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Could an app help people like me living with social anxiety?

Claire Eastham, blogger and author of We’re All Mad Here, has lived with social anxiety since she was a child. She writes about the reality of living with the condition and her experience of meeting Professor John Powell, who’s creating an app to treat social anxiety symptoms for MQ’s Open Mind podcast.

Prefer to listen to the evidence? Download and listen to the MQ Open Mind podcast with Claire Eastham and Professor John Powell on Podbean (Android) or iTunes (Apple).

It was a Monday morning and I was waiting at Paddington station for the MQ team. Together we were Oxford bound, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt like a kid at Christmas. Today I was going to meet and interview an actual mental health scientist – Professor John Powell! John currently supervises E-Couch, an experimental online programme designed to help people with social anxiety.

After discovering MQ in February I knew that it was a charity I wanted to get involved with. Finally, people looking for ways to tackle the problem at the source by funding research into mental health. For me, it doesn’t get much more exciting than that.

I’ve had social anxiety from an early age. It started out innocently enough. As a child, I’d hide in wardrobes at family parties and I struggled to interact with others. By the time I reached secondary school, I could barely function.

Blushing whenever someone spoke to me and constantly feeling on edge in case the teacher drew attention my way. There was a period of respite throughout university, mainly thanks to the Dutch courage commonly known as alcohol. After university, I moved away to London to work in publishing, my dream industry. Sadly, the environment reminded me of school and the social anxiety came back with a vengeance. I began to have panic attacks and eventually this triggered a nervous breakdown.

My local GP did the best that she could. Although her sweet recommendation that I try chamomile tea made me want to punch her in the face (I didn’t). I was prescribed medication, a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and advised to ‘put myself out there’ as much as possible.

After a few weeks of rest, I decided to take things into my own hands. Before I was ready for CBT I wanted to understand more about my condition. So, I read up on it as much as possible. This was very beneficial because it helped me to understand that I wasn’t a freak, I had a genuine condition. I built the foundations and over time I recovered.

Fast forward a few years and I now have an award-winning blog and bestselling book on social anxiety. When I think about how far I’ve come, it feels, well – mental! Excuse the poor choice in words.

Claire and John at Oxford University

When I first met John, I’ll admit that I was slightly disappointed not to find him in a lab coat and safety glasses, holding a test tube. He instantly put me at ease and I knew that we’d get on. I was very excited to meet someone that I knew would understand my condition without any need for explanation, and I was loaded with questions.

Naturally I was nervous – I mean, I do have social anxiety! I might be able to manage it these days, but it still flares up during stressful or nerve-wracking situations. The idea of being part of this podcast was daunting, and the usual negative thoughts began to surface. What if I embarrassed myself? What if I let MQ down? What if I fall off my chair, smash through a window and inadvertently start a fire somehow? Yep, my brain actually works that way…

However, I felt very supported by the MQ team, and my excitement surpassed my anxiety.  

We chatted generally about social anxiety, the most common symptoms and treatments. It was strangely comforting to have a professional confirm that my experiences were text book.

John also touched on ‘safety behaviours’ that people with anxiety have, and as he spoke I realised that I was doing one myself. Folding my arms tightly and holding my breath. John talked me through the E-couch programme, which consists of various modules including general information about the disorder, CBT, mindfulness and exposure. The idea being that a user can work through each module at their own pace and learn strategies to deal with social anxiety.

In my opinion, this is genius. From my own experience, I know on my darkest days it can be hard for me to leave the house, let alone meet my therapist. Slow and steady is the way when it comes to anxiety. Build the foundations, learn the techniques and then put them into practice.

Claire and John doing the podcast

But I wondered – how does E-Couch keep people engaged and using it? I can be lazy at times and I suspect that others are the same. John was very honest and said that this is one of the key challenges, but they’re looking for ways to keep people engaged, potentially with rewards – I suggested a cash prize, but apparently that’s not feasible!

He also made an excellent point, in the end people who sign up to E-Couch have to make a commitment. If they want to see improvement, then they need to put the work in. The reward should be improvement in their social anxiety.

I left the interview feeling energised and very excited about the future for social anxiety treatments.

With MQ on the case I feel confident that we’re going to see some positive developments.

Claire Eastham blogs at We’re All Mad Here and her bestselling book is available now.

Last updated: 8 September 2017

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