6 Little, No-Cost Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Virtual Therapy Session
Virtual therapy isn’t a new concept — the idea of calling or video-chatting your therapist has been around long before stay-at-home orders made it a primary way many people connected with their mental health providers. And though the need for teletherapy was expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic, it also couldn’t have come at a better time, given the ways in which the global health crisis led to an increase in depression and anxiety, and how many decided to seek mental health treatment as a result. Teletherapy has become a popular choice for therapists and clients alike, and it’s likely that virtual therapy will stick around even after the pandemic ends.
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Teletherapy provides plenty of accessibility in a time when finding the right mental health professional can be difficult. Plus, it makes therapy that much more accessible for people who might not be able to leave their homes or take time out of their day. If you’re unable to find a mental health care provider that you like near your home, teletherapy provides the option of reaching out to a therapist whose practice isn’t local (though you will still need to find a therapist who is licensed to work in your state).
“Virtual is here to stay,” Christina Winesberry, a psychotherapist based out of Oakland, California, told Apartment Therapy. “I have clients in Southern California now, and those are people who were able to look somewhere else because therapy is more accessible.”
Virtual therapy can also feel more personal for those who don’t prefer a formal office setting. “In a lot of ways, it’s a lot more intimate because you’re meeting the person in their safe space, Marissa Tolero, a licensed therapist and yoga teacher who has been holding virtual therapy sessions since 2019, told Apartment Therapy. “You’re able to see their pets [and] their home, and that creates a level of intimacy that is very different from the in-person experience.”
However, virtual therapy can come with its struggles and can be difficult for those who have never had to have a therapy session, for example, in the same space where they work or relax (or both). Apartment Therapy spoke with numerous mental health experts about how they have helped their clients make their own spaces feel more conducive to remote therapy sessions, and how to make teletherapy work better for you.
Get technical issues out of the way before your session starts.
It can happen in Zoom meetings, and it can happen during teletherapy appointments: Connectivity issues can ruin a conversation quickly. The last thing you want during an intense conversation is for your video to start buffering or lose connection entirely, so checking your internet beforehand is a must.
It’s also helpful to make sure you have your charger nearby in case your laptop or phone runs low on battery during your session, and to test a pair of headphones or even a headset if you want to make the experience feel more private. “It helps with the feeling of confidentiality, especially if you have roommates,” Winesberry said. “Even if they might be able to hear you, they definitely can’t hear what I’m saying.”
Using headphones can also help eliminate other noises so that you focus on your session. “I’ve noticed with various video chat platforms that there’s sometimes an echo,” Mary Breen, the founder and director of remote therapy clinic Repose Therapy, told Apartment Therapy. “So not only for privacy but also to eliminate that on both ends you would want to wear headphones.”
Find a well-lit space.
Though you might be inclined to hide in a dark corner while you’re feeling vulnerable, Breen recommends testing your lighting setup before an appointment to make sure your therapist can see your face easily. If your light source is directly behind you, it can be difficult for a therapist to see you and gauge your emotions during a session.
“As a clinician, it’s really important for me to pay close attention to body language and facial expressions, Breen said. “So I advise my clients to adjust their lighting before the session begins.”
Light can make the session feel more energizing and positive, so try to set yourself up in a bright room, ideally with access to natural light. “Try your best to get as much sunlight as possible,” licensed mental health counselor Shani Graves told Apartment Therapy. “If you can’t get sunlight, getting a sun lamp or just a nice, bright light in the room works, too.”
That said, it’s important to remember that therapy is about you and your needs — so if that means sitting in a darker room or turning off your camera, a good therapist will understand and accommodate accordingly.
“It is okay to just come as you are,” Graves said. “Your therapist is going to be flexible and understanding because their focus is on how you can be a better you.”
Get rid of digital distractions.
