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Four Common Challenges in Online Therapy and How to Overcome Them

Posted on: April 29, 2020

By Haim Weinberg, PhD & Arnon Rolnick, PhD

The current COVID-19 crisis abruptly changed the world—including the therapy world. Colleagues who have never thought about online therapy had to move online quickly and without enough preparation.  Moving from the office circle to the screen requires new knowledge and training.  This article offers creative yet practical solutions to help therapists overcome the main obstacles that exist when we work online with patients in video communication.

Four Common Challenges in Online Therapy and How to Overcome Them

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, we must consider the legal and ethical guidelines: The boundaries on the Internet are loose and confidentiality and privacy are never guaranteed. Never assume that you can keep the same confidentiality as in your office or agency and don’t forget to take measures to protect your client. You should know the law and ethical considerations about telehealth for the country (or State) in which you practice.

Online therapy is not the same as in-person therapy; however, this does not mean that we cannot help our clients online. We can reach good results in online therapy, and contemporary research is finding positive therapeutic outcomes of online treatment (Dunstan & Tooth, 2012). What are the main obstacles that we should take into consideration and compensate for when we shift our practice to the screen? We can count four main difficulties:

1. Losing control of the setting;
2. The disembodied environment;
3. The question of presence; and
4. The Dialogue of the patient with technology and the digital world.

Losing control of the settingLosing Control of the Setting 

The setting is a crucial aspect in dynamic and process-oriented therapy. Usually, the therapist has control over the setting: s/he chooses the decoration and furniture in the office, puts a tissue box in the middle of the circle, arranges for a calm music in the waiting room, etc. Taking care of the environment sends the message that we take care of the patients’ needs. It creates a holding environment. However, when we move to the screen, therapists cannot take care of the environment anymore, as we do not control the environments from which the patients connect. How do we compensate for this shortcoming?

The easiest solution is to instruct the patients to prepare a holding environment for themselves. It can be addressed simply by adding some items to your standard agreement. For example: “Please connect from a quiet room, with no interruptions, where your privacy is guaranteed.” One possible result of shifting the responsibility to the client might be that we encourage more adult coping skills and less regression. It can be an advantage or a disadvantage.

The disembodied environmentThe Disembodied Environment 

The body-to-body interaction is important in any close relationship, including the therapeutic one. The Interpersonal Neuro-Biological approach (IPNB) claims that we regulate one another through our body interactions: The therapist’s warm gaze, their calming tone of voice, and many other aspects of their body, help the group members to feel held and to regulate their affect. Theoreticians talk about right brain to right brain communication and the unconscious influence that our bodies have on one another. Affective, relational, and regulation change mechanisms are central to psychotherapy. Much of this can be lost when we go online: We lose the eye-to-eye contact. We lose the smell, the pheromones that affect our feeling intimate and attached. How do we regulate the other online?

One part of our body is seen more clearly online: the face. We can see and identify facial expressions much better online than in-person because we see people close-up. If we train ourselves to be sensitive to facial expressions, we can get more information about patients through their faces than in our office.

Contrary to the common belief, the body is not absent in online relations. We still sense and feel our body, and the patients still sense theirs. It’s the body-to-body communication that is missing. We can ask the patients to report their body sensations and in requesting that they move in the room (distance themselves from the screen or get closer to it) according to the changing circumstances and needs. As they use the sensorimotor approach, which focuses on the body and sensations, they offer many creative ways to overcome the absence of body interaction in online therapy.

The Question of PresenceThe Question of Presence  

Therapists’ presence is understood as the ultimate state of moment-by-moment receptivity and deep relational contact. It involves a being with the client rather than a doing to the client. For many reasons, it is much more difficult to stay present online. There are too many distractions, and the screen barrier might decrease and dilute the presence of the therapist. However, just as some television presenters can pass the screen and transmit their presence through the ether, therapists can learn to do so as well.

One way of increasing presence is to use yourself more. More self-disclosure is helpful in creating presence. The appropriate kind of self-disclosure and transparency is about the here-and-now. Taking responsibilities for mistakes and for empathic failures is another way of increasing the presence of the therapist. You can also use your imagination and invite the patients to use theirs.

The Dialogue of the Patient with TechnologyThe Dialogue of the Patient with Technology  

Meeting with patients via online video conference illuminates the way they handle technology. The dialogue of therapists and patients with online advantages (and hazards) is characteristic of how we cope with modern life. The therapist should listen to the way the patient reacts to the new therapeutic setting from a wider angle: Fear of changes? Enjoying new adventures?

 

 

Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick outlines the process of conducting individual, family and group therapy online with the use of video conferencing tools, and explores the unique concerns associated with this increasingly popular and convenient approach to treatment.

 

 
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Practical Considerations for Online Video TherapyIn Conclusion: Practical Considerations for Online Video Therapy

-Integrate f2f and online meetings (not often possible in the current crisis)

-Take into consideration the meeting frequency due to “diluting” the therapeutic alliance online

-Think about the appropriate distance from screen for you and your patient

-Be keenly focused on the conversation

-Prepare the patient to arrange the holding environment

-Add suitable items to the agreement

-Prepare adequate measures for emergency

-Do not ignore what is happening in the patient’s room

-Acquire some technological skills

-Give the patient technical instructions

-Have a backup plan when technology fails

-Pay attention to your countertransference when connection is lost

-Create a virtual background

-Consider the place of the camera

-Pay attention to your self-screen-image

-Do not dismiss the dress code

-Remember the ethical and legal requirements

Two dialectical messages for conclusion: agility, flexibility, and resilience are essential skills in the 21st-century, particularly when unforeseen disruptive viruses and devastating events driven by climate change are likely to be increasingly common (Blumenstyk, 2020). At the same time practitioners should remember that technology will never replace human touch.


References

Blumenstyk, G (2020) Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed
The Chronicle (2020) Published March 11, 2020
Dunstan, D.A., & Tooth, S.M. (2012). Treatment via videoconferencing: A pilot study of delivery by clinical psychology trainees. The Australian Journal of Rural Health, 20, 88–94.
Foulkes, S.H. (1964). Therapeutic group analysis. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Geller, S.M., & Greenberg, L.S. (2012). Therapeutic presence: A mindful approach to effective therapy. APA publications.
Russell, G.I. (2015). Screen relations: The limits of computer-mediated psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books.
Weinberg, H. (2014). The paradox of internet groups: Alone in the presence of virtual others. London: Karnac Books.
Weinberg, H. & Rolnick A. (eds.) (2020) Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Families, Groups, and Organizations New York: Routledge.