Talking with a mental health professional is beneficial for a countless number of reasons. Not only does it help with very real issues like depression, trauma and anxiety, but it can be extremely useful in periods of acute stress ― like during a pandemic, perhaps?
Of course, with social distancing and self-isolation, we can’t just roll up to a therapist’s office. That’s why teletherapy is becoming more crucial than ever.
“Research suggests that teletherapy is at least as effective as in-person therapy and will allow you to get support while following any social distancing guidelines or quarantine restrictions,” said Myra Altman, vice president of clinical care at Modern Health, a platform that provides mental health resources for companies. “If you are noticing increases in stress and anxiety, it might be a great time to get support via a teletherapy option.”
If there was ever a time for online therapy, we’re living in it right now. There are plenty of ways to do it: services that specifically offer online therapy, crisis texting programs, options through your insurance company and private practice providers who will do phone or virtual sessions.
Here’s how to use teletherapy to your advantage, whether you’re a regular client or just trying therapy for the first time:
Know that it’ll be an adjustment.
If you’re used to going to your therapist’s office, suddenly opening up to them on your bed or in your kitchen might be a little strange. If this is your first time, you may not know how to share your feelings to a stranger over video chat. All of this is completely normal, said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.
“It may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first talking to a person on a screen, or with your therapist ‘seeing’ your house or more physically in your private space,” Gold said. But over time, you will likely get more comfortable.
Use your first session to establish what you want to accomplish.
For those who typically go to therapy in person, your first teletherapy appointment is a good time to check in on your goals and progress. If you’re new to therapy entirely, expect your first session to lay out what you want to achieve with the process.
“Getting started can often be the hardest part, but it may provide some comfort if you can know what to expect going into your first session,” Altman said. “Therapists will start each session by making sure you feel comfortable, before working collaboratively with you to formulate a treatment plan and review different methods to help you address your needs.”
Get dressed and treat it like you’re going to a normal appointment.
The best results will come if you treat teletherapy like any other appointment.
“This might mean going to a different room or area of your house, or putting on certain clothes that would make it feel more like a typical appointment to you,” Gold said. “This will allow you to get in a headspace that is different, especially if you are in your house right now a lot more than you usually are.”
This mindset applies for what you cover in the session as well, she added.
“Treating it like regular therapy if possible ― even if this was not the intended or preferred method of communication ― means working with your therapists on goals, figuring out if any of those goals need to be changed or altered given the current stressors, and continuing to make progress towards them,” Gold said.
Look at teletherapy as a way to help with socializing while social distancing.
Think of online therapy as a way to get some connection and understanding in an environment that otherwise feels isolating right now, said Reena Pande, chief medical officer of AbleTo, a virtual behavioral health care service.
“Humans are social beings. People need people,” Pande said. “So feelings of anxiety, fear and isolation are extremely common in this type of situation, and teletherapy is an optimal solution to help individuals manage their mental health and stay connected with the care they need.”
Online therapy can also help you nurture your current relationships from a distance, said Mark Smaller, former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
“Our significant relationships with others and our emotional connections with others will get us through this very difficult time,” Smaller said. Social connections are vital during periods of intense stress like this one, and a therapist can help you keep your relationships strong when you’re physically apart, he added.
Minimize distractions and find a quiet place.
One of the best ways to have a successful appointment is to minimize distractions, Gold said. Try wearing headphones for the session, turn your phone’s “do not disturb” feature on and mute all notifications that might come through on other devices, such as your laptop. If you can, cover any clocks so you can’t watch the time pass.
And, perhaps most importantly, make sure you’re in a quiet and private space. If you can’t find a spot at home (hello, tiny apartments with roommates), try going for a (socially distanced!) walk while you talk with your therapist.
“It is critical for patients to make sure they feel like they have a private spot to focus, engage and express so that they can have the most effective and successful therapy sessions,” Pande said.
Take advantage of off-hours.
You arguably have more flexibility with your schedule right now, and so do therapists. Use it.
“Convenience is a huge benefit of teletherapy. It’s also much easier to access,” Pande said. “A patient can pick a time and method of administration ― phone, text, video, etc. ― that works with their schedule and personal communication style. Something that isn’t usually possible with traditional therapy sessions and can be a huge factor in deciding to not seek care.”
“Many virtual therapists also place an emphasis on offering off-hour sessions on weeknights and weekends for working adults,” Pande added.
Be radically honest in your sessions.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you hold back during therapy. Let out your emotions in the same way you would during an in-person appointment.
“By being as honest with the therapist, whether in person or via Zoom, Vsee or other platforms with video, the treatment will become helpful, assuming the patient feels listened to, understood and empathically responded to,” Smaller said. “The therapeutic relationship will emerge similar to how it does in person.”
Take this opportunity to find what cadence works for you.
Do you need to talk with someone once a week? What about several times a week? Or do you need someone every once in a while? Now’s the time to figure out what works.
“Virtual therapy sessions are not one-size-fits-all,” Pande said. “Patients should expect their teletherapy program to suit their personal needs, whether they need consistent, weekly engagement or only quick, one-off sessions when they feel an urgent need to speak with a specialist. It really all depends on their preference and what will bring the most benefits.”
Use other digital therapy options to complement your sessions.
Dealing with the state of the world is hard as hell right now. It’s unrealistic to expect that it won’t cause you stress in between your appointments. If you need to talk to someone, take advantage of text-based services, such as Crisis Text Line.
Additionally, you can use other corners of the internet for support. For example, teletherapy company Talkspace has created a free, therapist-led Facebook support group where people can talk about what’s going on and get resources directly from a licensed professional.
“This group will also allow individuals to cultivate a sense of community during this isolating time,” said Amy Cirbus, director of clinical content at Talkspace.
Remind yourself that therapy is extremely beneficial right now.
We’re dealing with something none of us imagined. It’s OK to feel a range of negative emotions. Therapy can help you navigate that.
“These are uncertain and unusual times, and the situation is unprecedented. A significant number of individuals are stressed, anxious or just unsettled given the current situation,” Pande said. “I’d like them to know that these feelings are normal and to be expected. Understand that this situation will pass eventually, but in the meantime, focus on being kind to yourself. If you need additional support or personal connection, it’s there.”