psychiatry podcast for residents

What is Transference and Countertransference?

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I talk about transference and countertransference. It’s the fourth episode in my four-part therapeutic alliance series where I discuss best practices on dealing with the doctor - patient relationship.

Here are the three previous episodes:

Part 1 - Introduction

Part 2 - Logotherapy and Meaning

Part 3 - What is empathy and how to improve it

What is transference?

Historically the term “transference” refers to the feelings, fantasies, beliefs, assumptions and experiences unconsciously displaced on the therapist that originate in the patients’ past relationships. More recently, transference is seen as the here and now, valid experience the patient has of the therapist.

It is “a mixture of real characteristics of the therapist and aspects of the patient’s figures from the past—in effect, it’s a combination of old and new relationships.” (Gabbard)

How does transference work?

The patient’s early experiences develop organizing principles, constructing a framework for future interpersonal interactions. (Maybe their dad was an abuser, so they project that you will abuse them.) Transference is the continuing influence of these ways of organizing and giving meaning to experiences. They crystallized in the past, but they continue in an ongoing way in the here and now. The therapist’s actual behavior is always influencing the patient’s experience of the therapist because of this.

When a patient visits a therapist, they seek a new developmentally needed experience, but they expect the old, repetitive experience.

There is often misattunement to painful circumstances that can't be integrated into a person’s emotional world. For example—a child who can’t demonstrate his emotion in a way that his parents can handle causes the parents to move away from the child, creating distance. The child then subdues the emotion and creates a new “ideal self” so they can interact with others and no be rejected. The child then doesn’t know how to deal with strong emotion, even moving into adulthood.

Unintegrated affects become lifelong emotional conflicts and vulnerabilities to traumatic states.  To handle the difficult situation, they develop defense mechanisms. Those defenses against affects become necessary to maintain psychological organization.

That “ideal self” will stay in place with others until you come along. If they see you as a safe person, they will express their emotions—anger and all—towards you.  


This is where it’s important to understand transference, and to be able to give your patient a safe place to express their emotions.

When we understand transference is happening, we can listen from the patient's world, acknowledge their subjective perspective, resonate with them, look for their meanings, and form and alliance with the patient's expressed experience.

Of course we must expect their hesitations to trust us, avoid us, have feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment...it is uncomfortable to share what one feels.

Positive Transference

Negative transference isn’t the only type of transference—there is also positive transference, where you remind the patient of a positive relationship they had, so they feel deeply connected to you. People with borderline personality disorder are very quick to attach, usually commenting that they have never felt so close to a therapist before. When someone does say very positive things to me, especially in the first few sessions, I let them know that it’s also okay to express negative feelings towards me as well.  

Transference-focused therapy

Kernberg wrote about transference focused psychotherapy. He hypothesized about the developmental birth of borderline personality disorder. By exploring and integrating these “split-off” cognitive-affective units of self and other representations, patients will be able to think more coherently and reflectively. They will be more realistic and accurate in their thoughts, feelings, intentions and desires about themselves and others. Integration will allow for increased modulation of affect, coherence of identity, increased capacity for intimacy, and improved functioning (Kernberg 2008).

Levy (2006) studied transference focused psychotherapy (TFP) vs dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) vs supportive psychodynamic psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder. He found that TFP had increased secure attachments (whereas the other 2 did not change it), with increased narrative coherence. It also improved reflective function—the ability to mentalize the thoughts, feelings, goals of another person.

What are some common transferences?

  • Sibling rivalry

    • Competitiveness, comparing, jealousy.

  • Maternal

    • Possibly see you as nurturing or abusive.

  • Paternal

    • Possibly wants you to solve their problems, asks for direct advice.

  • God

    • Where they want you to be all powerful or omnipotent.

  • Erotic

    • One of their primary attachment figures might have sexualized them, so they might yearn for erotic attention and affection. Perhaps a patient falls in love with you, or someone similar physically to you.

