This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
My daughter Hattie went into hoarding mode this Halloween. Within 5 minutes, she was in MEGA-CUMULATION mode. Emily and I got some good parenting moments; “Hattie, you can choose 2 items from that basket.” (We had to say that about 30 times.)
I laugh often when she’s around food, toys, or playground equipment- like an old prospector she stakes her claim. She is offended that others dare lay claim to something she thinks should be hers! How dare they!
Now I’ll point the laughter at myself; I am not really that different. I’ve just become more savvy at being socially adept at my control attempts.
Hoarding of items to feel secure is a fairly natural response of our human nature, ranging in extremes. A scarcity mindset, i.e., “feast or famine” or to obsessively “protect what’s mine,” though, is selfish and self-focused. It does not “love your neighbor as yourself.” I recommend for myself today- and for you- to look in the mirror every once in a while and ask this tough question:
What drives you? Fear-based scarcity? GOD- as your provider? Something else?
A story may help illuminate the question. The Hebrew, ‘man hu’ means “It is manna,” and in English, “What is it?” This manna was an incredible food God provided refugee Israelites fleeing from a brutal autocracy that had enslaved them. It's all part of the incredible history of the Jewish people. God accomplished this over many years and utilized several key players, the most famous being Moses. In delivering Israel from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God led them out through the leadership of a very imperfect man who likely had Social Anxiety Disorder, fulfilling incredible promises, miracles, and almost unbelievable wonders. It's one of the best deliverance stories, maybe in the history of history. If you haven't read it, please do so in the Book of Exodus.
So imagine being born into slavery, and you gain total freedom from an overbearing despot. But in order to get away, you must go through the desert. I feel tired and thirsty already.
In their refugee state, God promised the Jewish people refuge. But it wasn’t a magical transportation to heaven. Just days after they were freed, they felt the heat of the desert. They had to walk miles and miles. They complained. Only one of the seemingly unbelievable ways God provided for them was through fast, convenient, and sustaining food. It was manna (Exodus 16), which was given in the morning and quail at night. They were already complaing so much they said they wanted to go back to slavery because they had it better in Egypt (*face palm*). In addition to complaining, there was hoarding (Numbers 11) in desperation, lacking reliance on God. I can only guess fear would have been involved.
These details, with thousands of years of perspective can make it seem ridiculous to some when we read on paper or pixels. Why wouldn’t you just trust God when he frees you from slavery and performs many miracles before your eyes? I’m afraid my heart isn’t different. I am the same when I lack trust in God by faith.
What if you have an Anxiety or other Disorder that gives you an extra kick in the teeth? Something that makes these things extra difficult? First of all, God is patient (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 1 Peter 3:9). Secondly, God asks us to seek Him by faith in all things, just like everyone else (Hebrews 11:6; 2 Timothy 2:4).
I have an anxiety disorder myself. And God has been incredibly faithful and gentle with me, while also lovingly disciplining me (see Hebrews 12), so that I keep seeking him. If you fall into a scarcity mindset [check out my post “Developing A Growth Mindset”], welcome to the club of being human, but if you also have a disorder that makes it even more difficult to walk by faith over fear, welcome to another club that is very large, indeed; close to half of all people qualify for one mental disorder at some point in their lives. Remember, God is patient. God also still asks us to seek Him by faith, just like everyone else. Sometimes walking by faith means praying, sometimes resting, sometimes therapy, sometimes talking, sometimes serving...you get the gist.
As with the Israelites during the Exodus, God accomplished many things over many, many years- and He still is. The Israelites feared, complained, got overwhelmed, and tried to stuff their pockets- directly lacking faith in what God was telling them and showing them. God was patient nonetheless, while he disciplined them. He’s asking us to faith. Faith that God is your provider. Not therapy. Not a nation. Not your employer. Not yourself. Not a president. Not a parent. Not your 401k.
Days out from the "great candy grab of 2020," my child's brain experienced the indelible impact of poignant pleasure: she asked daily after this if she could go to neighbor’s front porches!! As I raise her I am prayerful that she will learn well to take her fears and turn to God (and to never be ashamed to get help through CBT or medications). I pray she becomes aware of her God-given feelings and desires, and can ultimately be led back to the rock that is Christ- who is the realization of her greatest hopes and dreams.
