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Can’t See Your Therapist Because of COVID-19?

The new world of virtual psychotherapy is brighter than you think.

Like many of you, I’ve suddenly found myself working from home. Stress levels are high as we contend with our new normal. The safety of seeing clients in my medical office building is abruptly and unexpectedly filled with uncertainly. Suddenly door knobs, hands extended in greeting, elevator call buttons, even the air around us is met with suspicion. Standing near someone who clears their throat takes on new meaning. Public life is changing in response to the deadly coronavirus. At this moment, most of us are still reeling in shock, frantically trying to interpret the implications of the drastic changes suggested by government officials and medical practitioners alike. Maintaining physical distance from our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers is becoming the new normal. In light of these changes, what’s to come of psychotherapy?

As a clinical psychologist and sex therapist successfully practicing telemedicine for years, I am a force of optimism in this virtual space. There are many very real benefits to telepsychology, as I hope many of you are about to find out.

 Darya Lavinskaya/Shutterstock
Source: Darya Lavinskaya/Shutterstock

Technology now interfaces with just about all aspects of our daily lives, and the psychotherapy room is no different. I came to embrace this reality about three years ago when I moved out of state. I was delighted when the majority of my clients chose to follow me virtually rather than terminate or get a referral to a local therapist. I was even more delighted when talking with me on a computer screen was more comfortable and effective than they had anticipated. I recall the moment when I realized that I didn’t notice whether my client was virtually in front of me, or literally sitting on my therapy couch. Practicing in a crowded city with terrible traffic, my virtual practice is booming. Often people start their therapy with me in person, but as events of life interfere with their schedule, they opt for a single virtual session. But this experience then sells itself—the lack of traffic, finding parking, waiting in a waiting room—in a world where efficiency is highly valued, virtual therapy takes the cake.

I admit I didn’t always hold this opinion. At the beginning of my career, I was under the impression that telemedicine was sub-standard. How could a relationship be as intimate if shared over a computer screen? How could I so carefully read my client's body language if they weren’t sitting across from me, in my office? How could I really know my client if I’ve never seen them face to face? These questions are valid, and understandable. I can only tell you that it is a rare moment in my work that I feel a face to face interaction would be more effective. Of course, I screen people on the phone to make sure both they and I feel that online work is likely to be a good fit. A few tips to get you started:

  • Expect some connection challenges the first session or two. Sometimes you need to figure out where you get the best reception to maintain an hour-long video call, or experiment with different web browsers.
  • Give yourself a few moments of quiet time before your session, just as if you were sitting in a waiting room. Otherwise you will feel too distracted trying to make the mental leap from life into psychotherapy.
  • Create a routine for yourself just as you would in a therapist’s office. Make that cup of tea before you begin, and sit in the same location. Take a few moments at the end of your session to consider what you learned. Resisting the temptation to jump right back into life will help you solidify your gains.

No type of therapy is right for everyone, and teletherapy is no exception. I would never suggest that it works for every client, or for every therapist. However, in this age of coronavirus, I hope that this blog post will offer an optimistic view of this therapeutic venue. Change is difficult for all of us and changing the way you meet with your therapist is no exception. But try it before you disregard this option. This is a challenging moment in time, and fears and anxieties are running high. You may find, as I did, that telepsychology isn’t a second-rate option. Instead, it’s an effective and efficient upgrade to a valuable service!

Find a therapist near you—who's available via phone or video—on Psychology Today's Therapy Directory.

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