The last time I saw my therapist in person must have been March 10, 2020—the last Tuesday before COVID-19 shut down New York. I remember sitting with her, unable to process all that was happening that week: the rumors that school would shut down by the end of the week, the fact that my hometown, Seattle, WA, had the first recorded cases in the U.S., which at that time, no one really knew what that meant and what the new disease would bring, and then hearing my therapist say that we might not ever see each other again. I sat there with wide eyes and a heavy, unsure heart, but luckily, I didn’t have to say “goodbye” to her until that summer, and although we’re all still dealing with COVID, I have hope that we can make it through.
It was extremely difficult to lose my therapist—she understood me on a molecular level, listened to and supported me and changed my life immensely—and I was afraid of starting over, especially meeting someone new through a screen. Whether you’re brand new to therapy, starting over or continuing a long therapeutic relationship, I’ve figured out a few tricks to help make the transition to “telehealth” more manageable.
Here are five of the most helpful tips to making the most out of virtual therapy:
Privacy is everything. Speaking freely is essential in therapy, but it can be challenging, especially since so many of us relocated back to our guardians’ and parents’ homes. If your walls are thin like mine, plug in a fan or use ambient noise apps. If it’s safe and possible, try sitting outside or going for a walk. Some people sit in their cars or are able to find a location outside of their home (which can be tricky during a pandemic). If none of those things sound doable, try to plan your session when the people you live with are gone and maybe if you feel comfortable, share that you’re in therapy and would appreciate it if they could give you space or leave for that hour.
Fostering new relationships can be scary and awkward, especially on a screen, but try to remember that therapy is for you. No one can understand or support you if you keep your feelings and thoughts to yourself. Vulnerability is terrifying but necessary and ultimately the more you keep to yourself, the more things can fester and worsen. Out of experience, the things I least want to talk about in therapy are often the things I should talk about in therapy the most. Also, it’s totally okay and helpful to talk about therapy in therapy. Expressing how you feel about your therapist, acknowledging the things they’re doing that help or hurt and questions you have are all valid and a part of the openness required to develop a healthy and trustful therapeutic relationship.
Technology can be finicky but try to use it to your advantage. Make sure your device is charged, use headphones and try to be near a good WiFi signal. Also, when using Zoom, remember to use your name and check to see that if you’re using a background image, it’s not something you would be mortified if your therapist saw.
Progress isn’t instant. I love this quote from the Instagram account We Are Not Really Strangers: “Growth sometimes means going backwards but dealing with it differently.” It takes time to build trust and change old mindsets and behaviors. Try to be patient with yourself, I know I am (and spoiler: it’s not easy). Also, not every therapist is “your person”—it’s okay to try another person until it feels right, again this is for you. You should feel safe, heard and supported.
- Journal & Notes
Keeping track of significant in-session revelations is beyond useful, especially in times of hardship. It can also be helpful to track feelings, but try not to over intellectualize; just notice without judgement and if the feelings are not serving you, let them be and then let them go. I also sometimes use a journal to write down questions or topics I want to discuss with my therapist, in case I get nervous or try to avoid something important. Connected with this, I’d recommend getting to a place where you feel comfortable emailing your therapist about struggles and/or things you want to address. I know how easy it is to circumvent around difficult subjects, so sending your therapist a note can hold you accountable and also put something on their radar that may not already be there.
Although I would do anything to physically sit in my therapist’s office, I am extremely grateful that my school gives me access to mental health resources virtually. It’s not ideal, but therapy has been such a grounding space during a time when the world is especially turbulent. If you’re on the fence about virtual therapy or haven’t found your rhythm yet in the online sphere, consider implementing one of these tips to make it less awkward, so you can make the most of it. If nothing else, remember that therapy is for you and the only way people, especially therapists, can offer support is if you communicate your needs.