Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
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!
My colleague, Dr. Leah Weiss, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, wrote this thought-provoking article in the Harvard Business Review in recent months:
In it, Leah discusses how all of us frequently go through a work day without actually noticing where the time goes or how precisely we are spending our time. That can lead to dissatisfaction at work, driven by inefficiency, disengagement, and potentially health problems. The antidote, as you can imagine, is to add both a sense of purpose and mindful action to our days. It is obviously not easy to do at all times, but it is possible with some deliberate intention. Here are her suggestions:
Some clients go through years of psychotherapy without attaining meaningful change in their lives. When we look deeper into those situations, it is easy to understand why. Their reality is such that feeling joyful, free, satisfied just doesn't make sense. For example, if I am failing a class, having conflict in my marriage, or fearing riding any and all elevators, there are very valid and straightforward reasons for feeling distraught. In many instances, the very feeling of sadness, nervousness, or distrust is a reflection of something beautiful and positive about that person's value system. I would not be feeling sad for failing my classes if achievement and responsibility weren't important to me!
When therapists try to change a client's emotional reactions without honoring the positive facets and functions of those reactions in the context of the individual's overall experience, the efforts are doomed to fail. That is why, in TEAM-CBT, we spend a healthy amount of time in Agenda Setting, before moving forward with any attempt for change.
Dr. David Burns explains why some clients may not want to change - and why helping is not always helpful - in this insightful article in the latest issue of Psychotherapy Networker:
As we start the new year, several of us have 'new year resolutions' that may include goals to eat healthy, exercise more, learn new skills, sleep better, travel, etc. If you picked the exercise category, you will be happy to hear that you are in the right path to improve your mental health along with your physical health.
A recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry highlights the benefit of regular exercise in the prevention of depressive disorders. Here is an exerpt from the abstract:
Undertaking regular leisure-time exercise was associated with reduced incidence of future depression...The majority of this protective effect occurred at low levels of exercise and was observed regardless of intensity...12% of future cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants had engaged in at least 1 hour of physical activity each week.
Easy - and cheap! Now, if you need help overcoming that pesky procrastination habit and changing those behaviors for good, your therapist can give you a much needed push to get finally get started!
TEAM-CBT is a framework for providing evidence based psychotherapy. It was developed by Dr. David Burns, MD, Adjunct Emeritus Professor at Stanford School of Medicine.
What is Evidence-Based Practice in Psychotherapy?
Evidence-based practice in psychology is the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences. It leverages evidence-based treatments. This designation describes specific clinical interventions that have been validated as efficacious for certain mental health conditions under rigorous academic research. Many cognitive and behavioral interventions (e.g., thought re-structuring, exposure therapy) are recognized by the American Psychological Association as evidence-based treatments.
What is CBT?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a type of evidence-based treament. It examines our thoughts processes - our idiosyncratic way of seeing the world around us -, our typical behaviors or actions, and our emotions in defined moments in our lives. It then providers actionable, well-defined, and simple ways of modifying thoughts and behaviors, with the ultimate goal of changing our feelings - for the better. It is focused on the here and now and aims to deliver symptom reduction in a fast but sustainable way.
What is TEAM-CBT?
TEAM, as mentioned above, is a framework for compiling cognitive and behavioral therapy interventions and delivering them through powerful, results-driven psychotherapy. TEAM stands for four key elements in this therapeutic approach:
T = Testing
In this type of therapy, clients are asked to gauge their level of distress and life satisfaction on a regular basis. Looking at metrics over time, the client and therapist can then determine whether their work together is helping the patient objectively improve their well-being.
E = Empathy
Before the more active part of the therapy begins, it is imperative that the therapist and the client be on the same page. TEAM-CBT offers specific techniques for increasing openness, authenticity, and vulnerability in the therapy sessions.
A = Agenda Setting
This is where TEAM combines evidence-based practices of traditional CBT with elements of Motivational Interviewing, a therapeutic method that works on facilitating and enhancing intrinsic motivation within the client in order to change behavior. The client and the therapist develop a shared agenda for the overall work and for each session where the client is effectively arguing for change - and thus melting away the psychological resistance to upset the status quo.
M = Methods
TEAM brings together over 50 cognitive and behavioral methods for change, from traditional thought analysis and behavior experiments to innovative role playing techniques, compassion-based techniques, communication training, and much more. For each angle of unhelpful thought processes, TEAM has a number of powerful techniques that can help the client find more constructive alternatives.
The goal of TEAM therapy is to help the client, over time, become their own therapist. For individuals motivated to change their lives, it can lead to meaningful gains in happiness, peace, fulfillment, and contentment in short periods of time.
To lear more about TEAM therapy, visit Dr. Burns's Feeling Good website or call me for a free phone consultation.
If you are dealing with many stressors in your life and feeling overwhelmed from time to time, you may have come across a suggestion to start a 'mindfulness' practice. First of all, what is mindfulness? It is a concept describing a state where we pay full attention to the present moment. We don't obsess about the past, we don't worry about the future, we are just focused on the present, in the here and now. Even further, we try to clear our mind of thoughts and activity for stretches of time when we can just 'be' rather than 'do.' We observe our internal experiences without judging them or trying to change them. Many people achieve this state of mindfulness through meditation.
As I've mentioned recently, there are many confirmed benefits of regular meditation or mindfulness practice. If you want to get started yourself, here are a few pointers:
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!
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.