What a Therapist Wants You to Know About Remote Therapy
In March 2020, I, like everyone else, did my best to accept the bizarreness of quarantine living. Within a few days of nestling into my home, I started getting urgent texts from my clients, including a barrage of emails from people in far-flung places, all with some version of "I've got the virus. I'm isolated and can't pull myself away from the terrifying news. Please tell me you do remote sessions!"
I'd been aware of Zoom for a few years before the pandemic. I'd even participated in dozens of Brady Bunch-style talking head meetings with friends and colleagues. But none of those smacked as potentially dangerous if the power shut off or my internet service went out. I quaked at the thought of my computer glitching while a client was in the midst of a teary catharsis.
Let's back up a bit. I'm a hypnotherapist, which is most commonly practiced in person. If you're unfamiliar with hypnotherapy, it's not like you see in movies, like in Jordan Peele's Get Out, where Rose turns Chris into a quasi-zombie, luring him into the "Sunken Place." Nor is hypnotherapy like stage hypnosis, where the practitioner snaps their fingers and turns an unassuming audience member into a gyrating Elvis impersonator. Hypnotherapy is a practice involving a deep state of relaxation to access the subconscious. Like most therapies, the more open and vulnerable the client can be, the more effective the therapy.
For example, a few years ago, Simon (not his real name because he was one of my clients), a rugged outdoorsman, came to see me in my Los Angeles office to help him shake his fear of flying. Amid the scent of lavender essential oil and soothing music, he reclined into the chair and closed his eyes as I counted him back, from ten to zero, to the first time his heart palpitated at boarding an airplane. He fitfully recalled being 8 years old on a flight with his high-strung mother, who'd had a panic attack during turbulence. I helped Simon reenter his memory and, as if in a lucid dream, envision his powerful adult self beside him on the plane. This provided him with a retroactive strength with which to rescript his narrative about the incident. After just a few sessions and a plane ride later, Simon reported that the fear that had been with him his whole life had suddenly vanished.
But that was pre-COVID, when I could be in the same room as my client.
Back in 2020, as I stared blankly at my urgent requests for tele-therapy, I sought the counsel of George Kappas, the director of my alma mater, Hypnosis Motivation Institute (HMI), in California. His voice over the phone broadcasted as confidently as a newspaper headline, "Remote sessions are the wave of the future."
"But, but, but ..." I enumerated all that I feared could go wrong. He replied, "The most important thing about Zoom-hypnotherapy is teaching your client how to bring themselves out of hypnosis if the power shuts off, a family member bursts into the room, or their pet jumps on their lap."
I felt like a thawing glacier. Still chilly, I contacted my colleague, Jo-e Sutton, a certified holistic health practioner. She surprised me with her enthusiasm. "Zoom sessions are the greatest blessings that have come from this dark time."
"Really? How so?" I asked.
"It saves so much time," she replied with gusto, "It used to take me an hour to dress professionally, pack food for the day, schlep across town, pick up fresh-cut flowers, park, light candles, and make tea. Now all I have to do is get dressed (from the waist up) and, poof, there I am."
"But how's it working for your clients?" I asked, dumbfounded.
"They say they like it better because of the convenience."
I could feel myself warming to the idea, yet still feeling the need for more insight, I reached out to Patti Ashley, a licensed professional counselor. She said, "I miss handing my client a tissue when they cry and offering them a soft blanket when discussing a challenging topic. In a virtual session, I teach my clients to do those things for themselves, which may be more empowering for them in the long run."
With that, I replied to my clients and scheduled times to explore this strange new frontier. The next day, Sophie (another client, not her real name), wearing a pink, ruffly shirt, her deep blue pools for eyes that appeared larger than life on my computer screen. I could even see the thin red lines in her bloodshot eyes. I taught her how to pull herself out of the hypnotic state if needed. We laughed each time her cat walked across her keyboard, and she joked that her cat needed the session as much as she did.
By the end of the hour, Sophie looked refreshed and said she felt markedly better than she did before we started. We marveled that even though we were nearly 2,400 miles apart, we could feel connected.
Fast-forward to today. It's now been several years and hundreds of Zoom therapy sessions later. With hindsight being 2020, pun intended, here's what I've determined to be the pros and cons of cybertherapy thus far:No human touch:No control over the environment:Technological glitches:An opportunity explosion:A different kind of intimacy:Reduced expenses and hassle:Filters and backgrounds:
I'm fond of telling my clients that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And I just find it ironic that the isolation from the pandemic created more demand for mental health care than ever before. And it then created more supply for it, as well.
I circled back with Kappas last week to see how remote therapy continued working with him; I wasn't surprised to hear he was more pleased than ever. As our conversation concluded, his phone pinged. It was a Facebook post from his colleague, "Seeing clients online is incredible. I used to think this work had to be done face-to-face. I just returned from a five-week trip to Italy, where I held Zoom sessions daily!"
With the upsides avalanching the downs, I can't imagine we, in the therapeutic world, will ever go back to the horse and buggy ways of old.