Vanessa G.* was on her way to pick up a family member from work when she began to feel sick.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe, my heart was racing fast, hands were cold,” the junior FIU student recalls. “You think you’re going to die.”
It was the first time she had a panic attack. Scared and not knowing what to do, she pulled over the car. She called her mom, hoping she would calm her down. While she was able to finish the drive, the frightening feelings and shortness of breath stayed with her. Vanessa knew she needed help.
“Life was overwhelming,” Vanessa remembers. “I would feel very anxious all the time – it was affecting me personally. My school and social life was affected. I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t feel motivated to do a lot of things.”
A few weeks before the panic attack, Vanessa unexpectedly lost a friend. Not long after, her aunt also passed away. The blow of two losses, back to back, combined with stressors of school, pushed her into the rocky waters of anxiety.
The panic attack in the car was a sign for Vanessa that she needed help getting out of this state of mind. She looked for help with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and met her therapist, Kate Kominars.
“Vanessa is not alone in feeling this way,” says Kominars, licensed psychologist and associate director of CAPS. “About 40 percent of students coming into CAPS are anxious and need more or more advanced coping skills for dealing with these feelings.”
The pair met weekly for about three weeks. When Vanessa started to show signs of progress, Kominars suggested that they move from in-person sessions to an online tool known as TAO Connect.
Therapist Assisted Online, or TAO Connect, is a treatment that uses cognitive behavioral therapy modules that include videos and informational presentations. The modules teach clients about what causes depression and anxiety; how to identify common symptoms and personal triggers; and what strategies and techniques people can use to overcome their problems. For example, to treat anxiety, students learn deep breathing, mindfulness meditation and visualization.
The online program assists clients going through treatment for mild to moderate anxiety.
“We’re able to do online video conferencing sessions to augment and support the treatment modules that people do on their own,” Kominars says.
She also likes that it allows students to access the modules from anywhere or between semesters when they’re not coming to campus as often. The 20-30-minute video conference sessions gives therapists the ability to schedule two clients in one hour, thus seeing more people throughout the day.
In Vanessa’s case, TAO was continued for about two months after their initial meeting. Vanessa credits the online modules with helping her better understand what she was feeling and gave her multiple methods to calm her anxiety. She really liked that she could log in at any time, a stark contrast to weekly scheduled therapy sessions.
“Often times in individual therapy, we prescribe homework,” Kominars says. “In TAO, we can see if people are doing it. They can enter reflections, a log about emotional distress, what progress they’re making on the modules. They do what’s called a brief mood survey and we can track their progress.”
Research results show that TAO Connect works as well as traditional therapy, but Kominars describes the program as a great fit for highly motivated students who want to get better quicker. In addition to teaching students skills to address their anxiety, the modules also reinforce healthy lifestyle habits, like going to the gym, getting enough sleep and eating regularly.
Since CAPS began using TAO in Spring 2015, more than 100 students have used the program either as stand alone treatment or in conjunction with individual therapy. Kominars said it’s not for everyone, but those that use it do report feeling better.
“TAO allows the student to take the motivation and ownership to get out of it what they put into it,” she says. “Sometimes, people want this change to happen but don’t dedicate any time to making it happen. The benefit of TAO is they can work on little doses every day. But if they’re not doing that, then a 30-minute session with a therapist won’t help either.”
Today, Vanessa is much more in control of her anxiety and feels better equipped to handle her emotions on her own. She hopes that others who are struggling will seek help.
“People should look for help when they need it,” she says. “CAPS and TAO helped me through a time that I had never gone through and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes it’s better to talk to someone you don’t have a close connection with because you can tell them how you feel without being judged. They’re really understanding at CAPS.”
All students who have paid the student health fee have access to free, confidential services at Counseling and Psychological Services. A 24-hour hotline is also available at 305-348-3000.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of this student.