Anxiety: “Online programmes can help”

Anxiety disorders are widespread. Can professional online programmes help? Professor Thomas Berger believes they can be an effective form of therapy.

Interview: Robert Wildi; photo: Unsplash

To what extent is anxiety normal? When does it require treatment?

Professor Thomas Berger: Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to dangerous, uncertain or uncontrollable events and situations. Anxiety is essential for survival. It protects us from exposing ourselves to dangerous situations and enables us to flee danger. It only becomes problematic if it occurs when there is no real threat.

How would I know if I am suffering from anxiety?

Typical signs are when people are no longer able to control their anxiety, are suffering because of it, avoid situations that trigger anxiety and their work and social lives are affected by it.

Who is affected in particular?

15 to 20 percent of all people suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Women are roughly twice as likely to be affected as men.

What are the most common anxiety disorders?

First and foremost, specific phobias such as fear of heights or spiders. They do not generally have a huge impact on everyday life. This is followed by social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and generalised anxiety, which often severely affect those affected.

What causes panic attacks?

They often occur suddenly and out of the blue. Often, it isn’t specific situations that trigger them, but physical symptoms such as palpitations, discomfort or shortness of breath.

And phobias?

In this case, fear is triggered by specific animals, such as snakes or spiders, heights, flying, confined spaces, a visit to the dentist or the sight of blood or injuries.

Do you have to face your fear in order to conquer it?

Yes, and the most important and effective method is confrontational therapy, in which those affected learn to expose themselves to the feared stimuli. If you have a fear of heights, for example, you climb a tower to endure the fear until it subsides.

These days there are also online programmes to help with symptoms of anxiety. Are they any good?

Many studies show that online self-help programmes have proven effective in treating anxiety disorders. We often find that people who suffer from panic attacks feel better once the processes that led to their emergency situation have been explained to them in a plausible way. An online program can easily provide this systematic and structured transfer of specialist knowledge. It is vital that the programmes also encourage those affected to go outside and confront their phobia or anxiety in real life. We believe most of those affected are able to achieve this with the support of an online programme.

What are the pros and cons of virtual therapy?

Good online programmes will be able to pass on the appropriate information to the patient just as effectively as a psychotherapist would in person. It allows users to retain a certain anonymity, which makes it easier for many people to take the step towards online therapy. Compared to psychotherapy, working with an online programme means you are more independent and therefore requires more discipline.

Who are online programs suitable for?

There is no typical profile. Our experience shows that patients soon realise whether such programmes can help them or not. I recommend simply giving it a try. If you don’t make any progress with the programme, you should seek help from a doctor or psychologist.

Professor Thomas Berger works in the Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Bern where he holds an SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) professorship on “web-based clinical psychological intervention”. Find out more: