The work of traditional, one-on-one or group psychotherapy relies on more than just talk. It demands close observation of all the visual and interpersonal cues that effect every conversation — with more detailed observations added for trained psychological professionals.
In the age of the Coronavirus, countless varieties of health-related services had to move into the virtual space. While some areas of the U.S. began to open and allow more in-person business operations, social distancing restrictions remain in many cities. Until those quarantine procedures lift, psychotherapists in most varieties must work online.
Every individual therapist can tackle these new treatment realities in his or her own way. Regardless of whether they turn to social media platforms such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or another online app, psychological professionals encounter challenges they didn’t necessarily expect from this new viral frontier.
Therapist Meriana Dinkova, MFT, is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist in private practice. While she saw a lot of her clients experiencing serious anxiety during the early days of the Coronavirus, most settled into virtual therapy well.
“I’ve experienced a surprising lack of challenges doing sessions virtually,” she says. “Some clients complain about being online all the time for work and for visiting friends and family, but they don’t mind doing our sessions that way.”
When a therapist meets a client in person, the consultant is doing much more than just listening to problems or symptoms. The professional is reading body language, noting personal hygiene, watching for eye contact, etc. Dinkova insists she doesn’t need to be in the room with someone to get just such a read on them.
“I still see visual clues. A sense of smell isn’t there, but I do get a visual sense of the person. I also note the limbic system resonance — the sense of rapport one person creates with another.”
Dinkova notes that many on her list of Angeleno clients enjoy not fighting through L.A. traffic — and fewer people miss their appointments.
“During Coronavirus, I find many people miss being hugged,” Dinkova explains. “I offer empathy, and if they break social distancing, I don’t tell people how to deal with those guidelines.”
Counselor Krista Dudley, LPC, is a professional counselor specializing in anxiety, depression and relationship issues. She finds that the pandemic not only forced her clients to get used to sessions via social media, but it caused a rise in people who never saw a therapist before.
“I haven’t seen anyone in person since mid-March,” Dudley says. “I was surprised that most people were not only able to download social media apps on a computer or phone, but they’re excited to do so.”
Dudley suggests some of her patients seem more at ease over the virtual distance than in her office setting. On the flip side of that arrangement, the counselor finds she’s working twice as hard seeing clients at home without office facilities and support readily available. It all means Dudley pays careful attention to her own psychological and emotional states while she treats her patients.
“You’re supposed to alleviate anxiety and depression in others, but you can experience it yourself.”
When life returns to some semblance of normalcy again, Dudley and her home base clinics will install new safety precautions for incoming patients. She’ll also offer clients the option to continue using social media, if that makes them more comfortable.
Away from Coronavirus concerns, Dr. Amy Schley, Ph.D., and her team would see young patients and their families for 12 hours a day in a multi-story office complete with toys and wandering cats to make kids feel at home. During COVID-19, she shifted her sessions online and began recording regular Facebook videos encouraging viewers and issuing projects to challenge kids watching at home.
“I literally felt compelled to do (the videos),” Schley says. “When we were going into quarantine, I knew I would turn myself inside out to keep kids off of video games. I wanted to give them something else to do.”
Schley insists research shows video games aren’t an activity that should be engaged in for long periods of time — and the viral quarantine makes that threat ever-present. Her friendly project challenges get kids up and keeps them busy.
“I’ve been seeing patients virtually via FaceTime,” she adds. “I’ve been able to be in my patients’ homes, and that’s not a bad thing.”
A hypnotherapist, addiction counsellor and consultant, Kimberly Ann O’Connor now offers all of her services by phone, social media calls or via personalized recording. She reports that process works so well that she intends to stick with it after Coronavirus is in the rearview mirror.
“I would say my work was 50/50 between in-office and consultations over the phone or by recordings before COVID-19,” O’Connor explains. “I find this new (Coronavirus) structure highly beneficial for my clients. COVID illuminated a need and added reach for me to help make more changes to more people’s lives in more situations.”
During the international quarantine, O’Connor continues to see more clients grappling with substance abuse, overeating, depression and general anxiety. She works with her clients to make sure they’re not dealing with ramifications of today’s choices tomorrow.
“Active listening is the priority to provide positive change for people,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a virtual component involved. Be present for the listening.”