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.
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.
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
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.
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."
The Myth of Disappearing Distress. If I do the right things, I won't have to face suffering, right?
It's easy for me as a therapist to exhort my clients to stay focused on the prize DESPITE the distress they feel. How easy it is to get off track! And while it's also easy for me to tell someone else this, it can be very cumbersome to do in practice. I, too, struggle to keep focused when challenges hit. But I'm always best prepared when I lean on my team: #support #faith #accountability #truth.
In Vivo Exposure
Directly facing feared objects or situations, examples include:
Getting on a flight, touching a doorknob that feels “contaminated,” not going back to check a lock, or going to a social gathering.
Good exposure attempts to match the content and detail of a person's fear as close as possible. So, for example, if a person fears “going crazy” in a social setting, the best exercise will be working up to facing that, not just exposing to the thought or word. On the other hand, if the fear is that a person will have inappropriate impulses (to harm, sexually, etc.), sitting with the intrusive thought and being present will serve best.
Imaginal exposure involves accessing the content of fears and anxieties through cognitive means. For example, a fear that someone will fail, make the wrong decision, harm someone, die, or choose the wrong relationship are not accessed by activating these life occurrences. They are addressed imaginally.
There are many ways to practice Exposure imaginally, but the most common are writing scripts, stories, listening to recordings, watching videos, or using visualization.
To be clear, Imaginal exposure often is the most confusing and hardest to grasp of exposure practices, as it seems to be creating negative thoughts or “bringing” unrealistic and negative thoughts on- the seeming antithesis of most of psychology and cognitive therapy. But what is really done here is only facing what a person is already experiencing, thinking and feeling.
Intentionally bringing up physical sensations that are feared, such as:
Heart racing, shortness of breath, sweaty palms.
Ways to do this when a person's health allows are breathing through a cocktail straw, breathing rapidly, or sitting up quickly.
Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure
With the advent of new technology, we have a recently emerging type of exposure. Some may class Virtual Reality into imaginal exposure, but it can be seen as a cross between in vivo (situational) and imaginal. This is especially helpful with treating disorders such as Flying Phobia, where the access to an actual plane and flight to practice can be cost-prohibitive and difficult.
What is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that is practiced in Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is indicated as a first line treatment for a number of disorders such as
Exposure therapy helps clients to systematically confront fearful stimuli along with changing fearful responses. This relearning increases confidence and decreases disruption in life. Over time, discomfort and fear typically decreases through active engagement rather than avoidance, suppression, neutralization, or ritualization.
The evidence base is very strong for its use and effectiveness, though it is currently only applied a minority of the time in clinical settings.
How Do You Do Exposure Therapy?
The principles of exposure may be simple, but the specifics- personalized to any one individual- involve many working parts.
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.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller
I don’t want to live my life being overly cautious, but rather appropriately cautious.
We are discovering in the research of anxiety disorders, OCD, and now depressive disorders, that possessing an Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU) is a common construct linked with higher anxiety and life disruption.
What is IU?
My favorite definition: “Belief that uncertainty, newness, and change are intolerable because they are potentially dangerous” (Steketee et. al 2005, p. 125). IU links threat with uncertainty.
But is uncertainty a threat? Take a moment and ponder one of your favorite memories. What did it involve? Was there any risk? Any vulnerability? Any chance of failure? Most of the best life stories I hear are of those that involve, well, all of these things.
A person who cannot tolerate not knowing actually misses out. How? Isn’t knowledge power?
What happens is this: the more control a person must have, the less control a person has. The more certainty that is sought, the more narrowly circumscribed life becomes. Quick examples:
Want to know how you handle uncertainty? Take the free IUS-12 assessment here. [Go to "Read More" below to find out how to score the assessment.]
Let’s be clear: everyone is uncomfortable with some uncertainty. And reasonable protection from risks is part of being wise- which can also be subjective. But the more you necessitate that certainty must exist, the following is more likely to happen:
In the research on IU, there are also two subset strategies identified: Prospective anxiety (desire for predictability) and Inhibitory anxiety (uncertainty paralysis) (Fourtounas et. al 2016).
If you struggle with any of these, the next questions is this: How do I live with uncertainty and anxiety, while also taking suitable precautions?
The solution is fairly straightforward, but not easy.
Once a problem area has been identified (along with what is reasonable, normative, or within your values), gradually and consistently gain ground by pressing into your fear without using a false reassurance strategy that reinforces the false threat of uncertainty.
In therapy, one of the most powerful tools that exists to deal with uncertainty is what we call Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This is the single most effective tool in treating OCD, and it is very valuable in other disorders. The reasons it usually has to be done in therapy are several:
I personally love Exposure because it helps me face life with a “bring-it-on” attitude rather than a “stumble-through-best-I-can.” ERP in therapy is very specific, very structured, and very powerful. However, even the person who is not in therapy can benefit from its principles:
“Some men storm imaginary Alps all their lives, and die in the foothills cursing difficulties which do not exist.” ~Edgar Watson Howe
So what uncertainty are you not letting yourself live with? When is ‘not knowing’ unacceptable to you? Uncertainty is not the problem. It is unrealistic to be 100% certain about most everything in life. Life has few certificates of guarantee, and those are only as good as what is backing them. Ready to face your uncertainty?
