This week is the UK’s National Infertility Awareness Week. It is being organized by the Infertility Network UK, and runs from October 28-November 3. I’m very glad to see that awareness is growing for a problem that is rarely talked about publicly, but touches so many lives.

We are lucky to live in a time when medical advances are being made every day. Medication, operations, and IVF have enabled countless people to conceive who would not have had the opportunity just a decade ago. However, these options are not available to everyone, and the outcomes are not always successful. Being diagnosed with infertility problems typically comes with significant emotional and financial costs.

I am particularly interested in the stress, depression and anxiety that can result from fertility issues (please see my survey). A few weeks ago I discussed this topic in an interview with an Icelandic newspaper. I feel we need to be more sensitive when talking to people about their family planning. For example, the question “when are you going to have children?” is often inappropriate. It’s usually asked by well-meaning friends or family who have a genuine curiosity. However, if you take a moment to consider the reasons why someone does not have a child, you will see the list of possibilities is pretty short. It may be a decision of a personal nature, it may be due to relationship problems, or perhaps there are medical complications. In any of these cases, it’s not a good conversation to have over Thanksgiving dinner. In general, people will bring it up when and if they want to talk about it.

I encourage everyone to check out the National Infertility Awareness Week page, become involved, and think about how you approach these issues.

If you regularly read mental health or science blogs, you’ve probably seen some recent posts about the controversy over DSM 5. There is quite a bit of controversy about it, so in this blog I’m going to give an overview, and share some of my thoughts.


What is the DSM?

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that defines mental disorders, and specifies the criteria for a clinical diagnosis. In other words, it is the commonly accepted authority for answering the question: does person X have the mental disorder Y?

The APA periodically publishes updated versions of the manual to reflect the latest research findings. The first version was published in 1952, and the 5th version (DSM 5) was published earlier this month. Since there is quite a bit of time between publications, it usually generates a lot of interest.


What is the controversy about?

Each version of the DSM introduces new disorders, and updates the criteria for existing ones. This leads to the following situations:

  1. Some previously “normal” conditions are now a diagnosed mental illness. There is some concern that this will lead to drugs being prescribed to people who don’t really need them. Furthermore, some feel that the latest version of the manual goes too far, over-diagnosing the general population. Some professionals estimate that up to 50% of people now fit the criteria for at least one mental disorder. At what point does a “disorder” become normal human behavior?
  2. Some people will lose their diagnosis. In some cases, this could lead to individuals losing access to healthcare benefits they have come to rely on.

In both cases, the people and their symptoms haven’t changed. The only change is that a manual has been published.


The tyranny of the discontinuous mind

I believe many of the problems are related to what Richard Dawkins calls the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind”. We seem to have a natural inclination towards putting things in discrete categories, even when no such categories exist in nature.

The goal of a diagnosis is two divide people into two groups: those who have a disorder, and those who don’t. However, most mental disorders exist on a spectrum, and there is no precise boundary that cleanly partitions people into these categories. Any attempts to define such a boundary will inevitably lead to disagreements, since some people will argue the criteria should be relaxed, and others will argue they should be stricter. This is an unavoidable consequence of information loss when applying a threshold to a spectrum.

This is not an easy problem to solve. There are practical reasons why it is useful to have formal criteria for a diagnosis. For example, how else would a healthcare insurance provider decide who is eligible to be covered for a treatment? Therefore, the DSM plays a vital role in mental health treatment.

The main lesson is that a clinical diagnosis is only part of the story. People with mild symptoms can benefit from therapy, even if they don’t fit the criteria as specified in the DSM. This has some implications for online treatment, which I’ll talk about in a future post.


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

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  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


You may have noticed we have been a little slow on the blog updates lately. The reason is that we have been very busy working on our new product, and are pleased to announce:


Statistics for Psychologists

This is a little different than our core area (online self-help), so let me explain why we’ve created it. There are lots of statistics programs out there. However, some of them are hard for non-statisticians to use, some are expensive, and most require you to install software on your computer. We wanted something accessible, easy to use, and not loaded with options we don’t need. Given our extensive background in statistics and software, we decided to create our own solution.

