Well before the term “worldwide pandemic” was on the lips of every newscaster — and living behind a screen became the best way to avoid the novel virus while getting things done — the introverts were trying out online therapy.
Now that spiky virus has invaded our world, no longer is this kind of therapy just for people who have a hard time talking face to face. It’s become the norm as therapists have increasingly moved their practice online, to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19. It’s called teletherapy, telehealth or telemedicine.
But, if you’re used to meeting face-to-face and your therapist has moved to a digital practice, you may find there are some adjustments to make. It might be critical, particularly in this time of crisis.
Consider these seven tips as you make your transition to teletherapy:
1. Carve out a comfortable space and dedicated time for therapy
One of the most oft-cited benefits of online therapy is how it can be done anywhere and anytime. But you might want to avoid that approach if you can.
A place or time when distractions can proliferate is never ideal when you are trying to work. And therapy can be the most difficult kind of work there is.
Therapy means working on your emotions. You can’t do that unless you have the time and space in which you feel free to engage with your feelings.
If you’re sharing your isolated space with other people, you could ask them to give you some space to have a therapy session, wearing headphones or taking a walk outside. Or you could build a fort of pillows like you did in preschool to create a soft and contained environment you can relax in, alone.
Whatever your strategy, make therapy a priority that rises to the top of the list.
2. Expect some unease at first
No matter what digital platform your therapy is on, and how sharp and seamless the interaction looks, don’t be surprised that there are differences from in-person therapy. You may not feel like you and your therapist are “in-sync” the way you were in person. There’s a new rhythm to experiencing therapy digitally that will require some getting used to.
Make sure your keep an open line of communication about how this kind of therapy is working for you. Don’t be afraid to say that, if you are texting, for example, you find long pauses between texts unnerving.
It’s also OK to feel sad about losing that in-person support, particularly if you are accustomed to working offline with a therapist. Feel free to voice those concerns, you might be surprised about how the method of communication can be adapted to your needs.
3. Be prepared to adjust the way you get therapy
Text messaging, audio and video can be used in therapy, and so can webcams. All these options are worth exploring as you figure out what works best for you.
For example, if you’re isolated with more than one person, it might be difficult not to be overheard, so text messaging would work better. Or, maybe writing words on a screen is too much like work and recording an audio message or talking on the phone might be more effective for getting your feelings out for discussion.
One of the benefits of teletherapy is that you have many ways to communicate. Be open to all the possibilities!
4. Learn about what even works better using telemedicine
Online therapy can have advantages that offline therapy doesn’t.
You could, for example, introduce your cat to your therapist over a webcam. Your therapist can see your living space and just get to know many ore facets of your life via online.
Online therapy gives you avenues to share aspects of your life that would be difficult to bring to in-person, 45-minute office visits. Online therapy can be small check-ins every day, maybe sharing articles that resonated with you, or gratitude lists over texts
Getting creative with using links, sound files and back-and-forth texts can make online therapy feel like a regular part of your everyday life, depending on what structure your therapist is willing to try.
5. In the absence of bodily cues, practice naming your emotions more explicitly
If you’ve been doing in-person therapy for any length of time, you may be accustomed to your therapist observing your body language and facial expressions and being able to understand your emotional state that way. And that may be lost in online therapy.
To make up for that loss, it could be beneficial to start practicing naming your emotions and reactions more explicitly, rather than expecting the therapist to pick up on your nonverbal cues. more explicitly.
For instance, if your therapist makes an observation that makes you angry, or is generally unpleasant, you might want to pause and say, “When you said that, it made me feel angry.”
In the same way, learning to be more specific about what emotion you are feeling would also help a therapist help someone working on their issues remotely.
A simple “I’m tired,” is not as illuminating as “I’m feeling like I have nothing more to give,” for example. “Sad,” is not as specific as “helpless.”
Getting this specific is a useful skill for self-awareness, generally. And online therapy is a natural way to start exercising the skill in a safe environment.
6. Be willing to ask for the kind of help you need, without fear
COVID-19 — an active pandemic — means that most everyone is worried about meeting our most basic human needs.
Upended circumstances, scarce resources and just plain old fear of the unknown makes this a difficult time to be an adult.
Taking care of yourself and the vulnerable people in your care is going to be a challenge at times.
Dismissing this fear and pain as an overreaction to COVID-19 can make it impossible to ask for the help you need.
Be assured, your therapist is working with clients who undoubtedly share your struggles. You aren’t alone.
Some things that might be helpful to bring to your therapist during this time:
- Can we think of ways to help me stay connected to my normal life and other people?
- My eating pattern has been upset by this upended situation. Can I send a message at the beginning of the day with my meal plan for the day?
- Could you share some resources for how to cope with a panic attack?
- How can I stop obsessing about the coronavirus? Do you have strategies to get my mind off it?
- Does my anxiety seem out of proportion to this situation?
- The person I’m isolated with is not helping me feel calm. How can I stay safe?
Remember your therapist is there to help you with any and every issue that emerges. Anything that’s affecting you is worth talking about, even if it might seem trivial to someone else.
7. Don’t be afraid to give your therapist feedback
Teletherapy is new to a lot of therapists and it’s almost certain there will be glitches as it becomes more routine.
Online therapy itself is a more recent development in the field, and not all clinicians have been trained to translate their in-person skills to an online platform.
So be prepared to speak up about how the process is working. You are your own best advocate.
So if you are getting frustrated with dropped communication lines, tell them. If the delay between messages is making you uncomfortable, say so.
As you both experiment with online therapy, be ready to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. You might even set aside some time to discuss the logistics with your therapist.
Online therapy can be a powerful calming influence, especially during such an isolated, stressful time.
Don’t be afraid to try something different, be clear about your expectations, say what you need, and be willing to compromise with your therapist as you work together.
Now more than ever, your mental health is a priority for surviving these unsettled times in a healthy way.
Chaz Stevens is an entrepreneur, former journalist, and well-known activist who has appeared on the front pages of Time, Miami Herald, Guardian, Slate, and the Huffington Post. He’s also appeared on The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Fox News.
Chaz lives in South Florida with his two rescue dogs. Before launching ESAD International, he could be found working on IT for IBM, Microsoft, and The Walt Disney World Company. But his favorite job is the one he’s now doing full time — helping people get to a better place.