“Police!” The African American shouted at the train station in Richmond, California. The gang ran away, much to my relief. My legs were aching as I tried to walk up the stairs out of the train station with all my luggage. Many people have warned me that running marathons relatively untrained is a life-threatening event. But I am convinced my life was a lot more threatened by finding myself in one of the most violent cities in America, I was alone and unable to walk properly after running 42.2km that morning as a part of the California International Marathon.

I ended up there because the day before I flew in from Canada, and realized upon landing in the United States that I had left my driver’s license at home, making the rented car that was waiting for me utterly useless. The 2-day trip traveling for the marathon was an epic failure from A-Z so I decided to write this piece in order contrast the reality of what life is like vs. what we post on our Facebook or other social media about our lives. Here is my post from the trip:

Perfectly good relationships get often strained due to social media. Keeping up with the “Likes” and “Loves” becomes a chore, like doing our laundry, so we aren’t always responsive on friends birthdays anymore. Also, people that know us get annoyed that we often unknowingly post a glossy version of ourselves. It’s the nature of posting. Even though we spend 90% of our time working and parenting, we usually feel more of an urge to post in the 10% when we are traveling, skydiving or having a wonderful time in our relationships! Therefore, I thought this trip was a perfect contrast to what actually happened on my trip to Sacramento, California from Vancouver, Canada when I found myself here in the most violent city in the US, where kids get paid for not killing each other!

After the marathon, I rushed to the hotel to get my stuff and started fantasizing in my mind the food options the train station might have on my way. When I arrived there, there was no food nor time, so I boarded the train from Sacramento to San Fransisco on an empty stomach. There was also no food sold on board. To add salt to my wounds, the train just stopped for no good reason on several occasion. One reason was that 3 of the world’s slowest towboats had to get through and the train tracks went vertical for the occasion. At this point, I thought the failures of the day were comical since the morning of the marathon, I hadn’t signed up for the marathon the night before as I arrived in late, and had paid for breakfast at the start line, but the bus which was supposed to deliver us to the start of the marathon didn’t show. So I made friends with 3 people at the front of the line and they allowed me to join them in their Uber. Luckily I arrived 15 minutes before the marathon, managed to speed eat some food before starting the race.

However, due to the frequent train stops, I missed my connection from Richmond, California to San Francisco International Airport. I started trying to call an UBER after the gang members had left the station because of a police raid. At this moment the mobile data on my phone stopped working. I am standing there with aching legs, no ride to the airport, and the police had gone away. The gangsters started to approach the station again and I was trying to focus on solutions rather than cry and I concluded that my well-being was better served by accepting a shady cab driver offer to take me to the airport for an $80 cash deal (The Uber would have been $40).

“Cash only,” says the driver, whose car he referred to as taxi, despite not having any picture of any license or anything else that I expected in a taxi. I struggle to get into his dirty car as my legs are screaming at me to give them a break. I tell him I will take out cash at the airport. He informs me of the peculiar fact that there are “no ATMs at the airport” in broken English. I try to argue without any luck. He then wastes a precious 10 minutes driving into a shady part of town to get me to withdraw cash.  And he says “you will be at the airport in time”. This statement was truth because after I got the cash, he started speed-driving to San Francisco International Airport. In the seat-belt free backseat I tried to use the United App to check in as my mobile data started working again. The first message I got is that I need to pay a cancellation fee for that UBER driver that had apparently been ordered before my internet connection was lost, and secondly that the app refuses to check me in, but I try at least 8 times, without any luck. I know I need to be at the airport 60 minutes before my departure. Instead of reflecting on how my life was in the hands of this stranger, I decided to focus on the beautiful pink sunset in San Francisco Bay to calm my mind. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline, but it was an incredibly beautiful sunset that day.

The cab driver never intended to stick to our $80 dollar deal and started screaming at me that he had to pay a toll and requested $120 dollars from me when we arrived at the airport. With my surroundings having changed, now we did have airport security and other passengers around rather than some violent gangsters in Richmond. Empowered with my fight or flight response, I tell him (probably rather loudly), a deal is deal and repeated that I only had $80 dollars, as he continued to shout back, I simply walked away with a sense of relief, that I had made it to the airport before the check-in closed.

