Online psychotherapy is not a new concept; it was around before the pandemic and successfully used as a medium for delivering psychotherapy, counselling and coaching. However, what is new is how nearly all of us were obliged to work online to maintain continuity of sessions for our patients and clients during lockdown and how ubiquitous it remains. It is clearly here to stay but does that mean that in-person psychotherapy is a thing of the past?
Online psychotherapy brings with it some advantages over seeing a psychotherapist ‘in the flesh’ such as:
- Access to a wider pool of clinicians;
- Less time consuming as no travel is required;
- Some people may find it easier to ‘open-up’ online rather than in person.
Like many psychotherapists, during the pandemic I had to abruptly move my whole practice online and together with my clients adapt to virtual sessions. Now at the tail-end of the pandemic the world is a different place and yet I have found that the vast majority of my clients have of their own volition decide to return to in-person sessions. I have explored this with them and below is a synthesis of some of the limitations of online psychotherapy and why, I believe, it will never replace in-person face-to-face sessions.
Psychotherapy is a body to body communication
Though often referred to a ‘talking therapy’ psychotherapy is much more a ‘listening therapy’ and the clinician is trained to listen in a very particular way – to what the client says as well as how they say it.
More than half of our communication is non-verbal and is a combination of tone and delivery in conjunction with body language. With online therapy much of the latter is lost due to the limitations of what can be seen on screen. But there is another reason why it gets lost – online psychotherapy is ever so slightly ‘out of synch’. It is almost imperceptible (most of the time) but there is a slight lag between the delivery of the sound and the delivery of the image which makes for a disconnect between the spoken and unspoken. And whilst almost imperceptible to the conscious mind, it gets registered by the emotional system.
Psychotherapy as re-parenting
Everyone who crosses the threshold of a psychotherapist’s consulting room is bringing with them unresolved experiences and patterns from their childhood. Many of the patterns are laid down in the formative years of bonding and dictate our attachment style. And because they were laid down between birth and around 2 years of age, they are non-verbal (and unconscious).
Psychotherapy is about working with these patterns – often referred to as ‘working in the transference’ – to understand how the client ‘does’ relationships; in this sense it is a process of re-pare helping the client to feel safer and more secure in relationships and in expressing boundaries.
The transitional space – travelling to therapy
Travelling to sessions in person can be time consuming and with today’s fuel prices, expensive. However, the travelling aspect has an important psychological function as it operates as a transitional space between the ordinary world and the unique world of introspective psychotherapy.
In online sessions I have often found that clients can be distracted as they have literally just ‘left work’ and entered my virtual consulting room – they have no given themselves time to make the journey to psychotherapy and it can then often take a significant part of the sessions for them to arrive.
Likewise, I have had clients who have scheduled work meetings immediately after their online therapy which can act as a powerful prohibitor to allowing themselves to ‘be in therapy’ as “I don’t want to get upset because I have a meeting with my boss”.
Lastly, when clients visit my consulting room in person, I am responsible for most of the physical boundaries. Clients know where they will be sitting, where the furniture will be positioned and this will remain the same week after week – it is part of be providing a consistent experience. Seeing a psychotherapist from home may mean that the space feels less safe with other members of the family in the same home or just simply having daily distractions around such as a picture of the family on the desk next to the monitor.
Psychotherapy is about making contact
Starting psychotherapy in any realm can feel like a daunting prospect. Coming into a consulting room, which is the domain of the psychotherapist, is a brave step.
Clients have often sat on my couch and mused or fretted about what to talk about. I generally sit in silence as they try and find their words as, to me, what they say is often less important than why they are telling me. If a client tells me anything they are telling me something about themselves that they feel is important and that they want me to see as important – often we need to figure out together why it is important but we generally get there in the end.
Therefore, psychotherapy is about ‘coming into contact with another’ – taking a risk to be seen and heard. Whilst this can be achieved to some extent online, nothing can be a substitute for in person contact where two bodies are in the same room and in communication and contact with each other.
Until we start raising babies and infants over virtual connections and can do so successfully – which is neither desirable nor remotely possible due to our physiological and psychological make-up – face-to-pace in person psychotherapy is not going anywhere.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
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Mike Underwood says
Like many counsellors, I offer online sessions, I even took a qualification in that. And I have found its limits obvious as my clients much rather see me in person.
I think that travelling to and from sessions can provide a space for the client to think about their concerns, which is helpful.
The freshness of the therapy room taking them out of their usual spaces and vibes helps, and in a way, also because they are going to more effort for their own benefit in travelling.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy says
Thanks for your comments Mike. Yes, online counselling / psychotherapy is convenient and useful but no substitute for having two physical bodies in the same room.