  • Idealizing or contemptuous

    • They could view you as a savior, or feel contemptuous to you.

  • Passively hoping for a miracle

  • A person prone not to trust will view the therapist with suspicion

  • A person who struggles with anger will have anger towards the therapist

  • Transferences are influenced by age, gender, clothing, bodily attributes, context, vocabulary & choice of words, personality characteristics

  • Be a certain way to have you stay connected with them  

How do deal with transference in therapy:

Here is the main, overarching principle when dealing with transference: have empathy. Be empathic. Be open to their feedback. Don’t take things personally. Be connected with your patient. Developing a therapeutic alliance requires you being connected, and being connected requires you to allow your patient to explore their emotional world with you. That requires psychological safety.

When you are a safe place, they will hopefully be able to connect, and you can help them identify their transferences so they have a chance at developing healthy relationships in the future without bringing their past with them.

If my patient had a previous therapist, I always ask them, “What went well and what did not go well in your past therapy relationship?”

Other questions I ask are:

  • “How would you like your past therapy to have been different?”

  • “When you felt disappointed and misunderstood, were you able to share that feeling with your therapist?”

  • “In what ways would you like your relationship with me to be like your experience with your last therapist?”

  • “What are some of your worries about what you might experience in your treatment with me?”  

When I can tell they don’t want to come to therapy. I normalize their feelings so they feel like they can share with me.

  • “This is a laboratory where we look at what goes on between us, and when you tell me you are mad at me, I am going to be excited about your sharing your feelings, good or bad.”

  • “What are you feeling about leaving me for the day?”

  • “What did you do when you were young and something bad happened to you?”

    • “Go to mom? Go to Dad? Go out alone?”

    • “When you looked for help how were you responded to?”

    • “Were you comforted? Did it help?”

    • “How did it make you feel when you wanted somebody to help your upsetness?”

    • “I want to be with you in this moment of sadness and loss.”

When you sense an empathic strain, mending it is priority number 1. I might say, “Help me understand what I might not have understood here.” Or, “If I said something that makes you feel worse about yourself then let’s talk about it now.” Try to prevent an empathic strain from progressing to an empathic rupture in your relationship by catching the strains early on.

Here are a few tips to handle when patients exhibit strong emotions towards you:

  • Be enthusiastic and curious about patients’ experiences when coping with intense feelings.

  • Be particularly encouraging about them discussing their feelings, and especially their feelings towards you. Whereas in the past there might not have been a  safe place to get angry, they are entitled to want to have a different experience with you.

  • Say explicitly that they are allowed to have all of their feelings (including loving and hating) in the therapy relationship and that they will be dealt with in words and not in actions.

  • Convey to them that they can feel secure and accepted and not reproached or rejected, even if they have negative feedback or feelings towards you.

  • You can work cooperatively to help them process and modulate their emotions.

  • You can explore together what actions might be appropriate for them when the flooding feelings erupt and they are unsure about what might happen as consequences.

  • Complicated emotions are inevitable: the opportunity we offer is to enhance ways of coping with desirable as well as disruptive emotions. Emotions may be congruent with experiences in the past, but not necessarily appropriate in the present context in which they recur.

When we are young, we are unable to metabolize emotions correctly, especially in the face of trauma or an unsafe caregiver. When we age, we transfer those patterns of belief onto every other relationship in our life, trying to recreate that. When you, as a therapist, offer a safe environment for a patient to experience those strong emotions, you are helping them rewire their belief system around those emotions. It allows them to interact with every other person in a new way.

Countertransference:

The original and narrower definition of countertransference centered around the therapist unconsciously experiencing the patient as someone from their past (similar to transference). Now, countertransference is seen as the therapists’ total reaction to the patient.

First, it’s important to note that therapists need to practice what they preach: do the work in your own therapy so you can identify your own transferences. The less clouded your vision is of what’s happening in sessions, the better. For example, one therapist saw nearly every patient as a trauma victim, and occasionally led them to believe they’d been traumatized as well in the same way.  

