For a brief, but effective look at encouraging psychotherapy, feel free to view the following short videoclip!
For a brief, but effective look at encouraging psychotherapy, feel free to view the following short videoclip!
I’ve been reflecting much on death and dying recently. I seem to have encountered the concept frequently via personal and professional contacts. A couple of months ago, I was given the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved professor from my doctorate program. After fighting metastasized cancer for 14 years, this woman was officially given two to three weeks to live. Along with approximately 40 other students from my program, I was given the honor of sitting in her presence for two hours, expressing to her my deep gratitude for her life and love. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Despite the fact that this woman has been “dying” for 14 years, she’s one of the most “alive” human beings I’ve ever known. Rich in psychological depth and spiritual understanding, this lady has changed the lives of many. I’ve pondered the lessons this woman’s life and death may have for me.
I don’t believe there’s any topic more anxiety ridden than the idea of death or loss. In fact, the basic premise of Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. One need only turn on the television for a few minutes before encountering various topics promising some form of elongated life. Multivitamins, face cream that stops aging, and plastic surgery, to just name a few. We humans seem to struggle mightily with the idea of death, of loss, of terminations, or of endings. We balk at them and cry at them. We avoid them, but then we dream about them. Depending on the type of death (or loss), we may become depressed, overwhelmed, avoidant, or fearful. We also might fight bitterness, anger, and loathing, as a result of the loss we’ve been dealt.
In the days since meeting with this beloved professor, I’ve found myself reflecting on several thoughts. First, she was unafraid and showed no bitterness. Confident of her spiritual standing and grateful for the years she lived, this lady exhibited a peaceful acceptance. It was remarkable. Simultaneously, she was also refreshingly honest, stating that saying goodbye to her two children and her husband was going to be “the most difficult things [she] has ever done.” She paused, and then added, “but the pain and hurt is worth it…because it means I became attached. I only hurt this deeply because I have loved deeply.”
I don’t think that it’s ever too soon to think about the meaning of one’s life. Sitting with death, deeply and honestly, has a way of focusing our energies and cleaning our senses. It invites us to think about our relationships, how we spend our time, and how we treat others. Each of you is doing something with your life. Whether it’s buying groceries, sipping coffee, or spending time with those whom you love, I urge you to do it wholeheartedly and with great kindness, knowing that you’re engaging in life, encouraging others to live more fully, and changing the world in the process.
Happy people don’t hide from emotions but instead tend to acknowledge that life is full of disappointments and are willing to address them. Feelings of anger can be effectively utilized to stand up for oneself or in becoming more assertive. Feelings of guilt can be used to motivate oneself toward behavioral change. This mental flexibility between pleasure and pain, the ability to shift one’s behavior to match a situation, is known as psychological flexibility and results in greater wellbeing! Columbia University psychologist George Bonnano found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most psychologically flexible people living in New York City during the attacks bounced back more quickly than their less adaptable counterparts. Specifically, Dr. Bonnano found that those individuals who were angry at times but could also conceal their emotions when necessary enjoyed greater psychological and physical health in the months and years after 9/11. Opportunities for flexible responding are frequent. Perhaps a colleague appeared rude and demeaning. Instead of letting your hurt and anger simmer quietly, accept your feelings as a signal, which allows you to employ other strategies for reacting. These include compassion. Perhaps the colleague is experiencing an emotionally difficult time. Another strategy includes mindful listening – being curious about what might be occurring in the life of this colleague that has nothing to do with you. Similar to training for a marathon, learning the skill of emotional discomfort is a task that’s learned over time. So instead of pouring yourself a glass of wine next time you get into an argument with your spouse or family member, try simply tolerating the emotion for a few minutes. Before you know it, your ability to tolerate daily negative emotions will expand.
It’s easy to assume that when we encounter difficulties, it’s the presence and empathy of a good friend that assists one in journeying through the pain. Whether we get passed up for a promotion, find ourselves in conflict with a family member, or encounter a loss of some sort, it’s the presence of a good friend, or of benevolent social support, during those times that makes all the difference in the world, right? Interestingly enough, recent research from psychologist, Shelly Gable (USC in Santa Barbara), has found that the happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others – and whose joys and wins are regularly celebrated by friends, as well. Dr. Gable also found that when romantic partners did not make a big deal out of each other’s successes, the couple is more likely to break up. As it turns out, when couples celebrate each other’s accomplishments, they’re more likely to be satisfied and committed to their relationship. But aside from intimate relationships, why would it be conducive to be genuinely happy for a friend’s success, even in an area in which you yourself may struggle? (For example, your friend gets the promotion after you’ve been turned down numerous times!) The process of discussing positive events with a responsive listener actually changes the memory of the event. So after telling you about it, your friend will recall that night as even more positive that it was. And more importantly, the next time your friend encounters a difficulty, he/she will recall your positive support. So while it may be kind to send a card to your friend when he/she was dumped, you’ll both achieve more satisfaction out of the flowers you send her when she gets that promotion or when he graduates with his medical degree. Happier people are those individuals who actively celebrate others’ successes.
