NOTE: Emotional Content- Mature Readers Only Please
Imagine intentionally telling yourself- again and again- "Maybe I’ll get sick and die.” Or, “I’ll have a sudden urge to kill someone." Or, “Maybe I blasphemed God and will go to hell." What if your therapist asked you to repeat these things to yourself? Does that sound like negative self-talk? A cause for grave concern? Not if they’re intrusive thoughts. If they are, in exposure therapy you would most likely learn to repeat these thoughts over and over.
Why in the world would I do that?
This can be hard to understand. It’s initially counterintuitive. There is a purpose behind what I'm sharing, so stick with me! In fact, the purpose is so distinctive and powerful, that for many people, entering willfully into sitting with scary content is the only thing that will help them overcome tremendous fear and consequent suffering.
I'm referencing the use of Imaginal Exposure.
Are you a newbie to what OCD, PTSD, Anxiety Disorders, CBT or Exposure Therapy is? You will want to understand these before trying to grasp Imaginal Exposure- which might otherwise seem strange, weird, harmful, or negative. Done well, it's none of these. To those of us who use it every day, it's a high horsepower beast of a tool that ages like a fine wine- with time, discipline, skill, and determination the end product typically is first-rate. By first-rate, I also mean clinically first line treatment (highly recommended with the best evidence) for Anxiety, OCD, Phobias, PTSD, Social Anxiety, and more. Let’s jump in.
Exposure Therapy, in a phrase, is the systematic and intentional triggering of fear while minimizing- and ideally eliminating- all pathological responses. Imaginal Exposure accomplishes this with thoughts and ideas. It is done in the context of addressing unhelpful/pathological responses to fear. Hear me loud and clear: fear is a healthy emotion in context- we need to honor it when we use it in a healthy way. Exposure, though, is about facing fears that are creating problems for an individual- pathological (disordered) fears.
Think of a TV set. Friends. Frasier. The Office. It appears so real- so NYC, Seattle, or Scranton. Have you ever seen behind the scenes? It's funny what effect a studio tour or footage has on the mind when you have the "curtain pulled back." Imaginal exposure capitalizes on the brain's creative ability. We’ve done this for even longer as humans through verbal storytelling. It's part of what makes us wonderfully human. From a threat preparedness standpoint, the ability to imagine and conceptualize problems (like children getting injured or killed from a safety hazard) helps us think through problems and find solutions, when done appropriately. Imagination can be wonderfully delightful (a good book, a child’s creativity), highly practical (designing safety procedures), it can also become nefarious (a traumatic memory, a panic inducing nightmare, constantly running worst case scenarios).
If you have a phobia of spiders, the average person may think along the lines of Fear Factor, that old TV show that threw people in a literal pit with their feared object in order to “face” their fears. Rarely would that work, if ever, if you have an actual phobia- without structuring it appropriately and having "buy-in" to the process. CBT and Exposure therapists use a treatment plan and usually stair-step their approach (through a hierarchy) to inhibit the learned fearful response. Here is a sample hierarchy with arachnophobia (1 is easiest, 10 most difficult):
1-6 are actually Imaginal Exposures. They don't involve direct confrontation. In-vivo (situational) exposure (7-10) implements exposures in a real life setting. E.g., if you pathologically fear you will get sick and die from touching a door knob and not washing, the situational exposure is to touch the door knob ultimately and experientially test the hypothesis of “what if I get sick and die?” Many fears in life, though, either cannot be accessed through in-vivo exposure or have a strong mental component to them. Common examples are:
Why would these responses lead to problems? Simply put- they reinforce fear, disgust, and other strong responses out of context. We call these either compulsions or safety behaviors (unnecessary anxiety based reactions). A person who gives into them consequently learns they need these responses to protect themselves. Enter the heightened level of disability that sufferers of OCD, Anxiety, and PTSD face.
Here’s the good news. Exposure lets you gain appropriate control. It is learning to play offense rather than defense. It is very active, and it can lead to a greater sense of confidence and acceptance.
How do I do imaginal exposure? The first thing we do besides good education and understanding exposure is gaining a strong assessment- it must underlie good exposure. Know what you’re working with. Make a list of your obsessions or bothersome thoughts. See a specialist. Get educated. Get to know your symptoms, your motivations for getting better, and start a running log (monitoring) daily. Once you have a tally of key examples, placing them on a hierarchy really helps to get a road map and be realistic and also to monitor progress (like the one above for arachnophobia).
Once you’ve got your hierarchy, we consider conceptualizing the core fear behind an uncomfortable thought or action. Start simple; don’t overthink it. Here’s a “downward spiral” vignette for a person who fears they might one day “snap” and kill someone.
Therapist: So what about that bothers you?
Client: I don’t have control.
Therapist: So what?
Client: This terrifies me.
Therapist: So what?
Client: It may just happen, I might just snap, so I
need to be hypervigilant all the time.
Client: Yeah yeah, I get it. I suppose it’s impossibly tiring; I will always have to be in a careful state to make sure I don’t harm someone.
Therapist: Anything else?
Client: I don’t think so right now.
Therapist: This is the core fear we will begin basing your exposures on: “I must always be hypervigilant to not harm someone.” This is the hypothesis we will be testing experientially.
Once you have hierarchy examples in which you've identified your compulsions or safety behaviors, along with core fears, determining the type of exposure (In-vivo, Imaginal, and/or even Interoceptive or Virtual Reality- see The Four Types of Exposure Therapy) is important. The best exposure seeks to maximize learning and go as far as is needed to eradicate pathological responses.
Let’s take an intrusive, unwanted thought like, “What if I jumped off this bridge?” When it is ego-dystonic, imaginal exposure would seek to respond with a strategy like writing/saying/hearing/reading something like the following: “What if I jumped off this bridge?” many times and over many minutes, all the while sitting with the feelings without compulsing. Once a person can tolerate facing their fear at a lower level, they can then move up the hierarchy and face higher and higher ones, in this example it might involve riding in a car over a bridge. At a later point, they would likely want to visit a bridge and walk across, getting as close to the edge as would be appropriate. Pairing an imaginal script with the situational would address any thoughts the person attempts to suppress, neutralize, or avoid. Here is a sample hierarchy (incorporating in-vivo, imaginal, interoceptive- bodily sensation exposure, and virtual reality):
A good summary of these steps I usually take in exposure therapy can be found in my guide, “Thriving Mental Health.”
Scripting is observation in its basic form. It’s taking what you already fear and calling it out.
Popular forms involve scripts/stories, videos, and audio tracks/loops. Creative ideas:
How does it work? Why does it work? People smarter than me call this the mechanism of change. You’re going to love this response: we don’t know exactly how exposure works. We can theorize. There are roughly 6 theories (some are often combined) as to how exposure therapy works:
Problem Solving & Tips. There are small and large nuances alike involved in imaginal exposure. Here is a list of some key tips, but remember that this is one of the key benefits of a specialty provider of exposure therapy. You can additionally look at “10 Tips for Effective ERP,” which covers important details related to all types of exposure.
Catch All Compulsions. Mental compulsions and avoidance are compulsions. Reassurance from others (including your therapist) is compulsive. Learn to get rid of all of it. Distraction from fear is avoidance. Gotta catch ‘em all!
Conceptualize Your Core Fear. Skipping your core fear conceptualization.
Face, don’t Escape. Use your script to face fear- NOT escape fear. Anything to relieve fear in the moment can lead to reinforcing fear.
Remember the Framework. Face fear by sitting with it and/or don't pathologically respond. It might seem like you're allowing something bad (in fact, that's almost a guarantee you will feel this way). Dig into your commitments and motivations to stick with challenging exercises. Our goal is to go as far as your fear/disgust/etc. makes you run. However, sometimes we do go further with an exposure than thoughts go. We must seek maximum disconfirmation of fear, which means pushing exercises further than you initially want (because seeking relief and comfort and perceived safety got us in this mess in the first place).
Get Messy. Expect to mess up exposure. It’s naturally mucky, and no one does it perfectly. However, those who stick with it and keep working on it are more likely to achieve better results.
Get Support! You are a complex being in an interconnected world. You will likely need to incorporate various supports in your life for long-term success. Involve your loved ones. I get it- it will typically feel very odd to get your family members involved in scripting with you- but often remarkably helpful when your system is healthy and supportive.
Hard to catch. Many clients exclaim that predominantly internal OCD themes are very challenging to work with because they are so difficult to catch. True, at first. But they can be treated just as successfully, and once you know how to work with them, they are very treatable. In a sense, covert obsessions (“Pure-O”) and mental rituals can be more difficult to notice and catch than overt behaviors and processes like washing. But to be clear, OCD in any form is no cake-walk, nor do folks who have more overt rituals have it better, per se. They are just different. Also, there is always a mental process behind overt behaviors, which also must be addressed in treatment. Last of all, though all treatment is on paper the same, everyone’s experience is personal to them; certain themes (like sexual, religious, etc.) can lead to tremendously higher amounts of shame, guilt, anger, or any number of feelings.