Countertransference is seen as a source of important information about the patient: it can be a major diagnostic and therapeutic tool. “Countertransference is an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious.” (Paula Heimann)

Now it is seen as a jointly created reaction in the clinician (some reactions from the therapist's past, some induced by the client's behavior).

There are continuously fluctuating levels of influencing the transference and countertransference by contributions from both patient and therapist during all their interactions. My mentor, Dr. Tarr, said, "To every relationship we bring learned expectations from past encounters.”

One way to handle countertransference to make sure you are coming from a healthy place is to use your left brain to integrate with, and therefore dampen, the right brain. Learn from what you are feeling during the session, but observe yourself with curiosity.

Another form of possible transference is sexual attraction towards a patient. Studies show that 85% of male therapists at some point have erotic arousal towards a female patients. Obviously, it is important to not act on or tell your patient about those feelings.

You should also allow yourself to mirror the patient’s emotions, as to follow the patient’s emotional movements and unconscious content.  

Before a patient enters the room, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What are you feeling?

Here is a checklist I like to use before my sessions with patients. It is based on 7 basic emotions:

  •  Disgust

    • I dislike him/her.  

    • I feel repulsed by him/her.

  • Attraction

    • I have compassion for the patient.

    • If they were not my patient I would want to date him/her.

    • I feel sexually attracted to him/her.

    • If he/she were not my patient I would want to be their friend.

    • I look forward to sessions with him/her.  

    • I wish I could give him/her what others never could, protect him/her like no one could...

    • I feel I understand him/her.  

    • I have warm, almost parental feelings towards him/her.

    • I self-disclose more about my personal life with him/her more than with other patients.

  • Sadness

    • I wish I had never taken the patient on...

    • I feel sadness/depression in sessions with him/her.

    • I feel guilty about my feelings towards him/her.

    • I feel guilty when she/he is distressed or deteriorates, as if I must be somehow responsible.  

  • Angry

    • I feel dismissed or devalued.

    • I feel annoyed in sessions with him/her.

    • I feel criticized in sessions with him/her.

    • I feel angry with him/her.

    • I feel anger at people in his/her life.

    • I feel competitive with him/her.

    • I feel used or manipulated by him/her.

    • I have to stop myself from being aggressive or critical with him/her.

    • I feel pushed to set firm limits with him/her.

    • I feel resentful working with him/her.

  • Dissociation/Shut Down

    • I feel confused in sessions.  

    • I am overwhelmed by strong emotions with him/her.

    • I feel hopeless working with him/her.

    • I feel like my hands are being tied or that I have been put in an impossible bind.

  • Sensorium issue

    • I feel bored in sessions with him/her.

    • My mind wanders to things other than what he/she is talking about.

    • I feel sleepy when talking with him/her.  

  • Fear/Anxiety

    • I feel anxious/frightened working with him/her.

    • I fear I am failing to help him/her.

    • His/her sexual feelings towards me make me anxious or uncomfortable.

    • I fear being incompetent or inadequate to help him/her

    • After treatment ends I worry about him/her more then most patients.

It is completely normal to have feelings—both good and bad—towards patients. We are humans, not robots! Sometimes it might seem like you’re supposed to be perfect or void of feelings towards your patient, but that doesn’t allow a living, growing, healthy therapeutic alliance towards them. The important thing is to notice how you feel, without self judgement. Then, deal with those feelings in a healthy manner, like through seeking out your own therapy, getting a mentor, etc. However, sometimes merely allowing yourself to notice the feelings and owning up to the feeling of anger, attraction, boredom, or sadness, is enough to dissipate it.

It’s easy to be busy after a session. It’s better to practice noting your feelings. After all, how can we help our patients express and normalize their feelings if we cannot do it for ourselves?

Conclusion

If you are a mental health professional, I would love for this to be your community. We are in these trenches together, and it’s pretty common for therapists to feel totally exhausted and burned out from all of the countertransference. I hope that through this community, we can develop better practices, help each other, and grow together.

