Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Everyone has a sleepless night every now and then. What we do - and don't do - during the day, how we eat, what we drink, how much we exercise, our environment, our mental health, and how much stress vs. pleasurable activities we have in a typical day all influence the quality of our sleep. When insomnia hits for a night or two, it is easy to catch up. But when it becomes a chronic issue, it needs to be addressed before your health starts to suffer. One of the most effective and widely recommended treatments for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
There are two models of understanding and treating insomnia in CBT. The first approaches insomnia as the main focus of treatment. It starts by addressing behavioral modification, i.e., how long you stay in bed, and then moves on to address your beliefs about sleep. This line of treatment is often referred to as CBT-I, or cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia. CBT-I is shown to work better than sleeping pills, with no side effects! There are several self-help apps and websites for CBT-I. Personally, I recommend cbtforinsomnia.com, a five-week online intervention with some clinical oversight.
A second model of looking at insomnia is to view it as a symptom of another, bigger emotional health problem. Often times, insomnia is a consequence of depression or anxiety. For example, patients with excessive anxiety and worry may have trouble falling asleep as their mind starts racing - worrying about tomorrow's to-dos or ruminating about past events - the minute they lay their heads on the pillow. In this case, treating the underlying disorder (anxiety) with an approach such as TEAM-CBT will lead to the insomnia resolving itself short-term.
In either case, a well trained CBT therapist may be able to guide you on your path to a good night of restful sleep!
With marijuana being recently legalized in California, questions about its positive and negative effects on health overall and mental health in particular have intensified. There is an appropriate amount of debate around it and a growing body of investigative research attempting to arrive at conclusive findings. But in short, we really don't know yet.
My overall take on the state of the literature is that, like with any other foreign substance that you are introducing into your body, avoid or limit it if you can. However, compared to other drugs that are commonly abused - and particularly alcohol - marijuana has a lower profile of long-term damage and side effects.
The article below does a good job of listing areas of interest in the research of clinical uses of marijuana and where we are in our understanding of them. For example, while we all know that marijuana's THC can have a 'feel good' effect on the brain, it also elevates heart rate and impacts coordination and balance. Cannabidiol (CBD) has been demonstrated to help in pain managemen, but marijuana can also affect memory, mood, and potentially activate schizophrenic symptoms in those prone to the condition.
If you are considering or actively using marijuana for mental health concerns, I suggest discussing it with your doctor to investigate any potential physical health risks and with a therapist to learn additional or alternative ways to manage your pain or mood.
All said, natural, healthy, and drug-free solutions are always best!
When I worked in Marketing early in my career, one of my PR colleagues used to say "if 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Crest toothpaste, the only one that has something interesting to say is #5!". I often think about that as I am drawn to better understand dissenting views on any given topic. Interpersonal relations and couple's therapy is a complex topic where there are some majority opinions and a few interesting ones that go against the grain. Dr. David Burns, one of the pioneers of cognitive behavioral therapy and mastermind of the T.E.A.M. approach to CBT - and my personal mentor and hero! - has some radically different ideas of why we all have some troubled relationships in our life.
In one of his podcasts, Dr. Burns discusses the prevailing views of why people in close relationships may not get along. Those include theories addressing i) lack of skills, ii) barriers, and iii) self-esteem. In the first one, authors postulate that we all want loving relationships, we just need to learn better communication skills such as assertiveness or non-violent communication to get there. The barriers theory posits that there are just innate barriers to intimacy such as childhood trauma or different cognitive processing approaches between men and women. Finally, the self-esteem angle demands that you love yourself first, before you can love someone else.
All of these approaches make sense and have some validity behind them. But they don't tell the full story. The missing link is "motivation." Sometimes, we have the skills and the self-esteem and there are no great barriers, but we still don't want to get close to the other person...until they change first! The reality is, if they were looking to change, they probably would already have. If we are the ones looking for a new dynamic in an old relationship, it is up to us to take the first step to change the existing patterns of interaction. We can do that by providing empathy, using assertiveness, and demonstrating respect regardless of how the other person is behaving.
