Communicating your problems to people is a task easier said than done; inaction is much easier to accomplish than actively confronting your problems. And turning to friends and family can be an unappealing option — after all, they are people you have to face all the time, and what if they judge you? Psychiatrists handle serious patients; you’re just frustrated and tired. The happy medium, of course, is venting to a total stranger, which is precisely what “talking therapies” are designed to provide.
Talking therapies offer people the chance to express their emotions in a judgment-free setting with someone they don’t know. It’s another outlet to grieve, cry, shout, vent, and share — but without the impending sense of condemnation other settings can instill. Where online forums fall short in their detachment, talking therapies have also migrated into more technological settings, offering people the chance to connect over the phone with registered, verified listeners.
7 Cups of Tea
One such enterprise is the Y Combinator startup called 7 Cups of Tea. Essentially a talking therapy for people on-the-go, 7 Cups of Tea allows embattled users to chat with a “listener,” as they’re called on the site, about whatever it is that’s bothering them, often free of charge.
CEO Glen Moriarty first realized the deep value in the simple act of listening when he and his wife, who happens to work as a counselor, were discussing a problem he was having. It occurred to him that listening could be a service, and one that people should be able to utilize when they need it most.
“Basically, just think about your family and friends and think about the concerns they have, but might not feel comfortable sharing with those immediately around them,” said Moriarty, a clinical psychologist. “They are turning to us. The big aim is to build the emotional support system for the Internet. Someone referred to us as the ‘Ear for the Internet.’”
Users of the site need only to enter their telephone number in order to reach a live person. They can specify the gender of the person they’d like to talk to and choose among a range of listeners if they’d rather not be matched with one randomly. In each interaction, the only name that’s given is that of the listener, something Moriarty said helps people open up.
“We actually think the lack of physical human interaction is a strength for the site,” he said, “because it allows people to be anonymous and seek support they wouldn't otherwise seek.”
The Importance Of Words
Anonymity isn’t always desirable, however. For the social butterfly who just happens to be down on her luck, talking therapies also convene in groups.
“Over the last 30 or 40 years we’ve built up some very good evidence that shows these are effective treatments that work for a range of problems, and they work pretty quickly,” said Dr. Stephen Pilling, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, University College London. “We expect people to get better after two, three, four months.”
In many of the cases Pilling describes, the patient could benefit from clinical attention from a therapist. However, for many people whose psychological baggage is lighter than what Pilling discusses — and for whom therapy is too costly — announcing the presence of a problem may be enough to cope with it, even if it doesn’t immediately go away.
In addition to chatting with strangers online or over the phone, the simple act of writing a problem down on paper can have cathartic effects as well. Researchers have likened the process to other conditioned responses in the physical world.
“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” said UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman, highlighting the importance of translating fluid thought into concrete language. This process, in fact, stretches across the fundamentals found in 7 Cups of Tea and Pilling’s recommendations for talking therapies. In either case, forming the problem into words can make all the difference, perhaps not in solving it, but at least in tying it down.
“In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light,” Lieberman said, “when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”