Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
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!
Beyond its devastating cost in human lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound negative effect on mental health for a large number of people. Besides anxiety and depression from social isolation, insomnia is probably the largest new behavioral health problem that many are navigating during this global health crisis.
Insomnia is a clinical term that applies when an individual has had problems sleeping for at least 3 nights per week for a period of at least 3 months. Further, those problems are not secondary to other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. In reality, many people suffer from sleep issues that don't fully qualify for an insomnia diagnosis, but that impair their lives nonetheless. Some struggle with sleep-onset insomnia ("I can't fall asleep when I go to bed") while others have sleep-maintenance insomnia ("I can't stay asleep once I fall asleep").
There are three important factors at play when someone finds themselves facing insomnia. They are commonly referred to as the three "p"s:
1) Predisposing factors: some of us are just genetically wired for lighter, shorter sleep than others.
2) Precipitating factors: Yet, there are stressful events in our lives that can literally cause us to lose sleep. For example, a medical crisis, a job loss, a sick child. Those types of situations can cause sleep disturbances that, in most cases, will resolve themselves after a while.
3) Perpetuating factors: For chronic insomnia to kick in, some new factors come into play. Those are the factors that maintain the disrupted sleep patterns. Most commonly, they will be things like worrying about getting the 'right' amount of sleep, thinking that tomorrow will be a bad day if we don't sleep enough, spending more time in bed wanting to sleep longer, tossing and turning awake in bed, using electronics in bed, turning the bed into office space (working from the bed), etc. Those well-intentioned moves actually perpetuate the cycle of insomnia by making it harder to fall and stay asleep.
Treatments for insomnia abound. The easiest is to pop a pill. That will work - for a couple of nights. And then, it doesn't anymore. Most prescribed sleep medications are habit-forming, which means that your body will need more of it over time to achieve the same result. While at times the pills may help you fall asleep faster, they will also lead you to wake up more often in the middle of the night. You might not remember it, because you're sedated. But your actual sleep quality will not really improve in a sustainable way.
Instead of taking the shortcut, the best long-term solution to sleep disturbances is a full course of CBT for insomnia (called CBT-I). In this treatment modality, you will learn how to change your inner dialogue to actually invite sleep, rather than keep it away. With the help of your therapist, you will also develop a healthier sleep schedule that will allow you to actually enjoy the time you spend in bed. With more time, you can also learn relaxation techniques and anxiety management interventions that will prevent the insomnia from recurring. And voila, you can finally sleep tight!
I'll start with the bad news. If you are standing in one place waiting to find motivation before you take a step in any direction, you won't find it. We all think that we need to have motivation in order to move forward. The reality is, we don't.
I imagine that you brush your teeth every day, right? And how motivated do you feel each night before bedtime to pick up your toothbrush? Do you say to yourself, "I am looking forward to brushing my teeth tonight...and tomorrow night...and the day after?..." Probably not. Yet, you still do it. No motivation. Instead, just willingness to do what needs to be done.
To move forward in any direction, we need willingness. A stance of seeking movement even when you don't feel like it. Doing things because they need to be done, not because you're excited, giddy, or moved to do it. Odds are that once you get moving, motivation will follow. But you simply don't need it in order to get started.
That said, the New York Times just published an interesting article on small tasks that you can do to enhance your motivation. Note that all of them require you to take a step before you are motivated in order to find that motivation. Some ideas include rewards and treats, looking for meaning, relying on social support or competition, and using self-compassion. Check it out here.
Along those lines, in TEAM-CBT we have some really cool tools that can help with the procrastination that comes with lack of motivation, including Cost-Benefit Analysis, Triple Paradox, Devil's Advocate, and Problem-Solution techniques. You can learn more about them in therapy or independently through Dr. Burn's books.
How do you define competence? Your answer to this seemingly simple question can have a large impact on how you interpret your academic and professional achievements and how satisfied you feel about them. Some views of competence can be particularly detrimental to your emotional well-being, so it’s worth watching out for them.
Dr. Valerie Young has described five unhelpful “competence types”: views of what defines aptitude and proficiency that actually hold us back. They are:
1-The Perfectionist: in this view, competence is defined by “how” things are done. If they are 100% correct, 100% of the time, then you’re competent. Any small deviation from that equals total defeat. And since it’s impossible to get everything right all of the time, you are often aware of your misses and the distress that accompanies them in the form of self-doubt, worry, or shame.
2-The Natural Genius: here, competence is defined by “when” things are done right. For the Natural Geniuses out there, being competent means getting it right the first time, and doing it naturally, effortlessly, and immediately. This is the view that talent is congenital and you either have it or not. If you don’t get it right on the first time or struggle to master a skill or project, then you’re actually not that competent. That’s a huge disappointment.
3-The Soloist: This is the “who” view of competence, in which it equals the ability to perform tasks independently at all times. If you need help, you are incompetent, so you might as well take on immense mountains of work to do all by yourself. When you struggle or get stuck, feelings of failure, shame or defeat follow.
4-The Expert: The focus of competence for the Expert is in “what”. If you are competent in this definition, then you know everything there is to know about a task, challenge, or project even before you start. You fear being exposed as ignorant or inexperienced, so you spend inordinate amounts of time getting better educated, more informed, and more deeply acquainted with whatever topic is at hands; often times, at the expense of actually getting stuff done.
5-The Superhuman: For this type, competence is measured in throughput. It parallels how many roles you can juggle, how many projects you can deliver, how often you volunteer, or how much time you spend on turbocharge, doing more than everyone else around you. This overload can lead to many short-term accomplishments, at the cost of long-term stress and burn out.