Also, Candy is nice, too. I’ll take both, please. :)
Teddy pumped the sanitizer bottle for the second time in three minutes. “I know, I know, it doesn’t help when I haven’t touched anything else, but I want to be sure. You never know these days, right?” Freda waits to enter gatherings and meetings until everyone else has shown up- “It just helps me know I won’t run the risk of embarrassing myself.” Hassan skips driving over tall bridges. “Maybe it adds time to my commute, but I once heard of a bridge that collapsed, so you never can be too careful.”
Clinically, Safety Behaviors (aka “False Safety Behaviors”) are “unnecessary actions taken to prevent, escape from, or reduce the severity of a perceived threat” (APA PsycNet, 2020). Pursuing safety in a healthy context is valuable and will keep you alive- this is why work sites have a key motto: “Safety First.” However, notice the word “unnecessary” in the definition of a safety behavior.
If you feel fatigued, are a procrastinator, overwhelmed, anxious all the time, or just "stressed out," safety behaviors may be at play. When people start to have problems with my opening examples, they may still think that their behaviors aren't necessary to consider or aren't harmful in any way. I know! It's really tricky to differentiate at times, especially when many things we do, depending on context, can be helpful OR harmful. But imagine if there's 1,000 little examples in a day of double-checking, reassurance seeking, second-guessing- every extra second spent, movement taken, or second-guess made leads to extra stress, processing, and/or energy. When a person has a disorder like Generalized Anxiety, PTSD, Specific Phobia, Social Anxiety, and more (in OCD call them by a different term: compulsions), safety behaviors must be addressed for robust recovery.
We can categorize safety behaviors into several different types.
Any of the above might be healthy for any one person. It must be functionally assessed (what is the function of a behavior or thought?) to determine if it’s helpful or pathological (disordered). Using sanitizer after touching doors in a pandemic looks different than outside the pandemic. Checking in on your Amazon order status with an important order may help you plan your day. Having a baby monitor you look at for fun or in case of emergency can offer flexibility and safety. But for every positive example of these, there's an example that feeds fear: compulsive sanitizer use, online checking, or obsessive fear about a baby's health. You have the opportunity to evaluate your own head and heart (and may I suggest having some help with friends in the know, a therapist, a mentor).
Let's take Social Anxiety Disorder. Jenny learned to "cope" with her social fears starting in adolescence by just saying she was shy when around people. She would avoid gatherings where she had to interact with people she didn't know well, get her family to talk for her, and always carried her phone in case she needed to put in ear buds and look down. When she got to college she began to realize that events and activities she wanted to do felt really difficult. Making friends was a substantial challenge and led to shame and anger at herself and others. She couldn't place her finger on it, but felt embarrassed when talking with others and would often feel hot, her face became flush, and she would slip on her words. Her answer was to avoid and go back to her dorm to listen to music, quickly feeling better. She would later replay interactions in her mind and would run multiple mental scenarios before any social interaction. Jenny didn't realize that these were avoidance, distraction, and mental rumination/checking. They are safety behaviors, and they made her anxiety worse- much worse.
In therapy, your history will be gathered and rapport ideally built with your counselor. People who come to see me are so often relieved they're not alone, crazy, weird, or bad for struggling. How treatment goes depends on the person and their condition being treated, but transdiagnostically, when safety behaviors impair or limit a person, well want to do three key things:
Here's a personal example of how I've integrated this CBT work into my own life. I have the actual ability to speak and teach in public, write articles, and provide quality therapy. At any given time, I have had/do have various triggers to fear. For example, I gave a talk that was highly rated by all attendees (5 stars by 95%). One person literally stood up and started openly disagreeing during the talk over one quote (from an evidence based source) I had shared. I still don't know what the problem was, because it was ultimately inconsequential to the big picture, but something apparently 'hit a nerve.' Though I was still friendly with the person came redirected to talk afterwards (they didn't take me up on the offer), I unfortunately let this impact me for a bit, avoiding talks for about 9 months after, ruminating on what I did wrong and could have done better, and scanning groups of people in case my "heckler" was ever there again. I was living in fear and giving into safety behaviors.