How to do that? Dr. Burns has a great book on the topic called "Felling Good Together." I recommend starting by reading the book. And if you still think you can benefit from professional help, find a therapist who can help you increase your motivation and put all of those skills and self-esteem to good use!
Mindfulness is "in" these days across health care and business settings. But beyond being cool, does it work? Or better, what is it good for? Always on top of popular trends, the Harvard Business Review published an essay recently by renowned author and psychologist, Dr. Daniel Goleman. In it, Dr. Goleman reviews the scientific literature about the positive effects of mindfulness and draws conclusions about the areas where enough data is available to support its benefits.
According to this analysis of the research, there are four areas where meditation and mindfulness practices lead to better performance and outcomes, as follows:
Altogether, the research indeed corroborates that living a more mindful, present-focused life can enhance mental fitness and wellbeing. If you are interested in starting a mindfulness practice, I recommend checking out the Google Play or App Store for popular apps such as Insight Timer, Breathe, and Headspace. A licensed mental health provider can also help you learn how to use mindfulness to better your mood, change your thought processes, and embrace more helpful everyday behaviors.
Life can be hard at times. For many of us, hardship comes in the form of a traumatic event that takes place unexpectedly. This could be the abrupt loss of a loved one, a violent assault, chronic abuse, a serious injury, or a car accident, for example. When faced with a dangerous situation, our bodies react automatically by activating the fight-or-flight response. That's usually helpful: it quickly gets us ready to deal with a threatening stimuli and mobilizes our resources to succeed in that endeavor. When things go according to plan, once the threat is neutralized, we go back to baseline and life moves on, hopefully in more positive directions. Unfortunately, in about 1 in every 3 cases, we don't really get back to baseline. We get stuck in the stress of that moment, unable to cope with it.
When this high level of post-traumatic stress lasts for a while (for more than a month), there is a possibility that the set of symptoms experienced qualifies for a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the DSM-5, the manual used to label and categorize mental health illnesses, the following are conditions necessary for a diagnosis of PTSD:
If you have yourself suffered a traumatic event and are struggling with any of the symptoms above, psychotherapy can help. Indeed, talk therapy is considered the most effective first line of treatment for PTSD and several psychological interventions have been tested and proven very effective for diverse patient populations.
To learn more about the different modalities of PTSD treatment, visit the National Center for PTSD from the VA Administration. And call a therapist.
Finding the right therapist is a bit like finding a date. You have to understand what is it that you're looking for and prioritize characteristics such as cost, location, style, and availability. And then do the legwork of searching for them. You can search online at sites such as psychologytoday.com, ask your doctors or friends, call your company's EAP or insurance carrier, or look through neighborhood lists. Many therapists, myself included, will offer a free phone screening consultation in order to get a better understanding of your needs and share more about their background and work style. I highly recommend leveraging this opportunity before making the trek to someone's office.
Your first appointment with a new therapist is usually an intake, which is a longer visit focused on getting a history of your current concerns along with an overview of your social, personal, and professional history. Depending on the complexity of the case, a full intake can take up to 2 or 3 sessions, but it is generally quicker. After that, your therapist will discuss a treatment plan with you, which likely will involve regular (weekly) appointments. Most therapists work with a 50-minute visit, although a 80-minute visit can be very helpful in the beginning to get the treatment going faster. For then on, you and your therapist will work to monitor progress against goals and define new steps.
So, it all begins with finding the person that is right for YOU! The New York Times recently posted an article discussing one reporter's path to find their perfect match:
Now it's your turn to take your first step to finding yours!
Those of us who are lucky enough to be able-bodied and perfectly capable of putting one foot in front of the other should be walking at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Why? Because walking brings enormous benefits for our health, both physically and mentally.
