Whether you are driven witless with worry or simply feeling a teensy bit down, now's the time to tune in, log on and chill out with your very own electronic shrink.

Engaging in therapy from your computer terminal does have certain advantages. Why go through the trauma of lying on a psychoanalyst's couch when you can talk to them from the comfort of your own sofa? Online therapists cannot make you feel bad about yourself. They cannot look you in the eye and say, "How does that make you feel?" You can confess your hang-ups and hide behind the anonymity of e-mail. In some cases, you needn't even provide your name.

Some people might find the process cold and impersonal, but most therapists post digitally enhanced photographs of themselves on their web pages, so you can visualise the person dispensing those words of wisdom.

Choosing your therapist can take a bit of work. One site, Metanoia, offers an index of online shrinks with a star rating, and advises on cost and how quickly individual therapists respond to their e-mail. There are other indexes, with names like Cyber Psych and Shrink Link. Generally, you e- mail a 200-word summary of your situation and the shrink responds in anything between 24 and 72 hours - provided, of course, you key in your all-important credit-card details. Fees start from $20 and you can opt for ongoing therapy or ask for response to a single issue.

I decided on a consultancy called Surfing the Self because it was cheap and quick. For one-off consultations, you are advised to write to your counsellor with a simple, specific question. I decided to pretend to have a vague, non-serious crisis. Here's what I wrote:

"I am a 34-year-old writer, female, and I feel like right now I'm going through a mid-life crisis! On paper, it sounds like I've got everything going for me - I am successful in my career, I have a partner I love and supportive friends. But, somehow, recently, none of that has seemed to be enough. I feel sort of dispirited and flat, as if I've kind of lost my way. This is odd, because I've always been a fantastically ambitious and driven person. I know I'm at a time of life when I should be making lots of big decisions - but I can't seem to decide on anything. In the meantime, I am doing precisely nothing, just drifting along in a sea of lethargy. Any thoughts?"

Dear Ms Chaudhuri:

The questions you raise reflect life issues that often confront people in their thirties. It is not unusual for people who are wrestling with such important concerns to feel as if they are "drifting in a sea of lethargy". Goals and aspirations change as we mature, and it takes courage and persistence to manage the new challenges we must face. During times of transition, people often begin to question many things they once took for granted; accomplishments may not seem as fulfilling as they once were; new conceptions of the self and one's place in the world may become more salient. Personal transition and growth, while ultimately normal and salutary, nonetheless give rise to feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt. Sometimes these feelings can be quite uncomfortable and they can be difficult to resolve. Although you have achieved much in life, it is clear that there is something missing, something you still need to accomplish. One way to increase one's sense of control over one's life is to engage in a systematic process of introspection; this can be facilitated by writing down one's thoughts in a journal. Introspection involves answering questions that one has about life in a logical and honest fashion, arriving at a path that one can follow. This path needn't be an immutable one; it can be changed as needed as new data about what is truly important to you becomes available.

We hope these observations have been helpful to you. Please contact us again if we can be of any further assistance.

Sincerely, David A Safran, PhD & A Train, PhD. Surfing The Self http://dsi- psych.com

I enjoyed reading the response, but felt I could have found such advice in a self-help book. However, this may be because my problem was not very specific. In the US, the National Board of Certified Counsellors is now working on a code of conduct and standards for professionals and consumers using psychological services online.

"The poorly informed consumer in crisis who has a history of mental health difficulties will be an easy target for incompetent or fraudulent Internet counselling providers," warned James P Sampson, a Florida State University psychotherapist, in the LA Times recently. This may be true when it comes to serious psychological problems, but for those in need of a quick-fix, Net therapy can be useful. "I think it best serves people who need to fill in the cracks," says John Grohol, a psychologist who hosts a free live chat at his Psych Central Web site (http://www.grohol. com/ ) "It can be a great adjunct to regular therapy or a support group. "The Metanoia index is at www.metanoia.org/imhs/.