A recent study says “yes”!

Online therapy is an active and growing area of research in clinical psychology. In fact, there was a symposium devoted to the subject at the recent World Congress of CBT in Lima, Peru (which I was honoured to be a part of – to be covered in a future blog). Perhaps the most important question that researchers are trying to answer is: “Does online work as well as face to face therapy?”

This is a difficult question to answer since there are so many hidden variables. In fact, there is no universal answer, since it depends on the particular online system being examined, and the skill level of the therapists involved in the study. A better questions is “Can online therapy work as well as face to face therapy?” In other words, are there any online systems that can match the results of live therapists for a specific problem? According to a recent publication, the answer is “yes”!

A team of researchers from the University of Zurich published the following paper:

  • Birgit Wagner, Andrea B. Horn, Andreas Maercker. Internet-based versus face-to-face cognitive-behavioral intervention for depression: A randomized controlled non-inferiority trial. Journal of Affective Disorders. July 23, 2013. (see this link for more information)

Can online therapy be as good as face to face therapy

The authors conducted a study involving 62 people with moderate depression. Half of the patients were treated using traditional CBT in-person techniques, and the other half were treated online. The authors found that at a three month follow up, the patients who were treated online had fewer symptoms of depression than the control group. In other words, the online treatment program actually performed better than the face to face therapy.

 

Advantages of online therapy

I have discussed some of the advantages of online therapy on this blog and in my publications. These include:

  • Clients can progress at their own pace
  • Clients have a complete record of their treatment, which they can revisit at any time
  • “Therapist drift” is a known phenomenon, where therapists move away from the best practices of a particular treatment over time. With online treatments, it is easier to enforce a consistent treatment, with the correct “dose” of clinical content delivered during each session.

Of course, online therapies have challenges of their own. In particular, it is more difficult to adapt the treatment towards the individual symptoms and needs of the users without therapist involvement. In fact, it is this problem of individual personalization that AI-Therapy’s social anxiety program attempts to address.

More studies are needed to fully investigate the strengths and weaknesses of online therapy. However, the study above adds to a growing body of evidence that online therapy has tremendous potential, and will play an important role in the future of mental health treatment.

 

Fjola

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

 

How are social anxiety and depression related?

Social anxiety and depression often occur together, and research has shown that targeting social anxiety can lead to an overall increase in mood and happiness. In this blog we look at an example of how the two can be connected.

Waking up with anxiety

A thought pattern that can be a contributing factor to depression is rumination. Let’s consider the following scenario: you’ve been to an evening party, and the first thought that pops into your head the next morning is “Oh no, did I really say that? I wish I hadn’t – I may have offended someone.” You continue to dwell on the thought, and over time your feelings of anxiety amplify. Eventually, you convince yourself that it was a terrible scene, and you become angry and upset.

Rumination following social situations is a common symptom of social anxiety. The social anxiety is leading you to (a) set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and (b) over-analyze the event after the fact. By targeting social anxiety, you will be less likely to ruminate, and therefore spend less time being self-critical.

As a side note, this is consistent with the results that we are observing with our social anxiety program. In particular, there is a (statistically significant) decrease in symptoms of low mood for those who complete the program. Dealing with social anxiety can have follow-on effects that lead to a happier, more fulfilling life.

Fjola

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

 

There is a well known 2011 study that looks at the brains of London taxi drivers. The map of London is complex, and taxi drivers are required to memorize the complete layout and pass a difficult exam before being given their taxi license. The study found that the hippocampus region of the brain, which plays an important role in memory, actually grows (in a physical sense) while the prospective drivers are studying for the exam. This is an interesting result since it clearly shows that our actions can make real, measurable changes to our brains.

 

Can you change your brain with therapy?

In short, yes.

Some people view psychological treatments as “softer” than using medication, since drugs can directly target neurochemical aspects of the brain. However, this view is unjustified, since there is mounting evidence that therapy can make very real structural changes to the brain. A great example is CBT.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to tackling mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. CBT has been subject to countless clinical trials, and has even been shown to be more effective than medication in some long-term studies. CBT works by targeting the thoughts and behaviours that are maintaining the problem (more information about CBT, and how it can be administered online, can be found here). For example, consider someone who has social anxiety and would like to ask their boss for a raise or promotion. This would be extremely stressful situation for them, and they would likely put it off indefinitely. CBT treatment would examine the thoughts that are leading to this avoidance, and would challenge them through a series of exercises. In much the same way that physical exercise changes the body, these mental exercises can make changes to the structure of your brain!

 

How does CBT change the brain?

