Article in the monthly magazine "Psyche & Brain (April 2012) A computer program which offers psychological help? It sounds a bit odd, but you cannot judge it before having tried it yourself. And that is exactly what we did. Manu Sinjan The story starts with an enthusiastic press message by Paul Koeck, MD, where he describes how his online self-help program reduces the stress level of the participants by 77% within one month. Sounds too good to be true, right? We all suffer from stress sometimes, but not many people look for help until the indicators are all very negative. The person who took the initiative did not find it a problem that I wanted to try his program myself, but he did let me know after taking an online test that my level of stress is much lower than that of the average user. Anxiety and depression, too, are measured in a quick online test. In the three parameters altogether I score about 80 out of 300. This means that I am doing pretty well. Before I get started with my personal program, doctor Koeck asks me to state several concrete things which I want to work with. After thinking for a while, I decide to approach this question from a professional angle. As most journalists, I am slightly addicted to deadlines, meaning that I perform best when I have very little time. Not ideal, especially not for a freelancer with a young child and a partner who has just started her own business. This procrastinating behavior of mine ought to be dealt with.

All but flashy

Voilà, I have envisioned a concrete goal, so I can log onto for the first time. A fancy interface is something which is not the attractive factor to the program, because it is very basic. Young users are likely to laugh about it. But after all, we did not start here to be entertained. The first session takes half an hour longer than the fifteen minutes envisioned, but this is something which we knew beforehand. I am left with a rather positive first impression. Explanation was given about how the program works, without the annoying pep talk which we were fearing. You mainly receive the message that you, yourself, have to get to work. Taking fifteen minutes each day during which you do not allow any distractions: it does not seem like a difficult task, but in practise it has shown to really test your motivation. I decided to fully follow the program, to give it an honest chance. The central idea is that I stop allowing negative behavior into my life, and that I replace it with its positive siblings. One must follow the program for at least a month, or so it says, because time is needed to really get the new patterns to stick in your brain. Solution focused thinking is the message. Everything happens automatically, but those who feel the need to do so can ask questions to Koeck, MD, via an internal mailing system.

Do not do it on your own

Also positive: after your first session, you will immediately receive an e-mail with the advice to look for guidance in your doctor. My personal score on the stress meter, anxiety meter, and depression meter is attached. You also get homework every day, in the form of an observational exercise. The coming 24 hours, I must ask myself the following question regularly: "What have I done which made me feel satisfied about myself?" It has proven not to be easy to observe myself live, but I am slowly starting to learn to do it. And my appreciation of the program grows, too. There are no pre-chewed advises: you are mainly confronted with your own answers to earlier questions in an intelligent manner. And you regularly need to think about yourself, without the vagueness which I despise. An example? On the third day I received a question asking me what the life which would satisfy me would look like. That really does make one think. After ten days I received my first progress report in an e-mail. The depression meter is heading in the right direction, but I am more tense that I was at the start of the online coaching. That can be correct, because I have a lot of work to do, including this article!

What have we learned today?

While working on the program, I notice that I really find it useful to formulate what I have learned from the past sessions, again and again. Unfortunately, I do associate this each time with Piet 'What have we learned today?' Huysentruyt, an infamous Flemish television chef. Loyalty to therapy does not seem to be my strong suit, unfortunately. Sitting down by the computer on Christmas eve is something I did not manage to do, and logging on during the family visit was also something that I could not do. But we do keep going, even on the days where the daily fifteen minutes feel like punishment. You also receive the question early on if you want to have friends and/or loved ones as support during the program. They receive an e-mail with questions regarding the changes they see in you. That sounds a bit forced, but I do feel supported after reading the first answers my girlfriend gave. According to doctor Koeck, there is a specific focus on positive feedback from the environment, because changes will otherwise go unnoticed by you until you are 3 to 6 months in. The positive effect of this goes both ways: the friend or partner looks at you in a different way, and you feel supported due to the confirmation that your hard work has already started to pay off. Not all parts of the online therapy work well for me. For example, I continue to have issues with the daily homework, especially because the tasks are rather abstract. But I keep in mind that an online program will only be able to work with my specific needs to a certain extent.

Does it work?

We have moved forward by another week in time, and my deadlines are getting closer, yet I have a remarkably peaceful feeling about it. Last week I was close to panicking a few times, but now I have a clear priority each day (this is part of the program) and I really try to relax during the moments in which I cannot work. My partner surprisedly mentions that I am extremely relaxed with someone who has seven deadlines coming up. This impression is backed up by my progress report: the graph showing my stress level, pictures a clear downward slope. A feeling of pride comes up, in spite of the fact that I try to keep a professional distance. The beautiful thing about this program is that it mainly hands you the tools which help you to look for your own solutions. There are no all-including remedies: it is all about continuing working on yourself, persevering, and learning to be honest with yourself. Are we convinced? I suppose so. After a month on the cyber couch, I do no longer doubt that the initiator of this program wants to help people to become happier. In the end it offers a therapy which is easy to start with at a very reasonable price (55 euros per month). You should not expect miracles, but with the correct motivation you can come much closer to your personal goals. An above all: you are not 'really' in therapy - you are helping yourself. And that feels a lot less serious than actually lying town on a couch.