Opinion by EHN Guest Writer
Written by Emily Craig-Evans, communications specialist.
When I Couldn’t Cope Any Longer, I Looked Online
In 2019, I began the year proudly considering myself to be high functioning. Compared to periods in my past which were ruled by overwhelming anxiety and emotional dysregulation, I was holding down both a demanding job and an active lifestyle physically and socially. Although the big scary ride of living with anxiety had tamed to a kiddie coaster, I was still strapped in, and the ride would increase in intensity as life’s stressors piled on.
On a particularly gray and slushy Toronto morning near the end of January, my coping skills were pushed to the edge. As usual, I boarded the streetcar at 7:55 a.m. with the tasks of the day already weighing heavily on me. With each stop, inching eastward in the direction of the downtown core, more and more bundled-up bodies crammed into the car. I began to see stars as my surroundings zoomed out of focus and I recognized the throes of the all-too-familiar public transit panic attack. I focused on my breathing and got off at my stop. What followed was the type of day that I thought I’d left in my past. I had difficulty focusing, my chest never loosened, and the lump in my throat wouldn’t swallow. This day began the difficult realization that although I’d made significant improvements through therapy in the past, healing and learning to cope with my anxiety was not a linear path.
Overwhelmed after a few more weeks on this trajectory, I didn’t know where to turn. I had just recently started my career and didn’t see how I could possibly afford the time to resume therapy given my long and unpredictable hours. I’d seen ads for online therapy and I wondered—does online therapy help anxiety?
I Researched Types of Therapy for Anxiety
Although I was happy to discover the range of available options and numerous professionals offering online therapy, I was admittedly a bit hesitant. In the past, I had done inpatient and outpatient programs, group therapy, and one-on-one therapy for anxiety and mood disorders. I didn’t know if online therapy could be as effective as my past experiences with in-person therapy. But, after a little research, I soon discovered that online therapy was very well-suited for my needs.
Given my past experiences, I was already confident that therapy for anxiety could be tremendously helpful in easing the severity of symptoms and for learning coping skills. To bolster my optimism for my new chapter in online therapy, I took my time to learn about what online services were offered and who was offering them. Was I choosing group therapy? One-on-one therapy? Information sessions? Mood and goal tracking? Homework? Family support? And what were the credentials of the mental health professionals providing the services? After becoming familiar with all my options, I could then evaluate which program best fit my needs.
The online therapy program for anxiety that I finally chose included one-on-one therapy, information modules, homework, and access to my therapist outside of sessions. The similarities and differences between in-person therapy and online therapy quickly became apparent once I started.
Benefits of Therapy for Anxiety
In my experiences with in-person therapy and online therapy for anxiety, I found that both types provided me the following benefits.
I established a routine
When my anxiety levels are really high, sticking to any routine can be very difficult. Left behind in the wake of anxious days have been many cancelled dates with friends, unattended exercise classes, and missed events. My anxiety is particularly social in nature and when I’m not coping well, I have to re-evaluate which routines I can realistically maintain. By the time I had decided returning to therapy was right for me, I’d already scaled back most of my commitments outside of work. Therapy creates routine in my personal life that provides something I can look forward to every week. This helped rebuild confidence in my ability to make commitments.
I built confidence through accountability
By building a space into my life that regularly required me to check in on my goals and healthy habits, I began holding myself accountable for what’s within my power to do to improve my mental health. Regular check-ins kept me on track with the work necessary for me to get better at my coping skills for dealing with my anxiety. In turn, with a little gentle and non-judgmental guidance from my therapist, staying on top of my own goals boosted my self-confidence. I felt nurtured by my own actions each time I attended a session, read an information module, or completed my therapy homework.
I received personal attention
In my experience, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to therapy. When dealing with deeply personal mental health challenges, a personalized approach and one-on-one time go a long way in keeping me comfortable and motivated. Personalized attention during therapy for anxiety helped me connect the dots between group sessions or program information and my own experiences. Not every single part of therapy will, or needs to, resonate on an acutely personal level, but having one-on-one attention helped me process what does resonate more profoundly and effectively.
Unique Benefits of Online Therapy for Anxiety
While all the types of therapy I’ve done provided me with some level of routine, confidence through accountability, and personal attention, I found that these things were even more accessible online. In addition, there were benefits I discovered to be entirely unique to online therapy for anxiety.
