Consider this situation – you are getting ready for a first date, and you think to yourself “how can I sound intelligent tonight?”. Many of us have thoughts like this. However, spending too much time trying to make yourself sound intelligent can actually be counter-productive. Furthermore, too much thinking about sounding intelligent may be a sign of untreated social anxiety (for more symptoms, you can take our 10 question social anxiety test).

Central to social anxiety is the perceived cost of being evaluated negatively. For example, one might think “if I don’t sound smart, they’ll never agree to a second date”. This type of conditional beliefs can lead people to go to significant lengths to avoid being judged negatively by friends, family, strangers, colleagues, potential romantic partners, etc. The actions used to prevent these undesired outcomes are what psychologists refer to as safety behaviours, which I’ve discussed previously.


One of the problems with safety behaviours is that they are rarely challenged. It’s like you spend your life on one side of a brick wall, but never get to see what it’s like on the other side (where you don’t engage in these behaviours).

Let’s return to dating. A quick Google search has a lot of “helpful” advice on how to impress other people on a date (e.g. see An example is to always “spend a few seconds thinking before you speak”. In my opinion, this is an example of a safety behaviour, and it can actually be detrimental. Also, a lot of the advice reinforces the idea that a person going on a date needs to spend a lot of time preparing, instead of just being themselves. What are some possible consequences of all this preparation?


1. If the date is successful, you may attribute it to specific behaviours or preparation, rather than the true cause (e.g. they liked you!).

This will reinforce the safety behaviour, and maintain underlying anxieties in the long run. You may never learn that people actually like you the most when you are being yourself.


2. Over-rehearsed communication and presentation can be a turn off.

In other words, it might be a contributing factor to a negative outcome.


3. The preparation can be a lot of work.

In fact, people with more serious social anxiety will actually cancel social events due to all the preparation they feel is necessary before going out. This is sad, as they are missing out on many opportunities in life. Who knows what would have happened if you went for that cup of coffee (even though you were feeling tired, and unprepared?). You may have met a great friend or future partner.

CBT is a technique that can be used to tackle the thoughts and behaviours that are maintaining social anxiety. It can be used by anyone who wishes to be more relaxed in social situations. In my opinion, being relaxed and yourself is the key to a successful first date.





Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


“Should kids believe in Santa?” is a hot topic in Iceland at the moment. On one hand, critics say that we are lying to our children, and it is wrong to teach them to believe in a fictitious man who defies the laws of nature. On the other hand, supporters say that believing in Santa is part of what makes Christmas so special for children, and who are we to take that away from them?

Some people remember the exact moment when they found out Santa wasn’t real. I suppose for others it is more of a gradual realisation. Last Christmas a cousin of mine told me that I was responsible for her learning the truth. Back when we were young, we were at a family party and got into an argument about Santa’s existence. I launched a scientific expedition, and made her follow me to the basement where we saw “Santa” go into a room, and an older family friend came out! I had forgotten this, but it was a vivid memory for her. For me, I do remember my older sister spilling the beans to me the previous year.

Is believing in Santa ridiculous? Should it be stopped? My answer is probably not. Here are three reasons why:


1. Most importantly, believing in Santa is a FUN for children, and I believe it is harmless fun.

In Iceland you get a present for each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, everyone of which is left in a shoe by one of the mischievous Yule Lads. I love seeing how excited my nieces get about the Yule Lads.


2. Children’s minds work differently than adult’s minds.

When we are very young, we are wildly creative, and we are willing to believe the impossible at the drop of a hat. This is part of normal childhood development. I feel that discovering the truth about Santa can be an important opportunity to teach children about critical thinking. As they age, kids need to learn not to believe everything they are told, and learn methods of distinguishing truth from fiction. It can even be fun. For example, when my husband was young, he and his sister collected handwriting samples from all the adults in the house, and asked Santa to leave a note. On Christmas day th
ey set up a forensic lab to compare the handwriting samples! Instead of feeling lied to and betrayed, they enjoyed the process of discovery. (You won’t be surprised to hear that they both went on to careers in science and research.)

