Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
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.
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:
In TEAM-CBT, when patients are looking to improve their interpersonal relationships, we first spend some time analyzing the nature of the conflict that they're facing before jumping in to solve it. Even though there are as many different flavors of interpersonal conflict as there are people in the planet, if we look closer, we can find a few broad patterns of common relationship concerns.
If you are having problems with someone close to you (romantic partner, family member, boss, co-worker, etc), odds are that the issue will fall into one of these three categories:
1- Character Issues: they don't see themselves!
These are problems where you firmly believe that the person with whom you are in conflict is just flawed. They may be self-centered, dumb, histrionic, unfair, needy, controlling, unreasonable...and a lot more! For example:
"He is mean and stubborn!"
2- Appreciation Issues: they don't see me!
These are problems where you feel under-appreciated in the relationship. You firmly believe that the person with whom you are in conflict doesn't see you for everything that you do. They may frequently criticize, blame, disrespect, ignore, or belittle you. All said, they either don't value you, don't value your needs, or don't value the relationship. For example:
"They never recognize how much I do for them!"
3- Give-and-take issues: they don't see us!
These are problems where you find a fundamental imbalance in the relationship in terms of the give-and-take. It can be that the other party just doesn't listen, no matter how hard you try to communicate with them. Or they just don't share, regardless of your valiant efforts to engage them. Or it can be that they don't reciprocate when you do something nice for the relationship. For example:
"They ignore my advice!"
There are naturally many other ways of thinking about interpersonal issues. This is just one of them. But the goal here is to recognize that the first step in solving a problem is defining it! If you are suffering because the relationships in your life are not intimate, respectful, and fulfilling, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help.
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
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!
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:
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!
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. 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.