I had always expected my nerves would calm down a bit after giving talks for 5-10 years. But unfortunately, I hadn't yet integrated CBT work in safety behaviors into my life, and so my stress remained stagnant, though I did engage in my goals (which involves public speaking). At the almost 15 year mark of giving talks, I now work on cutting out rumination at times I don't need to be thinking (going to bed, in the bathroom before a presentation, etc.), saying yes to any talk that's within my goals and expertise, and so forth. And the result is striking. My most recent presentation I gave had me observing to my wife, "Hey babe, this is really cool- I had a couple hours this morning where I didn't even think about it!" Nor was I very stressed. This takes time and growth.
You don't require a clinical diagnosis to grasp the value and benefit of catching and releasing safety behaviors. In fact, there's so much potential for the tools that almost anyone can benefit from them, whether you want to learn to work quicker, be more gentle with yourself, increase your processing speed and/or general "bandwidth" of stress tolerance.
In Conclusion. So in our world (especially the Western world) where safety is everything, go ahead and take a pause and evaluate some of your thoughts and behaviors. Ask for feedback from someone you respect (or find someone who can speak honestly to you). Do you have any limits in any sphere of life from checking, reassurance, safety aids, avoidance, or mental maneuvers? Do people say you're "tightly wound," perfectionistic, demanding, or unrealistic? Are you overly cautious? Are most people around you doing things you'd like to do but just can't? Go find the ways you "play it safe" but don't need to, and your life will be better for it.
APA PsycNet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-52029-002
Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: exposure to corrective information. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 20–35.
Blakey, S. M., Abramowitz, J. S., Buchholz, J. L., Jessup, S. C., Jacoby, R. J., Reuman, L., & Pentel, K. Z. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of the judicious use of safety behaviors during exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Behaviour Research and Therapy, 112, 28-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.010
Korte, K. J., Norr, A. M., & Schmidt, N. B. (2018). Targeting Safety Behaviors in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders: A Case Study of False Safety Behavior Elimination Treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 71(1), 9-20. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20180001
Riccardi, C. J., Korte, K. J., & Schmidt, N. B. (2017). False safety behavior elimination therapy: A randomized study of a brief individual transdiagnostic treatment for anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 46, 35–45.
Salkovskis, P. M., Clark, D. M., Hackmann, A., Wells, A., & Gelder, M. G. (1999). An experimental investigation of the role of safety-seeking behaviors in the maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37, 559–574.
Schmidt, N. B., Buckner, J. D., Pusser, A., Woolaway-Bickel, K., & Preston, J. L. (2012). Randomized control trial of False Safety Behavior Elimination Therapy (F-SET): A unified cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety psychopathology. Behavior Therapy, 43, 518–532.
Telch, M. J., PhD. (n.d.). False Safety Behaviors: Their Role in Pathological Fear. Retrieved November 10, 2020, from https://labs.la.utexas.edu/telch/files/2015/08/Safety-Behavior-Handout-latest-8.1.15-1.pdf
Wells, A., Clark, D. M., Salkovskis, P., Ludgate, J., Hackmann, A., & Gelder, M. (1995). Social phobia: the role of in-situation safety behaviors in maintaining anxiety and negative beliefs. Behavior Therapy, 26, 153–161.
I recorded a full length episode for the OCD Stories with Stuart Ralph, based in London, this summer. He just dropped the final version. You can listen FREE on all streaming platforms.
One of my goals was to speak in a way where most people could connect or find something beneficial in this podcast. I hope you enjoy!
How much do you charge?
This is a very loaded question, indeed. I’m going to give you straight answers to how much therapy actually costs, and why. If you are a consumer of health services, you’ve likely asked it many times between doctors, dentists, and insurance plans. Therapy is no different, yet it is unique in many ways. Knowing your role in securing treatment and its cost can help you achieve a win-win.
Why are you writing this?
More than a therapist, I am an advocate. This post has been a long time coming, and clinicians rarely talk about money on a personal level. When there’s a good reason to do so, it’s an opportunity for growth. This post is intended to help:
When a good or service is offered, utility and/or providing for a human need or want occurs. In fact, this is why the term “goods and services” uses the word, ‘goods.’ In less than ideal circumstances, either the service is not provided (or provided poorly), or the exchange is NET negative (i.e., the provider loses money or the consumer can’t afford a service important to them).