If you take therapy sessions through the same computer that you use for work, it can be tempting to sneak a quick peek at your inbox or Slack during your therapy session. If you find yourself easily distracted by incoming notifications, it can help to close out of all your work tabs or turn on your computer’s Do Not Disturb function for the duration of your session. “Another way to help with that distraction is to have your virtual session on your phone,” Graves said. “In order to look at your email on your phone, you have to click out of the session, which makes it more obvious.”
Find a private space so that you don’t have to worry about people overhearing you.
Living with roommates, parents, or partners can make it difficult to feel like someone isn’t overhearing your conversation. This tension can make for an uncomfortable therapy experience, especially if you were hoping to discuss issues related to the people you’re living with.
To that end, Graves suggests establishing code names for certain people. “I’ve found that most of my clients have had roommates who are respectful of privacy during therapy,” she said. “But if they felt like they were still uncomfortable with talking about their roommate or family member while they were at home,” she added, code names made things “a little easier.”
If you feel uncomfortable telling the people in your home that you need private time and space for therapy, Breen recommends buying a cheap white noise machine that you can use during your session to make it harder for someone in another room to hear conversations. “I have the [same] noise-canceling in my home office that I normally use in the office,” Breen said. “Setting that up, along with having a designated space for therapy sessions, has helped me put myself in the mode for therapy.”
If you have the space, you might want to try going outside for a therapy session, or even calling in from a less-expected place. “I do have some clients who have started doing their sessions in the car, especially if they have toddlers or young children who don’t understand what exactly therapy is,” Winesberry said.
Add little touches to make your therapy session feel special and comforting.
If you’ve been working from home and suddenly need to switch to “therapy mode,” it can be difficult to put yourself in a different mindset — after all, you’re probably looking at a computer for both tasks. It’s important to find ways to make therapy feel less like another meeting you have to attend, and Tolero recommends incorporating scents and sounds that relax you into your session. “This includes things like candles, soft music, or a warm cup of tea,” she said, adding that such details may help you soothe any stressed-out nerves.
Breen also suggests trying to get your space as warm as possible, so you’re not battling with a chill as you open up and process. When you’re cold, she noted, “everything’s tenser because you’re trying to keep warm. So if you’re warmer, you’re automatically more open and receptive.” Changing out of restrictive work clothes and into sweats can make it easier to open up as well. “Our clothing can change how we emotionally respond,” Breen said. “So something tight around your waist, like jeans, can impact your emotional perception.”
You might want to keep something comforting, such as a fuzzy pillow, near you while in session. “My office always has a lot of pillows on the couch so patients can have something to hold during the session if they need to,” Graves said. Having these items can make virtual therapy feel less like another meeting and more like you’re going to a therapist’s office — even though you’re skipping the long commute and awkward waiting room silence.
And remember: there is nothing wrong with logging in from your bed or anywhere else you find soothing. “I have some clients who always do their session from their sofa or their office space, and I have others who are always in their pajamas and sitting in bed, and that’s totally okay,” Breen said. “It’s up to you to make that call.”
Make time to reset before and after your session.
Therapy can be draining, but you might forget to make space to process after you log off, especially if you’re jumping from one virtual meeting to another. This is why Tolero builds time for unwinding into her sessions so that clients don’t have to navigate a sudden ending or are left without a sense of closure. “Even if it’s just five minutes, allow yourself to get ready for it and get out of it,” Tolero said. “I bookend my sessions with practices like yoga and meditation so that there’s a period of unwinding.”
If you can, Breen recommends going for a walk after your session ends, “so you’re actually moving through whatever just emotionally transpired.” Actions like opening a window, taking a shower, or journaling can also help close out a session. Whatever you pick, Breen suggests giving yourself 15 to 30 minutes before and after a session to create some space. “Whether it’s just going to the bathroom or walking around your apartment for a little while, any sort of state change can help you transition out of a session,” she said.
And if you want to return to something that came up during your session, you might want to try journaling while the thoughts are still fresh. “I encourage my folks to journal as a way to prepare what they want to talk about,” Winesberry said. “I also always make sure what their plan or their action steps are as a way to close out a session.”