Matching game. Match the script to the actual content of your thoughts that you need to face to overcome and maximize your strength training. Make sure the content of exposures fit with the content of your obsessions.
Prepare. A healthy mind is not made in comfort. Prepare to feel uncomfortable. The inverse of taking on too hard of exposures is not pushing oneself enough. The reality of scripting is that it can seem monotonous. It can seem really scary. It does trigger at least some distress.
Proper Dosing. When we utilize medication, we often consider dosing. It’s not a foreign concept for many aspects of life. Applied to cooking we measure ingredients, in learning a new subject we stair-step difficulty and measure as we go along. A lot of people come to mental health with expectations that deeply rooted patterns and habits, behaviors and thoughts will somehow magically vanish. We’ve got to be realistic. The more severe a case, the higher the “dosing” is typically needed for therapy and exercises. I often point out that if you have 4 hours of compulsions/safety behaviors rituals per day, you will need to get to the point where this number is ideally zero. The “dosing” then of treatment is a lot higher than someone with 1 hour of these pathological responses.
Relapse Prevention Planning. When you’re feeling better, don’t just move on and say, “Thanks, it’s been fun!” Have a plan. Develop this with your team.
Strength Training. One of the most significant errors clients report to me prior to therapy was trying to “lift too much weight” consistently before they were ready. If you can’t face a level 3 on your hierarchy without compulsing, you’re not ready for a level 10. But as soon as you know how not to compulse or do a safety behavior in the face of fear, CONGRATS!! This is one of the greatest achievements, and now you can move the ball forward with other examples.
Type Matters. Remember that though we are discussing Imaginal exposure, it is usually best to make sure to do in-vivo exposures with things that you can face in real life. Though you can always pair imaginal with situational, you must go as far (or further) than your obsession goes.
Fin. Imaginal exposure may seem odd, counter-intuitive, and harmful at first. The reality is that it's just what the doctor ordered to start playing offense with problems and not be a victim of cycles of fear and relief. If you've made it this far, you've got some guts. I hope you've been encouraged. Let's do this.
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
“You need to pray about that.” “Resist those thoughts; they are from the enemy.” “Don’t think on such things.” I often hear confusion from Christians on how to engage- or not engage- with fear based thoughts, urges, and sensations. This led me to do a deep dive into Scripture to see if there are any differences between responding to fear vs. temptation. Spoiler Alert: there are. We must learn to face fear and flee temptation.
Joy* came in to see me because she was getting overwhelmed- having panic attacks and getting stuck in making decisions. Most of all, she was terrified of the doubt that she wasn’t walking with God. These are weighty things to carry. Joy is an incredible woman of faith. Loved ones agreed (though she’d never tell you this). Due to her obsessions and intrusive thoughts, she couldn’t stop compulsively asking God for forgiveness when feeling like she’d sinned, constantly evaluating things as small as the way she walked and the facial expressions she carried when around others. She would often have thoughts that went counter to what she believed: “Maybe your anger is just the same as wanting to kill someone.” “You’re not close to God- you don’t feel His presence.” “Are you sure you are living your life fully for Him?” “Your attraction to other men is lustful- you’re supposed to feel pleasure seeing your husband.” These thoughts and their consequent feelings led to a lot of avoidance- dodging looking at men, running from ‘scary’ Scripture passages, shunning going out in public.
It is impossible to read very far in the Bible without coming across some variation of “fear not!” It is the most common directive in the Bible- occurring more than any of the following “do nots:”
Growing up, I was involved in a Christian subculture that took an oft avoidant stance to things perceived as risky. I remember some varying examples from different people through the years: some condemning rock music and drums, dating, kissing before marriage, alcohol in any way, dancing, mental health medications, and playing cards. Of course, each Christian must develop their conscience and walk with Christ, so I am not here to make decisions for you on any of these topics. There are a lot of decisions in a lifetime that will necessitate flexibility and exhibit differences between believers- they are not all black and white (cf. Romans 14, Galatians 5), though some are. To understand why these often well meaning folks said what they said would require knowing the context. I know many times I have heard believers condemn alcohol for anyone it is out of themselves or loved ones having problems with alcohol- which would be one of the best reasons not to drink! However, we must be careful not to make a rule or law of conscience generalized to everyone that is not specifically laid out for all believers (check out TGC’s article on conscience). Unfortunately, I heard plenty of cautions from people rife with fear.
For Christians, hypervigilance as to spiritual matters is out of place. Vigilance is called for in the things we must be alert about. Hypervigilance is being on edge, fearful, shaky. Before Christ was crucified he prayed that his followers would be protected, but still present in the world (John 17:15). Healthy and spiritually mature individuals have developed discernment of separating good from evil while being present in the world (Hebrews 5:14)- part of growth requires learning how much focus and time to prioritize on any one thing.
Stick with me closely here: this is where I want to delineate between fear and temptation. I believe it’s a crucial difference- one that has led to a lot of personal growth and change along with that of many clients.
Let’s first view some key texts on temptation:
With a misappraised lens we might think God would have us constantly eschewing evil, always looking over our backs for sin crouching to get us (Genesis 4:7). Nope. Context is key. There’s a bigger picture.
Both in Bible reading and In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) a key thing we do is to look at context- understanding one thing through the larger picture (i.e., for Bible reading, observing before interpreting; in CBT, we assess the larger connection between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors). Here is the broader backdrop for all the above Scripture passages:
There you go. I hope just these key passages have helped identify a grounded trajectory for facing temptation- with both hypervigilance of persistent fear being unbefitting of a believer.
What if something I fear is also a desire? Or becoming a desire? This is a common question I get when helping clients call out and lean into their fears in therapy.
As mentioned concerning the 2nd passage above (1 Corinthians 6:18), sometimes people run into things they simultaneously fear and are a risk at the same time (egosyntonic and egodystonic). Maybe it’s abusing substances for the addict, fear of harming a child while also having actual anger outbursts, or being scared by unwanted thoughts on suicide for the depressed person who sometimes contemplates suicide. This gets a little tricky, and I have to admit, makes the process in therapy a little more challenging. I like a good challenge! It’s important to do a little more assessment and separate out the two domains. On this topic, let me just say that’s what makes therapy all the more important. Get a professional outside of yourself who can help you separate the two and know how to address both sides of the problem- a mixed desire with simultaneous lack of desire to act on a behavior.
A final word. Deuteronomy 31:8: “ It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Being overcome with fear is not what God desires for His children. I myself and a lot of fellow Christians can be so torn up with fear when facing uncertainty or a perceived threat, forgetting that this fear itself is not from God.
Fear manifests in all sorts of ways- ways that are often overlooked and (sometimes applauded!) by fellow believers in areas such as perfectionism (think of the workaholic in a church setting), over-thinking and analyzing (the person who appears to study the Bible often but are obsessed with minute details and not relationship), and rugged self-reliance (not submitting to authority, relying on community, and otherwise being a ‘lone ranger’). We can often call these things high standards, thoughtful, and independent. Insomuch as any of these things lead to a lack of dependence and faith on God through fear, we have entered into another formidable foe in and of itself! Whether it comes from our brains (the flesh), other influences (the world), or the enemy (the Devil) (Ephesians 2:2-3).
Fear and temptation are two different things. Responding to them requires a different stance. However, they can easily be confused with the other. My prayer for you today, my friend, is that you would know the freedom and joy that is in Christ the solid rock, who will complete the work He has started in you (Philippians 1:6).
*Joy is not this client’s given name and is a composite of case information to protect patient confidentiality. There are thousands of cases very similar to this.
Every reference in this article is ESV.
In advance of the full episode of the OCD Stories podcast being released Fall 2020, Stuart Ralph released a special members only listen. I hope you'll check it out.
COMING SOON- the OCD Stories podcast episode with Stuart Ralph
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
When we recently moved to the house we are currently in, we got an extra bonus with some “smart home” features. Far from a ‘techie,’ I quickly got frustrated in the first week. When I didn’t know how most of it worked, I began to become irritable. This is not a growth, learning, or curiosity mindset.
This is a problem. Why do I expect to get everything on the first try? What leads to seeking accomplishment over growth? This is not who I want to be or what I want to impart to my wife or child or others. This is the way of the world. Busy. Hurried. Trying to do more and more. Have you also caught these moments where you have forgotten the powerful God we serve? Oh how we can fall into “The Hurried Spiritual Life” (click to see my blog post on the topic). Worth and value is so easily tied to performance and accomplishment. But with the Lord it is not so (here’s a couple kickin’ passages on the topic: John 9, Psalm 46:10).