This article from Fresh Daily Health details several ways in which walking can help us lead healthier lives. Benefits of regular walks include:
On this last point, it is worth highlighting that walking can help reduce stress, ease anxiety, and combat that nagging desire to do nothing that comes with a clinically significant depression. So, if you can find a few breaks on your calendar daily, even if it is just 10 to 15 minutes two or three times a day, get out there and start putting one foot in front of the other! Your body will thank you.
In evidence-based psychotherapy, we most often depart from the premise that the client is unwell. We diagnose disorders based on set lists of symptoms and tailor treatment to particular presenting concerns. The goal is to eradicate the illness and restore the client's functioning to its previous, higher level.
But what if we didn't have to get unwell to begin with? There is a whole field of psychology focused on that: Positive Psychology. Positive psychologists spend their days studying how we can make ourselves feel better and prevent the down periods in life. Live Happy Magazine recently published a comprehensive summary of widely embraced ideas to help us all lead healthier emotional lives. While none of them are going to jump out as new and surprising, it is a god reminder to heed some age-old advice to live fully and sensibly. Positive Psychology recommends:
Anxiety is a natural affective and somatic response to a perception of threat. As I mentioned before, it is our body's natural "alarm system" informing us that a potentially dangerous situation lies ahead. It is an uncomfortable feeling - on purpose! It encourages us to get ready, protect ourselves, or run away. A good amount of anxiety can gets us moving. Too much can paralyze us!
So, if you are dealing with "too much" kind of anxiety, how can therapy help? Evidence-based treatment for anxiety can take several forms. In TEAM-CBT, we categorize anxiety interventions in four groups:
1) Cognitive Treatment for Anxiety: Cognitive treatment of anxiety looks at the precise thoughts that are triggering the distressing emotion. In the case of panic disorder, it is usually a flavor of "I am going to die." For social anxiety disorder, it can be along the lines of "I am going to make a fool of myself." For generalized anxiety disorder, it can be "all sorts of impossible-to-solve problems will come up!" The therapist assists the client in pinpoint those thoughts, analyzing their validity, pinpointing distortions, and generating alternatives. With more balanced, realistic, and helpful thoughts, the anxiety can easily subside.
2) Behavioral Treatment for Anxiety: This is the gold standard for anxiety treatment. Individuals suffering from anxiety have an ingrained habit of avoiding things and situations that trigger their anxiety. Paradoxically, this has the effect of perpetuating excessive anxiety and worrying, rather than alleviate it. The antidote to that is to face one's fears. The most indicated behavioral intervention for anxiety is exposure therapy. In exposure, the client, with support of the therapist, will learn to face their fears head on (through use of images and in real life!).
3) Motivational Enhancement: Just reading the above, it is easy to see that many anxious clients will not be eager to jump into treatment that elicits that more anxiety-provoking thoughts and requires that they finally face their worst fears. In TEAM-CBT, we honor this very valid trepidation. Therapist and client partner up to identify reasons for changing vs. embracing the status quo and analyze whether the client is willing to pay the cost of getting better (not only in terms of treatment costs, but including homework, follow up, and getting in front of scary stuff!). The simple act of articulating and honoring the resistance to change can, most times, melt it away!
4) Hidden Emotion Model: This is an adaptation of the psychodynamic principle that anxiety is often a shield against more powerful - and difficult to embrace - emotions that the client may be struggling with. Another possible treatment for anxiety is to create the safe and warm space where the client can candidly acknowledge the emotions behind the anxiety. By verbalizing and sharing them, they lose their power and the anxiety subsides.
It is likely that you'll need to try all of these approaches to find the best way to conquer your anxiety. But conquer it you can!
The picture below, from the fantastic website Psychology Tools, shows what happens in our body when our brains perceive a possible threat:
Just like our ancestors used to do when living in caves tens of thousands of years ago, whenever we think there is a threat coming our way (e.g. "there comes a sabre-toothed tiger!"), we prepare to fight it or quickly run away from it. Our bodies, being the well-oiled machines that they are, immediately go into survival mode and get ready to deal with the threat by activating an internal "alarm system". In simple terms, this system is called the fight or flight response.