If any of you have any questions or listen to the podcast, I’m active on social media. I’d welcome any feedback you have. My social handles are: Instagram @Dr.DavidPuder, Facebook: @DrDavidPuder, or Twitter @DavidPuder




How Empathy Works And How To Improve It

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another’s state of mind or emotions. It is also is being able to feel, understand and share with someone else in what they are saying, their meaning of life, their motivations and values.

In research there are 3 types of empathy that are commonly described: cognitive, affective, and compassionate.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is also known as perspective taking, and it can help someone understand another’s personal experience. It also tends to reduce interpersonal aggression. Cognitive empathy is exactly what it sounds like—cognitively understanding someone’s situation, emotions, and motivations. When we understand someone else, we are more likely to view their behavior as similar to our own.

  • One study of Asperger syndrome showed they had lower cognitive empathy but NOT affective empathy. (Dziobek, 2008)

Affective empathy

Affective empathy is about a shared emotional experience, one of feeling together. It uses the mirror neuron system, which I will discuss later on in the article. Affective empathy forms powerful emotional relationships.

  • Boys with higher aggression had ½ the affective empathy, but the same level of cognitive empathy, as the non aggressive control group (Schechtman, 2002)

Compassionate empathy

The third form of empathy is compassionate empathy, which is also called empathic motivation, prosocial concern, or sympathy. This is when you feel moved to help another from how to experience their reality.  

The science of empathy

Mirror Neurons are sharing neurons

Our brain has neurons solely designed to mirror other people. From birth, when we focus on another's movements, emotions and intentions, our brain lights up automatically, and largely unconsciously, around 10% the same way. Our own body-state can be derived from someone else outside of us. We can therefore understand and map out the mind of others by placing ourselves in a comparable body state. This process is important for empathy, intuition, transference, countertransference, enactment, projection, internalization and intersubjectivity.    

The discovery of mirror neurons:

In 1992, while studying a monkey's brain with electrodes attached to the motor area (the area that lights up when movements by the body are made), researchers accidentally discovered that not only would the neurons become activated by the monkey reaching out to pick up a piece of food, but also when the researchers made a similar movement. Later, the same team published a paper that showed that there were mirror neurons responding to mouth actions and facial expressions. Further studies confirmed that around 10% of neurons in certain areas of a monkey's brain had mirror abilities. Later, these studies were expanded to humans.  

Current research:

A recent study summarizing the data of 125 fMRI studies of humans (brain imaging that shows what is active), found that there were many areas of the brain with this capacity. (Molenberghs, 2012) Beyond seeing actions performed by others and having them represented in our brain, there are 3 other areas of the brain that are activated in a similar fashion:

  • Ever wonder why watching people embrace enthusiastically at an airport is fun? When you observe someone being touched, a similar area in your brain (the secondary somatosensory cortex) activates in a similar way as the person being touched.  (Keysers, 2004)

  • When you only hear something, like someone cracking open a peanut, how do you know what is occurring? Another study showed that there was a similar brain circuit firing in both doing the action and hearing it, and just hearing it. This study also showed that those with higher scores on perspective taking (ability to slip into another's shoes) had stronger activation of mirror areas! (Gazzola, 2006)   

  • When we watch someone grieve at a funeral, ever wonder why we feel their sadness?  When you feel emotion, you experience the emotion in your brain, like they are to a lesser extent.  (Gaag, 2007)

    • When normal college students looked at photographs depicting emotions, out of their awareness their own face muscles depicted the same emotion on an EMG.  

    • “We are hard-wired to feel what other experience as if it were happening to us.” (Marco Lacoboni)

    • We used to say, metaphorically, that ‘I can feel another’s pain.’ But now we know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain.