3. The Icelandic Yule Lads give parents a perfect opportunity to apply general behaviour principles on their kids.

Kids learn that positive behaviour (e.g. such as going to bed on time) can lead to a reward (e.g. a new toy in their shoe in the morning). One of my favourite books on the topic is called the Power of Reinforcement. It points out that instead of the “carrot and stick” approach, the “carrot, carrot and more carrot” can be best. Perhaps that’s why there are 13 Santas in Iceland?


Apparently a lot of mail directed to the “North Pole” ends up in this huge box in Greenland. If a little child has gone to the effort of writing a letter to Santa, I’d be the last person to break their little heart with the truth. I think my time would be better spent asking grown adults why they believe in things that are equally improbable.






Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say.   – Todd Dufresne on Sigmund Freud in a 2004 LA Times Article

Freud was strange. On one hand, he’s the most famous therapist in history, and I have to admit I was excited to visit his former clinic on vacation in Vienna last year:

Fjola at Freud Museum


On the other hand, his theories are at best unsupported by evidence, sometimes completely ridiculous (I’m looking at you, penis envy), and at worst harmful.

Freud invented a form of psychological treatment called psychoanalysis. One of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis is that our personalities are strongly dependent on events in our early childhood. Obviously, this is true to some degree. We are all shaped by both our genetics and personal history, and childhood experiences can be influential. However, Freud and modern evidence-based psychology differ on how we should go about dealing with our past.

Dealing with the past is a controversial and complex topic. To begin with, there are different types of negative past events. For example, being bullied as a child is quite distinct from a difficult breakup. Therefore, the specific treatment will depend on the individual and their circumstances. I will not attempt a full literature review of this active research area, but I will make two general comments.


1. We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think about the past.

It is important to acknowledge the negative events of our past, but unlike psychoanalysis, we must realise that they do not determine “who we are”. We are capable of living happy lives if we learn to think in a more rational, positive way. How can we accomplish this? If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know what I’m about to say: cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT does NOT adhere to “just get over it” attitude. Rather, the goal of CBT treatment is to identify and target the unhelpful thinking patterns in the present that are maintaining the problem. Ultimately, the aim is to get to the point where these memories no longer upset us. In a sense, CBT therapy really isn’t about the past at all.


2. Dwelling too much on the past is not good for our mental health. However, if not the past, what should we be thinking about? When are we happiest?

“Live in the moment” is common advice, and in this case, it seems to be right! There is some interesting research that shows we are happiest when we are absorbed in what we’re doing, not letting our minds wander. CBT also has strategies to help people accomplish this! I try to do this as much as possible, while taking the occasional break to plan my future using my nerdy excel method.

These two points have something in common: the present. Since Freud’s time, it seems we’ve learned that living in the present is the key to dealing with the past.





Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


I have blogged before about my a love-hate relationship with Facebook. At its best, it is a great way to keep in touch with people and see what everyone is up to. However, the downside is that Facebook presents us with a biased and filtered view of the world. This is partly because we have a tendency to present ourselves the way we wish to be seen, rather than the way things are. Our friends are having non-stop fun, their babies never cry, they globe-trot to exotic locations, they bump into celebrities, they always have funny and insightful things to say, etc… This is why a good friend of mine calls it “Fakebook”.

It seems to me that in the early days of Facebook (way back in the mid to late 2000’s) people were more “real”. They were less concerned about their online image, and much more open. In fact, if you’ve had an account for more than a few years, it can be very interesting to use the timeline feature to see what sorts of things you were writing publicly on your friends’ walls a few years ago.

In general, spending too much time on Facebook is not great for your mental health. This blog is about how can we prevent Facebook from having a negative impact on our mental lives, and maybe even lead to increased happiness. I’ve included a few tips below, and would be happy to hear of any other ideas.