Once our brain identifies a possible danger, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released by the adrenal glands. I response, muscles tense up, particularly the larger ones, to prepare for a possible battle or long run. The heart starts beating faster, pumping more blood around the body, which elevates its temperature. The rise in temperature triggers sweating to cool the body down. As blood vessels in the skin contract to force blood towards those all-important major muscle groups, areas such as palms and feet become both cold and sweaty.
As breathing becomes faster and shallower to take in more oxygen, we may feel a bit dizzy or lightheaded if the excess oxygen is not being used right away. Thoughts also start racing to keep up with the changes in the environment. As digestive and elimination systems are not vital, they receive less blood and we might feel nausea, butterflies in the stomach, along with urges to use the bathroom.
All of these reactions get us ready to deal with that tiger. And in those situations, they are indeed indispensable, life saving. Indeed, if we go back many millennia, we are all decedents of the pre-historic men and women with the best "alarm systems - those that did not get eaten by the tigers!
However, nowadays, there aren't many saber-toothed tigers walking around. The perceived threats come from our financial troubles, fear of rejection, loneliness, arguments with a spouse, concerns about a job, memories of a traumatic event, self-doubt, regrets, and many, many other ideas that we ourselves label as dangerous. In those instances, the fight 0r flight response is unnecessary. Worse, it can interfere with just being able to live a fulfilling life.
If that is happening to you, talk to a therapist. You can learn to fine tune your fight or flight response so that it works for you, not against you!
A client recently shared with me a video of actor Will Smith talking about the fear that he felt before he was scheduled to go on a skydiving trip. That prompted a discussion around the difference between fear and anxiety.
To my way of thinking, fear is to anxiety as concrete is to imagined, actual is to forecast, or today is to tomorrow. From a cognitive standpoint, fear pertains to a real, tangible, identifiable, and often immediate source of danger. For example, if a lion is standing in front of me, I will be afraid (not anxious!). If I am about to jump out of a plane, standing by the open door at 3,000 feet, I will be afraid (not anxious!). On the other hand, anxiety applies to situations where I perceive a potential for danger. I have not yet seen the lion, but I think that the lion may be lurking close by. Or coming for me at any time. Or just feeling hungry. I worry about something that has not happened yet and may never happen, But then, it could conceivably happen.
In psychotherapy, we may address both fears and anxiety using Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Problematic fears often come up in the context of phobias (e.g., fear of flying or driving across bridges). Clinically-relevant anxiety tends to manifest itself in the form of excessive worrying, tension, restlessness, over-sensitivity and hypervigilance. Both feelings trigger our "fight or flight" response mechanism, which I will describe in more details in my next blog post. The treatment of choice most often involves Exposure Therapy, an evidence-based intervention in which the client learns how to gradually expose themselves to stimuli that they fear, with a lot of support and guidance from the therapist.
In the meantime, here is Will Smith talking about his "fears," which actually pertain to both anxiety and fear. Enjoy!
Dr. David Burns is a world renowned psychiatrist and one of the pioneers in the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In the past decades, Dr. Burns has been focusing on advancing the clinical applications of CBT through a new therapeutic approach that he calls TEAM-CBT. You can read more about the elements of TEAM-CBT in one of my early blog posts or on Dr. Burns website.
TEAM-CBT is a framework for delivering evidence-based interventions in psychotherapy (and evidence-based here means techniques that have been corroborated as effective by rigorous scientific research). It combines Routine Outcome Monitoring, Motivational Enhancement, and CBT Methods with a strong focus on empathy and rapport building to deliver meaningful symptom reduction in fast periods of time. Indeed, in his current clinical work, which revolves mostly around training of therapists and professional workshops, Dr. Burns has, on many occasions, observed that individuals who had been struggling with depression or anxiety for years can experience near complete recovery in just a few hours.
