For my PhD I created an online social anxiety treatment for people who stutter or stammer. The results were fantastic. In fact, they were so good that Ross Menzies and I wanted to make the tool available for everyone with social anxiety, and that’s how AI-Therapy was born.

AI-Therapy now has hundreds of users from all over the world, and our results (technically known as the program’s “effect size“) have been just as strong as the original PhD version. Actually, they are even more promising as they are now based on a larger population of users.

Statistics aside, it’s also important to hear people’s stories. Unfortunately, the nature of social anxiety makes it difficult for those who suffer to speak openly about the problems. Therefore, I was extremely excited to (quite randomly) come across the following article:

How cognitive behaviour therapy helped me

It was written by a user of my PhD program, and talks about the impact CBT has had on his life. I found it humbling that the program I created made such a difference to someone who has lived with social anxiety for over 70 years.

Here are a few quotes:

The programme was one of the great events of my life. It acknowledged that people who stammer often have undesirable thoughts and beliefs and I was shown how to change these. The results were immediate. The major item I picked up from the programme was the dropping of safety behaviours.

Shortly after the course finished I attended a dinner with 25 people. Normally this would involve the minimum of social conversation from me. On this occasion I made use of the techniques I had picked up and talked just about non-stop and on several occasions I was told to stop talking and eat as everyone was waiting for me to finish my meal so they could have the next course served.

Each conversation that I approach I now face with determination and courage. No longer do I stand back and rehearse what I am going to say before saying it. I have become very outspoken and have no problem at all in speaking up at meetings to add to the discussion. People I have met since completing the CBT programme have no idea that I stammer and when I tell them they are amazed by my story of how CBT changed my life.

I highly recommend you read his whole story. As I mentioned, AI-Therapy’s Overcome Social Anxiety program has been enhanced to be suitable for anyone with social anxiety. I hope it continues to change lives.

Fjola

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, is a clinical psychologist, who has 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 program and the creator of Overcome Fertility Stress. Twitter: @drfjola

There is a common stereotype about people who suffer from social anxiety. Many assume that they are shy and socially awkward people, and it would be easy to tell who has the disorder just by looking at them. This simply isn’t true. There are countless people who appear to be outgoing and confident, yet dread social events or public speaking, and spend hours ruminating before and after.

Prince Harry is a great example. He has been in the public eye since the day he was born. However, he still gets nervous and anxious before entering a room full of people.

I’d like to thank Prince Harry for speaking openly about his social anxiety. Every time a high-profile person shares their struggles it helps reduce the stigma, and encourages others to seek help.

Fjola

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, is a clinical psychologist, who has 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 program and the creator of Overcome Fertility Stress. Twitter: @drfjola

Emma Watson did a wonderful speech for the UN recently, and if you haven’t seen it yet you should really check it out:

She launched a campaign called “HeForShe”, where men around the world are asked to join the gender equality agenda. The speech has gone viral (when I opened my Facebook this morning it seemed like half of my friends were raving about it). I came across some coverage of it with the headline “Her Voice Might Tremble, But Emma Watson’s Message Is Strong and Clear.” In my opinion, I found her voice to be very human and down to earth. I think her message was stronger because of this touch of tremble, which highlighted the fact that the speech wasn’t easy for her. Remember, this is a famous actress whose career is performing. She was nervous because nobody feels confident all of the time, and stepping outside of our comfort zone is when we grow.

This made me think of social anxiety and how we treat it. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for social anxiety challenges people by moving them out of their comfort zones. We learn the most when we “put ourselves out there”. It is about experimenting with your thoughts and behaviors, and helping you live your life without fears.

I think a lot of social anxiety behavior in women is linked to gender equality. Sometimes we fear that by speaking our mind we will be labelled as “bossy”, whereas a man in the same situation could be called a “leader”. This is something we need to move past. For women, overcoming social anxiety can have a fantastic impact on their careers and self-confidence.

Fjola

Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, is a clinical psychologist, who has trained all over the world. She has 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 program.

2014-07-24 12.44.50I’ve just come back from the British Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) conference, which was held in Birmingham last week. The conference was excellent. One of my favorite talks was by my colleague Dr Clare Mein of Oxford University. She was presenting her PhD from the University of Western Australia, where she also trained as a clinical psychologist.

Dr Mein demonstrated in series of experiments how social anxiety can affect social situations. In particular, she found that people with social anxiety interact differently during conversations. For example, think about the last time you got lost in a conversation with someone who you are not anxious around (best friend, partner, etc). You got lost in the moment, and the conversation went smoothly. However, it’s very different when you feel socially anxious, isn’t it? When we are anxious there are many thoughts going through our head unrelated to the conversation itself. These are often related to impression management. Here is an example:

clareMein

 

The research showed that these thoughts are one reason why people with social anxiety don’t get “lost in the moment”. Unfortunately, it also showed that the conversational partner typically notices this, making the overall experience worse for both people.