Despite the traffic jam, and my argument over locations of ATMs, and haggling over how much he was going to overcharge me, I make it in time to the airport on time. I limp over to the United Airlines counter, and the lady asks me for my passport. “You are not on this flight.” the ticket officer says confidently. I felt my heart pumping a bit harder. She continued that it looks like my ticket is a standby ticket and this flight is fully booked. My mind drifted to the incident that became infamous when a United Airlines staff violently forced a passenger out of his seat. “Here is my reservation,” I said. “ And I am DEFINITELY on this flight.” She probably sensed that I was going to cause a fuss, so she kept trying to make it work and had to make at least 3 trips to the back where they try to sort out the situation. After about half an hour of back and forth, she finally has a boarding pass for me.

After this difficult situation, I was exhausted, and went straight to work the next day and got sucked into everyday business. It took weeks for me to tell friends and family in person how this trip went. Life is busy. But I thought this story was the perfect example of the illusion we live every day with FB. The bottom line. I ran another marathon according to Facebook! The rest is the real world, and when you struggle with mental health issues and social anxiety, the comparison to other people’s lives is even a larger illusion.

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, Postgrad Dip, BA is AI-Therapy’s director and co-creator of AI-Therapy’s Overcome Social Anxiety. Twitter: @drfjola  is a fully registered clinical psychologist who is running Dr. Fjóla & Kompaní in Iceland and Dr. Fjola Helgadottir Psychology Corp. (R.Psych) in Canada, who has previously worked as a clinical psychologist in Australia and at the University of Oxford in the UK. She has completed 6 marathons and visited 84 countries in the world.


Being in front of people makes you anxious. Sometimes so much so that you can’t speak your mind in social situations, and sometimes skip out on activities altogether. But that’s not the only way social anxiety is holding you back.

1. It’s Preventing You from Connecting with Others

When all you can think about is how fast your heart is beating, or how much you might look like an idiot if you say the wrong thing, it’s hard to focus on what’s going on during social interactions. Social anxiety makes it nearly impossible to reach out to others or interact with them in a meaningful way, for fear of making yourself look bad. After a while, you might begin to feel lonely because you aren’t able to interact with people without severe anxiety symptoms.


2. It’s Causing you Unnecessary Stress

Worrying about all of the things you might do wrong, or something you said years ago will cause a lot of stress to build up in your body. Most of the things you worry about when you have social anxiety are things other people don’t remember, or don’t think are a big deal.


3. It Can Cause Health Issues

All of that build up stress can start to take a toll on your body. If you’re stressed out enough, it can cause you to experience physical health issues that you have to address. Some of these problems include heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal disease, and faster aging.


4. It’s Actively Stopping you From Living Your Life

How many times have you stayed home from a party or an event because you were too worried about what people would think of you? One of the most common regrets people experience in life is not going out and experiencing more when they were younger. You too might start to regret the things you don’t do after a while. 


5. It’s Making you Worry about How You’re Being Perceived in Social Situations

While there are some people who might think you’re a little odd, most of the time people don’t remember you outside of their interactions with you. Most people are so focused on themselves that they won’t notice, or won’t care, if you say something weird, or don’t respond in a certain way.


6. It’s Telling you Things That Aren’t True

When your anxiety gets really bad, it can start to tell you what other people think about you. “That person thinks you’re annoying” or “this person thinks you’re stupid”. There’s no way to tell what other people think, and in most cases, it’s hard to make someone think poorly of you.


7. It’s Stopping You From Pursuing Amazing Opportunities

Have you gone to an interview for your dream job, only to never hear back from the potential employer? Maybe you haven’t experienced exactly this situation, but there’s probably one thing or another that you’ve missed out on because your social anxiety prevented you from interacting in the best way possible.


