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Why virtual therapy isn't as awkward as you may think

I've been doing virtual therapy for 4 years — here's why it's worth it.
Why Virtual Therapy isn't as awkward as you think
It takes a bit of getting used to, but some people even prefer it.TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

After months of staying at home cooped up with family or by themselves, people are likely itching to talk to a professional therapist. But visiting a doctor whose schedule demands seeing multiple patients a day isn’t a practical way to re-emerge into our new socially distant world. Virtual therapy could be the solution.

I’ve been doing virtual therapy for almost four years now. When I left for college in France — alongside searching for apartments, packing clothes and getting my visa — I also realized I would need to shift my method of therapy. I had the option of searching for a new therapist locally or continuing to communicate with my current therapist virtually. I had already established a good relationship with my therapist over nearly six years, so I wasn't ready to flush that down the toilet, but I still had concerns. Could I be as forthcoming with my problems over the phone? Would the lack of body language be detrimental? Would it defeat the whole point of our sessions?

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My therapist and I decided to aim for calls twice a month at minimum. Before the first call, I realized that, unlike in-person therapy, I had to carve out my own space in my apartment that was comfortable for a 45-minute session. I tried my best to mimic the real deal, so I chose to lay on my couch and put my phone on speaker so it felt more like a conversation and less like a call.

Truthfully, it was a bit awkward at first. There weren’t some of the normal social cues, like facial expressions to read when someone is done talking, but we found our groove after the first 15 minutes. I found it effective mostly because we had already established a relationship with each other. Four years later, virtual therapy has been an invaluable tool for me and, in light of COVID-19, it was easy for us to continue our regular sessions.

Virtual therapy has become increasingly popular, with new websites like Talkspace and Betterhelp allowing patients to access professional help wherever they are. There are some appealing benefits: more flexibility when scheduling, no commute time and call, video or online chat options. For people who have anxiety in new spaces or feel more expressive over text, this may be a more appealing option even without a pandemic. But while it's a seemingly convenient alternative, virtual therapy may not be for everyone.

There are some problems that can arise with online platforms, one of the most serious being patients’ anonymity. In high-risk scenarios, therapists can’t help clients who may be a danger to themselves or others if the patient requests to remain anonymous. Some clients may become easily distracted while using their personal phone or computer, and may get sucked into the notifications popping up during their session.

Despite these potential drawbacks, virtual therapy can be just as effective as in-person sessions. A 2014 study where teens were counseled over the phone for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder found that the subjects who met with their therapists over the phone saw just as much success as their peers who had sessions face-to-face. More recent research in South Carolina found that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder responded equally as well to treatment over video chat.

This all goes to say, therapy is subjective. There is no universal answer or one type of therapy for everyone. However, in light of the more cautious world we’re living in, virtual therapy may be a viable temporary option. If you already have a therapist that you trust, contacting them about their flexibility for calls, video chats or online chats may be a preferable option for now.

If you don't have a therapist yet, it’s not impossible to find a new one online. Searching for the proper form of professional help can seem daunting, but just remember to stay true to yourself. Do some research on the doctor and platform you prefer and make sure your personal information is safe. Virtual therapy may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for extra support, especially during this difficult time, it’s worth giving a shot.