This Thing Rules

How online therapy is helping me cope with the loneliness of COVID

Living alone during these uncertain times comes with its own unique challenges.

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Compared to parents balancing work and childcare, people living solo have it easy. But living alone during the pandemic comes with its own unique challenges. You don’t have anyone giving you a cue to stop working and turn in for the night, or chit chat with throughout the day. There's inherent stress that comes with missing birthday parties and other milestones, uncertainty about how long this will go on and when you'll get to see friends again.

At least for me the solitary life became a lot to handle, and across the board the pandemic has had significant mental health ramifications — recent data indicates that anxiety and depression have amplified in recent months. I’ve tried to stay positive through it all by thinking more about my physical and mental wellbeing, making even small changes everyday to better myself. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I started therapy several months into the stay-at-home orders. Except online therapy because, you know.

Newfound pandemic stress wasn’t actually the impetus — I had begun considering therapy months prior — but it certainly accelerated my plans and gave me the kick I needed. I needed someone to talk to about my worries, and friends aren't always available to hop on the phone and listen. Or they aren't equipped with the tools to help you properly understand your feelings. Thankfully my employer offers several free video sessions with a therapist as a perk so I was able to give it a try without much upfront investment.

Thank god for the internet — When I began considering therapy I really didn’t know much about the process or where to start, so I connected with a primary care doctor through Circle Medical, a telemedicine provider that you can access completely through an app. The nice thing about Circle Medical is that you can schedule same-day video appointments and maintain a relationship with the same doctor no matter where you go. My doctor was very thoughtful and helped set expectations for how the process of therapy might go. If you’re someone like me — young and without a regular doctor, it can be a good place to get the process going and receive recommendations for therapists to connect with.

Circle Medical's app lets you book video appointments with a doctor through its app.

Mediating therapy over the internet is a controversial subject. A recent story in The New York Times raised concerns about Talkspace and its privacy practices, but the efficacy of such text-based therapy options have long been questioned. In my case, though, I’m talking about synchronous video chat, which is a lot different. Chatting with my therapist over video, she can at least see my physical reactions to her inquiries, which is important in deciding whether or not a line of questioning should be pursued further (with a licensed therapist it’s HIPAA protected like you’d expect).

Video therapy still isn’t perfect, to be sure. When my therapist is appearing on a screen, other notifications can pop up and distract me. My mind sometimes wanders as I look at things around my room and I have to ask for a question to be repeated because I tuned out. There's also the frustrating issue of internet latency to deal with where you talk over one another because of a delay between you speaking and the other person hearing it.

For those reasons, as much as I'm a tech optimist and early adopter, I can see why in-person therapy is still the gold standard. But many therapists have paused offering in-person sessions under the circumstances. And I can safely say my online sessions have helped me by at least giving me a sense of optimism, if anything else, that I can reach my goals of healthier thinking and quieting my worries about the future. I have irrational thoughts sometimes that I'll lose my connections to friends because of this long time apart, and my therapist has helped me with that. She got me using the app 5 Minute Journal to jot down the good things that have happened to me each day and keep looking back at them as needed.

5 Minute Journal encourages positive thinking.

The appointments are also something I can put on the calendar to bookend my day and disconnect from work. Being in Northern California where gyms and other businesses largely remain closed, there's not much giving me a reason to put work away at a specific time. Because my therapist is online, I don't need to find the motivation to get up and cross town when I’m feeling low.

It’s okay to feel lonely — I think it's important to acknowledge that this whole isolation deal has been rough even for introverts like myself — a brief chat with a stranger in the checkout lane isn't enough interaction. I've had to overcompensate in my communication these days by reaching out to people more often and making a concerted effort to schedule virtual time in a way that's unusual for me. But my therapist is also there as a captive audience to listen to my specific worries and help me sort through them when I don't want to overwhelm my friends. It’s given me more deep interaction that I was missing, when I need it.

Telemedicine can't necessarily address physical ails, you still have to go in-person to get blood drawn or x-rays. For therapy, however, it’s definitely helped me — and I haven’t even left the house.