When lockdown was first announced last March (a one-year anniversary nobody wants to celebrate), I never realised just how much staying indoors would affect my mental health.
While I was taking care of myself physically by exercising and cooking nutritious meals… inside, I was struggling – it was hard to get out of bed in the morning, sleeping became rocky and I was facing ongoing changes to my job. I’ve always lived with anxiety, but lockdown made it overwhelming. Last June, I took the first step towards taking care of my mental health by having online therapy sessions. Let me preface this by saying: I’d never had one-to-one therapy before. Speaking to a therapist on Zoom initially seemed daunting because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate and open up like I imagined doing face-to-face. But having the privacy of my room made me feel relaxed and helped me feel at ease.
Since the pandemic began, over 2.8 million people have sought mental health services in the UK, NHS data shows. Virtual therapy can be done through video chats, phone calls, texts and emails. Due to the nature of it being remote, online therapists in England are expected to undertake specific training (approved by a body called ACTO). But heads up: if you’re under 18, you need parental consent for therapy.
While therapy is helpful for dealing with serious crises, there’s a misconception that it’s only used for extreme problems. “Stress and anxiety can accumulate quickly,” says Angie Wong, a London-based qualified integrative therapist. “Therapy is to support anyone through daily life and gain awareness about their issues.”
If you’re feeling uncomfortable emotionally, mentally, physically or just want to take better care of yourself overall — therapy can help. For some, talking to loved ones about problems can feel like a burden. Talking to therapists allows you to freely open up without feeling any emotional attachment to their wellbeing. More than that, therapists can offer a fresh, unbiased view on your current issues, whereas friends/family are often too close to the situation to offer a nonpartisan perspective.” For anyone feeling lost or overwhelmed with how to start online therapy, we’ve collated some helpful advice to guide you through the process. Starting therapy is a HUGE step in your healing/mental health journey, so before we continue: give yourself some extra love ‘n kudos for getting started.
Find your preference
Finding the right therapist is instrumental to making the most out of therapy, , but fair warning: it might take a few intro sessions to find a therapist that’s a good fit for you.”
A good starting point is to first determine whether certain factors are important to you when opening up to someone. You might want to consider a therapist who shares your cultural background, ethnicity, gender and/or sexuality. It’s also important to ask your potential therapist what areas they specialize in, whether it’s relationships, addiction, trauma, PTSD, sex, etc. You may or may not have a preference, but options are always available.
Interview multiple therapists
When searching for a therapist, Farah Naz – a clinical psychotherapist, recommends reaching out to at least 3 to 5 therapists for a consultation. This is often free and talking to different people allows you to find the best person for you. Think of it like speed dating for a therapist — moments of awkwardness are expected, but allow yourself to be open and show your authentic self so you and the therapist can have an honest understanding of one another from the start.
Use consultations to ask as many questions as possible. Preparing your questions will make you feel more assertive during the call. And take notes during these chats so that you can reflect later on your choices.
Naz recommends asking these questions:
- What is your specialism, and have you worked with my issues before?
- How is each session structured? Will I be leading the conversation or will you?
- What can I expect to feel in your sessions, and how will you help me deal with any discomfort?
- How do you review sessions and take feedback? How often does this happen?
- How will you help me feel comfortable?
- What’s your success rate and what do you classify as success?
- What is your back-up plan for interruptions like WiFi breaking during calls?
- Do you stipulate a contract and what are your payment options?
- What happens if I miss a session?
- What sessions do you offer (one-off/package) and how long are they?
- How long have you been practicing and what qualifications and training have you done?
If you forget to ask any questions, you can always follow up with an email. A good therapist should answer every question you ask.
Consider the approach
With so many different practices, use the calls to find out about what happens in a typical session. Wong focuses on psychoeducation and takes a holistic approach to therapy, offering meditation and visual therapy. “I ask clients to describe how their body feels in a situation,” she says. “The body can be a useful indicator of our wellbeing.” While therapists will adapt their approach to suit each person, it’s important that you resonate with their methods. If you’re totally new to therapy, you may not yet know what approach you feel most comfortable with, and that’s OK! The only way to find out is to get started.
Wait to make a decision
Take some time after consulting to make a decision. Really question whether the therapist makes you feel comfortable because it’s essential that you can talk openly to them. It’s natural to feel a bit of discomfort and hesitation in the beginning, but if you don’t “vibe” with the therapist from the start, that’s usually a sign that they’re not a good match. The therapist should make you feel seen, understood and validated. Above anything else, you should immediately feel a sense of trust.
Don’t be afraid to say no
Remember that until you have agreed with a therapist after a consultation, you’re under no obligation to choose their services. If you’re uncomfortable with a certain therapist, then let them know that. “We’re trained to take rejection,” Wong says. “Look after yourself first.”
Find a safe space
For video or phone calls, finding a space where you feel safe is crucial to making therapy effective. I used my bedroom for calls and Naz has had sessions over the phone with clients while they’ve been sitting on park benches or going for a walk. As long as the place brings you a sense of privacy and peace, then it doesn’t matter where you are.
Prepare yourself for each call as if you were seeing your therapist in person. As tempting as it is, ditch the pyjamas for a proper outfit as it’ll help you feel more focused. You can also use earphones if you are having therapy in a shared space to maintain privacy (though we really, really suggest you find a private space if one is available to you).
Switch off & take notes
Take notes during your calls to remember the discussion in between sessions, and turn off notifications to avoid distractions. Call it your hour of health and make it special for you! Light a candle, burn some incense, dim the lights…whatever you need to do to feel comfortable and relaxed.
Talking about our issues, especially trauma, can feel like a lot of pressure when done remotely. It takes courage, but remember that it’s the therapist’s job to get you to express your needs and help you feel comfortable. “The antidote to shame is love,” says Wong. “And therapy is about offering love to yourself.”
Therapy won’t magically make all your problems disappear. That’s not the point of it. It’s about caring for yourself and managing difficult emotions or situations in a way that works for you. I’ve been dealing with anxiety since before the pandemic, and it’s still something I continually face, but the difference is that I’m giving myself the support and self-love to be able to live with it.
Where to find therapists
The NHS offers free services which you can access by talking to your GP or direct self-referral, but unfortunately, waiting times are long. Private therapy requires payment, but is often a flexible range and you can get seen instantly.
– NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) for common mental health problems
– BACP directory – all kinds of counsellors and therapists
– British Psychological Society – local therapists
– Counselling directory – all kinds of counsellors and therapists
– Pink therapy – counsellors with LGBTQI+ experience
– My Therapist Online – all kinds of counsellors and therapists
– Mind – charity with free helpline and wellbeing network