navigate issues — including anxiety, depression and substance use — around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notice any self-destructive behaviors

“If you’re engaging in consistent self-destructive behaviors and the pattern keeps repeating itself, it’s a sign that you need to get some help,” said Gregg Jantz, a therapist and founder of the mental health facility The Center: A Place of Hope.

We often turn to certain unhealthy coping mechanisms when dealing with mental health problems, Jantz told HuffPost. One example is drinking to excess, which has seen an uptick under the stay-at-home mandate. Waking up with a consistent hangover can lead to “post acute anxiety,” which happens when the withdrawal from drinking exacerbates the preexisting feelings of anxiety, he said.

If you notice that what you’re doing to cope makes you feel worse ― and takes on a pattern that you’re having trouble breaking out of ― that could mean it’s time to reach out to a professional.

“If I repeat the pattern and I have regret and it’s not changing, that points to an addiction that begins controlling my life,” Jantz said.

And, most importantly, if you’ve had any thoughts of harming yourself, you should absolutely seek professional attention as soon as you can.

Note the toll of digital exhaustion and social estrangement

Increased screen time thanks to being stuck at home can lead to digital burnout and negative emotions. Exposing yourself regularly to stories of impending doom on your newsfeed, comparing what you’re doing in quarantine to what other people you follow are doing, and constantly texting with similarly stressed out friends and family can increase irritability and make you more likely to lash out or want to socially isolate even further.

Additionally, increased alone time can lead to harmful rumination. You may find yourself imagining worst-case scenarios, withdrawing from your loved ones (even virtually), feeling down in the dumps often, or fuming over inconsequential matters. If this is the case, consider talking to someone ― who isn’t your boss, or your friend or family member ― to get some perspective on everything going on in your head.

Jantz also recommended taking an online depression test to gauge how many symptoms you have and how long you’ve been experiencing them.

You can start therapy in many ways, even if your state is under a stay-at-home order.
lechatnoir via Getty Images
You can start therapy in many ways, even if your state is under a stay-at-home order.

How to start online therapy

Finding a therapist virtually is a similar process to seeking therapy in real life, except now the intake and appointments are via telehealth, with sessions held over the phone or video.

Start with referrals, either from friends who are already in therapy or through your primary care physician, Becker-Phelps said. Many insurance plans require a referral before seeing a specialist, anyway. Check to see which providers are covered so you’re not paying a ton per session. Psychology Today also provides a reliable database of licensed therapists searchable by zip code.

For those who aren’t using insurance or who are looking for something more affordable, try reaching out to community therapy centers. These locations may offer affordable and sliding scale options. You can also try a teletherapy app, which may be more affordable than a therapist outside of insurance.

Once you find your route, it’s a good idea to first talk through your symptoms and your therapy goals at the start so you can find a counselor that’s a good match for you. Check to see what they specialize in, whether it’s substance abuse treatment, relationships or anxiety. You should also ask what their approach might be to helping you resolve problems, as there are multiple methods of therapy out there.

Crisis hotlines provide an emergency option if you need help before you can get set up with an appointment. If you’re having thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also has a national helpline with counselors you can talk to and who can point you toward resources for seeking mental health treatment. And finally, Crisis Text Line can offer you text-based support if you need to speak with a counselor and would rather do it via messaging.

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