Psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus

Psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus: Anything new?

Posted in What a Therapist's Life is like, What it is like to do therapy


Tech bubble
Iraq war
The Great Recession
President Obama elected
The Tea Party
President Trump elected
Coronavirus (Covid-19) & social isolation

Above is a list of some cultural trauma that US citizens experienced in the last 20 years. Each one was a cultural event that some in our society experienced as a trauma. Here is one definition of cultural trauma:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.

Alexander, J. C., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B. Smelser, N.J., Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. University of California Press.

Is the Coronavirus and Covid-19 anything new? Haven’t we seen every other trauma in the list and done just fine with it? (For more on how mental health businesses survived the recent health care crises see How mental health businesses weathered the health care storms.)

First, let’s explore how cultural trauma works its way into the therapy room. Additionally, we will explore how psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus might be more challenging.

So what does cultural trauma have to do with psychotherapy?

As each of the above events was unfolding, the trauma became the center of many conversations between therapist and client. At times we therapists were having similar discussions hour after hour. Sometimes these would be five-minute “warm-up” conversations. But occasionally, when the trauma was close to home, the topic consumed the whole session.

Of course, the focus should be on the client’s emotional reactions, positive and negative. That is why the client is bringing it up. They are in the middle of a strong emotional response. And they are asking for help in “processing” it. For these clients, cultural events are the petri dish where anxieties and worries grow. And when the reactivity gets to a certain size, the trauma becomes the central conversation and therapy is the place to “work things out.”

And now we are there again. Will psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus be different from other trauma? Daily we will hear clients’ confusion and fear. And for some clients, outrage at how various entities are responding. Again therapists will listen to the different reactions for as long as this trauma lasts. But this time it could be more challenging. Here is why.

And now we face psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus

Some of our clients will be outraged at President Trump’s response. Some will see the mandated social isolation as an overreaction. And they will want an empathetic reaction from us.

Others will be terrified of what is to come. All those dystopian movies will seem from their vantage point to becoming real. And they will want our comfort.

Of course, because we are good therapists, we will try to be empathetic and comforting.

But this is different

But this time around, we face an additional challenge. This time while we are managing our reactions to our clients’ emotions, our own fears will creep in. Why? Because we are as terrified as they are. We are just as worried about the future as they are.

Most practices are developing a new business model in response to the new norm of social isolation. Typical psychotherapy has been a face-to-face enterprise. And that may not be possible or safe in this new age. What does “going to a therapist” mean now?

Most practices, even those who have never seriously considered teletherapy before, are leaping onboard aggressively. It may be a matter of survival for some. Certainly many are not waiting to find out. (For the latest, see my post called: Psychotherapy practice responses to Coronavirus.)

Hence, how do we contain our fears and terrors about whether we will stay in business? How will we make a living in this new world? Does teletherapy become the typical way therapy is conducted? How do I feel about this change?

Our response to psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus

In the near future, therapists will have loads of conversations about clients’ worries about the future. But we are good therapists. And that means that we won’t even bring up our worries about our livelihood. Instead, we will do what we always do, help our clients with their struggles.

And yet I have no doubt that doing psychotherapy in the age of the Coronavirus will be a strain. It is at times like these that we need to band together with our colleagues and mentors, of course, while maintaining our social distance. We need a community of therapists where we can continue to talk about our worries. The psychotherapy business model is being rebuilt as you read this. And we need each other to figure it out.

Send me a message or email me at Let’s keep the conversation going. I’d love to hear what you are hearing and see if we can find some support.

Dr. David Norton is 40 years into a career as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In 2019, he retired from full-time practice in St Charles, IL. Since retiring, he writes for his website: on mental health practice.

Enjoying this article? Share your thoughts.

  1. Dr. Denise Casey says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful writing David. At times like these we all look for leadership as we see each other scrambling to make sense of what is happening as it evolves by the hour. This is undoubtedly changing each of us. The world we had a month ago is fading while we reprioritize what is essential. Experience has taught me to focus on the task at hand and find the hope of getting to the other side. When there is no island in sight, we have to keep swimming trusting that we will get to land, otherwise we would give up and drown. History teaches us that we will get through this, but not without marks on our generations. We need to apply all we know about resilience and gather our resources to redefine, regroup, and eventually rebuild. Appreciate you. Denise

    1. David Norton says:

      Thank you, Denise. Having retired I have the time to put things down for others. I know how much it is a scramble for all practice owners right now. I hope that getting out the word is help. And thanks for your group, one of my dependable sources for the latest.

  2. Catharine Phillips says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for your words of wisdom.
    I am in the privileged position of being retired with very few clients. Being a priest as well, I can maintain connections with these clients and forge new ones, albeit by phone or Skype.

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