The differences between in-person therapy and online therapy, explained by a psychotherapist

The differences between in-person therapy and online therapy, explained by a psychotherapist
Online therapy has grown more accessible with advances in technology.Recep-bg/Getty Images
  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • It you've been struggling lately with mood swings or prolonged feelings of anxiety or depression, Morin suggests it may be beneficial to seek out therapy.
  • During the pandemic, online therapy is more readily accessible than in person therapy, but there are key differences you should be aware of, Morin says.
  • Online therapy can offer multiple methods of communicating with your therapist and guarantee more frequent feedback; however, some people may find communicating over text or video chat to feel a bit impersonal.

Technology has opened the door for people to communicate with a therapist in many different ways. From email messaging to live chat, you can now speak to a mental health professional without ever leaving home.

Many people have started meeting with their in-person therapists via video chat due to COVID-19. In these cases, treatment likely mimics in-person therapy — it just takes place via Zoom or some other online video chat method.

Individuals who sign up for online therapy from the start, however, might have a completely different experience. Most online therapy services are quite different from in-person therapy, which can make it an alluring option for many people.

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Some of online therapy's advantages include multiple methods of communication, quicker response times, and cost-effective pricing.

Online therapy services feature licensed mental health professionals — the same type of people you would meet with in person. But the way you receive treatment online is different from the way you'd receive it if you met with the therapist face-to-face.

Online therapy usually offers several communication options — including messaging, live chats, video chats, or phone calls. You get to pick the forms of communication that work best for you and your lifestyle.


If you choose messaging services, you can message your therapist at any time. This doesn't mean your therapist will respond 24/7, of course, but they usually do reply within 24 hours. So unlike in-person therapy where you likely need to wait a whole week to get feedback, you can usually get a response from an online therapist the same day.

Online therapy usually also costs less than traditional therapy. Most services are subscription-based. So you might pay a couple of hundred dollars a month for it — whereas in-person therapy can cost well over $100 for a single appointment.

Online therapists usually don't accept insurance, however, so you will most likely have to pay out of pocket. But in some cases, it can still be more cost-effective.

Speaking to an online therapist can be more convenient as well. You won't spend time commuting to appointments, you don't need to arrange for childcare, and you won't always have to fit appointments into your busy schedule.

For some, the biggest advantage of online therapy is the ability to stay anonymous. You can usually use a "nickname." So if you're concerned about privacy, online therapy could be a better option.


If you're concerned that online therapy won't work, rest assured that research shows it can be just as effective as in-person therapy. In fact, one recent study found that online treatment is even more beneficial than in-person therapy in some cases.

However, some people might find online therapy to feel impersonal and struggle to express their emotions in a virtual setting.

Of course, there are some potential downsides to chatting with a therapist via a digital device, so online therapy isn't the best option for everyone.

It usually doesn't meet court mandates. So if a judge sentences you to anger management or substance abuse counseling, it's unlikely that online therapy is going to count.

It can also feel a little impersonal to talk to an online therapist for some people. You might feel like your therapist doesn't get to know the "real you" since they aren't sitting in the same room, observing your gestures, and witnessing you display your emotions.

Online therapy could also potentially make it more difficult to communicate. For example, you may find it's harder to express yourself through writing — which would mean unlimited messaging might not work well for you. Or there can be technical glitches that make video appointments frustrating — like slow internet and grainy webcam images.


How to get started with therapy

If you aren't sure whether to see a therapist in-person or online, start with whatever mode of treatment you think you'll be most comfortable using. If you discover that it doesn't work, you can always switch later.

In reality, there isn't one "right way" to get help. There are pros and cons to online therapy just like there are benefits and drawbacks with in-person therapy. But the good news is that either one can probably help you feel better if you are willing to try.