2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us to “look not to the things that are seen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Prior to this in verses 16-17, we’re reminded not to lose heart while our earthly bodies are wasting away, and affliction creates a ‘weight of glory’ (an excellent C.S. Lewis book, fyi). Suffering and hurt is inevitable in this world- it will either break you or build you. Romans 8:18-19 reminds us, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” This is a growth mindset.
Getting the lights to work in my house isn’t significant suffering. First world problems. But the reality still exists: suffering exists in many forms, both extreme and small. I have experienced both, and I will experience more. My focus when I get frustrated over things not going my way is so often earthly- temporal. It’s results-driven, not growth oriented. It’s accomplishment over development. It’s the ‘click’ over the long road of growth. Becoming insta-famous over being faithful in the little things. So I will keep turning my eyes to Christ in each and every thing.
Prayer: Lord, I thank you for your unending love and longsuffering with us. I ask that you’d make me humble and open my heart to you- to what you are doing and continuing to do in the world and through me. I ask you to fill me with your Spirit to make known fruit so that I can be patient and gracious with others- who also suffer. I ask that you’d speak through me and that I’d listen as you speak through others. In Christ, Amen.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
21 Ways To Thriving Mental Health from an Anxiety Specialist
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
Katherine didn’t understand why this pandemic hit her so hard. In fact, she was embarrassed that it did. “I mean, my routines and orderliness can be a little overboard, but I’ve never had difficulty getting by day-to-day. I cry at the drop of a hat and just don't know what to do." I was so honored that she admitted she was struggling, because in that honest vulnerability, she is now getting help.*
In this time of COVID-19, there is a common expectation: the misconception that "healthy" means we won't feel anxious - or the opposite: success is defined by feeling completely safe, confident, or certain. That's crap.
Though it’s nice to feel less anxious, it’s not always reality, even if we’re doing all the right things. I mostly work with clients by helping them learn to stay focused on things of value, regardless of how they feel. Overall anxiety reduction is a result of various factors and is rarely immediate. In time, with supportive factors, anxiety often will go down. Jesus himself felt greatly distressed and overwhelmed, at times, too, if you didn’t know. He wept, sweated, pleaded, was scared, bled, and got angry and frustrated. He understands because he can actually relate - physically and emotionally. He gets Katherine's suffering - and yours, too.
Life involves not only facing bad things that don't happen, but also bad things that do. The question is, are you trained and ready? Can you still keep your focus even when the world around you and inside of you seems to be in chaos? Here are some quick tips to help you stay grounded in reality.
1. Be assertive. Routines have changed. We have to communicate to make the covert overt, like telling your loved one if you need a break to recharge (they can't read your mind!).
2. Be careful of untrue thoughts. Unrealistic thought patterns negatively impact our entire life, like All-or-Nothing Thinking. For example, "Since I’ve been eating poorly it doesn't make a difference if I exercise.” Katherine, mentioned earlier, fell into this trap by believing she was doing a terrible job simply because she felt overwhelmed. Mental health is based on grasping reality to the extent we can. Watch your thoughts and line them up with reality as much as possible.
3. Don't over-consume on substances. Caffeine and alcohol are certainly the most popular substances to monitor.
4. Downtime/Mindfulness/Quiet. The importance of giving our brain pauses and rest cannot be overstated. During a crisis, we need more intentionality to slow down unhealthy processes that are automatic or deeply ingrained. Learn to be mindful, slow down the process, and/or meditate on something beneficial- like how much God cares for you and promises to never leave or forsake you. Benefits range from increased focus and function to decreased stress and disease.
5. Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors - Tune In. Be aware of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. God gave you these - learn to pay attention to them and discover how to respond - sometimes in ways you might not expect.
6. Exercise. Exercise is highly connected to mental health. If you’re stuck in the house, there are ways to get creative. Make a game with a fitness tracker! Compete with others! Set up prizes for yourself or children! Get outside where possible and get moving.
7. Get Support. Use trustworthy support. Few things in life (if any) are done well without support. One place to get support is through an online or in-person Live Second Group.
8. Have fun! We all need reminding to pursue fun. Even the term ‘recreation’ is based on the concept 'recreate '- “to give new life.”
9. Medication. Medication can play a necessary role in well-being. You don’t need to feel shame if you can use a physiological boost for your brain health. Consult a health professional if this would be the right option for you.
10. Normal structure. Our brains integrate information we don't need to remember and becomes second nature. So when you change your routine massively, you will feel out of balance. That’s okay! Try to make use of old structures while learning to develop new ones!
11. Nutrition/Diet. Be careful not to overindulge on carbs and sugars - the snacky & sweet food you may feel the urge to “pound,”which can offer quick energy and pleasure, but overconsumption won’t benefit you. In fact, it will impact you negatively.
12. Prayer. Open communication and presence with the God of the universe is what we access through prayer! His power is what I need; it's really good to follow a big God who is over all our circumstances.
13. Prioritize. Limit inputs of information and stimulation or your brain will do its best to force limits and push you back into what’s called “homeostasis” (or balance), which can lead to feeling burnout and depression.
14. Serve others. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is beautiful. Not only does it help them, but we also can find much encouragement and joy. Learning and growth is often solidified when we can teach, pass along, and serve. Win-win.
15. Sleep. As one of the most important contributors to all aspects of health, good sleep is a necessary foundation to good health.
16. Spend/Save/Give money. Work from a budget. Spending money can be satisfying. Giving it away is powerful to others and ourselves. Taking on unnecessary debts, overspending and being miserly or hypervigilant all lead to stress in different ways.
17. Socialize. We are social beings. Direct contact releases neurotransmitters! But so can positive interactions in this time where we can’t touch much. Wow! For the time being, technology, phones, letters, or writing on messages on cardboard goes a long way.
18. Spirituality/Faith. What do you live for? What do you believe? And are you living congruently with it? Are you allowing yourself to ask questions and pursue guidance, support, and practices around what is good and true and beautiful and lovely? To discover more about what it looks like to follow Jesus watch this.
19. Sunlight. Not only is sunlight important in Vitamin D production, natural light is linked with numerous processes ranging from sleep to mood and much more. If you must be indoors or have limitations on natural light, find ways to maximize it.
20. Supplements. There is good evidence that several supplements can aid in mental health; some linked most commonly to mental health are Vitamin D, B Complex, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids (always follow your doctor’s advice).
21. Your context is your context. Don't compare. "Comparison is the thief of joy." When we look at where we are, don't let expectations crowd out what you're supposed to be about.
Keep in mind this is educational content and not intended as a substitute for professional advice, treatment, or diagnosis. Any of these tips will come across as too simple for someone suffering highly.
*All names and details used are obscured to protect patient confidentiality, including using a mixture of case information.
The Guide above is provided entirely for free to newsletter subscribers.
One of my first questions to a professor in my earliest IOCDF BTTI (Exposure Therapy training) at Massachusetts General Hospital was, “What happens if someone actually gets sick after a contamination exposure?” I haven’t forgotten the simplicity of the answer that went something like this: “People get sick all the time. Yes, that might create some additional hesitancy to face exposures at first, but you have an incredible opportunity for learning.” Life involves not only facing bad things that don't happen, but also bad things that do.
Exposure Therapy involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. In the end, it can relieve a lot of suffering.
During this global pandemic of COVID-19, people actually are getting sick. One might not think the principles of exposure therapy would apply (i.e., "Don't you do exposure therapy for risks that don't happen?"). Quite the contrary. I believe exposure therapy provides one of the best evidence-based ways forward, helping us stand up to fear we need to squarely face. So today, whether you have a disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19.
This guide, "Thriving Mental Health Alongside COVID-19," is dedicated to my clients and the IOCDF and provides a thorough summary of the main steps of Exposure Therapy with me, with key tips for general mental health. May you be enriched by this!
Whether you have a mental disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Now, more than ever, we need stable footing to stand on. People go to every extreme. You don't have to. Mental health is about being grounded in reality, insomuch as we can grasp it.
Getting sick will happen. Yes, people die. Relationships break up and fail. Businesses go under. We might get it wrong. However...many people can experience health. Some people live with purpose and to the full (which is not the same as perfect). Relationships can be incredible. Businesses can thrive. We can get things right.
When I utilize the method of Exposure Therapy in counseling (a subset of Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), it involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. It is Gold Standard treatment for OCD & Phobias, and is a first line treatment for all Anxiety Disorders and PTSD. What we think happens is that relearning occurs, which for most increases confidence and decreases disruption in life when they follow the treatment. Exposure, then, gives us two opportunities:
2. To learn we can face it anyway.
Its principles connect us to some of the best of life: face the thing you have reason to face; gain the opportunity to live more fully.