    • “Mirror neurons dissolve the barrier between you and someone else.” (Vilayanur Ramachandran)

Now researchers are saying that the mirror neuron system is involved with:

  • Understanding another's actions and intentions

  • Neural basis for the human capacity of empathy

  • Learning new skills by imitation and rehearsing

Non-empathic types—the Dark Triad

The “Dark Triad” refers to three types of disorders that cause people to have low empathy for others. The big common denominator for these people is a deficit in affective empathy, but after matching for primary psychopathy, the others are no longer predictors of low affective empathy (Wai 2012). The Dark Triad consists of: narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths. People who have narcissistic traits and machiavellian traits often have some primary psychopathy traits as well.  

Individuals high in narcissism had positive feelings when looking at sad faces and were accurate at recognizing anger (higher cognitive empathy may be bias at grandiose self reporting). Individuals higher in primary psychopathy (they can usually maintain cool composure and carefully execute planned behaviors with a lack of morality, whereas those with secondary psychopathy respond to their negative emotion when they harm others) felt positive when looking at sad, angry or fearful images and more negative when looking at happy images, and were rather inaccurate at identifying all emotions.

Machiavellians felt negatively with happy images and positively with sad images, while they tended to inaccurately identify happy or sad emotions.

Empathy and the medical field

  • Studies show that empathy declines in third year of medical school (both for men and women, but women are higher in empathy in general)  (Hojat, 2009) but that doctors can also increase their empathy through certain practices. (Riess, 2012)

  • In a study of 20,961 patients, primary care providers with high empathy have been shown to have lower rates of metabolic complications compared to moderate to low scores (4.0 per 1,000 patients vs 7.1 and 6.5 respectively) (Canale, 2012).  

  • There have been many studies that show both cognitive and affective empathies ability to change patient care when high and low empathy are demonstrated. For example, there is a correlation to a doctor’s ability to more accurately diagnose depression and anxiety, understanding interactions, more positive patient outcomes, increased therapeutic alliance, more patient satisfaction, and fewer malpractice claims. Doctors who showed higher empathy were more likely to have their HIV patients take their medications (Flichinger 2015).

Research on “Therapist Effect”

  • Some doctors or therapists have better outcomes. Empathy seems to be important in therapist effectiveness and can be increased.  

  • Different studies show outcomes vary between patients, of which 5-12% can be attributed to a particular therapist.   

  • One study of 91 therapists over 2.5 years: the best therapist showed a change of 10 times the average mean, the worst showed the an average increase in symptoms.  (Okiishi, 2003)

  • Higher interpersonal skills has been linked to better outcomes when studying therapist effect. (Anderson, 2009)

  • Higher-empathy therapists have higher success regardless of theoretical orientation. Lower-empathy therapists linked to higher dropout rates, relapse rates, and weaker therapeutic alliance. Empathy was shown to have an effect size of 1.22-1.43 when independent observers rated empathy for substance use outcomes. (Moyers, 2013)

  • In a big study on therapist effect (69 therapists, 4,580 patients), they found that years of experience, gender, age, profession, highest qualifications, caseload, degree of theoretical integration did not predict outcome. The amount of time spent targeting improving specific skills and reviewing therapy recordings predicted client outcome.  

Can we improve our empathy?

Studies show that we can. Here are some things that can improve your ability to empathize:

  • Optimize your sensorium—keep yourself healthy. When you are tired, hungry, chronically stressed and with poor focus, it will be harder to enter into the experience of another.

  • Try to understand the person’s emotions that you are with.

    • A study showed by trying to pay attention to emotion mimicry was increased (linked to affective empathy)

  • Read fiction (Bal, 2013) allow yourself to be transported into the book.

  • Work through our “countertransference”

    • Talk through difficult situations

    • Patients have different ways of relating—learning to understand others, to see their way of being as “adaptive,” can be empathy promoting.

  • Learning to read emotions and body language more accurately  

  • Learning to accept feedback

  • Calming your own hyperarousal through practices like mindfulness

  • Tuning your mirror neurons

  • Noticing when connection or disconnection is occurring

  • Practice empathy towards viewpoints that are not your own

    • Becoming mindful of the emotion, the distress, the meaning behind the distress

Can therapists lose our empathy?