Tip 1. Moderation

The first tip is obvious but important: don’t spend too much time on Facebook. As with pretty much anything, excessive use leads to trouble. How much is too much? Well, that depends on the individual, I set myself daily limits, but I would say that you shouldn’t spend more than a few hours a week on the site. The tricky part is cutting back, because sometimes we head to the site as an unconscious reflex whenever we have a free minute. I’ve found the following helps limit my usage:

  • I’ve turned off all the notifications that are sent to email/my phone
  • I try not use it in social situations
  • I make a point of leaving my smartphone at home when I truly want to relax

If this is proving difficult, one way is to use the Chrome browser and install the StayFocused plugin.


Tip 2: Limit updates from certain people

Sometimes we have connections on Facebook with people who we are not that close to, and for one reason or another they do not have a positive impact on our happiness. It is important to make sure that updates from these people do not come up in your news feed (use the “unsubscribe” option).


Tip 3. Don’t rely on Facebook for updates from important people in your life


My sister is due to have her third baby around Christmas. Obviously, I want to know everything there is to know about how things are going for her. However, I miss lots of her Facebook updates because they don’t always appear in my feed. This is because an algorithm somewhere is deciding which posts to show me, and which ones to skip. Take a moment to think about this. Given that over a billion people use Facebook, this algorithm has incredible power and influence over the flow of information in the world. Always keep in mind that you may miss important updates, and that there is no replacements for old fashioned phone calls and catch-ups.


Tip 4. At the end of each year, use the timeline to find highlights from each month

My husband and I have a tradition that we’ve kept alive since we first met in 2006. Sometime between Christmas and New Years we create a calendar to use for the upcoming year. For each month of the new year we select a “happiness highlight” photo from the same month of the previous year. For example, here is the June 2009 photo, which we took when we went hiking in Greenland in June 2008:

Not all photos have to be from significant events; sometimes we can have very fond memories of normal day-to-day activities. Our only rule is to pick photos that make us happy.

What does this have to do with Facebook? Well, it used to be very long process for us to gather all the photos from the previous year and arrange them by date. However, Facebook’s Timeline feature now does this for us. Many photos end up on Facebook these days, and as I said earlier, there is already a bias towards highlights. Therefore, it is a perfect way to review the past year, and pick out some great photos. In fact, customized calendars, cups, mouse pads  or whatever are great Christmas presents.

My husband and I always get our calendar printed, and it serves as a great memory of each year. However, even if you don’t print a calendar, it is still a good idea to make the most of Facebook’s record of our lives. Think about the times when you were happiest. What do they have in common? Facebook allows us to take an empirical look at ourselves, and we can use this information to make positive changes. So, to answer the original question “can Facebook make you happy?”. I would say yes, if you use it wisely.




Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


“Fear of failure prevents us from making progress”
– Garry Kasparov, Oxford Union, 9th of November 2012

fear of failure

Last night I went to a debate at the Oxford Union on the subject “Is the current growth crisis a result of decades of technological stagnation in a risk-averse society?”. One of the speakers was Garry Kasparov, who is famous for political activism and for being one of the greatest chess players of all time. In a 2003 chess match he tied IBM’s Deep Junior (after loosing to Deep Blue in 1997), a machine capable of evaluating 3 million chess positions in 1 second. Given Kasparov’s amazing mind, I felt that it was worth listening to what he had to say.

It was a fascinating debate, and both sides made some excellent points. Garry was on the “Aye” side, and argued that today’s technological advances are slower and less impressive than those of previous generations. In particular, he talked about the great achievements of the cold war era in the 50s and 60s. He pointed out that many of today’s “modern” technologies (e.g. the internet) are a direct result of research performed during this time. He closed with a comment along the lines of “the iPhone 5 is nothing compared to Apollo 5”.


Fear of failure prevents people from taking risks, yet taking risks is necessary for progress

One of the topics that was discussed was the reasons why a society ceases to innovate. Garry offered an explanation quoted at the top of this blog – fear of failure prevents people from taking risks, yet taking risks is necessary for progress. This is undoubtedly true, as most breakthroughs are preceded by countless failures.