Research appears to suggest that satisfied people are less likely to be analytical and detail-oriented! University of New South Wales psychologist, Joseph Forgas, found that happy people tend to be less skeptical than others, uncritically open toward strangers, and can be vulnerable to lies and deceit. When negotiating the finer points of a complicated and social world of colleagues, dates, and friends, it certainly seems adaptable, and even advisable, to pay attention to the finer details. Yet, research seems to suggest that too much attention to detail can interfere with basic daily functioning. Psychologist Karen Harkness, from Queen’s University, found that individuals in a depressed mood were more likely to notice minute changes in facial expressions. Meanwhile, happy people tended to overlook these small changes in others’ faces. A flash of annoyance, a sarcastic grin, a rising of the eyebrow – were all fluctuations that happy people seemed to overlook more easily. While in a bad mood, we tend to notice the tiniest shifts and can’t seem to disengage from an argument. The happiest people seem to have a natural protection against getting sucked in by the pull of those little details. For example, a nice analogy might be the effect of water on a duck – it slides right off! Another way to put it, perhaps, is “not sweating the small stuff.” Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to details is helpful, but too much focus on minutiae can be exhausting and debilitating. The happiest people accept that striving for perfection is a loser’s bet and are willing to let small offenses go by the wayside.
“Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.” (Kashdan & Diener, Psychology Today, Aug 2013) Simply put, happy people are curious. In a 2007 study done by Kashdan and Michael Steger, participants were monitored for 21 days on their daily activities and how they felt. Those who felt curious on any given day also felt the most satisfaction and engaged in happiness-inducing activities. Interestingly enough, curiosity is at its base an anxious state. It’s a state of not knowing and is largely about exploration. Studies seem to suggest that curious people accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it can also provide a means of becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, the study performed by Kashdan and Steger suggests that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort but the result is often a higher psychological peak. So, from time to time, it seems that it’s worth engaging in an experience that is novel, intricate, uncertain, and even upsetting.
In an article in the August submission of Psychology Today, authors Kashdan and Biswas-Diener attempt to tackle the question of happiness. Interestingly enough, the question of happiness is not uniquely an American ideology. Psychologists Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana and Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia studied more than 10,000 participants from 48 countries. They discovered that individuals from all over the world rated happiness as being more important than other personal outcomes, such as having meaning in life, becoming rich, and getting into heaven. The article mentions that true happiness is probably better described as a sense of peace or contentment. It also includes cognitive reflections, a state of mind, and as such, can be intentional and strategic. And not surprisingly, certain choices you make throughout the day can push you toward increased well-being – or not. Happy people, it turns out, engage in some counterintuitive habits that seem downright unhappy! So stay tuned for a collection of findings that researchers have found increase a sense of well-being!
In the world of addiction treatment, substance abuse is currently most often understood and defined using a psychomedical model. People must possess a set of characteristics to be diagnosed as an addict, which includes excessive alcohol or substance consumption, increased tolerance of the substance, withdrawal symptoms if he/she does intake the substance, and sometimes serious health issues related to the drug use. However, it’s important to keep in mind that addiction is different than substance abuse. The latter is simply the misuse of a drug and can occur intermittently throughout one’s life. For the former, the individual must display a consistent pattern of abuse over a longer period of time. Additionally, there are many different ways that experts understand and describe addiction. The three most common theories out there are that it’s a moral failing, that it’s a disease, or that it’s a behavioral disorder. Taite and Schartt, in “Ending Addiction for Good” (2013) argue that addiction should be considered a behavioral disorder and that treatment should focus not on whether addiction is present because of a “disease” or because of "genetic predisposition." The pain of addict’s lives, not genetics, is what can be seen as the root of addictive behavior. Likewise, there are usually triggers that have tipped the addict over the edge and that trigger is almost always trauma or profound neglect. The benefit to emphasizing the behavioral model of addiction allows providers and patients to consider a broader range of treatment options. The addict can absolutely change behaviors and return to normal living. Another point that Taite and Schartt make is that the behavioral model of addiction encourages addicts to reflect on the events that happened in his/her life that may have contributed to the addiction. They argue that this in-depth work is necessary for lasting, long-term change. They also make the point that the emphasis on biological components to addiction can actually be a defense against exploring the trauma and deeper pain in one’s life that likely is more of the root cause. The use of drugs, to the point of addiction, is usually the individual’s way of coping with pain. The drug allows the addict to withdraw from reality and avoid his/her core issues. The drug’s effects cover the pain of trauma. When the drug wears off, it must be taken again. This cycle continues to the point of habituated activity in the addict’s life. Take away the drug and the pain of the original trauma comes rising to the surface. This self-defeating, self-sabotaging behavior is what addiction is really about.