IDEAL: Good Service Provided <--> suitable exchange (money) = both parties win
How much is an average therapy session?
Here are common rate structures:
What is a realistic win-win?
We live in the real world. And while we can seek to change things we can change (see below under the “Systems that be” section), acceptance of what we can’t is a crucial part of mental health. Work within the reality you exist.
There will always be exceptions to the rule, and the above is no different. For example, some people offer excellent services through charity, passion for helping, faith, or other reasons. Of course, this doesn't mean that anything is free- these services are simply subsidized through that person and often additional income streams like books and speaking fees. A great example in Dallas would be the experts Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. They offer free community-based marriage building seminars and trainings (Safe Conversations). Dr. Reid Wilson offers a free 2 day intensive every year at the Annual Conference of the International OCD Foundation Many churches and places of worship do the same.
How much clinicians make.
Income ranges wildly, from those famous clinicians to practice owners to social workers to private practice and more. I don’t know anyone who’s getting rich off of therapy. Most of us got into counseling/therapy as a helping profession in the first place. I told my wife when we were dating I would very likely make less than her as a nurse at a prominent Dallas hospital, and I wanted to make sure she was okay with that. Let’s just say she didn’t dump me. :) The median Master’s Level counselor in the U.S. makes about $50-75k per year. Besides gross income, clinicians have a lot of other factors that take off the top:
I’ll let you do the math.
So yes, I get it. Therapy can be expensive. If my clients say “this is expensive,” I agree. “Yes, it is. You are making a sacrifice. Thank you so much for your prioritization in being here. My goal is to help you reach your goals and get you on your way as soon as is reasonably possible (unless you want to stay around longer).”
I hope this post is helpful in helping you make a decision or in supporting others considering decisions for therapy in our current world. Remember the old truism: “you get what you pay for.” Or maybe what somebody else pays for.
 How do I come by those figures? They’re rarely published, but it is my personal experience and through research and conversations behind the scenes. This makes it subjective, but I hope it helps.
Addendum (i.e., for further reading)
It is worth noting that there are whole systems at play at any given points with healthcare. it is not the purpose of this article to get into these complexities, but I do want to at least acknowledge that they are there and need addressing in their own right.
Depending on where you were born, your skin color, or any factor of diversity, you may face a substantially harder time in life pursuing things that come easier for others. That sucks. It’s unfair; it’s unjust. I want you to know you are seen. You are heard. You have value, whoever you are.
This is where advocating for the plight of the hurting and the poor is so key. I hope you will join me in doing so if you can. Or if you are hurting and in need that you will check out one of the many resources listed on my page, https://www.justinkhughes.com/resources.html.
I hope readers will be careful in making judgments or interpretations about the intentions of others (I’m talking to you, clinicians, consumers, and advocates). PERIOD. That underscores a basic principle of CBT and emotional health.
Therapists as a whole struggle at times with charging anything. I've been there, and I still wrestle with cases of extreme need and how to approach. I remember when I helped run an intensive program for teens struggling with substance abuse. One of the young teens once exclaimed, “For $20 per person, you guys are getting rich.” We had about 15 kids a night, for 3 hours per day clinical and 1 hour admin., with about 4 staff members and an owner. That’s $15 average per employee, or Costco’s minimum wage. Some of my colleagues who charge the most are also most involved in advocacy and a number of outside free resources, be it free clinics that they put on, short-term workshops, educational content online, training of clinicians and lay persons, etc. In fact, though I may be biased here, I think that some of those that charge the most are more involved in these efforts. If they're making a decent living what they're doing, it can actually free up their time, energy, and passions for more advocacy and help.
Paying less or more does not have to be an inherent good or bad; it's often a question of many factors and considerations that you must weigh for yourself and with your loved ones. As I tell all of my clients, advocate for your health! People who are assertive in their treatment get the best outcomes.
Experiment: Look at the picture above. What do you feel? Those feelings are real. However, how you interpret what you feel makes all the difference (whether you think cats are cute, a nuisance, practical, fun, allergic furballs, or pure joy).
I see a common phrase that goes around: “Feelings are not facts.” While I agree with the inherent sentiments, it’s wrong. Feelings are facts. Your interpretation of feelings may not be factual.