This guide is a very brief summary of the main points of the exposure therapy process with me, particularly with clients who have OCD and Anxiety. Many of my clients actually are faring better in this crisis than people I have talked to and seen in the general public- and why wouldn't they?! They've been training and learning- and now it's game-time.
Click "Read More" for a Summary
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), the gold standard treatment for OCD, can be fairly straightforward once understood. However, certain nuances are crucial for facilitating learning, growth, and maximal fear disconfirmation (fancy terms for successfully overcoming fearful responses). Here are 10 tips- click on the picture for a downloadable version:
Adapted from: Abramowitz, J. S., & Jacoby, R. J. (2015). Obsessive-compulsive disorder in adults. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.
I am honored to be surrounded by incredible people who exhibit incredible strength and faith in the most trying circumstances. These past few weeks as the Coronavirus has led to increased fears, panic, product hoarding, and expressed racism, I have seen the stellar example of many clients and friends wading these uncertain waters with confidence, skill, and calm.
Many of you know that treating OCD and Anxiety Disorders is how I spend most of my time clinically. Despite the fact that the 'neurotypical' person may think those with disorders are probably “going crazy” right now with the Coronavirus (and it’s definitely been really hard for many), I have found in my practice much the opposite. I am observing right now during the Coronavirus pandemic how those who have trained themselves to persevere through difficult stressors and triggers- with intentional acceptance of uncertainty, mindfulness rather than obsession, and valued action rather than compulsion- are revealing how beneficial the training of the mind and heart is. I have personally experienced more frantic, panic-induced efforts by folks I’ve come in contact with outside therapy than inside my office. I’ve also seen several of my Christian clients reveal an incredibly deep faith that inspires me (even if they suffer with worry and anxiety).
For those of us as Christians, we can rely on awesome skills we develop in therapy, and it also needs to go deeper than skills. Here are some questions to help you consider the truth we stand on:
Are we walking by faith, not by sight?
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, ESV).
Do we believe nothing- nothing- can separate us from the love of God?
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Do we practice mindfulness in what's true?
“Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
Are we loving our neighbor (which is everyone- see Luke 10:25-37)? Considering others’ needs?
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
I hope you are encouraged- as I have been by others’ faith today- in where our focus as believers is to be. Faith. Hope. Love. The greatest is love.
Justin K. Hughes
If you have a child, significant other, or friend who has OCD, you likely know the suffering it can create. Or maybe you don’t; that’s okay. The unfortunate reality for most clients once they appear in my office is that OCD has culminated in tremendous levels of stress and disability. 14-17 years from the onset of OCD is the average needed to obtain evidence-based treatment. By this time, OCD is typically well-developed. Sometimes, it can function under the level of awareness, even when severe. Family members often feel guilty that they missed it for so many years. You are not alone. This article presumes basic knowledge of OCD, so if you are brand new to the topic, I recommend a primer, such as the following on my OCD Resources page: Intro brochure, ERP for OCD Presentation, and the IOCDF’s “What You Need to Know About OCD”
OCD is an extremely debilitating disorder as a whole, ranking as one of the top ten medical and mental illnesses in the world- right alongside such things as Heart Disease, Major Depression, and COPD, according to the World Health Organization. With 2 out of 3 people reporting severe impairment at some point in their lives (e.g., work, relationships, school), you can count on OCD to create an ever increasing set of problems- without effective treatment. Furthermore, around 90% have at least one comorbid mental disorder, such as Major Depression, Panic Disorder, or a Substance Use Disorder. OCD has a tendency to make sufferers “hostages"- feeling stuck in an ever-narrowing loop of behaviors and/or thoughts that usually seem nonsensical to the person themselves, which tends to drive even more shame. Families and support are collateral damage. It is crucial to identify the threat and connected suffering of OCD in order to fully address its impact- and to have the proper perspective and motivation in getting necessary treatment.
Do Your Research
Attempt to really understand your loved one’s suffering, and understand how to help, howa not to help, and how to stay healthy yourself. Finding effective support and treatment is crucial. You don’t have to have diagnosable OCD to be an incredible advocate. Myself and a majority of my OCD specialist colleague/friends do not have diagnosable OCD. Knowing treatments that are effective helps to stay grounded and focused. In short, a specific subset of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) known as ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) is the Gold Standard in treatment. SSRI medications (and clomipramine, a TCA) are used as the first line psychopharmacological treatments. Supportive psychotherapy is not evidence-based first-line treatment for OCD. You may love a counselor who is very supportive, but if they’re not doing some sort of exposures or behavioral experiments, and there’s not a noted clinical reason why they cannot, consider an OCD specialist, because they are not following clinical practice guidelines. Again, check out my Intro Brochure and ERP for OCD Presentation for more on the research and specifics.
Make the Unseen Seen
Taking OCD seriously involves seeing it- and you may help your loved one see it more clearly through your loving support. When it is beneficial to a client, I almost always recommend involving a supportive loved one at some point in treatment. We would consider it odd or unusual not to involve a family member in many other medical treatments. A major challenge with mental illness is making the unseen seen.
Be Realistic With Expectations
One of the roles I serve is setting expectations. Consider how a coach might observe, teach, encourage, and challenge based on a fitness or performance goal. I know OCD from the inside; you can, too. I want to prevent “injury” from occurring in clients who are overeager and might overwhelm themselves jumping in unrealistically- in order to make progress quicker than their skill and training can support. I’ve seen this occur when clients start with the hardest thing they can imagine doing without the support to do it- they usually get burned out or drop out of treatment altogether if they don’t redirect this focus into systematic, consistent, and sustainable work. Conversely, some sufferers have low motivation or may be depressed. Walking together in the trenches and valleys, I seek to boost their perspective to know there is hope when they don't feel it. You cannot “cure” / overcome core fears in OCD with a single exercise, so pushing a loved one to do something they are terrified of can backfire- reinforcing fear vs. disconfirming it; we need to consistently, systematically face fears by addressing with a strategy and a plan.
Be careful to not underestimate how much of a problem OCD can create- and in turn, how much work and growth is needed to learn to say no to all the compulsions that exist for an individual. When there are additional treatment factors (comorbidity and severity, among others, negatively influence outcomes), they can complicate the learning and growth process . Probably the most common error I see in practice is an underestimation of how much treatment and work is needed to accomplish clients' and families' goals (e.g., in terms of number of sessions, practices at home). We also want to be realistic about outcomes, i.e., getting better. Though the treatments for OCD are highly efficacious for most and can be life-changing in a short amount of time for some, practicing patience in your individual situation is key. No one case is exactly alike. You as a family member can help spell out hope or chaos in expectation-setting- helping your loved one in staying the course without being overly idealistic or nihilistic in their views of getting better.
Facilitate buy-in by reinforcing the principles of what it takes to get better. Validate growth- and always validate the person's value and importance, no matter how much they struggle. Remember to encourage yourself, too!
Support: Don't Accommodate or be Emotionally Explosive
Support needs to strike a balance between being overly-accommodating and overly-emotionally expressive (outbursts, hostility, negativity, etc.). The well-researched terms we use to describe these are Family Accommodation (FA) and Emotional Expression (EE). Break the Cycle!! Don’t Do Compulsions for them (by proxy). Begin (with a plan) to minimize your accommodation. Typically in therapy, I help to incrementally get rid of accommodation altogether without “pulling the rug out” too fast (i.e., in one day). Therapeutically, all client rituals must ideally be terminated to maximize outcomes. Helping a loved one ritualize only feeds the cycle. Don’t Give Reassurance. To do this well, you often need to be involved in the prior steps this article elucidates. It can be tricky to know what is reassurance and what is not. Ask questions of your loved one. If they are not open to sharing, you may have to do your best to set your own boundaries, make an informed guess, and base your limits on your own personal boundaries until they're willing to communicate further. Part of feeding obsessions involves engaging the content of obsessions with logic, emotion, and reactions. The person with OCD must learn to live their goals and values without following the content of obsessions. Be careful not to get pulled in, either through accommodation or emotionality. Offer to go to therapy with your loved one if they are willing. You can also gain much support by doing your own therapy, as well! Part of support may be helping covering costs of therapy. Just to be clear- you get to have your own emotions, whatever they are! But EE refers to when these emotions are expressed in harmful ways.
