Negative effects associated with internet-delivered cognitive behaviour therapy: an analysis of client emails

Kirsten M. Gullickson, Heather D. Hadjistavropoulos*, Blake F. Dear, Nickolai Titov

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    10 Citations (Scopus)
    32 Downloads (Pure)


    Internet-delivered cognitive behaviour therapy (ICBT) is an efficacious form of treatment for anxiety and depression, yet it is still possible for clients to experience negative effects associated with treatment. In the ICBT literature, the term negative effects is broadly used to refer to all potentially adverse or unwanted events or experiences that are perceived as undesirable by the client and may or may not be associated with long-term symptoms or distress. Previous ICBT studies have asked clients to retrospectively describe negative effects at post-treatment; however, no research has examined the content of clients' emails to their therapist to see whether clients are reporting negative effects as they arise. In the current study, 96 clients (80 completers; 16 non-completers) were randomly selected from a published ICBT trial and directed content analysis was used to examine client emails for mention of negative effects. In addition, correlational analyses were used to examine the relationship between negative effects and: 1) demographic characteristics; 2) treatment engagement; 3) treatment satisfaction; 4) working alliance; and 5) symptom outcomes among completers. The results indicated that 61.5% of clients experienced at least one negative effect during treatment, although total number of negative effects was not significantly correlated with client demographic characteristics, lessons completed, working alliance, treatment satisfaction, or symptom outcomes. Among completers, technical difficulties, implementation problems, and negative emotional states were the most commonly reported negative effects, whereas dropout was the most commonly reported negative effect by non-completers. Negative effects that have been identified in previous research, such as symptom deterioration, novel symptoms, and severe adverse events, were not identified in client emails. The high incidence of negative effects in the current study suggests there may be value in systematically monitoring client emails for negative effects throughout treatment as a supplement to retrospective post-treatment reports. This will give therapists the opportunity to intervene as negative effects occur and potentially mitigate any impact they have on treatment outcomes. Future research, both qualitative and quantitative, is needed to gain a more nuanced understanding of negative effects associated with ICBT.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number100278
    Pages (from-to)1-7
    Number of pages7
    JournalInternet Interventions
    Early online date4 Sept 2019
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2019. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • internet-delivered cognitive behaviour therapy
    • negative effects
    • adverse effects


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