Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Viktor Frankl, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor pictured above, once said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." This profound statement encapsulates the essence of human resilience and the potential for personal transformation. It also underscores the core principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in creating that crucial space between stimulus and response.
In everyday life, we often react impulsively to various stimuli—whether they are external events or internal thoughts and emotions. However, Frankl's wisdom suggests that we have the ability to pause and consider our responses. This pause is where we can find empowerment and personal growth. It's in this space that CBT plays a crucial role.
CBT as a therapeutic approach helps individuals recognize and challenge their automatic thought patterns and emotional reactions. By identifying and modifying these cognitive and emotional responses, CBT assists in creating the vital gap between stimulus and response. Through guided introspection and cognitive restructuring, individuals can develop more adaptive and rational responses to challenging situations.
The practice of CBT equips individuals with the skills to choose healthier responses, fostering emotional resilience and personal growth. It allows us to shift from being reactive to proactive, ultimately leading to a more balanced and fulfilled life. Viktor Frankl's insight remains a powerful reminder that we possess the capacity to shape our responses to life's challenges, and CBT provides a practical toolkit to help us do just that.
Anger is a natural and often healthy emotion, but when it spirals out of control, it can lead to negative consequences in both our personal and professional lives. The good news is that there are various psychological interventions to manage anger, and one surprisingly effective tool is...humor.
Humor, an universal language that brings people together, can help us gain perspective, reduce tension, and improve overall well-being. Here's how incorporating humor into psychological interventions can make a positive difference in managing anger.
1. Stress Reduction: Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals, which can alleviate stress and anxiety. In moments of anger, incorporating humor can help you shift your focus from the source of your anger to something more positive, allowing you to better manage the situation.
2. Perspective Shift: Humor helps us see situations from different angles. When you can find the humor in a challenging situation, it can be easier to reframe your perspective and view the issue as less threatening. This can lead to a more rational and less impulsive response.
3. Communication Improvement: Anger often leads to ineffective communication, making it difficult to resolve conflicts. Humor can act as an icebreaker, easing tension and facilitating more open and constructive conversations. It can also make you more approachable, which encourages others to communicate with you.
4. Emotional Regulation: Humor can be a valuable tool for emotional regulation. When you're able to find humor in frustrating or infuriating situations, you can regain emotional control and make more level-headed decisions.
5. Self-Reflection: By using humor to reflect on your own actions and reactions, you can identify patterns in your behavior and take steps to address them. This self-awareness is a crucial component of anger management.
It's important to note that the goal is not to make light of serious issues or dismiss valid concerns. Instead, the aim is to incorporate humor as a coping mechanism to diffuse anger and reduce its negative impact on your mental and physical health. Humor can break the cycle of distress and promote healthier responses to challenging situations.
Yet, humor can only get us so far in neutralizing the anger. The better alternative, if it is available, would be to avoid moments of excessive anger. That can be done if we understand what is triggering the anger in the first place. That is surprisingly easy to do with good CBT strategies. We look at the situation, the thoughts, emotions, and actions in that particular moment. We figure out what is valid and what can be changed in our thoughts and behaviors. We use targeted techniques and methods to impart that change. We feel different.
Picture Credit: CONCEPT at Palo Alto University
Distress tolerance is one of the four core skills taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a type of therapy that helps people learn to manage their emotions and behaviors in a healthy way. Distress tolerance skills are especially helpful for people who experience intense or frequent negative emotions.
One of the most well-known distress tolerance skills is ACCEPTS. ACCEPTS is an acronym for the following skills:
How to use ACCEPTS
To use ACCEPTS, simply go through the acronym and choose the skills that are most likely to be helpful for you in that moment. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, you might try the following:
Tips for using ACCEPTS
Here are a few tips for using ACCEPTS effectively:
Emotions are an integral part of our lives, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and overall well-being. However, for many of us, managing intense emotions can be a challenging task. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed originally by Dr. Marsha Linehan, offers a comprehensive set of skills to help individuals regulate their emotions effectively. One of these essential skills is TIPP, an acronym that stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, and Paired Muscle Relaxation.
How do TIPP skills work?
TIPP skills work by changing your body's physical response to stress. When you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, your body goes into "fight or flight" mode. This is a natural response that helps you to deal with danger, but it can also be uncomfortable and make it difficult to think clearly.
TIPP skills can help to calm your body down and bring it back to a more relaxed state. This can make it easier to manage your emotions and cope with the situation at hand.
How to use TIPP skills
One of the easiest ways to use TIPP skills is to change your body temperature. This can be done by splashing cold water on your face, holding an ice pack to your neck, or taking a cold shower. Changing your body temperature can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "rest and digest" response.
Another way to use TIPP skills is to do some form of intense exercise. This could be anything from running or biking to doing jumping jacks or push-ups. Intense exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. It can also help to burn off excess energy and tension.
Paced breathing is a simple but effective way to calm down your body and mind. To do paced breathing, simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position and focus on your breath. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Try to keep your breathing even and regular.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in your body. This can help to release tension and promote relaxation. To do progressive muscle relaxation, start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. Then, move up your body, tensing and relaxing the muscles in your legs, stomach, chest, arms, neck, and face.
How to use TIPP skills in everyday life
TIPP skills can be used in a variety of situations, including:
Here are some tips for using TIPP skills in everyday life:
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.