8. It’s Pushing Your Friends Away From You

Good friends will try to be understanding of what you’re going through. But when you keep canceling on outings, or constantly tell your friends that you can’t make it, they start to think you don’t like them, or that you’re never going to show up. Many of them are busy, and don’t have the time to keep trying to get you to come along. And after a while, they might stop reaching out to you.


Social anxiety doesn’t have to hold you back in so many areas of your life. With AI Therapy’s program “Overcome Social Anxiety”, you can take advantage of years of research through lessons created to help you get control of your fears. Implementing some of these techniques will help you to get your life back, and start connecting with people in a meaningful and lasting way.

ubcWe are very pleased to announce our latest collaboration, which is with Dr. Frances Chen and Dr. Chris Richardson of the University of British Columbia (UBC). We will be evaluating AI-Therapy’s cognitive behavior program within the university’s undergraduate student population.

3 years ago I wrote about blog titled: “Is diagnosis necessary for online treatment?“. My answer was no. I believe that anyone can benefit from CBT strategies, whether or not they have an official diagnosis. CBT helps people make better choices in their day to day lives, often leading to an overall improvement in happiness and confidence.

The UBC trial will provide the online social anxiety program to people who have elevated scores on social anxiety, not necessarily a social anxiety diagnosis. We are excited to see the outcome of this research.

fdh2Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD is a registered psychologist at the Vancouver CBT Centre, who has previously worked in Australia and at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She is AI-Therapy’s director and co-creator of AI-Therapy’s Overcome Social Anxiety. Twitter: @drfjola

Stop mental health stigma, and start seeking help
Stop mental health stigma, and start seeking help

A recent study has shown that living with an untreated mental illness lowers life expectancy. Therefore, not only do suffers get less enjoyment from their day to day life, but their lives are shorter. Why is it that people continue to suffer in silence?

Perhaps the main reason that people do not seek treatment is the stigma surrounding mental health. Sadly, this is widespread in today’s society, and there are several reasons for it. For example, we’ve all seen movies where someone commits a horrific crime, and the text at the end tells us that the person is now seeking therapy. This creates an association between anti-social behavior and therapy. This is outrageous, as the vast majority of people who seek therapy are normal, kind and caring people. Some people are genetically predisposed to having mental health problems, while others struggle with negative life experiences. In both cases, seeking help can be a life changing experience, and in neither case should it be something to be ashamed of.

I think it is time to start thinking about mental health problems in the same way as medical problems. If you had a friend or family member who was physically unwell, telling them that “you need help” would be kind and supportive advice. Why doesn’t the same hold for encouraging someone to see a psychologist?


Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, 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

A lot has been written about the use of smartphones in social situations – it is the pet peeve of many. People often find it irritating to have a conversation (or eat a meal, watch a film, etc.) with someone who is constantly tapping away at their phone. In this blog I will look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. For those with social anxiety, smartphone use may actually be maintaining their problem.

AI therapy Woman With Smart PhoneA safety behavior is an action taken to manage one’s anxiety by exerting (perceived) control over a social situation. It is a behavior or action that is taken in order to prevent the core fear – being negatively judged by other people. Checking your smartphone is a perfect example that seems to be becoming increasingly common. People may do it to avoid something they fear: uncomfortable conversations, meeting new people, awkward silences, etc. In many cases they are worried that they won’t be able to “perform” in the social situation. In other cases, they may want to look important by being online and connected 24/7.

The problem with safety behaviors is that they tend to make the problem worse. On one hand, since it is an avoidance behavior, anxiety is maintained since it is never challenged. Sometimes uncomfortable conversations turn into interesting ones, sometimes awkward silences are followed by deep and meaningful comments, and sometimes when you meet new people you find a friend for life. Being on a smartphone can take away these opportunities. Also, if the social situation goes well despite being on a smartphone, one might wrongly attribute the positive outcome to the smartphone!

To illustrate another point, consider the following scenario:

Alice goes to a party where she doesn’t know many people. She is very anxious, and is worried that the other people at the party will not like her. She spends a lot of time sending text messages, as she hopes this will demonstrate that she is a social person with a wide group of friends.  The other people at the party make no effort to engage with Alice, as it looks to them like she has no interest in being there.

