Most of us are stuck at home weathering the coronavirus storm. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that our anxieties, depressed mood, relationship problems, post-traumatic stress and bad habits suddenly disappear. To make matters worse, the public health crisis and economic meltdown we’re all witnessing are providing additional triggers for existing mental health issues, and in many cases creating entirely new challenges.
One piece of good news is that despite mandated lockdowns, you can continue addressing your therapy needs and get support for any new stressors by meeting your therapist online. Evidence suggests that virtual therapy is accessible, useful for a variety of conditions, and shows similar outcomes to traditional in-person therapy (Backhaus et al. 2014). Surprisingly, research also shows that meeting a therapist online does not seem to compromise the quality of the client-therapist relationship, which is an important ingredient in successful therapy (Simpson and Reid, 2014).
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your experience, ensuring a seamless transition to virtual therapy.
- Privacy is still important. If others are listening in—even loved ones that you trust—you might not be able to communicate with the same level of authenticity. Make it a point to ensure you can get some privacy, using the flexibility of the medium if necessary (see below).
- Take advantage of the flexibility of the setting. If you’re fortunate to enough to have privacy at home for the purposes of therapy, then great! But you don’t necessarily need a separate, soundproof home office to conduct a therapy session. Many virtual therapy sessions take place in cars or parks. Audio-only through a phone line can be sufficient to have a good conversation with your therapist, and might even feel more intimate than a video call in some instances. Going for a walk while you talk to your therapist could unlock some energy and creativity, which can be leveraged for insight, motivation and purpose.
- Try to minimize distractions. If your therapy session is reduced to a Zoom window, other apps like email, social media or news are just a click away. So it’s easy to lose your focus. Mountains of research show that multitasking is a myth – you will definitely not get the full value from your conversation with your therapist if 20% of your attentional bandwidth is taken up for reading or looking at something else. Put your smartphone away; close all other windows on your computer; turn on “full-screen” mode on your video-conferencing app; and turn off all notifications to prevent your attention from getting hijacked. Don’t forget to turn those essential notifications back on after the meeting.
- Don’t sit right in front of the computer screen: So much of the communication between client and therapist happens with your body language. All of that will be lost if you only see each others’ faces. Push back from the computer a bit so that you can see each other’s upper bodies, at least.
- Introduce your therapist to loved-ones. If you’re doing your therapy session from home, it can be very meaningful to briefly introduce your therapist to pets, children and/or partners. It can enrich your therapist’s understanding of your home environment and support system. You might even consider involving them in the process (see below).
- Consider family or couples therapy. If some of the issues you’re wrestling with involve family members or loved ones with whom you are quarantined, consult with your therapist about the possibility of bringing them into the process. You might find that a broader, more inclusive conversation opens up new possibilities.
- Tips for optimizing your tech setup:
- Use headphones. This subtle adjustment delivers a surprisingly big impact. In addition to improving the sound quality, it will be a more immersive and intimate experience.
- Use a big screen: Go for computers or tablets over a smartphone. It’s simply easier on the eyes.
- Ensure a reasonably fast and stable internet connection: Nothing is more annoying in an online meeting than frozen faces or choppy audio. A connection that offers 5 MBPS download speeds should be sufficient. Most cellular connections easily reach that speed, so you can tether your phone to your computer if necessary.
- Turn off the selfie camera. Most video conferencing apps will show you the live stream of what you look like to your therapist. It is almost impossible to ignore it and will invariably eat into your attentional bandwidth.
Hopefully these tips will help you stay connected to your therapist and engaged with your healing, even in these difficult moments. Good luck.