The last few years have been rough on our collective mental health, with global increases in both anxiety and depression. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to meet with a therapist online through a variety of both traditional and emerging platforms. Patients continue to take advantage of the ease and convenience of teletherapy, with six out of 10 people in the U.S. saying they would use telehealth for mental health services in a 2021 poll by the American Psychiatric Association.
Some research has shown that teletherapy can be just as effective as in-person treatment, and there are some important advantages to it. For one, it’s easier to click on a Zoom link than it is to commute in traffic to an office visit. And the internet provides a larger pool of providers, which can be especially handy if you don’t live in a city. With teletherapy, it may also be simpler to shop around and find a therapist you really click with.
That said, there are of course a few key differences between virtual therapy and in-person sessions. Here are some tips from therapists on how to get the most out of teletherapy:
Set up a comfortable space in your home
Los Angeles-based therapist Maria Evans recommends setting up a cozy space in your home, just like you would have in a therapist’s office.
“Some people bring tea or light a candle,” Evans says. She also recommends you have a box of tissues close at hand, just in case.
One of the great benefits of teletherapy is how relaxed and open you can be in your own home. But, if you’re sharing your space with others in the house, you’ll want to make sure you have privacy. Consider setting up a sound machine outside your door to muffle your conversation, or maybe even hang up a “Do Not Disturb” sign. The most important thing is to make sure you feel comfortable.
Treat your therapy sessions like a ritual
If you were going to see a therapist in person, you’d build in time to travel to their office. That travel time is crucial because it allows a moment of transition between your everyday life and your therapy session. You may not be leaving your home when you go to teletherapy, but there are ways to intentionally create this important transition from one part of your day to the next.
“Try to block out 15 minutes before a session starts to really set aside your other thoughts and concerns, and focus on your therapy,” Evans says. Alternatively, you might go for a pre-therapy walk, a little yoga or breathwork.
Get your tech set-up right
To help yourself feel that you’re speaking to a real person, you’ll want to use the biggest screen you have available. Choose a monitor or tablet over your phone screen if you can. It’s important for you to be able to see your therapist, and for your therapist to see you, Evans said. If you have a monitor or a laptop, use those instead of a phone or a tablet. You want to be able to see your therapists’ reactions and vice versa.
“It can really help in increasing the connection between a therapist and a client,” Evans says.
The ability for the therapist to read non-verbal clues is essential in their work. This is also true with relationship and family counseling.
“For couples it’s useful to see them on a couch several feet away from the screen, to see their body language,” Evans says.
Also, make sure you have a stable internet connection before you begin each session. Technical glitches are a common cause of frustrations with telehealth, and you don’t want that to be the reason you don’t follow through with getting the help you need. Some of the things to troubleshoot ahead of time are difficulty connecting, frozen screens and “unstable internet connection,” Evans says.
You’ve likely only got 50 minutes for each session, and time spent countering these glitches means less time for actually talking with your therapist.
Turn off notifications on your computer
You don’t want to be having an important breakthrough at the moment your boss is reaching out to you on Slack. There’s more of a temptation to give in to distraction when you’re meeting with people through a screen, Evans said.
Silence or mute your emails, texts and news alerts so that you’re not distracted. Don’t be tempted to shoot off one quick email while you’re in your therapy session. Clearing out these technological distractions can help you stay tuned-in.
Make sure you have something to fidget with
Some people like to cuddle with a pet (or even a stuffed animal) when talking through difficult feelings, according to marriage and family therapist Ashley Graber. In addition to these comforting creatures, there are creature comforts you may want to keep nearby to help you get through the session. Having something nearby that has texture can help ground you. It can be a stone, or a mug or a fidget spinner. You may want to keep a “basket of goodies” close at hand, filled with anything you like to fidget with—from glitter jars to silly putty—and reach for something as needed.
It can also be helpful for some people to have a notebook and pen to write down any insights that come about during your session.
Give yourself 10 minutes afterward to decompress
Don’t just jump back on a work call as soon as you're done with a session. Graber suggests her clients schedule at least one hour on their calendars for their 50-minute sessions. She suggests spending the extra time quietly, in the same room where your therapy session just took place, reflecting what came up during the session. Avoid the temptation to hop right to the next task.
These simple steps might help provide you with the same therapeutic benefits as an in-person therapy visit—and you won’t even have to change out of your pajamas if you don’t want to.
“It’s amazing how much we can all do through a screen,” said Graber.
Amy Ettinger is a writing living in Santa Cruz. Find her at amyettinger.com
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