As you can see, the safety behavior (checking the phone) is the very reason why people are judging Alice negatively.

I should note that not all smartphone use in social situations is a safety behavior, as it depends on the reason why people are using their phone. There are many other reasons why someone may use their phone, such as bad habit or addiction (I will save that for another blog).

Our social anxiety treatment program can help you identify and challenge maladaptive safety behaviors. I encourage you to think about your actions, and try turning your smartphone off next time you are at a party. Not only are you less likely to be perceived as uninterested in the social situation, I guarantee you will have a richer experience, and you are a lot more likely to make a good impression on other people!


Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, 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

The relationship between salaries and social anxiety

It is a known fact that one area where social anxiety has a big impact on people’s lives is in the workplace. In particular, studies have found that people with social anxiety are less likely to be promoted and have, on average, lower salaries.

When was the last time you asked your boss for a raise?

Lack of assertiveness is one cause of this problem. For some people, being assertive is “too risky” since they have a strong fear of negative judgement – particularly by authority figures. For example, you might be worried about annoying or upsetting your boss, so you convince yourself that “now is not a good time to ask”. Unfortunately, the “right time” never seems to present itself.

In the past, psychologists and counselors would teach you techniques about how to present yourself. For example, common advice would be “make eye contact” and “stand tall with a straight back”. However, if you learn techniques like these without tackling the underlying social anxiety or the fear of negative evaluation, you’ll probably still struggle to gather the courage to ask for a raise.


Facing your fears (with CBT) can be a life changing experience.

One of the most effective ways to tackle anxiety is with a technique called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This is a long term solution, since it helps people evaluate and challenge their thoughts and behaviors, making them more likely to engage in activities they previously avoided.

In our AI-Therapy program, we use CBT to identify and target the thoughts and behaviors underlying the user’s social anxiety. Not only do our user report fewer social anxiety symptoms after completing the program, but also an increase in happiness and overall quality of life. Who knows – maybe it will give you the courage to ask for that promotion in 2014?



Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, 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


It seems like every time I open Facebook or LinkedIn I see some tips from celebrities or entrepreneurs how to be more confident or successful. In reality, a little talent, a lot of hard work, and some lucky breaks are the key ingredients to success. Yet, successful people have a tendency to attribute their trajectories to a handful of tricks people “must do” in order to succeed. Unfortunately, these tips aren’t always as helpful as they seem. In fact, they can even lead to safety behaviorsIf social anxiety is a problem for you, it is important to learn about the role of safety behaviors, and see if you are using them to “play it safe” socially.

This blog post is the first in a series where I will give some common tips, and explain why they are actually counterproductive.

Tip 1. Pretend to be interested in other people

The self-improvement writer Dale Carnegie recommends that people pretend to be interested in what others are saying during conversation. While this may sound reasonable when we are trying to impress someone, it can actually backfire. First, the other person might sense a lack of genuine interest in the topic, and find it uncomfortable that the listener is pretending to be interested. Second, if the social interaction results in a positive response, the pretender is likely to attribute the success to their pretense of being interested, not that they were liked for who they are. Third, this sort of behavior can maintain unhelpful thoughts people have about themselves, such as “I’m so plain and boring”. Every social interaction is an opportunity for people to disconfirm these types of unhelpful thoughts. However, every time safety behaviors are used, an opportunity is missed.

Tip 2. Read over your emails at least 5 times

Many of us overemphasize the importance of wording in our emails. Whilst this may seem reasonable, it simply isn’t always helpful. In fact, some of the most successful people I have corresponded with send me emails full of spelling mistakes (probably due to auto spelling) and no formal structure. Life is too short to read emails more than a couple of times. Try sending emails without proofing them: it’s difficult at first, but then it becomes liberating. It becomes easier to respond from your phone or tablet, and can save you from thinking about the emails when you are doing something else!


In other news, I just had a peer reviewed paper on safety behaviors accepted in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research. Once it is in press, I will blog about this as well!



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