Garry was talking about societies as a whole, and the risk aversion of government funding bodies and large corporations. However, the same can be said about us as individuals, and I think it has consequences for mental health. For example, consider social anxiety. Risk aversion is one of the reasons that social anxiety doesn’t just go away without evidence based treatments. Social anxiety exaggerates the cost from being wrong, leading to risk aversion. However, treating social anxiety involves challenging your fears and stepping outside your comfort zone. It is worth mentioning that it is well established in psychology that we tend to overestimate risks and the negative consequences of failure.

Returning back to the original talk, Garry was making the point that if our societies are willing to undertake daring challenges, there can be wide ranging positive impacts outside of the original goals (he used the US space program of the 50’s as an example). I would argue that the same holds true for us as individuals. While the speakers were mainly concerned with economic growth, many of their arguments are applicable to psychological growth: overcoming our fear of failure can lead us to healthier and more fulfilling lives.




Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


Dear AI-Therapy blog readers,

I would like to thank you for helping us getting the word out there. Some highlights from our first few months:

  • We have now had 18,146 page views
  • Some of our early customers have successfully reached the end of the program
  • We are continuing to see outstanding results for those who complete all 7 modules of AI-Therapy

One of the reasons the blog hasn’t had many posts in that last few weeks is that I’ve been busy travelling. I attended the Australian Association for Cognitive and Behaviour Therapy (AACBT) conference in Queensland, and was very impressed with the quality of the scientific program. Furthermore, the keynote speeches were fantastic. Personal highlights were Ross Menzies (AI-Therapy co-founder), Leane Hides (president of AACBT) and Matt Sanders (Triple P Parenting program). It is great to see the how Australian commitment to CBT is continuing at full force.

While I was in Australia I got together with Ross Menzies, and had a very productive few days. We created a video that explains a bit more about AI-Therapy, including its history and how it works. A 3 minute video can be viewed here, for best quality you can make it full screen and put the quality to HD 1080p.

Ross and I also did some planning for the future of AI-Therapy, and I’m happy to say that there are some exciting plans in the works. In particular, we’ve started laying the groundwork for new treatment programs, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

AI-Therapy has recently been featured in the Icelandic media: “AI-Therapy is not trying to cut out psychologists, rather reach a wider audience“. For non-Icelandic readers, Google Chrome’s translation tool does a pretty good job of getting the main message across.

Autumn wishes from Oxford,

Oxford Autumn Nov 2012
Autumn colours at the Warneford Hospital bus stop.




Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


Parks and Recreation by Amy Poehler (a.k.a. Leslie Knope) is a hilarious show; it has me in tears every time. I’ve been told more than once that Leslie and I share some traits in common. I take this as a compliment, as her character is a great role model. In fact, sometimes I try to look at the world as if I was viewing it through Leslie’s eyes. Why? It makes boring and mundane situations much more lively. If she can have that much fun at a city council meeting, so can I!

Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is a common technique that is sometimes used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Obviously, that’s not all there is to CBT, but it can be a very beneficial exercise. Everyone knows someone (either fictional or real) who has a quirky way of seeing the world. They often have great stories to tell, and are generally content and happy people. Can we “borrow” their way of thinking? Would it have the potential to make us happier? Yes and yes.

The CBT tip of trying to “think like someone else” might sound a little strange, but it can be very beneficial. In fact, it can improve your mood considerably. I recently spent a day trying to think like Leslie Knope, and it was great. Who says you can’t have waffles with whipped cream for breakfast and lunch!

Here is your challenge (yes, you): Pick a person (e.g. a friend or a TV character) who has a great outlook on life. This should be someone who is relaxed and generally happy. Try “borrowing” their thinking style for a day. When you find yourself in a situation that would normally make you bored, angry, anxious, shy, etc., try to think like that other person. I would love to hear how it goes. Please send me an email (, use CBT tip in the subject line of the email, and have fun!




Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety