Is In-Person Therapy "Better" Than Virtual Sessions? Therapists Weigh In

Getty | PixelsEffect
Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso
Getty | PixelsEffect
Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

Whether you started seeing a therapist for the first time during the pandemic or you were already meeting with a mental health professional before, there's a good chance you've tried, or at least considered, virtual therapy at some point in the last two years. Many therapists were unable to meet with clients in person due to COVID-related restrictions. And in some cases, offering virtual appointments became a way for mental health professionals to meet the increasing demand for mental health services that therapists experienced since March 2020.

Ninety percent of the 1,320 therapists surveyed by The New York Times in late 2021 say more people were seeking out therapy. "I have seen the need for mental health support in general explode," agrees therapist Ashley McCullough, LICSW.

But with COVID restrictions lifting across the country, many therapists have begun offering in-person sessions again. For some people, the decision may be clear-cut — they know they want to stick with virtual therapy, or they've been dying to go back to in-person sessions forever. But many others aren't so sure how to proceed. To help the undecided make up their minds, we asked mental health experts about both virtual and in-person therapy and whether one is more effective than the other. Ultimately, they said, that answer is individual. But they did offer up some of the biggest pros and cons of both remote and IRL therapy sessions, which you can weigh when figuring out what works best for you.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Virtual Therapy?

Pros of Virtual Therapy: Accessibility

Not everyone has a huge selection of in-network, available therapists nearby, and issues such as inadequate insurance coverage, a lack of transportation or childcare, an inflexible work schedule, and physical limitations can make in-person therapy inaccessible. Virtual sessions help alleviate some of those issues by giving therapy-seekers a wider range of therapists they could work with (so distance isn't as much as a consideration) and eliminating the need for travel, as much time off, and as much childcare.

Pros of Virtual Therapy: Comfort

Some clients feel more at ease in the comfort of their own home (or wherever they choose to have their virtual session), McCullough says. Remote meetings may also allow therapists to see a more personal side of their client, because you're seeing them on their turf, so to speak, which can be useful. And while this isn't true for everyone, the physical separation can also help some people feel more comfortable getting vulnerable and talking about deeper issues with their therapist, McCullough adds.

Cons of Virtual Therapy: Personal Connection

While some people may feel they're able to open up more when talking over a screen, there are therapists who find it more difficult to read their client when they're not in the same room together. "I think there are many subtleties that get missed over a screen, including body language and the exchanging of energy being in an actual space together," McCullough says. "There's a sanctity to in-person therapy that is not as easily replicable on Zoom," agrees psychologist Amy Vigliotti, PhD.

From the therapy-goer's side, therapist Angela Alston, LADC, LMSW, CCTP, AADC, ICAADC, says she's found that certain clients are less open remotely. Often, privacy issues are at play: The client may hold back knowing their partner, child, or co-worker is in another room and could possibly overhear or walk in on them. Other times, internet issues or nearby distractions can create frustration.

What Are the Pros and Cons of In-Person Therapy?

Pros of In-Person Therapy: Personal Connection

Again, many of the therapists who spoke to POPSUGAR said they felt better able to read their clients and show support when they were meeting in-person. "I think being able to hold space for someone really struggling with safety concerns or extreme grief can be hard over a screen," says McCullough. Some therapy-goers may feel more comfortable talking to someone face-to-face as well.

Pros of In-Person Therapy: Privacy

A therapy office can serve as a safe, comforting space for some clients. They know no one will overhear them or accidentally walk in, interrupting their session. Some people who are more tech-wary may also prefer discussing their more sensitive issues in person, rather than online.

Cons of In-Person Therapy: Inaccessibility

As mentioned earlier, not every area has an abundance of therapists who are in someone's insurance network or budget and have availability to take on clients. The nearest in-person therapist may be very far away, presenting problems for people around transportation, childcare, and time off work.

Is Virtual or In-Person Therapy Better?

The most effective type of therapy is going to be the one that feels right to you. And depending on who you are, where you live, and what you're looking for, that could be virtual or in-person therapy — it might even be different methods at different times. "There is no 'one size fits all' rule, and the more options we provide to others, the more we empower others to make the best choice for them," McCullough says.

One suggestion, from Dr. Vigliotti: Whether you meet with a therapist virtually or in-person, building "buffer time" into your session can be beneficial. Take a few minutes before your session to mentally switch gears and prepare what you want to talk about. Then after your appointment, take some time to process what you discussed, rather than jumping from therapy into other tasks with no decompression time.

Ultimately, while Dr. Vigliotti, McCullough, and Alston all say they personally prefer in-person therapy, they also emphasize that they understand that not all clients feel the same way — and ultimately, their job is to best support their client. To that end, if you feel your needs aren't being met by your therapist, because of how you choose to meet or for any other reason, remember that it's OK to find another therapist, says Alston. Healing is a process, so give it time, be patient, and don't give up before the "magic happens."