COVID19, SOCIAL DISTANCING AND VIRTUAL THERAPY
JAMES N KRAUT, PSY.D.
At this point, no one needs to be told how strange and anxiety-provoking these times and our suddenly new world are. We all experienced how the endless political news cycle suddenly gave way to a scary biological story in which we all appear as either potential or actual characters. One news story after the next have appeared about a horrible global process that at this point is more dark mystery and fear than anything else. My suggestion is to be mindful of how much news you watch.
With most of the things that pleased, distracted or otherwise interested us gone and a potentially deadly virus causing the world to put on masks and hoard toilet paper, the world is collectively having trouble relaxing and is generally not sleeping nearly as soundly. (I include myself here.) There is much to trigger our fear response. The rules are all changed, the end is not in sight and covid19 deaths are adding up quickly.
One of the problems we are facing is the fact that many of the ways in which we would ordinarily take comfort are now off limits. No going out for dinner, no big box shopping, no parties, no hugs! Worrying and working from home if we’re lucky are the order of the day. With so much new to consider, we have been left to ourselves to a much greater extent.
Even the practice of psychotherapy is now different. Most mental health practitioners, myself included, are practicing social distancing, which means that your weekly trip to your therapist’s office may now only require a few steps down the hall to your computer or phone. Or maybe you can just do it in your bedroom. Virtual therapy is an inevitable product of social distancing, which is saving lives, and will be around for a while.
In the month during which I have been working strictly from home, I have accrued some thoughts about the process that may be helpful to you. First, I have patients with whom I have been practicing virtual therapy, or teletherapy, for years. That’s what they are used to and it works fine. I have others who have seen me in the office and have now switched over to teletherapy. Most are doing fine, but some acknowledged that it initially took some adjustment. And I have a handful of patients who have resisted all my coaxing and will not try it.
Most of the problem people have with switching to virtual therapy is really just the transition itself. With those who display some reluctance, I always suggest that they try it and if it still feels strange after ten minutes, we can agree to stop it right there. No one has ever stopped. To be honest, the worst thing about it is an occasional, usually minor problem with the connection. But as I said, I have been carrying on a handful of therapeutic relationships for years and that problem has never resulted in a disruption of the essentials of the treatment.
So, here’s the thing, my friends. There was never a more useful and important time for psychotherapy. It is truly an unhappy irony that in order to work more effectively with the myriad changes, fears and disruptions caused by the coronavirus, we are even being asked to take our therapy in a different form, requiring yet another cognitive and emotional adjustment. If you were in therapy at some point and have been avoiding the virtual approach, please consider it now. Speaking particularly about this pandemic, visiting a therapist can help you balance fear and compassion and encourage you to take extra steps to safeguard your mental health. But perhaps most importantly, since you are carrying so many new and challenging thoughts, anxieties and other feelings inside of you these days, virtual therapy is a wonderful way to share it, get it out and transform it.
If you have never been in therapy before and considered it, I would strongly suggest that since the world is so crazy and unstable right now, working on your own sanity has never been a more adaptive response. If you think talking about this stuff into your phone or computer would be weird, you’re right.
For about ten minutes.
In these chaotic and tense times, psychotherapy is still a highly effective coping strategy that should not be overlooked just because it may require a few minutes of adjustment. The more I settle into my own social distancing position, the more I realize that this may be a potential silver lining: The disruption and slowing down of the world may reach a point where the decrease in distraction actually facilitates some serious heart opening, creating a more loving earth.
I cannot overemphasize how often that process begins with the depth of connection experienced between patient and therapist. The closeness and openness of that relationship draws out compassion, relieves stress and leaves both parties with a sweeter, brighter feeling about living today, despite all that is going on. That helps us put the inevitable fear in its place – there in our fight/flight/freeze brains, but not calling the shots.
At our best, we can collectively respond to covid19 in a healthy, kind and compassionate way, helping to transform the world into a more inclusive, loving place. To that end, it may be heuristic to look at the virus as a dangerous but useful catalyst. To paraphrase one of my favorite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, we are always best served through the constant practice of acceptance. So, regardless of what it is, we try to allow it to be here, by simply saying to ourselves, “This belongs.”
And when that becomes problematic, there is always virtual therapy!