The fact that CBT changes the brain is not a particularly new result. However, neuroscience journals tend to announce findings with headlines like “The neurobiological role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in…”. The details are complex, but the general idea is understandable in surprisingly basic terms.

The brain is divided into different regions or modules, each of which is specialized to perform a certain type of task. For example, the visual cortex is the region of the brain that processes the sensory input from the eyes. There are some brain structures that deal with emotions such as stress and fear, and collectively these are sometimes known as the “emotional brain”. These are very “old” areas of the brain, in the sense that we share them with our distant ancestors. When a socially anxious person is nervous when thinking about asking for a raise, it is the emotional brain that is becoming active.

There are higher order brain structures that deal with planning, logic and reasoning. These are sometimes known as the “logical brain”. These brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, are “newer” in the sense that they are much larger in primates than in other species. There are two key points:

  • The logical brain is able to override the emotional brain. For example, our socially anxious person can take a rational look at the situation, and realize that he or she is exaggerating the potential risks. He or she might come to the conclusion “the worst case scenario is that the boss says no – that’s not the end of the world!” This thought will help them calm down, and build the confidence to actually ask for the raise.
  • Every time the logical brain overrides the emotional brain, the logical brain “muscle” becomes stronger and stronger. In other words, through CBT training the brain actually reinforces the neural pathways, so it becomes easier and easier to deal with future stressful situations.

This is good news: by changing our thinking and behaviour using CBT, we are making positive, long term, hard coded changes to our brains!

 

 

softonline

 

fdh

 

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, 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.

 

 

fdh

 

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, 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 (fjola@ai-therapy.com), use CBT tip in the subject line of the email, and have fun!

 

fdh

 

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

 

When someone is angry, quite often our immediate reaction is to tell them to calm down. However, have you ever noticed that telling someone to calm down can actually make them angrier?

In this blog, I’m going to discuss the reasons why some people get angry, and share some strategies to help prevent future outbursts.

Many of us have been in this situation:

AI-therapy.com anger management

The anger stimulus could have been many different things: an upsetting email, Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect feature, Manchester United losing a match you had a bet on, or pictures of an ex-partner on Facebook. Whatever it was, the ancient “fight” response has been activated and blood is pumping through your body. You find yourself in what seems like a uncontrollable rage. However, the belief that anger is uncontrollable in some situations is largely a myth!

One of the most common misconceptions about anger is that it is best to “let it all out”. This comes from the faulty reasoning that pressure builds up inside of us, and screaming, kicking and shouting is necessary to release it. The truth (according to the latest scientific findings) is that screaming, kicking, shouting or acting out in other ways only makes a person’s anger problem worse in the long term! I am now going to discuss one reason why many people get angry, and provide an effective way for dealing with some types of anger.

We all react differently to frustrating and difficult situations. Many of us burst out in anger. A lot of anger outbursts happen due to our internal rules being broken. These rules can be due to moral or ethical reasoning. For example, when you hear about someone being cruel to a child. This anger may be justified, and is therefore difficult to address. However, some of our “rules” are much less clear cut. These are rules that have been created (or learned from family, friends or colleagues) about how we feel the world SHOULD work.

Consider this example: a few weeks ago I was taking a bus from the airport, and the driver was being very rude to me and everyone else. I was little upset, and found myself thinking “the driver SHOULD be more helpful to me and the other passengers”. Another passenger was also upset by the driver’s behaviour, and got in a heated argument. It actually escalated to a point where they were both yelling at each other. Almost certainly, the driver was motivated by SHOULD statements of his own. For example, “everyone SHOULD sit down so I can catch up on my schedule!”. Both parties felt violated, but was it really worth the outbursts?

One of the ideas behind cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is to identify and challenge or modify unhelpful thinking patterns, including these SHOULD thoughts.

Let’s look at some more examples of should statements, and consider advantages and disadvantages of believing them:

 

 

Everyone should always treat me nicely

Benefit Cost
I will be happy when I am treated nicely. A major disadvantage of this ‘should’ is that it is unrealistic. It is a fact that some people are rude and inconsiderate. If I think that all people should treat me nicely, I will become infuriated every single time it doesn’t happen. I will experience anger and frustration regularly. This thought is actually making me upset.

Dropping a belief like this is not an easy task. We all have a sense of justice in our head, encoded by our internal rules. However, unfortunately the world isn’t always a fair place. For example, some people are too entitled, selfish or narcissistic to care about the impact they are having on other people. Therefore, it is inevitable that we will encounter people who do not treat us nicely. In fact, we should actually EXPECT it to happen from time to time. If something happens that we are expecting, we are a lot less likely to get angry because of it, and we can learn to think of better strategies to deal with it.

