The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is having a huge emotional impact on us. Many of us are experiencing higher levels of distress and anxiety as we negotiate each day in the unknown with ‘new normals’. We wake up each day to life and death headlines from around the world and our concerns naturally multiply. There is a collective sense of ‘is this really happening?’ and it is hardly surprising there has been an increase in health anxiety searches online.
Most of UK counselling community, including myself, have switched existing face to face clients to online (or phone) sessions in order to comply with the latest Government decreed isolation rules. These are clients we know in person and with whom we have existing relationships. But as new clients contact me, I’ve been reflecting on how disappointing it must be for them not to be able to start their counselling journey in person. For many, this is not what they would have opted for, but it has become for now, another new normal.
While most clients would prefer to attend face to face counselling, there are those whose preference is for online sessions (which is why I have always offered the option of online therapy). Some clients choose this option for the convenience and safety of not having to leave home/work, for reasons of accessibility for those with mobility limitations, or living in remote areas. Some prefer to opt for a specialist or language-specific counsellor or are living abroad but wanting a therapist in the UK. Online counselling also allows busy clients to integrate their therapy with hectic schedules. Being able to participate in couples or family therapy from different locations is another advantage of online counselling. There are many practical reasons why some prefer online over face to face therapy, but some just find it easier to speak about difficult and painful matters with the distance of an online session or from the comfort of their own surroundings.
Does online counselling work? The answer is yes, online counselling can not only be successful but highly successful, and many studies confirm this. But since we are all different, we will experience the counselling journey in our own way, whether face to face or online. In addition, not everyone has the privacy required to recreate that safe space in their own homes – therapy is never going to be satisfactory if you feel your partner or flatmate can overhear you, or you can hear your children outside the door clamouring to get in. Thus, it would be wrong to champion one method over the other as clients will have their individual preferences, as will counsellors, so it’s important to make sure that your counsellor is as comfortable with the chosen method of counselling as you are.
Any good counsellor will have considered aspects such as how to work safely online and will explore these with you and/or provide an online counselling agreement. This agreement will not only create a safe and boundaried session, but also map out what measures are in place if someone walks into your room, the internet cuts out, or there is any other disruption. Safety also means a counsellor will use their professional judgement to gauge whether this way of working will be appropriate for each person. An individual with complex needs for instance, may not benefit from working in this way.
There may be some glitches in the initial sessions as you grapple with the ‘can you hear me?’ moments. You may find yourself moving your device closer to the router and so discovering where best to have your therapy. I’d advise you to prepare yourself before the session so that your needs are met: have your drinks and tissues on hand, put your phone on silent and lock the door if you need to. One of the advantages of face to face therapy is the journey home – it’s a natural opportunity to reflect on the session and re-balance yourself before everyday life kicks in. With online therapy it’s often back into the world without that decompression time so be kind to yourself and give yourself a few more minutes to sit with your reflections and feelings.
I wouldn’t suggest that online therapy works well for every person or for even for every counsellor. But if you are considering therapy now, I would suggest you give it a go to get your own sense of how it feels and how it supports you.