These are our target audiences:

  1. Academia: The online calculators provide academic researchers with tools to help them distinguish between effective and non-effective therapies. Naturally our focus is psychology, but the tools themselves will be equally useful to researchers in any field.
  2. Clinicians:  Too often clinicians never give stats a second thought after they finish their degree. However, chances are that you are surrounded by interesting data in your clinic. We encourage you to run some therapy data through the program, as you may be surprised by what you find!
  3. Students: Learning stats isn’t easy. What we’ve created is something between an online tutorial and an interactive calculator. One way to learn the concepts is by interacting with the tools and visualizations. Try to get a feel for how changes to the input impact the results.
  4. Everyone else: Statistics is much more important in our day to day lives than most people give it credit for. In particular, it helps us make sense of the world around us. Take the plunge, and see what it’s all about!

Please get in touch and let us know if you have any feedback or feature requests. Also, help us spread the word if you know of anyone who might find this useful.


Sample graph from AI-Therapy's Statistics for Psychologists

After my first year of university in Iceland, I decided I wanted to go traveling over the summer break. At the time, backpacking to Asia hadn’t really taken off in Iceland, so most people thought I was absolutely insane. However, I had set my mind and excel file to it, so there was no stopping me. After a year of working nights at a psychiatric hospital and eating nothing but pasta, I said goodbye to my teary family and set off into the big unknown world!

I traveled to Japan, South Korea, China, Mongolia, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, and it was all amazing. There is no better way to learn about people than to travel to different cultures. In fact, I think I learned more about people on that trip than during my first few years of studying psychology.

“I got scammed in Thailand” is the story that most people like to hear about.

After coming back from a big backpacking trip, people often want to hear about the tough stuff. The tricky situations, the scams, the bad food, bed bugs, etc. These usually make the best stories, so obviously you don’t give equal weight to the 95% of the trip that ran smoothly. Unfortunately, focusing on these stories can have a negative side-effect. It can fuel the fears that others have about unknown places. You should always be aware of this negative bias when you are gathering information about a place you want to visit.

Speaking to locals in other countries can give an interesting perspective on negative biases

It can be very interesting to talk to people in other countries about their impressions of where you come from. For example, few years back I traveled through a country called Turkmenistan (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it – I hadn’t either). I took the picture below one night when we camped next to the Derweze gas crater.

Burning for 35 years in Turkmenistan's desert
Burning for 35 years in Turkmenistan’s desert

Turkmenistan is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. A quick read about the terrible human rights violation gives you an idea of what I mean. However, I had a conversation with a local girl that made an impression on me. She had been invited to study arts in Seattle, but turned it down because in her mind, the US is far too dangerous to visit.

This was an eye opener to me, as I felt much more vulnerable in Turkmenistan than I ever have in America. It was a great illustration of the idea that we often overestimate the dangers associated with things we’re unfamiliar with.

What is the lesson in this? Don’t let your fear of the unknown or familiarity biases stop you from going outside your comfort zone. Life is too short!




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’m a huge fan of the show “Parks and Recreation” by Amy Poehler. In fact, I even wrote a blog about how much we can learn from the main character (Leslie Knope), who has a fantastic outlook on life. However, I was pretty disappointed when I came across this video of Amy Poehler giving hints about how to deal with social anxiety:

Most of this sounds like common sense advice. However, if you are a regular reader of my blog you will have noticed that all she is doing is promoting “safety behaviours“. She recommends the following:

  • Breathe
  • Reach out to a friend (e.g. text message or phone call)
  • Find a place where you feel more comfortable, such as a corner or couch
  • Remember that you can always leave without telling anyone

These are classic examples of safety behaviours. Yes, it’s true they may help you get through a particular social event, but the risk is that these behaviours are maintaining the underlying anxiety in the long run. It would be much better to target the thoughts and behaviours that are causing the anxiety in the first place (for example, using CBT).

Don’t get me wrong – I know that Amy Poehler means well, and I’m still a huge fan. However, we have to remember that there is a difference between advice that “makes sense”, and advice that has been proven effective in carefully controlled experiments. Unfortunately, just because you’re a brilliant actress, it doesn’t mean you are up to date with the latest findings in evidence based clinical psychology. Let’s make a deal Amy – you keep rolling out those episodes of Parks and Rec, and we’ll keep an eye on the psychology journals.

For those who are not regular readers of my blog, here are a few that mention safety behaviours:





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


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