In this season of rush....
I hate to admit it. Mom and Dad, please don't laugh too hard when I say....this.... I sometimes miss being told what to do. There. I said it.
I remember the drill of childhood. "When did you last eat? Here, have some food." "Looks like you could use a hug." "You're getting cranky; it's time for a nap."
In my super-mature “I'm-smarter-than-a-child” mentality, I miss some of the plainest truths in life. One of these is the importance of rest. It’s the weekend before Christmas, and all through my house are temptations to “achieve” and find my worth in what I do and the approval of others.
I’m trying to step back and rest. And I often will remind myself, “I’m more efficient when I rest.” What’s funny about that statement is that I still am finding an excuse for resting. What would it be like if I stop running the show for a moment? Slowing down the crazy pace of life is not only a discipline, it is an act of faith- one that acknowledges that I don’t control all and know all. And I don’t have to carry the universe on my shoulders. That’s freeing. I hope you “achieve” some great rest during this time of the year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!
Almost there. End of Election Day 2016. In seriously considering how to be a good citizen in this election, I came across a sure fire one. It’s research based, and all respected professionals agree with this one.
Communication in love = improved relationships.
Yeah, that’s right. I suckered you into reading this. But why stop now? This is good stuff!
I’ve seen a lot of head-shaking and apathy this election season. As a mental health specialist, I have been watching the behavioral and relational patterns of interactions, whether from leaders at a podium or the lay person on the street. I actually DO see some really good communication patterns in some people who exhibit characteristics that follow. But as I wrote about in a blog post entitled “Effective Communication” a few years back (right before the last election), the examples many of us see reflect abysmal communication styles. Well, at least if we want to be respectful. IF you’re attempting to minimize, disrespect, and emotionally distance, fair WARNING: do not read and apply the following.
Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication styles have very clear results in various settings (in case you are wondering, passive-aggression can often be placed as a subtype under aggressive). Assertive communication is based on mutual respect, regardless of how much you disagree with the other person. Abusive language or behavior are out of the question. Assertiveness always involves respect. You may strongly state a point or quietly listen, but finding an assertive sweet spot is key- speaking the truth in love, and sometimes learning to just close the mouth.
Check out the Mayo Clinic’s thoughts on this one, or for organizational settings, look at Daniel Ames’ research at Columbia Business School.
The famous marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found that turning towards a partner (which is not passive/casual agreement, but a positive stance of staying invested in one’s spouse), is significantly correlated with couples who stay together versus divorce. This means that in every “bid” that’s made for attention or connection, the masters of marriage turn towards the other person most of the time. I think there’s a lot to learn by studying successful couples’ interactions- after all, these are the people who are able to somehow stick with the same person for YEARS!!
Distress Tolerance is the ability to manage high levels of upset (distress), while staying grounded. Intolerance of uncertainty (IU), seen especially in OCD and anxiety disorders, can be successfully redirected by developing Tolerance for Uncertainty. Maybe the most common misconception with these are similar to misunderstanding forgiveness: to forgive doesn’t mean to just smile and approve. These all involve character-building at a deep level of maturity where a person can still hold to what is true, while at the same time having peace when the world around seems (or is) out of control.
Back to Gottman. He joined up with Anatol Rapoport to form an amazing Conflict Blueprint. It involves working hard to really “get” what the other person is saying, and it recognizes underlying longings- and respects them- in the other person. READ: NOT the same as adopting their perspective. Furthermore, Softened Startup entails bringing something of significance and/or pain to another’s awareness, while staying gentle and guarding against criticism, blame, and shame.
These things are actually really simple. But they take discipline and deeper metamorphosis to bring about in daily life. What can you do when all around you people communicate with disrespect and contempt? Be a difference maker by communicating in love.
That’s my election choice. What’s yours?
Justin K. Hughes
This post was originally published on 05/26/2016 on my wordpress and is newly updated.
You’re surrounded by setpoints every day. They literally keep you alive. One of them is your set body temperature. If your body drops or rises a mere 15% beyond your core temperature, death occurs. Think of a setpoint like a reference point, a sort of boundary. Medically, it’s called homeostasis. The body regulates internal functioning (temperature, blood flow, oxygen) despite external circumstances. The body is always seeking homeostasis. So is the brain. And you can intentionally take charge for your mental, emotional, and relational health.
In our bodies, we break out in a fever when something is wrong- which is one way the body makes conditions unfavorable to viruses and bacteria- because they are temperature sensitive. In addicts, their brains have faced an onslaught of dopamine rushes- and the brain counters it by producing less dopamine to balance out- even sometimes ELIMINATING dopamine receptors. This is the brain naturally seeking to turn down a party that’s gotten too loud.
Balanced functioning (homeostasis), whether biological, technological, or psychological, will involve three interdependent elements that help reach homeostasis- all centered on a setpoint:
In order to bring a system back to normal, negative feedback is used to regulate it. So when I say, “get negative,” or course I’m not telling you to have a negative outlook on life. What I AM saying is that a system that is out of control will only be put back in control/order by it being regulated by setpoints, carried out by either an internal or external force- and this is negative feedback.
