For Dennis England, the human touch is an important part of the work he does.

“I’m a hugger by nature, and I’ve always believe that some kind of physical connection is therapeutic in some way,” said England, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who has been in private practice for the past decade.

“Whether it’s just shaking hands, giving someone a pat on the shoulder, or big old bear hug, depending on the individual’s comfort level, that physical touch is a valuable part of the bonding and communication that you need to have with the people you’re working with,” England said. “It’s part of the trust that has to develop between a client and a therapist.”

The current social distancing requirements that have been in place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have altered the way England interacts with his clients beyond that welcoming handshake.

“I saw something like was coming, and so I started trying to prepare my clients for how we would try to deal with this,” England said. “There was a time early on when I thought I would still meet with some clients in person, but it quickly got to the point where the only responsible thing for me to do was to conduct sessions remotely.”

England has been conducting sessions through the social networking app Zoom – a process that has required some changes for both therapist and client.

“The first day I was working from home, my wife was able to hear what I and my client were saying, even though I had the door to my study closed,” England said. “She got out this white noise machine that we had, and set it up outside the room. It masks the sound enough that she doesn’t feel like she’s eavesdropping on private conversations.”

England said his clients have had, in some instances, resorted to unusual places to hold their virtual meetings.

“I have a number of clients who go out to their cars when we have a session, because that’s the only private place they have,” he said.

Other clients conduct their sessions with family members around, giving England an insight into their lives that he ordinarily would not have in the course of a traditional, face-to-face session.

“In some ways, the sessions I’ve done in this way have been more intimate, as well as more distant, than normal,” he said. “Some people are using their cell phones for our sessions, and we carry our cell phones everywhere these days. They’ll hold the phone close to their faces – much closer than even I would get in a regular session.

“But at the same time, there is a lot more small talk at the start of some of these sessions,” England said. And when we do get beyond that, the focus is more on how to solve immediate problems, supporting them to find the answers they need to deal with all these new things happening right now.”

England, who is a practitioner of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), works primarily with people who are dealing with issues of anxiety and depression — conditions that can easily be exacerbated by enforced self-quarantine.

“One of my clients said that we’re mourning the loss normalcy,” England said. “That’s something I try to get across to my clients, that we need to understand some things about what is our new normal.

“For example,” he said, “you’re going to get frustrated with the people around you at some point. I love my wife and I think we have a great relationship, but there are still times when I think, ‘Could you just please go away for a while?’ And I know she’s thought the same thing about me.”

England said another cause of anxiety is the feeling that, because one is at home with a great deal of time on one’s hands, one should be able to get things done that have been put off for whatever reason.

“And people feel this sense of guilty because they aren’t motivated to things they believe need to be done,” England said. “But this isn’t a long weekend that you take to do chores around the house. This is an enforced quarantine, and that can’t help but feel strange and awkward. We have to recognize that what we’re all going through is not normal, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves in thinking that it is.”


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James D. Watts Jr.

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