Actual feelings are factual insomuch as they reflect disparate and connected processes within the body and mind, occurring in real time. They give you information. Sensations and emotions link us in to a wealth of details. Researchers have long struggled to pinpoint feelings exactly (this is one of the reasons why there are no definitive feelings charts/references and why therapists will list anywhere from 3 basic emotions and as many as 100 or more), and though neuroscience is helping us understand more what occurs biologically in the brain, the conclusion is far from definitive.
Making this separation that feelings are facts may seem a bit pedantic- splitting hairs. My first supervisor I ever had in my internship would tell me something along the lines of this: “Separating feelings from thoughts is foundational for emotional intelligence.” Agreed. And it’s just plain healthy. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) helps us get really good at being honest with the interaction between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Problems with anxiety, depression, dissociation, psychosis, narcissism, and all of mental health at some level deals with how much a person is living in reality. None of us are 100% or will be perfect at it. However, we can grow. Do our thoughts line up with the bigger picture? Are thoughts and emotions congruent? Do behaviors fit what we believe? If I feel chest tightness, racing heart, or my stomach drop when I’m around another person, the conclusion is not necessarily that that person is bad or I need to get away. Yes, sometimes that is the case. I have also had these feelings around people I trust implicitly. There are a number of factors that can lead to feelings- amount of sleep I got last night, hunger, and stress in general, to name a small few.
So when people say feelings are not facts, I understand what they’re saying and support the gist. I think your mental health will thank you, though, if you appreciate that your body and brain is created to give you information- and that information is factual insomuch as it exists and is connected to you. How you interpret the meaning may not be factual. If you separate these two, you will better honor what your body and mind are telling you, while, if you pursue growth, you can learn to line up your life more congruently for your mental health and the wellbeing of those around you.
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
America today sees one of the highest levels of anxiety of any place in the world. We are clamoring for attention online, wanting to be seen, to be loved. Suicides by teens and young adults appear to be higher than they’ve been in years. We are the wealthiest nation on the face of the planet, and we can’t rest. We have more than anyone else (as a whole), and we can’t stop. Children who are now becoming adults are feeling this crushing weight of anxiety and expectation (whether on themselves or from outside)- ‘get the degree and the top job, get married, have the house, have children, don’t screw it up.’ And we know that anxiety has biological and genetic influences, but these are not 100% causal by any means. Our response makes a difference.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or GAD, the disorder most connected to general worries) is more impairing in higher income countries. The occurrence of GAD (lifetime prevalence) boiled down to:
I think the ultimate answer lies in Christ. Hebrews 4:9 says, “...there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
*Insert deep relaxing breath.
God ordained rest from the beginning of creation. Genesis 2:2-3: says, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” God purposed rest for us, his creation. God wasn’t winded and saying, “Oh boy, that creating sure made me tired...let me sit back and take it easy.” We know he created it for us. Jesus states, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). If we back up to the institution of the Sabbath given as law to the Israelites, in Deuteronomy 5:15 we are given a reason why God so seriously wanted His people to be obedient in this: “remember that you were a slave….and the Lord your God brought you out…” So to pause and rest is to say, GOD is my provider, and my striving only results in results because of God (Seriously, check out these passages: Deuteronomy 2:7; 1 Chronicles 29:12; Psalms 23 and 147:8; Matthew 6:25-33; Philippians 4:19).
Observationally, we don’t have to look far to understand our need for regenerative rest. Sleep is one of the greatest things we can “do” for our well being. Our bodies need one third of our day just to be restored. ⅓!! Living to 75 that’s 25 years of our life spent sleeping! When we try to cheat this, various problems ensue. And by the way, the U.S. has a tremendous problem with sleep, as well. It’s hard to even grasp the scope of this due to the myriad ways people attempt to rest that may not be directly researched or studied in any one experiment (sleep aids, watching media, abusing substances- including over-the-counter cough syrup and benadryl).
The Doctor Who episode “Sleep No More” features the attempt to cheat sleep and maximize productivity. Scientists discover a device (“Morpheus”) that takes only a few minutes to compress a month of sleep. Serious problems ensue (enter evil “Sandmen” into the equation, for any of you Doctor Who nerds). Sleep and rest are common themes in literature and life. No doubt, they play a substantial role in our well-being- or downfall.