Dr. Jean Twenge and colleagues in the San Diego State University psychology department analyzed mental health records collected between 1938 and 2007 from more than 63,000 young adults. They discovered a dramatic and significant increase in psychological problems, particularly depression. In fact, they concluded that students today feel much more isolated, misunderstood and emotionally sensitive and unstable than in previous decades. Teens today are more likely to be narcissistic, have poor self-control and to endorse general overall dissatisfaction with life. Twenge and her colleagues concluded that consumerism is a major reason for the rise in mental illness. Twenge is quoted as saying “We have become a culture that focuses on material things and less on relationships” (Jethani, 2011). While one might have more questions about all the details of this study, it is certainly worth nothing that the rise in depression coincides with the rise in consumerism along with the individualistic nature of America’s society. Implicit in Twenge’s findings is the importance of relationship. A plethora of research confirms the importance of connectedness. Those who are embedded in communities, even if they suffer mental illness, will have a greater chance of healing and of shouldering their pain with dignity. Psychotherapy offers the opportunity to be known, fully known, and still accepted, which is something the human being seems to crave. It is in the context of deep vulnerability AND acceptance that we humans thrive, find meaning, and live life more fully.
Did Abe Lincoln Suffer from Bipolar?
No – at least according to award winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” However, it does appear that Lincoln experienced periods of depression and manifested a melancholy temperament. In January of 1841, in particular, Lincoln experienced a vortex of events, resulting in one of the lowest periods of his life. He had just experienced his broken engagement with Mary Todd, the woman who eventually became his wife. Two additional events caused Lincoln great pain – his political life seemed at a stalemate and his best friend moved away. What resulted was a period of Lincoln’s life that historians indicate included suicidal ideation and a marked withdrawal from his social life. Letters from that period even state that friends “had to remove razors from his room.” Interestingly enough, Lincoln sought treatment, consulting not only a Dr. Henry, but also Dr. Daniel Drake, a doctor at the medical college in Cincinnati. Lincoln eventually recovered from this very dark period of his life, in part, by monthly visits to see the best friend that had moved away. Author Goodwin goes on to delineate the difference between melancholy and depression. “To be sure, Lincoln was a melancholy man…this melancholy was stamped on him…it was part of his nature and could no more be shaken off than he could part with his brains.” Goodwin states that Lincoln’s melancholy partially indicated a withdrawal to the solitude of thought. As a child, he retreated from others to read. As an adult, he worked through a problem in private. It is Goodwin’s intimation that others frequently perceived this as evidence of melancholy. Also, the contours of Lincoln’s face, when relaxed, seemed to hint a sorrowful aspect. According to Goodwin’s thinking, there is a difference between depression and melancholy, the latter not having a specific cause. Rather, it is an aspect of temperament, of one’s nature. “Melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior…” The melancholy that Lincoln seemed to exude “derived from an acute sensitivity to the pains and injustices he perceived in the world. He was uncommonly tenderhearted.” Goodwin argues that Lincoln possessed a profound capacity for empathy and for compassion, making him predisposed to sorrow but also profoundly capable of understanding his colleagues and the people he served as President. And another thing, Lincoln was “extraordinarily funny.“ “Lincoln himself recognized that humor was an essential aspect of his temperament. He laughed, he explained, so he did not weep.” His stories were intended to “whistle off sadness.” So did Lincoln manifest symptoms of bipolar? No, not as far as the history books seem to intimate. Did he experience a profound sensitivity to the events and people around him? Yes, and Goodwin seems to state it was what made him one of the best presidents our nation has ever known.
Those diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder experience an array of various symptoms and can often feel confused about what contributes to the waxing and waning of the disease. Most professionals thinks of the cycling of bipolar disorder as reflecting a complex interplay among genetic vulnerability, biological agents, psychological agents, and stress factors (Miklowitz, 2011). By genetic vulnerability, experts mean to imply that there is an inherited aspect to this disease. If you have family members diagnosed with Bipolar, you’ll likely have the propensity yourself. By biological agents, experts mean that there is actual abnormal functioning of brain circuits involving neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. And then there are psychological agents, meaning the internal psychological underpinnings of your self, how you perceive yourself and the world, and your internal beliefs. Finally, the stress agents that the literature points to involve the environmental factors occurring in one’s surroundings that may add stress. Therefore, we do not need to think of bipolar disorders as either a brain disease or only as a psychological problem. It’s more complicated than that and usually entails various contributory causes.