To explain how that can happen, and provide more background and perspective on the TEAM-CBT approach, Dr. Burns was interviewed by one of our colleagues, Lisa Kelley. The transcript of the interview is an excellent primer to learn more about this powerful new modality. Here it is:
As a Level 4 Certified TEAM-CBT trainer and therapist, I would be delighted to help you learn more about these tools to to enhance your life or, if you are a health care provider, to revolutionize your clinical practice!
Dr. Aaron Beck was one of the pioneers in developing the theory and applications behind Cognitive Therapy for the treatment of clinical depression. In Dr. Beck's views, depression does not stem from a 'chemical imbalance in the brain." Instead, it stems from an imbalance in our way of thinking. When someone is depressed, there are usually three common themes to the content of their thoughts:
He called these ways of thinking the "depressive triad." Depressed individuals often feel a loss of interest in things that were previously pleasurable or important to them and function at lower levels compared to their former selves. They can also experience noticeable changes in levels of energy, appetite, sleep, and ability to concentrate, while having thoughts of low self-worth, guilt, and, in more extreme cases, suicide. Here is a full list of symptoms of depression as defined by the American Psychiatric Association..
In Cognitive Therapy, client and therapist will partner up to identify common thought patterns for the client that relate to their depression. They can then analyze those patterns together, with openness and curiosity, to see what is 'off' about them. With close collaboration and powerful therapeutic techniques such as those in TEAM-CBT, the "depressive triad" can be annihilated.
When presented with important choices in their lives, clients often ask me "Is this the right choice?...Is this OK?..." The clear answer for that is "It depends!!!". What is right for your life obviously hinges on your personal values, dreams, and aspirations. While no one can give you answers on what to aim for, we can suggest parameters to consider when weighing your choices and making important (or even everyday...) decisions.
A "great life," however it looks like for you, should maximize your ratings and satisfaction across the dimensions below:
In short, choices that increase your purpose in life; social, financial, and physical well-being; or community belonging are likely "right" and definitely "OK." Sometimes we move along these axes in unison, other times we need to make trade-offs among them. But those are the key ingredients in a great life for everyone of us. How you mix them up to create your own unique recipe, it's up to you.
Before starting therapy, clients often wonder "How long will I be in therapy?" This funny video from The Onion provides a clever satire of the open-ended, long-term model of therapy that is often portrayed by the popular media:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tends to operate within a much more short-term, focused model of psychological intervention that aims to reduce current symptoms, address specific problems, and build skills that the client can take with him/her after treatment ends. Hence, treatment length is usually measured in weeks or months, rather than years or decades.
Indeed, there is ample research evidence that response to psychotherapy follows a 'negatively accelerated' curve where more and more effort is required to achieve smaller and smaller changes (that is called a log-normal curve for the math geeks out there). Dr. Ken Howard was the first to analyze this correlation and posit markers for response to psychotherapy according to dosage. Here is his original article.
The original dose-effect study was run in 1986, based on psychodynamic or interpersonal treatment only, with the following findings:
* About 15% of patients improve before the first session of therapy
* 50% of patients typically improve at 8 sessions
* 75% of patients typically improve at 26 sessions
* 85% of patients typically improve at 52 sessions
It is possible that modern psychological techniques have accelerated that theoretical curve in the past 30 years. In practice, however, there are many factors influencing the right dose of psychotherapy for each client, including diagnosis, acuity, readiness to change, social circumstances, and frequency of treatment (more regular treatment is shown to be more effective). But what we can glean from the data above is that longer and longer treatment periods may indeed offer diminishing gains at increasing levels of effort.
With CBT, you and your therapist will have powerful tools for change readily available. The specific length of psychotherapy treatment will vary for each person and each presenting problem. But with commitment and focus in the context of a true partnership, CBT can lead to fast and meaningful change.
Dr. Daniele Levy is a licensed psychologist offering CBT therapy in Menlo Park, CA. Her background uniquely combines leading edge training in behavioral sciences with deep expertise coaching and mentoring working professionals in dynamic organizations.