Therapy is an indispensable tool to recovery, or in helping one gain deeper insights and achieve self-actualisation. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, traditional face-to-face therapy has been forced to take on various forms, including sessions conducted via telephone or through video-calling platforms. Of course, therapy serves the same purpose, regardless of whether it is conducted in person or otherwise. However, there is definitely something restorative about being able to connect with a therapist physically. Humans are innately social creatures after-all, and sometimes when things get tough, a little more human interaction and comfort can go a long way.
Physical presence in therapy certainly provides a deeper sense of connection, in contrast with virtual therapy where one might feel more distant and detached. It may seem bearable at the very beginning, but as you progress through the sessions, having to interact with your therapist through a screen all the time can get frustrating. Similar to how students may have trouble coping with online school and home-based learning, virtual therapy has some form of hindrance when it comes to relationship-building with your therapist. For most psychotherapy methods, it is indeed possible to shift them online. However, for others such as psychodrama, it may not be entirely ideal. How expressive and comfortable can you get, when you’re struggling to follow your therapist’s directives through the small screen and having to deal with technological lags?
Seeing your therapist in person also allows for him/her to detect any subtle body language and somatic movements. These are all non-verbal cues that may be lost through telecommunication. Non-verbal cues are just as important as verbal ones, and can provide your therapist with greater insights. Non-verbal signals can serve to convey your feelings along with what is being said, and can either reinforce or contradict verbal messages. Ignoring them would be very much a failure to be fully engaged in a conversation. Moreover, seeing you in person provides therapists with the ease to identify any form of dissociation. During the session, clients may not necessarily attune well, and may not be fully present in the moment. The client may be engaging with the therapist, but seemingly thinking about something else that is going on in their life at the same time. This does not mean that the session is unhelpful or “boring”. While this could simply be attributed to the lack of presence, it could also point towards other concerns regarding the client’s state of mind. Fragmentation can occur especially when one is recovering from a past trauma and can be brought to the forefront, causing incomprehensive emotional reactions when triggered. Fragments of self are usually suppressed, often attributed to the lack of a sense of safety when it comes to expressing their inner needs or desires. When these feelings start to show during therapy, therapists can identify them through common tell-tale signs such as a switch into dissociation, noticeable body movements (twitching, scrunching of fingers or toes etc.). Body language is not definitive, but can offer clues about one’s thoughts and feelings. With telecommunication, it is more often than not impossible to see the client below shoulder-level, thus making it difficult for therapists to assess any somatic movements that may be occurring.
Another issue with telecommunication is the lack of control over the therapeutic environment. In a traditional face-to-face session, the clinician has considerable control over the environment, and is able to ensure a private, safe and quiet space for the entire duration of the session. This limits the number of distractions and allows for both the therapist and the client to concentrate on psychotherapy. Moreover, in a clinical setting, furniture is often set up in particular ways to facilitate clinician-patient interactions. For instance, seats may be arranged such that the clinician would be facing the client at an angle of 45 to 90 degrees, and approximately 2 to 3 feet away. Facing the client directly can feel somewhat threatening for some, and this angle allows for the client to feel more at ease. Additionally, it allows for both parties to break eye contact naturally (intermittently) without seeming antisocial or distracted by having to do so actively. In contrast, having a session online or through telephone allows for less control over interactions and the client may be more exposed to external distractions or undesirable interruptions. This also leads us to our next point, where teleconsultations also increase the risks of privacy breaches.
Due to the lack of environmental control, having a consultation via telecommunication methods can be a challenge especially for those who do not have access to their own private space. For individuals living with others, there could be situations that compromise client confidentiality, including potential eavesdropping or having others walk in on them. Not only does this make the session extremely disruptive, it can be a huge concern for many considering that mental health concerns are sensitive topics. Clients must make the extra effort to find a suitable place and time for them to speak with their therapists freely and with ease. As such, physical presence in a controlled clinical setting may have the upper hand.
Nevertheless, this article in no way aims at undermining the efficacy of tele-health, nor to allude that tele-therapy is ineffective or pointless. Considering the need for physical distancing during the pandemic, telecommunication is undeniably crucial in limiting the spread of the virus. Putting that aside, traditional in-person therapy can have its barriers too, limiting people from attaining the mental health support they need. Individuals with disabilities may find accessibility to be a significant problem at hand, and find it difficult to travel for therapy without having others to rely on. Others include parents who are unable to find suitable childcare options, all while juggling work and mental health care. For those struggling with social anxiety and agoraphobia, it can also be extremely intimidating and overwhelming for them to step out. In fact, some research has shown that virtual and in-person therapy, depending on the treatment goal, can be equally effective. In adults, cognitive behavioural therapy was shown to be similarly effective both in vivo and virtually (Khatri et al., 2014). There is also evidence that youth with anxiety disorders respond positively via telehealth (Khan et al., 2020). Traditional face-to-face therapy and tele-therapy both have their perks, and we acknowledge that it also boils down to individual preferences. If you’re unsure as to which treatment option to opt for, do feel free to contact us.
- Brenes, G. A., Ingram, C. W., & Danhauer, S. C. (2011). Benefits and Challenges of Conducting Psychotherapy by Telephone. Professional psychology, research and practice, 42(6), 543–549. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026135 (Accessed 06/09/2021)
- Khatri N., Marziali E., Tchernikov I., Shepherd N. Comparing telehealth-based and clinic-based group cognitive behavioral therapy for adults with depression and anxiety: A pilot study. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2014;9:765. (Accessed 09/09/2021)
- Khan, A. N., Bilek, E., Tomlinson, R. C., & Becker-Haimes, E. M. (2021). Treating Social Anxiety in an Era of Social Distancing: Adapting Exposure Therapy for Youth During COVID-19. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002 (Accessed 09/09/2021)
- https://www.nataliarachel.com/articles-practitioners/shifting-to-tele-therapy-attuning-without-physical-presence (Accessed 07/09/2021)