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.
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.
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."
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!
$1.6 Billion. That's 1,600 x 1 MILLION Dollars. For the person who won roughly that amount in South Carolina (and the rest of us):
Would it surprise you that your emotional well-being really doesn't improve by becoming wealthy? There’s been a host of research in recent years that look into happiness and money. Possibly the most commonly known one is the National Academy of Sciences study on well-being and money.
This study’s now famous $75,000 mark suggests that a person’s emotional well being (how they feel day-to-day) AND their evaluation of life (their overall perspective of how they are doing) improves up to the point of earning $75k per HOUSEHOLD in the United States. Beyond this mark, emotional well-being doesn't significantly improve, though a person will evaluate their life as better if they earn beyond this mark. To quote their findings, “We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being” (Kahneman, et al. 2010).
So what do "happy money" spenders do? Research by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton in Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending (2014) reveals how money is spent makes the crucial difference in happiness.
Are you making the most of what you have? Are you caught up in materialism and consumerism? Today is always a great day to do something different.
Justin K. Hughes, MA, LPC
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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