Anxiety and fear are quite different. To illustrate the difference I normally share a concrete example. Let's say I open my front door and there is a wild tiger right there. I will be terribly afraid. There is a clear and imminent danger I can pinpoint, thus leading to the fear. However, if I step out of my front door, hear a noise or see some movement in the grass, and think that there might be a tiger in there somewhere, odds are I will be feeling quite anxious. I think there might be a threat somewhere, only I cannot see it. I can imagine it.
Anxiety is a response to perceived threats that come to us either in the form of thoughts (a story) or images. Because we don’t like the feeling of anxiety, we often avoid thinking about those threats and try to block out the troublesome images. This helps reduce the anxiety in the immediate short-term. But long-term, it is still there. That pesky feeling of foreboding, a tightness in your chest, a lump in your throat. If it’s in your head and it has a negative emotional valence, it will come back at some point. That makes sense, right? I’s your brain trying to keep you safe by reminding you often of the dangers around you.
How can you conquer that anxiety? There are several methods in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety treatment. The most effective one is exposure therapy. This is an approach where, figuratively, you get out of the house, go to where the noises and movement in the grass are, look behind the bushes, and find out that there isn’t a tiger there after all – it’s a kitty cat. To get to this liberating a-ha moment, we do need the courage to be willing to face the tiger.
For some types of anxiety such as driving or public speaking, we can actually go out there and do exposure exercises in real life relatively simply. But other times, if our fears involve imagined situations and outcomes that we can’t replicate in the real world, then we have to use the tool of ‘imaginal exposure.’ Imaginal exposure, as the name suggests, involves immersing ourselves in this worst-case scenario fear of how things can turn out badly. For example, if I am constantly anxious about having a deadly disease, I can enter a mental world where that actually happens. If I am concerned about my children having a terrible accident, I can make that true in my head.
Imaginal exposure scripts are short stories that we can write laying out what would happen if our worst fears came true. We add what happens in the immediate aftermath and what happens over the long run. These scripts are usually sad and dark because, well, our anxieties are sad and dark. Once an anxiety-provoking imaginal exposure script is written, exposure therapy involves reading that script over and over and over, several times a day for several days, recording the level of distress that it brings up. The objective is to get you habituated to the facts and feelings in the script. After reading a story a few hundred times, it gets boring. Boring is the opposite of anxiety-provoking. Boring is good.
Of course, you’ll be well served to have a therapist support you through this unpleasant but highly effective and necessary process. Any well-trained CBT therapist should be able to hold your hand and help you feel safe and cared for as you go face your tigers. Happy hunting!
Dr. Kristi Neff is one of the pioneers in the study of self-compassion as a tool for psychological wellbeing. There are many definitions of self-compassion out there, but hers hinges on three tenets:
1) Self-kindness vs. judgment
Self-compassion involves being kind and understanding to ourselves, just as we would be to a friend or loved one. It means treating ourselves with the same compassion we would treat others when we are going through a difficult time.
2) Common humanity
Self-compassion is not about being selfish or self-indulgent. It is about recognizing that we are all human beings who make mistakes, and that we all experience pain and suffering. When we are self-compassionate, we are able to accept ourselves with all of our flaws and imperfections. We are also able to be more understanding of our own limitations and to forgive ourselves for our mistakes.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we're doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what's going on around us. It entails paying attention to the present moment without judgment. When we are mindful, we observe thoughts and feelings from a distance, without getting caught up in them. This allows us to be aware of our thoughts and feelings while making choices about how to respond to them, without exaggerating or suppressing them.
There are many benefits to self-compassion. Studies have shown that self-compassion can lead to:
There are equally many ways to cultivate self-compassion. You can start by being kind and accepting to yourself, practicing mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations, spending time with people who are supportive and kind, and engaging in activities that help you feel good about yourself. You can also practice self-compassion through guided audio exercises such as this one:
Self-compassion is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. But it is a skill that is well worth the effort. When we are self-compassionate, we are able to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.
Let's say you have an important work deadline coming up, or an important meeting, or a job interview. You'll likely be a bit stressed about it, right? That's understandable - and useful! A reasonable amount of stress shows that we care about these critical tasks and can actually help us prepare better for them. However, every now and then, that stress gets out of hand...instead of encouraging us to be ready for the challenge, the stress mounts so high that it makes that challenge seem completely unattainable.
In the early 1900s, psychology researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed an empirical curve that illustrates our performance levels on a task relative to the stress levels present in that situation. It is easy to understand if you think about it in terms of a test at school. If there is no stress at all, we won't really prepare for the test, and might show up on the exam day without having done any studying. A good amount of worry and stress will encourage us to prepare for the test by reading the book chapters and doing the practice exercises, once...or maybe twice. An amount of stress beyond that might lead us to re-read all those chapters and re-do the practice exercises a few too many times, to the point where we may be too tired by the time the test comes along to get the best grades. And if we are really, really scared of the test, telling ourselves that it's way too difficult and we will never get a good grade on it, we may just throw our hands up in the air and not study for it at all. We may give up before we start, out of panic, exhaustion, and fear.
So, some stress is good. Too little or too much may lead to subpar performance. The question is how to modulate the stress to get it to the level that is good for you. There are many answers there, ranging from relaxation exercises to worry break and mindfulness moments to reappraising the importance and threat of the situations ahead. In TEAM-CBT, we have some great tools that can help with all of those!
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!
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 in-person and via Teletherapy 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.
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Copyright © 2014 Daniele V. Levy, PhD
Bay Area Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Office: 830 Menlo Ave, Suite 200, Menlo Park CA
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