Make Space for your Own Growth and Boundaries
You are a person with your own thoughts, feelings, life to live and decisions to make. Having healthy boundaries for yourself and family is very important. Helping does not mean loss of your own identity and responsibilities. It is not over-extending, nor is it avoidance of problems. Review the chart above. Your situation is your situation; there is a lot of similarity and variety (homogenous and heterogenous) to stories around OCD. You will likely be encouraged at how others feel similarly; but you also have unique factors that make your story your own- be careful not to compare unnecessarily. For goal and boundary setting, Contingency/Behavioral Contracts might be helpful, especially if you are responsible for someone with OCD (i.e., a child), or if you just need clear guidelines of involvement (how and when to discuss obsessions, financial support, reinforcements and privileges, etc.). Your own support and therapy can help you with you own growth and boundaries. Refer to the IOCDF’s excellent tool to “Find Help.”
You can be a crucial source of ongoing recovery, similar to how a coach or trainer might help. We all need reminders, especially in dealing with a consistent need (exercise, diet, and chronic disorders). You can be part of the team surrounding a sufferer to help them be aware of any new compulsions or problems that may arise. You may want to communicate with them in advance about how to best bring up concerns when they are observed. You can be part of the team that cheers them on and helps with motivation! Remind them of their values and why they want to grow (i.e., to go to school, work, not be controlled by OCD, feel better, enjoy life, help others, grow as a person, etc.).
Practical Tools for You
I often have my parents and significant others complete several documents and incorporate various tools. Each situation will vary, but commonly I use:
If you have made it this far to read this article, you are quite likely a key support of someone who has OCD. It is then very likely that you care and want to make a difference. You rock. Keep up the good work.
Calvocoressi, L., Lewis, B., Harris, M., Trufan, B. S., Goodman, W. K., McDougle, C. J., & Price, L. H. (1995). Family accommodation in obsessive compulsive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152, 441-443.
Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Gillihan, S. J., Williams, M. T., Malcoun, E., Yadin, E., & Foa, E. B. (2012). Common Pitfalls in Exposure and Response Prevention (EX/RP) for OCD. Journal of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, 1(4), 251-257.
What You Need To Know About Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from https://iocdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What- You-Need-To-Know-About-OCD.pdf
An editor for the American Counseling Association reached out to me about OCD from a Specialists' perspective. (I was so proud of them for doing their research with multiple specialists!!). The following are excellent questions that may help inform their ACA magazine article in February 2020. Whether they utilize any of these or not, I hope they are helpful for you as they cover important questions to consider with regard to treatment.
"What presenting issues might bring these clients into counseling?"
"What are some “red flags” for counselors to listen for that might indicate OCD in a client who came in for something else (anxiety, ADHD, etc.)?"
If a counselor begins hearing the exact same things, worded or behaved in similar ways, this is a good indicator to watch out for. Many of my clients are good at exactly quoting themselves on what they've said before. Obsessions are repetitions on a theme; if you get good at catching the theme, you can usually spot an obsession miles away.
At its core, it's not remarkably difficult to identify criteria in OCD (in most straightforward cases) if a counselor brushes up on what they're looking for (dust off that DSM-5!).
Furthermore, if a client isn't improving from certain methods (especially things like Cognitive Restructuring in CBT), this is "Getting Stuck 101" and needs further assessment. Most of my clients have had prior experience with a counselor who had no idea how to treat OCD from an evidence based way and approached the same as regular old automatic negative thoughts. This is not typically helpful.
"What counseling methods/techniques can be helpful when working with clients with obsessive behavior and/or OCD? Please explain how this/these method(s) work well for this client population. If possible, please talk about a case example (without identifying information) who worked with you and showed improvement. What were his/her presenting issues, what methods did you use and what issues did you focus on in counseling sessions?"
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the GOLD standard treatment (which is a very specific subset of CBT). It is indicated as the starting point for all OCD treatment. This is a strong statement, but it is backed by the research (the most RCTs by far) and organizations like the IOCDF, APA, and so forth. SSRI (and Clomipramine, a TCA) medications are also first-line psychopharmacological treatments, though with less effect on average than ERP. Both combined can be helpful, though may not necessarily increase the overall benefit of just ERP alone. Another first-line treatment for OCD (though not the "gold standard") is Cognitive Therapy with Behavioral Experiments. Along with medications, it is seen as sometimes a more agreeable option for those who are hesitant to engage in exposure therapy (which intentionally and repeatedly provokes distress in order to respond differently- i.e., without compulsions).
Adjunct therapies, medications, and treatments are utilized. In the interest of brevity, research has discovered the integration of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and other techniques can be helpful to provide well-rounded treatment and/or facilitate the practice of ERP.
To share a classic example [identifying factors changed to protect confidentiality- this type of case is remarkably common], one woman came to me with severely distressing thoughts about harming her children (no history of harm or abuse). She knew it was irrational, yet it felt so real to her; the more these intrusive thoughts continued to appear, the more difficult it was for her to determine her intent from confusing feelings and "impulses" to stab her kids. Upon receiving a diagnosis of OCD, I thoroughly assessed history with symptoms, and educated on the CBT model for understanding OCD treatment with a rationale for CBT and ERP. We discussed medication options, to which the client was willing to pursue with their Psychiatrist. The client was very cooperative due to a high willingness and intrinsic motivation to be able to engage at home with her two children and spouse. As can be very typical, the stress also took a toll on most every area of life, making work difficult. Once we began ERP, we started with doable exposures while learning how to stay present with triggers and distress- without compulsing. Upon successful practice of more manageable triggers on their hierarchy, they- with the incredible support of their spouse and church and loved ones- made a jump in their exposure work that began with "scripts" (imaginal exposure stating/writing distressing thoughts and quickly progressed to holding knives and stating these feared thoughts aloud) and transitioned to practices situationally at home, holding knives and saying scripts aloud (in separate rooms appropriately not in front of their young children). The incredible support around this client, along with a sense of strong purpose, helped facilitate (this is part of ACT) the integration of ERP into daily life. They would be considered recovered at this point, scoring so low on the Y-BOCS (gold-standard assessment in rating severity) that their symptoms are sub-clinical. In relapse prevention planning, they understand the chronic nature of OCD and the necessity of staying on top of their good progress, with the plan to follow-up at occasional intervals for "booster sessions." I gain so much joy from stories like these.
"People with an OCD diagnosis may be taking medication and seeing other professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists). How could a counselor work in tandem with these other professionals? Please include a case example, if possible."
Coordinating care can be difficult, but worth it for the best client care! Although seamless communication and record exchange between providers is likely ideal, it just rarely happens in real life. Working within the space and limits that exist, I have found that outside of those very few therapists and Psychiatrists I can have near immediate communication with, it is still very helpful and feasible to at least request/give one way communication to a provider. In complex cases, it is almost unheard of for me to not outreach another provider that is connected somehow to shared treatment concerns. I think we need to be realistic about other providers' schedules and communicate what we can- how we can. This often looks like me leaving a Psychiatrist a voicemail after release is given- and not hearing back- but at least they have the information. It may be coordinating with another therapist who is treating other concerns. Early on, I used to welcome other counselors working at the same time on separate diagnostic concerns. Though I may work with someone now who is seeing another professional for something like, say, Depression, it is usually quite imperative that I make known to the patient and also the other provider the pitfalls of feeding compulsions through reassurance, ruminating, and so forth. This is a great opportunity for education of those who are not specialists in OCD. But OCD being as debilitating as it is (2 out of 3 people experience severe impairment at some point in their life), I need to work hard upfront to educate especially the patient about how hard they will need to work (and not undermine) their exposure therapy. Also, many other comorbidities can often improve significantly just by treating the OCD first.
"How, particularly, are counselors a “good fit” for helping clients with obsessive behaviors? How can they help people with OCD differently than a psychologist would?"
It has been my personal experience that my colleagues who are counselors (Master's level, typically), bring to the table incredible creativity and "outside the box" thinking. Many of the hands-on resources, videos, blogs, and social media that exist to help the sufferer of OCD often come from Master's level clinicians. I believe there is great flexibility many of my counselor colleagues have (which is a positive and a weakness all at the same time, sometimes lacking the rigors of adhering to the evidence based treatment protocols).
There are actually quite a few more Master's level clinicians than Psychologists, and there is a great need for more clinicians offering great treatment. Counselors can help fill this gap.
"As a practitioner who specializes in working with OCD, is there anything else you would want counselors who don’t specialize in this area to know?"
For many reasons, I love work with clients who have OCD. I have found they are some of the kindest, hardest working, conscientious individuals on this planet. This is where I believe many of their personality strengths arise once moving through pathology. It is a joy every day to see recovery, growth, and maturity bloom out of suffering.
"Any main take-aways to share?"
OCD Treatment can be so rewarding! It has very effective treatments for most, very clear evidence, incredible improvement that can be witnessed in a short period of time, and there are wonderful opportunities to get invested in this world with a community of professionals, sufferers, and supporters who are incredible.
~Justin K. Hughes
Those who know me know that I see people as individuals and hate to make generalizations. However, it seems to me that those suffering from OCD are among the kindest and most understanding people I have ever met.
