Ask an Expert: How to Handle Pandemic Anxiety and Navigate Virtual Therapy

Mental Health

If the ongoing pandemic is giving you anxiety, there are ways to help bring relief as well as virtual therapy options one expert helps us plug into. Photo: Alistair Berg/ DigitalVision via Getty Images

You’re feeling blue, anxious, a bit out of sorts and your mental health and anxiety levels seem off. But you can’t see your doctor right now for a referral to a therapist. You’re still connected, though, so what do you do?  

Well, you’re not alone. According to the latest digital trends-data gatherers at SEMrush, the average search for virtual therapy in Canada has gone up by more than 850 per cent in the past few months. 

We asked Vera Voroskolevska, a registered psychologist with the Ontario College of Psychologists and master-level social worker with membership in the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service workers, to give us a hand on navigating the fairly uncharted virtual therapy waters — and whether it’s right for you.

But first, we take a moment to talk with Dr. Vera, as she’s known, about anxiety in general, what’s healthy and what’s not, along with how crisis, such as COVID-19, can impact our wellbeing.

ZOOMER: What does a healthy level of anxiety look like?

DR. VERA: Anxiety is a general, unpleasant feeling of apprehension, accompanied by several physiological symptoms. Every person can relate to symptoms of anxiety since anxiety is a normal feeling required for our survival. Fear is a natural reaction to present and real danger while anxiety is a reaction to anticipating potential physical or emotional danger. 

ZOOMER: And is there actually ‘good’ anxiety vs ‘bad’ anxiety?

DR. VERA: Many human experiences, such as our ‘firsts,’ can create normal anxiety. When trying something new for the first time, there is always some degree of uncertainty. Normal, adaptive, anxiety is intermittent and occurs when faced with an unclear or uncertain situation. This differs from problem, or maladaptive, anxiety which is chronic, irrational, and negatively impacts areas of life such as work or relationships.

ZOOMER: Does that change during a crisis or pandemic?

DR. VERA: As you have likely heard, the effects of COVID-19 have been compared to several tragedies throughout history, including the Spanish Flu and WW2. As a result, some are referring to this pandemic as WW3. The impact is going to be pervasive, long-term and felt through a number of generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen X. We simply need to come to terms that society will not be returning to ‘normal’ soon. This virus is a constant reminder of our vulnerabilities, yet as humans we are resilient and adaptable to change. 

ZOOMER: But there are those who find change difficult.

DR. VERA: One helpful strategy is to ask yourself how you will remember this time. Fast forward 20 years ahead, thinking back to our experience, hopefully we remember more family time, more walking, more hobbies and DIY projects, and being supported by our loved ones.

ZOOMER: But with this pandemic, it goes beyond worrying about contracting the illness. The negative economic impacts of COVID-19 can affect our mental health as well.

DR. VERA: There is a significant relationship between economic crises and deteriorated mental health, including onset or exacerbation of personal distress, anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. Although economic crises affect most negatively those who are already financially disadvantaged, less educated and unemployed or employed, mental health decline can occur in the overall population. This means that the impact of an economic crisis does not discriminate among social, occupational and even financial standing.  

ZOOMER: Job loss, reduced hours or even work from home isolation also impacts a person’s feeling of purpose, or identity.

DR. VERA: Aside from the necessity to provide for the family, people that are not yet retired take great pride in their career and a big part of their identity is tied to professional identity. When people lose their employment, the financial loss is accompanied with even more unmeasured loss – a part of who they are. Work also serves as a distraction and detachment from underlying emotional distress or personal problems, which can make matters worse for those who are retired or suffering from job loss. This coping mechanism is lost when people have an abundance of time to reflect on these issues. 

ZOOMER: You’re an advocate of helping those that seek out help. What about virtual therapy? Can you give us a bit of advice on the how-tos?

DR. VERA: At times of extreme stress and uncertainty, people default to comfort and familiar while shying away from anything new and unknown. Given that virtual counselling is new for many people, it can be perceived as cumbersome and complicated. This perception is especially the case if a solid therapeutic relationship has not yet been established. However, research shows that video counselling can be as effective as in-person. 

Three things you need to know about virtual therapy and reaching out for help during COVID-19, according to Dr. Vera.


  • Consider your environment

As a client embarking on virtual therapy, it’s important to consider your environment, especially if you live in a busy household with kids and/or grandkids. Given that personal and sensitive matters are often discussed in therapy, you will want to have access to a private space during your session. You may also want to consider booking your session at a time of day when your household is less busy – maybe later in the evening when your kids or even your spouse or significant other is asleep. Like the rest of the world, most clinicians have adapted and offer varying hours to better meet their clients needs.

It is important to remember that it does not matter what your space looks like to the clinician. Whether it is from the basement, the garage or the couch, clinicians have seen it all! Clients tend to be self-conscious of their background for the video call, but clinicians are there to help – not to judge. Plus, clinicians are not interior designers so what do our thoughts on your paint colour matter anyways? If you are truly unable to get past concern regarding what your space looks like, you can always ask your clinician to do an audio call, rather than video. Your comfort is important.

  • Get the right tech tools

Many mental health practitioners began offering sessions via phone or secure video in March 2020. However, it is important to note that some clinician’s services are not fully digital. For example, some clinicians may require consent forms to be printed, signed, and then faxed or emailed while others have a built in digital signing of their documents. Some may only accept e-transfers or cheques as a form of payment if they are not set-up with credit card processing.

Some other things to consider when embarking on virtual counselling is your equipment for the call. The simplest and most beneficial piece of technology for virtual therapy is a good set of headphones with a built in microphone. Typically, the ones that come with your cell phone work quite well. Headphones help protect your privacy as there is less of a chance of other people in your home overhearing what the clinician is saying to you. Additionally, headphones help prevent feedback that often occurs when speaking into computer speakers.

  • Think about meeting “in real life”

One last consideration is that, although your therapy is taking place virtually for the time-being, you should consider a local therapist so that in-person sessions are practical to resume when appropriate. This means you might want to look for a clinician who would be convenient for you to travel to close to your home or work.