The physician who spent much of his life working with lepers in India was a gentleman by the name of Dr. Brand. He discovered that leprosy destroys the nerve endings in the body, leaving lepers unable to to feel. While this fact might seem like a blessing, it is ultimately a curse, resulting in the loss of limbs and even death. Without pain, lepers are unaware they have been injured. Dr. Brand is quoted as saying, "I thank God for pain, I cannot think of a greater gift I could give my leprosy patients." Symbolically speaking, the avoidance of pain can make us emotional lepers - we become incapable of experiencing the aches, pains, and fears of our existence, as well as the joys, the beauties, and freedoms of our lives. Although no one enjoys feeling pain or fear, these emotions play an important role in our existence. They help us stay alive!
I frequently find myself thoughful about what's effective in psychotherapy. Is it particular things I say in response to my patients? Are there specific modalities that are more effective than others? Being the psychodynamic psychotherapist that I am, I possess a natural inclination toward understanding the deeper layers of the human psyche. Somehow, change and understanding the human being takes so much more than just a manualized approach to specific symptoms. For me, it's more about understanding the heart and soul of each person that walks in my door and treating each with as much dignity as I can muster. Each patient is more than just a list of symptoms. Each patient is more than just their pain. When I read the following article on research done in Sweden, I found myself feeling justified in how I've been trained: http://scottdmiller.com/icce/revolution-in-swedish-mental-health-practice-the-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-monopoly-gives-way/
As a practicing psychologist in Pasadena, I'm occasionally challenged by my patients to discuss the effectiveness of psychotherapy. "Will I get better? they often query. It's an honest and legitimate question - one I find myself pondering frequently. To my patients, they want to know whether the benefits of embarking on the strange journey toward self disclosure, vulnerability, and potential pain will be worth it. And will I be able to help them? Will paying for my services, my training, and my expertise be enough of a catalyst for healing? The answer is complex and multi-faceted. There's the issue of goodness-of-fit. Research shows that upwards of 80% of the effectiveness of psychotherapy has to do with the fit between patient and psychotherapist but how does one measure that? Other variables that influence the outcome of psychotherapy include such things as the level of participation of the patient, the level of motivation, and how accurately the empathy in the psychotherapist. With all this in mind, however, and the longer I'm privileged to do this work, the more I find that individuals who walk into my office really are seeking a deeper experience of authenticity and empathy and many are NOT looking for the quick fix. For a fascinating read on the effectiveness of longer term psychotherapy vs short term, see the following link: http://horan.asu.edu/cpy702readings/seligman/seligman.html
For a pretty thorough discussion on the importance of resilience when dealing with PTSD, go to the following link.
I was delighted to see that ABC did a recent online article on "Reverse Culture Shock." Take a peek here:
Before embarking on psychotherapy, most people want to know what to expect and how to go about achieving the best kind of help. A lot of people seek help, and may even go so far as to call a psychologist, but once you starting meeting with someone on a regular basis, what then? Is psychotherapy generally a good idea? The basic answer is a resounding “yes!” On average, approximately 80% of folks who enter treatment will walk away feeling as they have achieved some real change. In this day and age, that percentage is actually pretty good! However, in order to achieve that high percentage, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, finding a psychologist with whom you feel safe and connected is paramount. In fact, research seems to show that this is one of the MOST important variables for good treatment outcomes. Secondly, be aware of the “15 session blues,” a term I affectionately tell my patients to expect at around the 12th to 15th session. Again, research seems to show that a lot of folks are tempted to stop treatment at this point, and it is usually because difficult emotional things are beginning to surface. But…think about it. Most of the things that prompted you to begin therapy took many years to form. Doesn’t it make sense that it’s going to take some time for all that to unravel?
One of the trickiest mental illnesses to treat is Bipolar Disorder, specifically because of its biological basis and because those who suffer may initially deny they have it. If you, or someone you love, have recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I highly recommend The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide, Second Edition: What You and Your Family Need to Know by David Jay Miklowitz (Dec 15, 2010). This book offers practical knowledge on the symptoms and treatment of Bipolar Disorder and is a must-read for both the general public and clinicians alike.
Did you know that no one is exempt from the experience of depression? Would it be surprising to know that some well known individuals have suffered from depression? Take, for instance, Bruce Springsteen. Even with his career taking off, in 1982, Springsteen remained haunted by his past, which included growing up with a depressive and self-isolating father. Bruce’s own symptoms of depression surfaced just as he was completing the acoustic album “Nebraska,” recounts the musician’s friend and biographer Dave Marsh. But what was shocking was how severe Springsteen’s depression became, reaching the point of spiraling out of control during a cross-country trip. He was even feeling suicidal. But here’s what’s interesting, he began seeing a psychotherapist. He credits receiving treatment with finally healing his past wounds. At a concert years later, when Springsteen introduced his song “My Father’s House” he recalled what the therapist had told him about those nighttime trips: “He said, ‘What you’re doing is that something bad happened, and you’re going back, thinking that you can make it right again. Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it or somehow make it right.’ And I sat there and I said, ‘That is what I’m doing.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t.’ ”