This post was originally published on 02/13/2014 on my wordpress and is newly updated.
“Why can’t I stop thinking about this?” “Why can't I stop? I know it doesn't make sense.”
William went to the Middle East after his unit was deployed from Ft. Hood. Most of what he heard about soldiers’ experiences were rumors and media stories- he had no way to be prepared for what would happen. After nearly 6 months of swallowing sand stirred up by 110 degree winds, William had 5 days left until he would return home. Momentarily losing his hearing, all his senses were shaken when an IED tore shrapnel through his three closest friends. They were dead. Just like that. After being rushed by helicopter for triage medical care, William soon discovered he only narrowly missed death- the same shards of nails and rocks that killed his friends were found inches away from where he stood.
Returning home is where cleaning up the fragments took the longest. After being debriefed and allowed medical and family leave, Bill struggled getting back to civilian life. Some of the most difficult times he faced were trying to overcome his own unexpected reactions to situations, usually late at night where he would awake from a noise, pulling his wife down from the bed onto the floor to take cover. When he became calm, he was covered in sweat, visually stunned by recalling what had happened weeks before- and so embarrassed to be dragging his wife- literally- into the center of his problems.
This is trauma. This is the story of William’s PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Hopefully his story can help bring understanding to struggles faced by those dealing with trauma and respect for our service men and women.
It’s not very difficult to have some sense of empathy for William’s situation. It’s often much harder to understand another very real and very overwhelming problem. It is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You may be curious why this article spends so much time talking about PTSD, only to discuss OCD. Two reasons. OCD actually has some similar features and neurobiology to PTSD, and secondly, if we are to listen to the struggles of others, often we must start with something we do grasp a little more readily.
Whether a person is triggered into feeling distress from trauma or obsessions, their brain is becoming hyperactive in warning of a threat. This wonderful system when working properly can be nightmarish when the reactions surface out-of-context. Think of the panic you would feel if you saw someone almost being run over by a car- your fight/flight/freeze response would activate and prepare the body and mind. Now imagine it occurring at random times and being uncontrollable.
Despite popular references of, “I'm so OCD” and “He really likes the house OCD clean,” [FYI, OCD is not an adjective] this diagnosable mental health condition is a serious disorder- and far beyond a person’s immediate ability to just “stop it.” Because the anxiety and distress a person with OCD feels is so bothersome and intrusive, they naturally seek to alleviate it- sometimes with elaborate mental rituals to “do away” with the anxiety (e.g., counting, prayer, neutralizing statements) and sometimes with physical compulsions and avoidance to feel better (e.g., “I feel anxious when someone touches my clothes and need to change and wash them immediately”). To some people, this sounds "crazy." But in our age of neuroscience (and OCD is remarkably well established), we cannot deny scientifically the paint and suffering involved in the sufferer's life. Their mind- and often body- SCREAM with discomfort until they do something to alleviate it. And the compulsion works! Momentarily, at least for a bit. It problematically, though, reinforces the learning, connections, and neural pathways linked to disorder as opposed to reinforcing healthy, non-compulsive behavior.
To stand up to OCD, a person needs to ultimately eliminate all compulsions. What do we make of this? Do we expect the person with PTSD to just jump back in to just get on with their lives? Nope. Let me be clear with OCD (and this is also true of PTSD).
There is hope and very effective treatment.
We don’t have to understand, ultimately, to love. As many as 1-3 % of the population wrestle with this. Look around- that’s someone in your neighborhood or at the restaurant where you ate. Will you lend a helping hand to those who suffer? I will.
Justin K. Hughes
Check out more resources on my page dedicated to them:
This video and guide below were specially formulated to help you be mindful in an "Exposure-Friendly" way.
This one's a bit different from the average mindfulness practice you might be familiar with. The reason it's called "Exposure-Friendly" is that it is specially designed to help a person be mindful of whatever they are experiencing, not just attempting to feel better. This is a hallmark of exposure therapy: being able to tolerate distress without engaging in pathological responses (rituals, safety behaviors) that negatively reinforce fear. Distractions and relaxation when facing our fears can backfire (see the research at the end of the Guide). So if we need a different set of tools to face fear, here's one of them. I hope it helps.
Music: As Leaves Fall
Thanks to Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash for this beauty!
Perfectionism and OCD
What is perfectionism? Oxford dictionary defines it as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” That’s automatically problematic. Perfectionism leads to a circumscribed focus, stress, and suffering for not only individuals, but for loved ones nearby who feel the weight of being perfect.
Is this the same as OCD? Nope. OCD and perfectionism often get confused. They both can affect and drive distress in one another, but they are separate. OCD involves unwanted (intrusive) thoughts, urges, and impulses that cause distress; furthermore, compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that attempt to reduce distress or prevent something bad from happening. Perfectionistic manifestations of OCD, often referred to as “just right / not just right” fit this categorization. Separately, in Perfectionism, someone pursues “perfect” thought, behavior, or action initially out of interest or enjoyment (rather than to suppress an intrusive thought/urge/impulse, like in OCD). There are typically problems that go with this, however. So a difference between the two is that OCD is ego-dystonic and Perfectionism is typically ego-syntonic (you can check out my video here explaining the difference).
Examples of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors[4,5]:
I am a "recovering" perfectionist. And it’s a problem when I’m not, well, “recovering” from it. One of the mechanisms that keeps perfectionism going is the belief that it is helpful (this is a “Positive Belief” about perfectionism, and it is a cognitive distortion). When I succeed at a task- and especially if I get a lot of praise, it is a natural reinforcer that I must be doing well. However, if I spent 8 hours researching, writing, and proofing this blog today, that is problematic for me at this point in life (and I easily can spend that much time). What is a problem or not sometimes depends on the person and their situation- maybe a journalist would spend that much time or even more, but I am a full-time clinician with a family, church, volunteer involvements, and hobbies. If I make this post “perfect,” in my perfectionism, I will seriously miss out on other things.
This pursuit of perfection doesn't stop with one blog post. It will always generalize if allowed. So if I let it, the pressure of perfection will continue (and does, at times) to move on to other things like caring for my home, caring for people in my life, my relationship with others, my diet, exercise, my spiritual walk, my car, money, and so on. And being honest with you, these things are tied up in anxiety and simultaneously selfishness- attempting to control these things rather than to engage with them/others in a meaningful way by learning to lean into the fear and live based on what is valuable.
Parenting is probably the single biggest event that pressed me with the realization I need really challenge my perfectionism. There are two stark realities to me in life: I can either do my work/relationships/home life/etc. “perfectly” and end up in an ever narrowing scope of anxious overwhelm trying to keep all the balls in the air, OR learn to tolerate the distress that comes doing things "not just right" and focus on the big picture, growing towards what I love and value. And the reality usually is that in time, this fear habituates when not engaging in avoidance, rituals, or control strategies.
Whether in therapy or personal life, to change how I behave and think and respond in life, I need to be aware/monitor what it is that needs to change (good therapy, support, and resources such as on my website can help). Even if I know what needs to be done, if I can’t effectively observe and catch it when it occurs, I will not be able to change it. Next, I will need tools and strategies to effectively grow and mature. In therapy, some of these are Exposure Therapy, Cognitive Restructuring, and more. In essence, at the point of the problem I must be able to insert the solution- and consistently. Lastly, I want to continue to monitor and gain feedback to incorporate learning and solidify growth. I don’t want to oversimplify this- if you are having a problem with any of the areas I have discussed, please reach out to a competent trusted person and/or therapist.
Today I gave myself the time limit of 3 hours- start to finish- to research, write, upload and post. And it’s simultaneously stressful and joyous at the same time. I’m going to do a behavioral experiment and keep doing it- “testing” whether or not my choice(s) in leaning into my fear of failure a) doesn’t end up as bad as it feels like it will, and/or b) I was able to handle or face it anyway. We’ll have to see- I'm leaning in!!!
Justin K. Hughes
 First of all, it’s a whole mess to even get into a truly perfect standard- if I make and continue to make mistakes, I am not perfect. I cannot even begin to conceive what perfect is, then, since I would make a mistake in defining “perfect.”
 The Diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) may apply when a person pursues perfectionistic behavior to pathologically disordered levels.
 Grayson, J. (2014). Freedom from obsessive-compulsive disorder: a personalized recovery program for living with uncertainty. New York: Berkley Books.
 Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2015). Happiness is a choice: enhance joy and meaning in your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire.
"Ah sugar, ah honey honey. You are my candy girl, and you've got me wanting you." The Archies may have been describing a relationship with their lyrics, but that’s been me with my relationship to actual sugar.
