Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Self-care is "in." At work, with friends, and even at home, we often hear about and proclaim the benefits of self-care. Popular self-care ideas range from a hot bath or a manicure to a fancy spa treatment or a vacation in Hawaii. All of those activities are useful and effective ways to take a break or disconnect from everyday life.
However, if you catch yourself yearning for that break all the time, that may be a sign that the life you've built is not the life you need. If you need to escape from reality at regular intervals, your reality may be misaligned with your values.
In this thought-provoking article, author Brianna Wiest advocates for taking care of yourself every day, not by pampering and withdrawing from your routine but by including healthy and responsible choices in it.
"If you find yourself having to regularly indulge in consumer self-care, it’s because you are disconnected from actual self-care, which has very little to do with “treating yourself” and a whole lot do with parenting yourself and making choices for your long-term wellness."
If you're looking to take better care of yourself, start by taking inventory of the values that matter to you and then assessing how well your life is aligned against them. If you need support going through that analysis, find a good therapist who can serve as a sounding board.
Empathy is a fundamental ingredient of any psychotherapy treatment. It is so important in TEAM-CBT that it gets its own letter in the acronym: The 'E' in TEAM actually refers to the phase of treatment when offering and receiving empathy is the main goal. In my experience, it is a necessary - although most often not sufficient - element for successful therapy.
Through empathy, the therapist attempts to develop a deeper understanding of the client's idiosyncratic experiences in certain situations. That hinges on the therapist's ability to put themselves in the place of the client, reflecting the client's thought processes and feelings, acknowledging the client's strengths and struggles, and sharing, in a professional manner, the impact that these aspects have had on them, the therapist. With clear communication and a genuine desire to connect, empathy builds a sense of shared experience that allows the therapeutic alliance to flourish.
Empathy is not sympathy, though. Empathy is a process where two people meet at the same level. In sympathy, one 'stronger' player attempts to rescue the 'weaker' one, often times by minimizing their experience in a well-meaning maneuver to quickly sweep away negative feelings. Renowned psychologist Dr. Brene Brown has developed a short video that illustrates this distinction. It's well worth three minutes of your time:
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!
Often times, it is hard to find the right therapist, at the right location, available on the right days, and at the right price. If you are having trouble finding someone with whom you can connect, keep looking. Ask your friends and medical providers for recommendation. Search online directories for psychologists near you, such as those from Psychology Today. Look through membership listings at national or regional psychology associations such as the American Psychological Association. Or, if you know you want an evidence-based provider using cutting-edge technology, search for certified TEAM-CBT therapists on the Feeling Good Institute website.
While you go through your research, you want to pay attention to your mood and well-being. Here are some tips for taking care of yourself while you wait for your psychotherapy to start:
Self-Care “While You Wait”
While you are waiting for individual counseling, you may want to implement these tips to try to alleviate some of your distress. (This is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to treat any conditions. These tips are not meant to be substitutes for mental or physical health counseling.)
Find activities that sooth and relax you. Relaxation improves the mind and helps the body recover from stress. Even 10 minutes a day would be helpful! Use deep breathing techniques--take a deep breath slowly and all the way down to your stomach, hold your breath for a few seconds, and slowly breath out by emptying your stomach of your breath. Tell yourself to “let go of any tension” as you breath out. Do this for at least 5 or 6 times in each sitting. Practice yoga, listen to some relaxation tapes, etc.
Do some kind of physical activity, even if you only have 10 minutes. Find a routine that creates a sweat and that fits your style (e.g., walk, swim, tennis). This will help with your stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms.
Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings in various situations. Note any patterns or questions you’d like to discuss in therapy.
Pay attention to your mind and body. Nourish your body with nutritious food. Skipping meals robs you of the energy to cope. Nurture your spirit. Pray, meditate, practice whatever that fits your spirituality. Sleep and rest when you are tired.
Laugh, especially at yourself and Take time to play. Spend time with those who make you laugh. Watch a comedy or read a funny book. There is evidence that smiling changes your emotions to pleasant and your thoughts to optimism.
Nurture a positive view of self. Catch yourself when you start to think negatively or are putting yourself down. Actively replace these negative thoughts with a positive view. Create a list of affirmations for yourself (e.g., I grow and change; I am open-minded, etc.). Even if you aren’t convinced, fake it until you make it!
Make connections. This will take time to develop. Create and maintain contact with a small group of people you can call on for emotional support. Take turns talking and listening. Isolating yourself can make things worse.
In addition, here is a brief list of resources where you can obtain guidance and assistance in a crisis situation:
Adapted from SJSU CAPS
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 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:
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:
My colleague, Dr. Leah Weiss, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, published this thought-provoking article in the Harvard Business Review:
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:
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!
As we go through our busy days, we are asked to form spur-of-the-moment opinions about the events around us. Someone says hi? [They want something from me!] Someone fails to say hi? [I have done something to offend them!] Car doesn't start? [This always happens to me!] Late for work? [The world is conspiring against me!]. We all have these scripts inside our heads that help us evaluate things that happen in our lives quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, always accurately.
In the process of coming up with these quick appraisals of events happening in our lives, we often take 'shortcuts' that we hope make the evaluation process quicker. It might. But the shortcuts often take us in directions that are not helpful.
In cognitive psychology, we have grouped these unhelpful shortcuts in categories with labels that describe each one of them. They are called Cognitive Distortions. Dr. David Burns describes them as follows:
1. All-or-nothing thinking (also known as 'black and white thinking'): You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories, e.g. "I never do anything right!" (seriously, never ever??)
2. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, e.g. "I can't make anyone happy" (when you have a fight with your boyfriend, without remembering how much you mean to your best friend!)
3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives, e.g. "I am really bad at sports" (you lose a soccer game, and forget how good you are at indoor cycling).
4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities don’t count, e.g. "My good grade in this test was a stroke of luck" (after studying two days for it!).
5. Jumping to conclusions: You jump to conclusions not warranted by facts. These include mind-reading (assuming that people are reacting negatively to you) and fortune-telling (predicting that things will turn out badly), e.g. "She doesn't like me" or "I know I will not get this job."
6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance, e.g., "This is the only important interview I will ever have."
7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”
8. “Should” statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos,” e.g., "my life should be way more exciting!"
9. Labeling: You give yourself a label on the forehead. E.g., instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself, “I’m a jerk” or “I’m a loser.”
10. Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that you contributed to a problem, e.g., "I am a bad teacher" (when you forget how difficult your students are...) or "They are bad students" (when you fail to analyze your teaching skills beforehand).
We all make these thinking errors on a daily basis. At times, they can go unnoticed. More often, they will lead to feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety and more. The good news is that, with practice, it is easy to identify these distortions and learn how to fix them. Cognitive therapy is just the answer if you are looking to lear more about your thought patterns and how to change them.
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.