Dr Mein conducted an experiment with people who have low scores on social anxiety measures.  She asked these participants to count the number of words starting with the letter ‘T’ while having a conversation. The results showed that the when the participants were distracted by the counting they weren’t fully engaged in the conversation. Furthermore, the conversation partners felt less connected. In the same way, people with social anxiety are often focused on something else (i.e. how they present themselves), having a negative impact on the conversation.

People with social anxiety often have a collection of impression management strategies that they’ve acquired over the years. One goal of treatment, such a with a therapist or an online programs like AI-Therapy, is to identify and let go of these behaviors. This frees you to focus on the conversation. The good news is that if you successfully overcome social anxiety you’ll be able to enjoy high quality social interactions with everyone, not just your friends and family.

Fjola

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, a developer of online CBT treatment programs.

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.

longterm

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

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

 

Last night I went to see Captain Phillips (not a blog-worthy experience in itself, but the movie was very good). One of the advertisements was for the latest Google Nexus 7:

This ad has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, not including all the views on TV and in movie theaters. The fear of public speaking has been a research topic within psychology for at least two decades,  and major advancements have been made. In particular, it is now known that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the most successful way to decrease fear and anxiety. Furthermore, the elimination of safety behaviors is a crucial component in tackling this problem. In this advert, it looks as if one simply needs to prepare (and being Google, “preparation” is watching YouTube speeches with a Nexus tablet). Obviously, there is much more to it than this. In fact, over-preparation is a behavior that can actually maintain social anxiety in the long term. In other words, sometimes the things we do to cope with short term anxiety are the very reason why the anxiety persists in the long run.

I am not saying it is unhelpful to watch clips of great speakers – we can all learn a lot from the masters. Also, being adequately prepared is important. However, real life can be more of a struggle than it is presented in commercials, and true gains are the result of hard work, not a fancy new tablet.

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

Last month I attended the 7th World Congress for CBT in Lima, Peru. Conferences are a great way to get up to speed on the latest developments in a field, and this conference was no exception. Overall, the presentations made me very optimistic about the future of online therapy. There is a lot of exciting and encouraging research being conducted.

As part of a symposium on internet-based treatment, I presented some of the latest results from AI-Therapy’s Overcome Social Anxiety program:

Dr Fjola Helgadottir presenting AI-Therapy overcoming social anxiety at the CBT World Congress 2013

Investigation into real world treatment data

My presentation was somewhat unusual for an academic conference in that it was based on real world data. Typically, talks are based on carefully controlled trials. There is an important reason for this – one goal of a trial is to make the results reproducible by other researchers. This is a key aspect of scientific research. However, there is an important question that is often ignored: will the results translate into the real world? The real world is chaotic, users are not screened, users are not monitored, there is less control over the equipment used, etc. In the past it has been found that treatments that work well in a laboratory environment cease to have the same impact when they are released to the general population. One goal of my talk was to present data from a commercially available treatment program, and contrast this with the latest results from academic systems.

 

Visitors to the AI-Therapy website

Before continuing, I should mention that all AI-Therapy users are anonymous, and their results are kept strictly confidential. The only data I presented are aggregated, showing average scores across groups of users.

As can be seen in the slide above, we have had almost 20,000 unique visitors to the website since our launch about a year ago. The top 5 countries for visitors are:

  1. USA
  2. UK
  3. Iceland
  4. Australia
  5. Canada

These results are roughly what I would expect. The US is our largest market, but a significant margin. The reason Iceland has made the top 3 is due to some media coverage we have received there.

 

Effective social anxiety treatment

In order to assess the efficacy of the Overcome Social Anxiety program, I determined its pre-post effect size. When using the program, users fill out a series of questionnaires before starting, and the same questionnaires after completion. The effect size is a standardized measures of the reduction in symptoms over this period (see this page for information about effect sizes, and effect size calculators).

The effect size for the first 19 people who completed all sections of the program was 1.7. An effect size of 0.2 is considered small, an effect size of 0.5 is considered medium, and effect size of 0.8 is considered large. Therefore, an effect size of 1.7 is very large. (It is important to note that this value has been calculated based on people who completed the whole program, and does not include people who started the program, but did not reach the end. We intend to write up a more detailed analysis, and release it as a white paper on this site. Please watch this space.) The primary conclusion is that online treatment programs for social anxiety can be an effective treatment strategy for real world patients.

I am already looking forward to the 8th CBT World Congress, which will be held in Melbourne Australia in 2016. I look forward to seeing the advances that will be made in the online therapy field over the next  three years!

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