Okay, have I been sufficiently nerdy? Let’s get practical!!
Check out how William uses all three processes of homeostasis as a married entrepreneur with children, who is also dealing with some alcohol abuse (#2 in each is the setpoint).
1) Financial accounts are reconciled daily by William (outside help oversees them weekly). 2) The business plan was developed with a setpoint of no greater than $100,000 debt. Crossing $50,000 debt signals a problem and requires meeting with the board. 3) If the setpoints are not honored, the board has full power and autonomy to enact established strategies.
1) William’s two year old, Thomas, is running a fever- revealed by his behavior, and then it was gauged with a thermometer. 2) If 24 hours pass with a fever over 100 F- or at any point it goes beyond 103 F- the setpoint has been crossed. 3) Visit the doctor immediately.
1) Extra money was left over- discovered in the budget by William’s wife, Katie. 2) They determine no more than $10,000 will be spent on a kitchen remodel. The goal is $8,500; beyond the goal is a warning flag. 3) At the $8,500 mark, a conversation will be held with the contractor to hold to the budget.
1) After running into various troubles with alcohol, William considered his personal/family values and health recommendations. 2) A setpoint was made: only 2 drinks or less daily. 3) If this line is crossed, the commitment is to have an entire month sober. If this cannot be done, it is agreed on with his support team to increase treatment (e.g., go to a group, go to counseling).
Got the hang of it? These steps can be applied to about anything, though I mostly use the Setpoints Exercise (click on the link below to access!) to help increase ownership and boundaries with addictions. It’s a straightforward way to get honest with anything you are facing, the amount of help you need, and what supports can get you there. This concept has helped assist many of my clients to face problems squarely, and in turn, to be more successful and realistic in addressing life challenges. Give it a try!
This post was originally published on 04/19/2015 on my wordpress and is newly updated.
In Latin, Quid Pro Quo means, “something for something.” You scratch my back; I scratch yours. Tit for tat. It’s how the world runs.
Or is it?
In the business world, this often works. Social psychology calls it “reciprocity.” In relationships, well, this is where it gets fuzzy. Relationships require sacrifice regularly; they require that you stick around, presuming it’s reasonable to do so. In business, if someone doesn’t offer you a good deal, you can move on. If you keep doing this with relationships, you will bankrupt your heart and anyone close to you quicker than ever thought possible.
Relationships involve the molding and holding of hearts. Business involves the flow of money.
I want to call to the table that many principles that work for business DON’T in relationships, which is partly why someone can be extraordinarily successful in the business world but trade in relationships as often as changing underwear. The concept of reciprocity is fascinating, and I regularly utilize it in respectful ways when I consider how to engage in business, such as when I “add value” to interactions with businessmen and women by offering helpful counseling materials. This, in turn, increases my odds of getting a favorable response. Nothing wrong with it. I attempt to not do it ONLY for this reason. However, when I expect a certain response- demand it, even- I am not respecting a person’s freedom, uniqueness, or spontaneity. And this is precisely the problem when quid pro quo is present as a foundation in relationships.
Everyone from Hendrix to Gottman to Eggerichs (see references below) point out the necessity of proactive initiative in love- an active, intentional doing what’s best for another, choosing love over “balancing the budget.” In fact, the eminent researcher Dr. John Gottman states the myth of quid pro quo in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2002): “But it’s really the unhappy marriage where this quid pro quo operates, where each feels the need to keep a running tally of who has done what for whom” (p. 15).
Isn’t this the definition of selfishness? And it tears relationships apart. I don’t know of anyone who says, “Yes, being completely selfish is good; I want to live by the principles of selfishness and teach my kids to do the same.” No one really debates this. How quickly it takes over, though! My role as counselor isn’t to point a finger; it’s to help uncover what’s holding people back. Consider how you might be “losing while winning,” holding grudges, keeping a record of wrongs. These things are the opposite of contentment- and love. "Love keeps no record of wrongs," (1 Corinthians 13:5d) as is often quoted at weddings.
Don’t wait for a person to do good to you. That’s the whole importance of the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment. If you wait around for the other person to “play by the rules” in loving you, prepare to be unsatisfied. There will come a time (in EVERY relationship) when loving another becomes hard: when the "high" of newness wears off, when the attractiveness of another becomes the norm, when that little quirk that you thought was wonderful turns out to annoy the heck out of you. If it’s left up to reciprocity, we’re screwed. In friendships, romantic relationships- ANY relationship.
If a relationship fundamentally relies on quid pro quo, it will prove an unhappy ending. Find out how to love others despite what they bring to the table, and reap the overflowing results. If one person brings a feast to the table, just because the other doesn't bring one won't mean you can’t enjoy yours- and just maybe win them over in love.
For more information:
Business Networking That Works...It's Called Quid Pro Quo (Forbes)
Getting the Love You Want (Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt)
Influence and Persuasion (Robert Cialdini)
Love and Respect (Dr. Emerson Eggerichs)
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Psych Central summary)
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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