I love added sugar. 5 years ago, I easily would:
I didn’t think much about it. Once I began to shift from a trim guy in my young 20’s to borderline overweight/obese by my late 20’s, I was introduced to research on the deleterious effects of consuming so much added sugar in my diet. But I also gained maybe the most crucial part of any health advice: the support to live it out.
The most significant early clinical and research voice for me was Dr. Mark Hyman, Director, Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. I was watching a documentary on Netflix in 2015 that featured him significantly. It added to my already growing knowledge and personal experience, which especially helped me a) stop compartmentalizing nutrition (150 calories from Coke ≠ 150 calories from vegetables) and b) look more closely at what I put in my body.
Bolstered by personal recovery in multiple areas of my life, and leaning on my wife who was super supportive of me, these convergences facilitated what I hadn’t been able to do prior:
One of my discoveries is that existing advice often conflicts, and (as with all things) can be driven by profit, greed, and ambition. Instead of getting embroiled in all these details, I began to think critically for myself and make a plan with support. Here’s the simplest advice that’s now supported relatively across the board:
Recommendations for Added Sugar:
Part of a healthy body, mind, and spirit involves an honest look at what we put in our bodies. Nutrition is, of course, one of the most important realities of daily life. Much success and suffering comes from our consumption and discipline around food- and in that regard, it’s not much different from other areas of life such as our thoughts and beliefs, exercise, generosity, and work and rest.
I’m nowhere near an expert in the food realm, and this post is more personal in nature. I hesitated writing it for a while so as not to make another one of those ‘Look at me now!’ posts. The last thing I want is for anyone reading this to feel shamed by a braggadocious post on self-improvement. I personally didn’t have a bunch of shame about my weight prior, nor would that have helped. I want to thank my sister-in-law, Camille, for encouraging me that people might benefit from my personal story. I hope it helps.
As a therapist, I walk with people every day through CBT and counseling to take action. Traditional medicine, articles, and diets all serve their purpose. My job is to help people make change, personalized to them, in the context of reality- that we must all live in, or not- only to our detriment.
If you take nothing else away from this, here are the keys I want to share:
 Added sugar is different than sugar as it naturally occurs, like in fruits and vegetables. See Harvard Health's post here.
 “Fed Up”- not that I endorse everything in it, but there were a couple key lessons that I have incorporated from this documentary.
 This whole resource is quite fabulous with lots of good research and narrative. I nerded out with it!
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear and anxiety. In fact, some variation of “do not be afraid” is the most common directive in Scripture, occurring in some fashion more than ‘do not steal,’ ‘do not kill,’ and even ‘love your neighbor.’
How do anxiety and fear work? When we study these constructs in research, we are understanding mechanisms through which the body/brain is informed to face a threat or danger. We can argue these responses are inherently good, with their purpose being survival, protection, and preparedness. Its activation results in the sympathetic nervous system being primed: adrenalin and noradrenalin are produced, cortisol increases, heart rate increases, blood flow moves to muscles and away from extremities, speed and depth of breathing increases, and many other physiological changes occur. I’m grateful to have these responses- when they are in context. Out of context, they suck, to put it bluntly. Problems like panic attacks, worry, phobias, obsessiveness, skin/hair picking/pulling, preoccupation, social fears, avoidance, and more can be quite terrible.
One of the things I love most in my walk with Christ is context. Direction.
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:5b-6, ESV).
What is being said here? Partly, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Since anxiety is a feeling of imminent threat- or in other words, it’s at hand- it’s very interesting that immediately before this phrase in Scripture we have another observation revealing a different type of imminence: “The Lord is at hand.”
In the context of the Lord being near we are told, “Do not be anxious.” This Greek word for ‘be anxious,’ μεριμνᾶτε (transliterated as “merimnate”), means to be divided and distracted, fearful, and caring for things that are out of context.
Sounds a lot like anxiety disorders, right? Yep. Or even just day to day worry/anxiety? Yep. When a person feels anxiety and fear and misinterprets this as significant, a person’s entire life and values can shift to focus on whatever is the subject of their fear, whether classified medically as a disorder or not. This can lead to a preoccupation with avoiding something or someone (spiders, relationships, sex, social situations) to obsessively checking to make sure everything is okay (car, stove, locks, bodily sensations, health, perfectionistic behavior), or pursuing something (money, security, approval of others)- and MUCH more.
To help work through these things and avoid pathological responses, I believe we need supports like therapy, help from friends, breathing techniques, mindfulness, exposure techniques, etc. This only underscores our complexity (we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” yet simultaneously all messed up) and highlights what we are told in Scripture about our limits. We can rightly use these tools to help us, just as we do nutrition, medicine, community, and so forth. But there is one thing these tools can’t do on their own: attach us to the very God of the universe and give us a lasting hope and focus- with meaning and purpose at the highest level.
So God gives us a jewel of a passage in Philippians 4 where we are kindly reminded what our attention is to be on (context), and a little bit of how we can live it out (practice). It is well known within the anxiety treatment world that even the most effective therapies (here’s looking at you, classic CBT, which I love and specialize in) often need supports to connect to larger beliefs, values, and commitments (ACT, DBT, and MI are some of the most common modalities). If we don’t connect a person to larger motivations and goals than “I just want to feel better,” it is often near impossible for a person to grow with sustainable change for the long term because they don’t have a sufficient reason and value to keep them invested. God gives us this.
Want more? Well, there’s two tips in the next two verses, Philippians 4:8-9
“Anxious for nothing” will take a lifetime to put into practice. I’m grateful to have the opportunity.
 Continued misinterpretation and repetitive experience of these symptoms worsens disorder, like in Panic Disorder, GAD, Phobias, OCD, PTSD, and more.
 Bible Hub. (n.d.). 3309. merimnaó. Retrieved July 13, 2019, from https://biblehub.com/greek/3309.htm
 I think it’s very important to note that we have to be very careful with saying anxiety/fear is sin- and what we mean by this. A lot of Christians get tripped up on this, and many, ironically, become more anxious. The extent of this point would likely require an entire book, so I will not take the space here to elaborate.
 Psalm 139:14; Genesis 1:26-27
 Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:23
 Psalm 73:26; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
 Oh yes, there’s a whole lot more in Scripture on this topic. Let's not reduce a couple sentences into a "how-to-manual."
Addiction is confusing. It is confusing to seasoned professionals. Let’s just admit it.
It is not a specified diagnosis under the DSM or ICD; it’s only broadly referential to a sometimes amorphous categorization.
Take a look at a broad array of definitions (some even from reputable research organizations), which emphasize sometimes different things:
Clarity through the confusion
While still in the middle of a ‘call to arms’ in clarifying Addiction is, we ultimately have a very stable understanding of the symptoms/criteria of problematic behaviors, and most of the time, how to treat them.
Substance Use and Addictive behaviors do exhibit many consistencies despite the actual substance or reward behavior pursued, and they respond to similar treatments. Regardless of the organization, the following are usually consistent details across definitions:
"Types" of Addicts
There is an extensive history of attempts to categorize addiction, through “typologies.” Prior to scientific research, which began with E.M. “Bunky” Jellinek, there were many attempts to understand the mystery of addiction, but mostly from an observational or anecdotal standpoint.
We don’t have any consensus yet, but why is it important to know what type or level or continuum a person is on? At a minimum, we need to understand where a person falls on a continuum if we are to treat effectively.
Here is one continuum of use problems (Adapted from Earleywine, M. (2016). Substance use problems (pg. 2). Göttingen: Hogrefe.):
As I like to say, "Don’t drive your lawnmower on the freeway." Just like you wouldn’t do this (I hope), don’t assume that therapy alone, or a doctor alone, or worse, doing nothing- alone- will be enough “horsepower” to get you where you need to go.
Effective treatment requires applying the factors necessary to get the job done. The person who abuses a substance occasionally on weekends will need to be treated different than the person who is “hooked” on something.
Two categories of professional treatment exist, with incorporation of several additional supportive factors:
Besides treatment, supportive factors often include, but are not limited to:
Take addiction seriously. Don't know whether your are addicted or not? Find out.
Addiction is a complex- bio-psycho-social-spiritual- issue. Problems with drugs, alcohol, or behaviors on a spectrum of addiction cause substantial disability, even death. And here's the kicker- people who have problems with these often experience lapses in judgement and poor insight into having a problem.
Start with a strong assessment by a competent professional who is trained and experienced. Look for evidence based treatments (think CBT or Motivational Interviewing). Advocate for truth and be assertive. Ask hard questions of your provider. When providers get shifty or start to recommend some unusual treatment when you need a first line treatment, exercise caution.
I'm Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC, and I specialize in the treatment of Addiction through CBT and Motivational Interviewing (MI). As always, please like or follow me, using whatever platform you prefer. Also, subscribe for meaningful content regularly!
