If, in a social setting, you bring up a nugget of wisdom you learned from your therapist, you’re more likely to hear a chorus of affirming responses and other pro-sourced advice tidbits from friends now than you would have in pre-2020 times. That’s because seeking mental health care services is on the rise—especially on the virtual front.

Proof is in the numbers: Nearly 30 percent of psychologists said they’re seeing more patients now than they were before March 2020, per a poll of around 1,800 mental health care professionals. The near 20,000 mental health apps available online saw a surge in use when lockdowns started, with some top ones seeing millions of downloads just a month into the pandemic. Calm, one of the most popular apps, had over 100 million downloads at the end of 2020 (up from 40 million users in 2019).

Clearly, there’s increased interest in, and need for, support. The starter therapy sign-ups and app downloads are a (big!) first step in the right direction, but mental health journeys are a lot like fitness ones. Joining a gym and showing up is often the hardest part, but the real work—and progress—begins when you find the right trainer or coach, discover what exercises work for you, and refine your routine. Therapy is no different! And there are a lot of beginners out there, motivated to feel better but still not sure what the best method is for them—especially given the plethora of digital options.

Apps like Calmerry, Talkspace, and BetterHelp offer major benefits (hello, convenience and a more affordable price!), but they can come with their own set of issues, like potential data and privacy concerns, and a lack of targeted care as providers take on tons of clients. So how do you know if virtual therapy is the right option for you (and how can you make the experience even better if you've already started)? Take this expert advice for wherever you are on your mental health care journey.

therapy newbie
June Lee

I’m a total newbie. How do I choose between remote and in-office visits?

When most people begin therapy, they usually do a consult with a therapist to see if they’re the right fit. Think of this period as a time to feel out not only your connection with the therapist, but whether the remote interaction feels easy or if you’re craving an in-person meeting as well. “Do a 15-minute phone or video consultation, and ask them what the benefits of in-person and online are, based on what you want to target in therapy,” says Christiana Ibilola Awosan, PhD, a therapist in New York.

While some find they’re less likely to cancel appointments when they do it from home, in-person visits allow your therapist to pick up on nonverbal cues, such as the way you fidget with your hands when you talk, says Daksha Arora, PhD, a therapist at Serene Therapy Center in Maryland. Research shows that both options can be equally effective, so it really comes down to your preference.

stay in remote therapy
June Lee

I want to stay remote because it’s easier to fit into my schedule and I like my therapist, but I don’t love the experience.

If you’ve tried therapy through a screen but you’re finding it hard to open up or getting distracted, there are some things you can do to make your sessions better. First, try different methods. If you’re someone who feels self-conscious or tenses up over a video call, turn off self-view for your sessions, or try phone call therapy or texting. “I like how a phone conversation allows me to pace while I talk,” Jo-Ann Finkelstein, PhD, a therapist with a private practice in Chicago, says of how she engages with her own therapist. Good headphones can also help you tune out distractions.

Nosy family members or roommates on your mind? Dr. Awosan has a client who turns on music to drown out her conversation so her partner can’t hear her while she’s in therapy. You could also use a fan or an air conditioner as white noise, or get creative with where you have therapy, like in your car or at a park. Experiment with where you feel most secure (and have a solid Internet connection).

start in person therapy
June Lee

I started therapy remotely, but I want to start seeing someone IRL.

If you’re ready to make a transition to the office, be sure to communicate openly with your current therapist (it’s not cool to ghost or cancel abruptly). Being transparent about your needs gives them the chance to help you out.

Actually, “it’s your therapist’s job to help you navigate the transition,” says Dr. Arora. “Therapy is literally a place where you can express your fears and worries about it.” Your therapist may even be able to offer referrals or recommendations. And while the move can be awkward, take this as an opportunity to tell your new provider what you liked and didn’t like about your last therapy experience. Knowledge from your former sessions can make fresh ones even better and help you start working on what you want sooner and in a deeper way.

This story is part of Women's Health’s coverage of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which takes place from October 3rd through October 9th. If you feel like you're struggling with your mental health, don't hesitate to reach out for help. You can get support and information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) by calling 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). Volunteers are available to speak with you Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where help is available 24/7.