I could receive therapy at home
As a socially anxious person, receiving therapy from the comfort of my own home was a dream come true. I’ve lost track of the number of classes, appointments and social events missed because I was anxious about the process of getting to the event before I even got around to being anxious about the event itself. Christine Miserandino’s spoon theory uses spoons as a visual representation for the limited amount of energy each person has to complete the tasks of their day. When the spoons run out, we are depleted and need to rest in order to regenerate. The theory proposes that while each person begins each day with an equal number of spoons, how each person uses up their spoons can vary. People with chronic conditions such as depression and anxiety might use up more spoons to get through basic tasks compared to a person without such conditions. I, myself, was using a lot of spoons just getting to and from work and through my day, leaving little energy for activities outside of my job. Not having to leave my home meant that online therapy was far more accessible for me compared to in-person therapy, and committing to it was much less stressful. This would be even more true today with the added challenges we’re all facing due to COVID-19. And what better than having a cup of my favourite tea and my coziest blanket while doing emotionally difficult work.
Online therapy is easier to balance with a busy schedule
Until I discovered online therapy, I didn’t think getting back into therapy was an option for me while working full time. Most of the one-on-one and group therapy that I’d done in the past was offered during standard business hours and this presented a frustrating barrier. Online therapy is available at more convenient times and I was relieved to discover how much flexibility online therapy offered. Participating from my own home meant no additional time spent commuting during my valuable and treasured evenings.
I had therapy in my pocket
My busy schedule and how drained I was feeling when I began online therapy led me to truly appreciate having access to therapy on my phone. Sometimes on a lunch break, I would review a recent suggestion from my therapist, my goals for the week, or an information sheet I found particularly helpful or motivating. Knowing I could easily send my therapist a quick message whenever I needed throughout my day felt like a safety net for help with my daily worries. Even though my therapist wasn’t always available to respond immediately, the act of reaching out calmed me down and reminded me of helpful skills that I’d been learning. My messages to my therapist were also helpful as a reference during therapy sessions as a record of how I’d been feeling since our last meeting and to address any issues that I may have otherwise forgotten to bring up.
How Online Therapy Helped My Anxiety
The benefits of online therapy that I’ve described may sound good but still leave you asking—ultimately, does online therapy help anxiety? As a result of online therapy, I feel that my ability to cope with my anxiety improved in several important ways.
Online therapy helped me put my anxiety into perspective
Knowledge is power, and understanding what anxiety is, where it comes from, and what regulates it was tremendously helpful for me. My therapist helped me learn about the brain and what goes on when a person is experiencing distress. I learned about the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our fight-or-flight response. I also learned about the things that affect the brain’s healthy functioning, as well as its overactive functioning, such as diet, exercise, and sleep quality. By gaining a better understanding of anxiety, I could put it into perspective and let go of some of the harmful self-judgments that I’d been carrying.
I learned skills to calm my mind
My panic anxiety often presents itself in a slow-burn way that can feel like it lasts all day. This makes learning skills that manage anxiety escalation vital to my wellbeing. I gained an understanding of dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) skills for reducing anxiety. I also learned how to apply them to difficult thoughts, emotions, or impulses as I was experiencing them. I learned how to effectively recognize when I was catastrophizing, contributing to issues seeming much more dire than they actually were, or making negative assumptions about what other people were thinking. My anxiety is notorious for thinking it’s a mind reader. As I learned skills to reduce the severity and frequency of these thought distortions, my social anxiety eased and my self-esteem improved.
My mind is more clear and I have more mental space to focus on my day
By engaging in online therapy for anxiety, I was better able to compartmentalize my anxious thoughts because I knew I’d already scheduled time dedicated to addressing them. It’s easier for me to focus on my immediate tasks and the present moment when I’m consistently taking care of my mental health and using the skills that I learned to work through my challenges.
How My Life Has Changed
While I’ll be the first person to tell you that my anxiety is still not a fan of being on public transit, especially in the COVID-19 era, a lot has changed for me since that early morning panic attack in January 2019. I’m better able to recognize my triggers and address my anxiety before it has the chance to intensify and get out of control.
Most days, I feel like I have more space to think and room to breathe, and I feel more confident socially. For example, before I fall down a rabbit hole speculating about what my best friend or colleague really meant with a certain comment, I can evaluate whether it’s worthwhile to ask for clarification or to just let go and move on. This mental space contributes to an improvement interpersonally in all my relationships. I also feel that I’m experiencing life more fully as I’m able to try more new things and take on new challenges.
The more I work on addressing my anxiety in healthy ways, the more rewarding and stable my life becomes. Choosing therapy is a nurturing act of self-care for which I grow more grateful with each hurdle that I overcome. There’s no greater pleasure than surprising myself with my skillful ability to cope effectively when faced with a stressful situation.
EHN Canada’s Online Intensive Outpatient Program for Mood and Anxiety Disorders
If you would like to learn more about EHN Canada’s online Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for mood and anxiety disorders, please call us at 1-888-767-3711. You can also read more about our intensive outpatient programs.