The Myth of Disappearing Distress. If I do the right things, I won't have to face suffering, right?
It's easy for me as a therapist to exhort my clients to stay focused on the prize DESPITE the distress they feel. How easy it is to get off track! And while it's also easy for me to tell someone else this, it can be very cumbersome to do in practice. I, too, struggle to keep focused when challenges hit. But I'm always best prepared when I lean on my team: #support #faith #accountability #truth.
In Vivo Exposure
Directly facing feared objects or situations, examples include:
Getting on a flight, touching a doorknob that feels “contaminated,” not going back to check a lock, or going to a social gathering.
Good exposure attempts to match the content and detail of a person's fear as close as possible. So, for example, if a person fears “going crazy” in a social setting, the best exercise will be working up to facing that, not just exposing to the thought or word. On the other hand, if the fear is that a person will have inappropriate impulses (to harm, sexually, etc.), sitting with the intrusive thought and being present will serve best.
Imaginal exposure involves accessing the content of fears and anxieties through cognitive means. For example, a fear that someone will fail, make the wrong decision, harm someone, die, or choose the wrong relationship are not accessed by activating these life occurrences. They are addressed imaginally.
There are many ways to practice Exposure imaginally, but the most common are writing scripts, stories, listening to recordings, watching videos, or using visualization.
To be clear, Imaginal exposure often is the most confusing and hardest to grasp of exposure practices, as it seems to be creating negative thoughts or “bringing” unrealistic and negative thoughts on- the seeming antithesis of most of psychology and cognitive therapy. But what is really done here is only facing what a person is already experiencing, thinking and feeling.
Intentionally bringing up physical sensations that are feared, such as:
Heart racing, shortness of breath, sweaty palms.
Ways to do this when a person's health allows are breathing through a cocktail straw, breathing rapidly, or sitting up quickly.
Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure
With the advent of new technology, we have a recently emerging type of exposure. Some may class Virtual Reality into imaginal exposure, but it can be seen as a cross between in vivo (situational) and imaginal. This is especially helpful with treating disorders such as Flying Phobia, where the access to an actual plane and flight to practice can be cost-prohibitive and difficult.
What is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that is practiced in Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is indicated as a first line treatment for a number of disorders such as
Exposure therapy helps clients to systematically confront fearful stimuli along with changing fearful responses. This relearning increases confidence and decreases disruption in life. Over time, discomfort and fear typically decreases through active engagement rather than avoidance, suppression, neutralization, or ritualization.
The evidence base is very strong for its use and effectiveness, though it is currently only applied a minority of the time in clinical settings.
How Do You Do Exposure Therapy?
The principles of exposure may be simple, but the specifics- personalized to any one individual- involve many working parts.
According to Dictionary.com, their word of the year is "Misinformation." Defined as "false information that is spread," misinformation occurs "regardless of whether there is intent to mislead."
Misinformation, and its brother, disinformation, can be harmful. Clearly. Though much of the current state of discussion around this concerns external affairs. Much of what we are responsible for at least begins internally (how we respond and engage).
Aligning our thoughts, beliefs, and behavior with reality- what's true and realistic- is a crucial "mechanism of action" that helps facilitate positive outcomes. This is particularly true in the method of therapy I use- CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy),
We know that cognitive distortions [click for pdf list] only prevent us from succeeding and growing. These errors are harmful especially when they are consistent approaches to thought, such as All-Or-Nothing Thinking (I missed my workout today; I might as well skip this week), Mental Filtering (I know they said they enjoyed meeting me, but they must not like me because they talked more to other people), and jumping to conclusions (I just know that she got off the phone quickly because she thinks I'm an idiot!). The deeper these go, the more impactful they are and harder to break.
So in a world of misinformation, make sure you first tell yourself the truth, whether it's difficult or comforting. In this time of the year that is special, wonderful, challenging, or downright awful for some, what can you do?
Be realistic. Tell yourself the truth, and to others. Align your thoughts, beliefs, and actions with commitment, purpose, and meaning (and if you're not sure what yours is, find it with help!), and try to get as close to what's honest and accurate. Be a good researcher (humble). Don't get snowed by misinformation. Give the gift of realistic, truthful thinking. Your brain will thank you (and probably everyone else will, too).
Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!
Want a surefire way to experience more gratitude? Be grateful.
I'm not trying to sound trite; those who practice gratitude are more grateful. I struggle to apply this discipline myself. But when I do, I see the world differently. Enjoy the following video (thanks to my brother for passing along).
$1.6 Billion. That's 1,600 x 1 MILLION Dollars. For the person who won roughly that amount in South Carolina (and the rest of us):
Would it surprise you that your emotional well-being really doesn't improve by becoming wealthy? There’s been a host of research in recent years that look into happiness and money. Possibly the most commonly known one is the National Academy of Sciences study on well-being and money.
This study’s now famous $75,000 mark suggests that a person’s emotional well being (how they feel day-to-day) AND their evaluation of life (their overall perspective of how they are doing) improves up to the point of earning $75k per HOUSEHOLD in the United States. Beyond this mark, emotional well-being doesn't significantly improve, though a person will evaluate their life as better if they earn beyond this mark. To quote their findings, “We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being” (Kahneman, et al. 2010).
So what do "happy money" spenders do? Research by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton in Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending (2014) reveals how money is spent makes the crucial difference in happiness.
Are you making the most of what you have? Are you caught up in materialism and consumerism? Today is always a great day to do something different.
Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC
Do I want this, or do I not? Is this my actual desire, or what I don't want? Does this thought or desire define me? What if it's terrible or horrible?
Sometimes the things I think about are because I value them or desire them.
Sometimes the things I think about are because I don't value them or desire them.
What the heck?
Egosyntonic and Egodystonic are two psychological terms to describe phenomena of thoughts/urges that are synonymous and antonymous to what a person desires or wants. Sometimes our thoughts reflect very much what we desire or want, but around 90% of people endorse having "intrusive thoughts," or unwanted thoughts.
It is crucial to do a good functional analysis on a thought/behavior to determine whether someone is doing something in order to pursue- or to avoid- the very same thing.
Yesterday and today both I witnessed bad car wrecks. I haven’t seen a car wreck in over two years. Not only have I been more cautious driving since, today I caught myself telling my wife possible reasons for seeing two crashes in a row.
“Hey babe, maybe people are absent-minded with summer and vacations. Be careful.”
However, I inferred meaning that may have nothing to do with what actually happened. Do you ever do that? Read into what your significant other is saying? What your clients are thinking? Make an assumption? We all do that. Decisions. Determinations. Judgments.
I work with thoughts and thinking day-in and day-out. A big part of my job is to help folks live in reality. Correcting distortions and errors in their thinking is a large part of this. Of course, as a human being, I experience this just as much as the next person. It is a discipline to not only look to logic and reason, but also to connect with emotions and experience- and attempt to be grounded.
I hope I always continue to work on this.
So the reasons why a nice Mercedes got its hood completely crumpled may not really be in my purview. Nothing wrong for me to guess. However, it is significant for me to stay aware that my thoughts stick close to reality, because the further they diverge from it in day-to-day life, the more likely I am to make determinations that are wrong. The more I do this, the more firmly rooted my beliefs become. My emotions will follow my beliefs. And my beliefs determine my course. My course affects others. Others affect history. See where this is headed?
Incredibly sad is the news that in a matter of days, two revered, loved, and famous celebrities committed suicide. This morning I was hit by discovering that after Kate Spade ended her life, Anthony Bourdain also ended his. After I prayed for their families, I knew I needed to send out this blog.
Suicide is an incredibly complex issue. Let me be simple at the risk of sounding reductionistic. Working in various settings in mental health for around 13 years, I have seen incredible hope bloom out of the desolate landscape of deep, dark depression. I have seen hope abound where there seems to be no hope. Personally, I have lost a friend, a neighbor, and a fellow college colleague to suicide over 15 years- and those are just the closest to me. There’s more. It’s so sad.
But there is hope.
How can I say this? I see it every day. None of us can ever fully control even our own best intentions for ourselves, let alone outcomes for others. Even as a counselor, I don’t have any more ultimate power to stop someone from committing suicide. Treatments that work for most are readily available. Treatment is often very effective. Sometimes several tries and different types of programming are needed. But you must take a step. Maybe it is to help, maybe it is to seek help.
Things that don’t work:
Things that do work:
If you or someone you love struggles, please seek help! My industry’s entire focus is helping people. Please call 911 or go to the hospital if your life- or someone else’s- might be in danger. There is no shame in this. Reach out to a therapist who is experienced in treating your concerns. May you find hope for yourself or others- hope that runs deeper than the saddest and darkest moment.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Look under “Crisis” or find other helpful resources.
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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