Do you see yourself in any of the types above? If so, how has this definition of competence served you over time? If the answer is not that well, then you can start working on changing it. You can do that with the help of a CBT therapist by first understanding your current belief system, then challenging assumptions that are unhelpful, and finally building new ones that are more realistic, take into account several viewpoints, are more complete, and help you truly succeed in the long-term.
Many mothers - both those staying-at-home with the kids as well as those working out of the house - often struggle with "mom guilt." Those are nagging feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, anger and despair that may be temporary or pretty pervasive. They are difficult and unpleasant. Older parents will tell you to let go, to enjoy the journey as time flies: "they grow up so fast." And yet, day to day those pesky feelings pop up, sometimes on cue and many times unannounced.
Cognitive theory will tell you that those unwelcome emotions stem from your thoughts, the stories that you tell yourself in your head. It can be a thought that you may not be doing enough, a notion that you are not sacrificing enough, or just a belief that you are not getting things right while everyone else has it together. In terms of concrete thoughts, they might span the range from "I should be playing with the kids right now (as opposed to doing something else I also enjoy!)", "they are watching too much TV", "I shouldn't loose my cool", "I actually want to complete this work assignment but feel I should be spending more time with the kids."
If you can't change your reality short-term, how can you deal with these thoughts and feelings more effectively? First, if I offer you a magic button that would make all of those beliefs and reactions go away, consider whether you'd press the magic button. It sounds like a good deal, right? Yet, these negative thoughts and feelings tell us a lot of beautiful things about you...They show you care, you want to do what is right by your children, that you are willing to look at your choices critically, and that you have really high standards and goals for yourself. All of those things are good!
Rather than pressing the magic button and make the "mom guilt" disappear altogether, how about figuring out how to modulate it? You can find a way to hold on to some of the healthy aspects of the guilt - after all, wanting to be the best mom you can be is an awesome goal! - but it is not so high that takes away from your chance to enjoy your children and your limited time with them. That is very doable with CBT.
To get to this lower level of distress, you will need to revisit the stories that you are telling yourself in your head. In CBT, we embrace the idea that your thoughts drive your emotions. Change your thoughts, change your emotions. There are a myriad techniques to re-write the automatic thoughts and ideas in your head around your parenting choices. You can learn about them in CBT-driven books such as Dr. David Burns' new Feeling Great book. Or you can work with a CBT therapist who can guide you in understanding and applying these techniques to the specific circumstances in your life. Your family will thank you!
"Impostor syndrome" (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome, or impostor experience) is a term initially coined in 1978 by psychologists Clance and Imes to describe describe high achieving individuals who, despite their objective accomplishments, persist in holding a belief that they are unworthy of their success and that others will eventually recognize them as a fraud . The early psychological literature on this topic (see original article) proposed that the phenomenon was prevalent among women. Since then, dozens of studies have shown that it is equally common among men and particularly troublesome among minority groups.
Professionals with impostor syndrome tend to attribute their strong performance to external factors such as luck, support from others, or extreme effort, rather than internal factors such as talent, competence, and acumen. Setbacks, on the other hand, are viewed as proof of unshakable weaknesses. Indeed, Clance described impostor syndrome as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in individuals who are highly successful and unable to internalize their success.” This unwarranted sense of insecurity can often result in distress, depressive feelings, anxiety, loneliness, and frustration.
A recent review of over 62 studies on the topic of Impostorism showed that the prevalence rates of impostor syndrome is hard to gauge. Depending on the screening questionnaire and cutoff points used, the research showed that 9 to 82% of the participants would qualify for the label. It appears that age is negatively correlated with impostor Syndrome (i.e., it lowers as one ages).
So...do you have Impostor Syndrome? Honestly, only you can answer that. If you're struggling with feelings of perfectionism, insecurity, and fear in spite of sustained academic and professional success, it is possible that you do hold beliefs that could be described as Impostorism. Many times, as hard as they might be, these feelings motivate you to keep striving and achieving, But at other times, they can stand in the way of you actually enjoying your life and the many contributions that you make to your organization.
There are many ways to "treat" Impostor Syndrome. if you look in the lay media, you will find many recommendations, ranging from “own your accomplishments” to “comparing notes with peers and mentors about shared impostor feelings” and "remind yourself that you are good at what you do." I am sure those are helpful and can alleviate the suffering momentarily. However, from a CBT perspective, Impostor Syndrome is more likely a reflection of core values, intermediate beliefs and automatic thoughts that pop up in many areas of your life. Getting to those is the key to long-lasting change.
You can fight Impostor Syndrome with the help of a therapist by learning to be aware of your automatic thought patterns, recognize unhelpful thinking styles, and generate alternative appraisals that help you move forward in the direction of your values and your goals.
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!
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 has 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!
This article in the New York Times describes the author's struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and how he managed to overcome it after years of struggles. OCD is a mental health illness that encompasses obsessions, compulsions, or both.
Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety. Common forms of obsessions include:
Compulsions are behaviors that an individual suffering from OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. The function of the compulsion is to alleviate the tension, anxiety, and nervousness that comes with the obsessive thought. Common forms of compulsions include:
The author of the article above was able to overcome his OCD on his own, using a form of interpersonal exposure that we call in TEAM-CBT "self-disclosure." He slowly started sharing his deepest fears with his loved ones and learned, over time, that he got support and acceptance in return. That reduced his anxiety and allowed him to manage his OCD.
When motivation and self-disclosure alone are not enough to kick OCD, exposure therapy (exposing patients to their feared stimuli) combined with a technique called response prevention can help. It is a scientifically proven intervention to help most individuals suffering from OCD to learn how to better manage their compulsions, tolerate the obsessions, and quickly overcome both of those.
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 5 Certified TEAM-CBT trainer and Master 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 via Teletherapy from Menlo Park, CA. Her background uniquely combines leading edge training in behavioral sciences with deep expertise coaching and mentoring working professionals in dynamic organizations.