 

 

I should always say “yes” to requests from others

Benefit Cost
Immediately after I say “yes” to other people’s requests I feel relieved to get them off my back. I will probably be taken advantage of in my personal and professional relationships. I will end up doing lots of things that I really would prefer to avoid. I will end up feeling overburdened. I will end up bitter and resentful of the demands of others.

Once again, this example shows how an internal rule can end up causing unnecessary distress. On the surface it seems reasonable, but if interpreted too strictly, it can lead to anger. For example, it may lead you to expect everyone else to always say “yes” to you, and may cause distress when this turns out not to be so.

 

Incidentally, SHOULD statements, and a deeper discussion about their role in your mood, are the topic of Part 5 of the AI-Therapy treatment program. The program also identifies your specific SHOULD thoughts, and formulates a CBT intervention to target them.

Back to the original question regarding anger myths and facts: how can you prevent outbursts? In the short term, try not to allow yourself to “let it loose”, as this can lead to a pattern of learned behaviour that is only supporting the anger response. It is better to step back, and try to remove yourself from the situation until the anger wave has passed. Every time you successfully stop an outburst before it happens, the better you become at it. Practice, practice, practice.

In the long term, you should take a close look at your internal rules (i.e. your SHOULD statements). It is very likely that some of these are underpinning your anger. Once you have identified your SHOULDs, CBT can be used to target them.

The world isn’t always a fair place, and it never will be. We can do our best to make it a better place, but we can’t always control the actions of others. However, you can learn to control your reactions to perceived wrongs.

 

fdh

 

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

 

There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behavior
-BjÖrk

I tend to agree with Björk (my fellow Icelander) — especially when it comes to “common sense” approaches to self help for improving anxiety or mood issues.

Despite having about 1000 trials supporting the efficacy of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) in the long term, the average Jane or Joe still has not heard about CBT. CBT has consistently outperformed medication when you look at long term benefits. What you learn through the CBT sticks with you for life! First, it addresses the root of the anxiety by determining what is keeping it going in everyday life. Next, it tackles the underlying cause using experiments and exercises. With CBT you develop strategies that you can use for the rest of your life.

One of the most common ways for individuals to deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression is to purchase self help programs (books, e-books, CD/MP3s audio series, etc.). The quality of these programs varies widely. There are some very good programs out there written by experienced and qualified professionals. Some of the best programs walk the client through the principles behind CBT.

Unfortunately, for every high-quality program, there are many more poor quality programs created by “self-help gurus”. Sometimes these gurus are well meaning people who have managed to cure their own problems, and would sincerely like to help others. Other times they are created by people simply looking for a quick buck. The problem is that some techniques for dealing with mental health issues are counter-intuitive, so without proper training, self-help authors can actually make problems worse. Let’s look at an example.

A typical title for self help books might be: Successful small talk: Learn to be open, interesting and intelligent. The purpose is to advise individuals on how to better manage their impressions on other people in social situations. If only human behavior was that simple! It would be great if we could sit down and read a book that would transform us into interesting and intelligent super-humans. Unfortunately, many of the recommended strategies (e.g. rehearse what you say in advance, make constant eye contact, etc.) can actually maintain anxiety in the long run. I mentioned these processes in my last blog, and referred to them as safety behaviors.

For social anxiety, people often believe that their safety behaviors help prevent negative evaluation in social situations. However, they actually might be preventing them from learning the truth. For example, assume that I deal with my social anxiety by only telling people about the positive aspects of my life (like many of us do on Facebook!). Perhaps I believe that this will stop them from judging me negatively. The problem is that if I never test this hypothesis, I am never comfortable being myself. What is wrong with this?

Firstly, it is unrealistic. People are people, and everyone has their ups and downs. By putting this extra pressure on myself to always look perfect, I might start avoiding social situations, reinforcing the anxiety. Social situations become extremely stressful.

Secondly, this type of safety behavior might make people judge me negatively. For example, people may feel resentful about my “perpetually success”, or suspect that I’m not telling the whole truth. Also, this maintains my social anxiety in the long run since I can never test if people approve of me for who I really am!

On the surface, common sense advice like “people don’t want to hear about your problems — focus on the positive” sounds great. However, as we’ve just seen this isn’t the case. Unfortunately, many self-help books are full of these sorts of recommendations.

There are some great self help books or programs out there. My advice is that  if you do follow a self-help program make sure that it is (1) is created by a qualified professional with training in psychology/psychiatry, (2) uses CBT to tackle the core problems, and (3) does not promote behaviors that might end up making the problem worse.

 

fdh

 

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