Though therapy is highly efficacious in addressing disorders specifically and often helpful for much personal growth, it is not set up to be a worldview (a personal understanding or philosophy of the world)- it was never meant to be! Therapy is the clinical application resulting from theories and science on human thought and behavior, just like medical practitioners study from a particular perspective and approach (“Western”, naturopathic, Traditional/Chinese, etc.). Psychology cannot be an entire worldview, by definition, because it’s only one subset of study, research, observation, and experience.
Back to Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).
Are you tired of striving in your own strength? Jesus speaks to the question of trying to be good enough. The Bible presents a very large pill to swallow that is offensive to our Western, pluralistic and politically correct sensibilities: your striving is empty without God. BUT, here is the hope, and this is the Gospel: being made right with the God of the universe through Christ, we have peace. We have freedom. We have hope. We have purpose. We are forgiven. We are loved.
From the poorest and most overlooked member in the slums of Calcutta to the Billionaire on 57th Street in NYC: You are loved. You are valuable. Striving and anxious pursuits are nothing without God- let us seek his rest.
 Newman, T. (n.d.). Is anxiety increasing in the United States? Retrieved October 07, 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322877. “When they compare the levels of depression, no single area has significantly higher rates. When it comes to anxiety disorders, however, it’s a different story; the Americas are head and shoulders above all other regions, including Africa and Europe.”
 This is not to shame you. You may have a legit challenge with anxiety due to disorder- if so, I’m sorry! You may have tried seemingly everything to feel better and it just hangs around. Keep reading, if this is you, because the post still applies, it’s just that I want you to know that you may have it harder than others, and you may need treatment. Truly, this world is not fair. But stay with me; there’s hope.
 The disorder is significantly more prevalent and impairing in high-income countries than in low- or middle-income countries.
 Walker, M. P. (2018). Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. London, UK: Penguin Books.
 CDC - Data and Statistics - Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2017, May 02). Retrieved October 07, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/data_statistics.html
All Scripture quotations are ESV.
This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
“You want me to do what?!” Many of my clients, and particularly for the sake of this article, Christian clients, are a bit surprised when I ask them to practice exposure. Repeating scary, terrible thoughts on paper or aloud. Doing things that feel risky. It seems as a clinician I’m disrespecting your beliefs and don’t really get it. Maybe I’m asking you to do something unbiblical, blasphemous, against what God would want. But what if I do understand and am helping you live in line with your beliefs? What if exposure is a powerful tool under God’s grace (Matthew 5:45) to help you get over a disorder?
The Great Hesitation. When some clients start their treatment with me, I come across familiar hesitations when we begin discussing Exposure Therapy and facing one’s fears:
Maybe. I of course do not know your (the reader’s) story, so I cannot say for you personally. Though, here’s the problem many of my clients run into: they are reinforcing fear every time they avoid and run from thoughts/urges/impulses/feelings that are out of fear rather than a want (see an important article on this for more: FACE fear, FLEE Temptation). Some basic science is in order here: when you fight and resist a thought, it persists (e.g., don’t think of the pink elephant, trying to get a song out of your head, etc.). That’s the way it’s supposed to work- a threat believed to be a threat is supposed to feel like a threat.
This is where exposure therapy comes in. As a summary, exposure is the systematic and intentional triggering of fear while minimizing- and ideally eliminating- all pathological responses. In the therapy process, when I start to introduce clients to the idea of sitting with fear mindfully and not fighting it, most have hesitations. “You’re telling me to do what?! You want me to repeat these horrific thoughts again and again?!” I get it; it seems paradoxical. Most people can rather quickly wrap their heads around an exposure to an overt situational fear (like holding a kitchen knife when you have an intrusive harm fear) but have a harder time understanding exposure for other “Pure O” intrusions, such as harm and scrupulosity, like the following:
The above are examples of intrusive thoughts; they are counter to what a person holds as their overall value and pursuit, or “ego-dystonic.” If you want to know all about treating these thoughts through imaginal exposure, check out the article “Flip the Script- A Guide to Imaginal Exposure.” And yes, I’ll tell you right now that if a person obsesses on the above or has ritualistic behaviors and avoidances, we are going to work with leaning into the discomfort of these, not ignoring them.
