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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.
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.
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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