Stop Worrying—Online Therapy for Anxiety
by Catherine Morris | July 9, 2020, updated over 1 year ago
Stressed about deadlines? Worrying about bills? Family conflicts keeping you up at night?
Anxiety is an unfortunate part of everyday life. For most of us it's short-lived, but for others acute anxiety can trigger an intense long-lasting spiral into uncontrollable fear and panic.
Up to one in four adults has had an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and around 3.5 million Canadians seek help for their anxiety or mood disorder every year. Traditional support services can be hard to access. They are often expensive, come with long waiting lists, or are simply too intimidating for some patients. A solution is at hand though. As technology evolves, so do treatment options. The recent rise of online therapy platforms and virtual clinics bring the care to the client—quickly, and in their own home.
What is anxiety, and when should sufferers seek treatment?
Anxiety is a broad term, and when used in the context of mental health, encompasses a wide range of issues. Panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are all under the anxiety diagnosis umbrella. It can also co-exist with other conditions such as depression, and bipolar disorder. While everyone experiences situational anxiety from time to time, if the anxiety is persistent and pervasive it's time to seek help.
Mental health advocate and peer support therapist Sharon Blady says that feeling disconnected is a warning sign, and adds— “When you are having problems sleeping, when your anxiety is impacting your judgement, or you feel you have perpetual brain fog, you should ask for help.”
Online Therapy for Anxiety
Blady, the former Minister of Health for Manitoba, runs a suite of online mental health services including individual coaching, and the community forums 'Embrace Your Superpower' and 'Bulletproof to Stigma'. She's also encountered her own mental health struggles, battling depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Blady has been fighting to erode the stigma surrounding mental health treatment for years, and sees online therapy as an opportunity to further that work. She believes that virtual therapy sessions, and forums can encourage people to come forward, find the help they need, and share their experiences in order to start shining a light on anxiety and other mood disorders.
“Online therapy is an opportunity to reach people who are more comfortable online. If you have anxiety you might not want to go out. You might not have the energy to get up, get dressed and go outside. With online treatment you can stay at home, in a place where you feel safe and secure. It creates a sense of comfort.
“It gives people a sense of empowerment because often, with the stigma and shame issues, people do not want to be seen at a clinic or in a doctor's waiting room.”
Finding an Online Therapist That's Right for You
Video conferencing tools such as Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, give therapists the ability to connect with their patients face-to-face—something that can make all the difference when trying to develop a therapeutic relationship. Blady says finding the right therapist is a matter of alchemy—both the counsellor and the client need to be on the same wavelength, and the first person you see may not be a good fit.
She recommends contacting a number of therapists for introductory or sample sessions, saying,
“It matters how you feel about the person. Pick a handful and ask if someone can do a free session just to get to know them. Go with your gut [...] Find who you can work with, and resonate with. It is about building that relationship.”
For her part, Blady finds it easy to bond with her clients thanks to her own mental health history. She recommends working with a counsellor who can bring that kind of empathy to the work, and speak from their own experience.
Before embarking on online therapy sessions it can be helpful to clarify your goals for yourself. Blady cautions that everyone's journey is different, and very rarely follows a linear path. There will be setbacks along the way, and your progress may plateau. The solution lies in having the right tools to work out the problem with.
“It's like a kid learning to ride – they're still going to fall off their bike sometimes. You have to take it one day at a time.”
She advises clients going into their first session to create a list of their top three most immediate problems, as an entry point to treatment. She also highlights the importance of a flexible care plan so patients can recognize what's working, what's not, and when to try something else—be it medication or meditation.
“I am not dogmatic about solutions,”she says. “There are a plethora of different tools. Stock up your utility belt, and use those tools to build your resilience.” While strategies and tools are helpful, sometimes all sufferers want is a listening ear, “A lot of people just need to talk and be heard, they need empathy. Sometimes you just need to verbalize your way through the process.”
Blady helps clients reframe their thinking with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which identifies negative or inaccurate thought patterns.
“We tend to overestimate the problem, and we underestimate our ability [to deal with it]. I help people find their strength [but] I don't want to become a crutch. I want to give people tools and support them so that I render myself useless. They know I'm there if they need me, but they can do it on their own.”
The Future of Online Therapy Platforms
Taking mental health care online can have far-reaching benefits, without compromising the quality of treatment. A recent study by Swedish researchers compared online counselling for anxiety to in-person sessions, and found that virtual treatment was just as effective.
“The results show that a treatment delivered exclusively online is sufficient to achieve tough and required behavioural changes,” said researcher Erik Hedman-Lagerlöf, Professor of Psychology at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.
For marginalized and remote communities, this kind of digital, but still face-to-face, service can be a lifeline. It can also be a boon for young people across all communities who are already adept at navigating online spaces, and who appreciate the privacy and convenience of virtual counselling. For young people and those at the beginning of their treatment, online therapy can provide an accessible gateway to care.
Blady says, “Take the plunge. There is nothing wrong with seeking out help.”
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.