The clinical rationale. In all disorders featuring anxiety and fear, there is a problem with the system that signals something is wrong. It’s broken. Doesn’t work right. It’s a fire alarm that goes off when there’s no fire. A missile alert with no missile. Depending on fear, a person might feel a range of things: fear, disgust, anger, sadness, loneliness, dread, regret, chest tightness, racing heart, sweaty palms, neck and back tension, and extensively more. We tend to feel the feelings that a signal dictates. For example:
In disordered behavior, people become over-focused (or under) on a narrow set of experiences. People who are overly vigilant can run into some of the very problems they seek to avoid, or a different set of problems. Examples:
The Biblical rationale.
If we are to change the outcomes for people who suffer from disorders, psychology has developed some very solid tools. If you believe, like I do, that the Bible is God’s Word and is meant to have authority in your life, then you’ll likely need a good biblical rationale for exposure therapy. Here goes on my end, but I am going to ask you personally to dig in. This is your decision. Don’t rely on some therapist to tell you what to think- talk to God, pray, use the brain He’s given and be open to the teaching of trustworthy others (2 Timothy 4:2).
Truth is very important in the Christian faith (John 17:17; Psalm 145:18; Proverbs 12:22; John 4:24; 1 Corinthians 13:4-6). If part of being the church of Christ is to speak the truth to one another, including difficult things like anger (Ephesians 4:15, 26), I remind clients often that if you have intrusive, obsessive, or otherwise bothersome thought or feeling, being open about them and calling them out is simply being honest. It’s being truthful. God knows what’s going on in your head (1 John 3:20)!
When Philippians 4:8 is brought up, it is sometimes a “proof text” on how you “should always thinking positive.” That’s a remarkably short-sighted, superficial view.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
This clearly can’t mean to not think about negative things, evil, or something terrible. If so, we’d never be able to ask forgiveness of our sins by calling them out and repenting! One of the ways that we can think on things like justice, honor, love, etc. is by calling out the opposite: injustice, dishonor, and selfishness. It is in acknowledgement of problems that the solution can be instilled.
God knows our hearts (Proverbs 21:2; 1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 17:10; Acts 15:8; Romans 8:27). If you’re afraid you might do something bad, do you believe God knows that? And if you’re going to do something bad and be unrepentant, then you aren’t going to repent, right? And if that’s the case, why are you trying? If you’re doomed, what’s the point in trying to change that? If there’s a chance- even if you don’t feel like it in the moment- just a small chance that you can take to God your innermost thoughts and feelings and get love and grace and forgiveness and peace and patience, is it worth it to you? Would you be willing to try?
Walking with God means we are “...casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Nowhere in the Bible does it say you will not feel anxiety or struggle with anxiety. It tells us how to frame it (1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6-8), that fear is not God’s heart for us (1 John 4:19), and that he loves us in it (each of these references prior reflects God’s gentle, patient love). The Bible is not a psychology textbook or methods and techniques class. While we walk with Christ, we learn to depend on God by faith. Sometimes that’s therapy, medication, prayer, community, repentance, exercise, gratitude, acceptance, rest, or any number of things.
Obviously, we are not going to find a passage that says, “do exposure therapy” (and of course, “pay good money for it”, ha!).
Compassion and Understanding to You
When clients come to me with thoughts and behaviors they are bothered by, the last thing they want to do is to look it squarely in the face or write it down or say it aloud (It’s called exposure for a reason). But in reality, this is what helps shine the light on it- calling it out in truth. It calls it to the table to do business. In the end, you must personally seek the Lord, and I hope through prayer, His Word, and community to determine what steps you will take in anything important in life. I do hope that if you can benefit from something like Exposure Therapy, you will find, as I have, that it is a tool, albeit human and imperfect, that God has graciously allowed us to discover, maybe like penicillin, insulin, the benefits of exercise, or Vitamin D.. May the created point back to The Creator and show His goodness and love.
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11, ESV).
“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 b, ESV).
“...He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7b).
A few extra readings on the Biblical rationale for treatment (medicine and/or therapy):
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.
21 Ways To Thriving Mental Health from an Anxiety Specialist
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.
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!
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).
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?
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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