The Disaster That Forced Me To Move My Practice Online

Apr 09, 2020

Right now, therapists around the globe are being forced to rethink their practices, learn how to move to online sessions, and deal with the financial ramifications of a slump in their practices—on top of the pandemic anxiety and associated losses, changes in responsibility, and shifts in community involvement that everyone’s experiencing. 

Two years ago, the community I live in experienced a crisis that felt a little similar. In the face of a natural disaster, I was forced to find ways to maintain my practice, despite many variables I could not control, and while dealing with tons of anxiety both personally and collectively. I find the anxiety and grief that I and so many of my colleagues are going through right now very familiar. I want to share some lessons I learned in that crisis with you now, with the goal of providing some encouragement and hope. 

In 2018, my city, Madison, Wisconsin, experienced catastrophic flooding. Roads turned into deep rivers. People were trapped in their cars with the water rising.  Thousands of families’ homes were damaged to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. One of my neighbors was swept away in the rushing current and drowned.

The next day, all that water continued to drain into the lakes. The water table rose, and the river that cuts through the middle of town spilled over. All but two lanes of crosstown traffic had to be closed, and 60,000+ homes required immediate sandbagging. Disaster response, repair, and recovery efforts affected every person I know.

Because I live on one side of town and work on the other, it was nearly impossible for me or my clients to get to my office. I had to find a way to see my clients, especially considering that they, too, were struggling with anxiety and grief in the face of the disaster. I realized that unless I learned how to do videoconference sessions fast my practice would disappear. 

I started looking into HIPAA-compliant platforms, and I got a lot of practice doing online sessions, despite internal reluctance and concerns that my clients and I shared about whether meeting virtually would be effective or worthwhile. I found that these sessions were still effective in helping my clients need their goals—a discovery that is backed up by multiple studies

At the same time, I realized that the risk of catastrophic circumstances was unlikely to go away in my lifetime. I imagined that extreme weather events of this kind might become more common in the coming years. I decided that I wanted to be prepared should that be the case. I would need to be flexible. 

I’m in a better position now to deal with the current crisis of the pandemic because of my experience in 2018. The ways that I was forced to adapt in that crisis are making it easier for me to flex with these changing circumstances. That’s why I want to offer you this reframe: the things you’re doing now are going to make your practice more resilient in the future. Getting more comfortable with online sessions, figuring out how to cope with a lull in your practice, learning how and when to access aid, lean on colleagues, and offer help to others, developing new strategies to help yourself, your family, and your clients manage high levels of anxiety—none of these things are pleasant, but they all offer an opportunity to learn and grow. This extremely inconvenient learning curve will probably serve you well at some point. You’ll find yourself much more prepared to cope with the next crisis. 

There is one huge difference between the flood in 2018 and the pandemic today. In 2018, it was only my immediate community that was affected. Today, we’re all coping with COVID-19. That’s much scarier, but it also means that we’re all in this together. I feel much less lonely navigating this crisis than I did in 2018, as I am part of a global community of therapists that are going through the same thing. Here’s hoping we can help each other build resilience, draw closer as a community, and lift each other up.

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