Studies show we can experience empathic strain and rupture. Empathic failure may lead to aggression. It is hard to empathize when we feel subjected to powerful influences from patients: complaints, requests, accusations, subtle seductions, bits of blackmail, challenges.  Throughout history, rulers have decreased empathy in their warriors and people by stirring up disgust towards those they seek to kill.

We are more likely to empathize with those we interact with frequently, find similar to us, or find thoughtful and kind.  We need to humanize people’s actions and see them like us, to not lose the part of us that could consider that we too could be in their situation.

Consider the stages of empathy:

I think of empathy in terms of 3 categories: the moment to moment emotional experience, the meaning and context of the emotion in their life, and the subjective experience evoked and created by the unique connection I am having in the here and now with the person.  

Level 1: There are moment to moment flashes of emotion on someone’s face, changes in body language, and current distress. Empathy can be experienced by just witnessing a flash of emotion and allowing the person to know you see it and that you hear them. During this, we can try to understand the person’s emotions, and ask them to verify what they are feeling, if we are correct in our questions, such as if they are feeling sad or angry about something.

Tuning into their experiential state and then asking if you are on the right track: (note if the patient gives a different word then do not contradict) can be helpful.

  • Ask them a few questions to clarify:

    • Perhaps you feel happy?

    • Perhaps you feel frustrated?

    • Perhaps you feel sadness?

    • Perhaps you feel disgusted?

    • Perhaps you feel concern or fear?

    • Perhaps you feel a sense of pride?

    • Perhaps you feel disconnected or numb?

    • Perhaps you feel a sense of embarrassment or shame?

  • Use their own words and repeat what you hear from them:

    • Patient: “I just feel so tired and sad all the time.”

    • Doctor: “It makes sense you feel tired because you have been so busy with your new jobs. In light of your recent losses your sadness also makes sense.”

  • Matching rhythm of voice, tonality, emotionality.

    • Matching an infant's cry rhythm (but not intensity) calms and regulates the infant

  • Imitation

  • Recognition of what the patient hopes for:

    • I hear you have hopes for… desires for… dreams for… aspirations for...

Level 2: This is where we try to know the context of the flash of emotion, the distress either in the distant past (how early relationships informed it) or recent life situations. Sometimes the quantity of distress is only as high as it is because it is linked to prior loss or prior trauma. We can find the context of the emotion by matching their emotionality, their demonstration of emotions on a level that we feel is appropriate. We can look at the meaning of the emotion and the context of the meaning of that emotion in their lives. We can also empathize with the meaning of the emotion once they’ve identified its context.

Even if they flash anger towards themselves, but maybe they in doing that are not accomplishing the energy of the emotion, and they are missing how the anger can help them accomplish their goals. Thus when the anger is pointed at themselves, we can explain that the anger should be pointed outward, and give energy to action.

  • Example: anger towards self looks like, “I am worthless” instead of anger towards abuser: “he should not treat me like that, I will set up a boundary.” The empathic statement can be “it must be hard to feel the anger pointed at yourself, telling you that you are worthless, and perhaps although it was adaptive to do this growing up, makes it hard to set boundaries now.”

Level 3: This level is when the person is having emotion that occurs because of their relationship with you. It is the interpersonal, and commenting and empathizing with any distress (or positive emotion) that your relationship is creating is a level 3 empathic statement. When a patient demonstrates anger towards their therapist, it’s helpful to ask if they are feeling anger towards you and if they feel comfortable talking about that emotion.

We can create psychological safety for a patient to give feedback to us by telling them we like to hear what they are feeling towards us. For example, my mentor, Dr. Tarr, tells his patients:  

“I very much want to hear your positive and negative feelings, particularly about me, and particularly negative ones. It will be helpful for you to share any feelings of disappointment, feelings of not being understood, feelings of not being responded to or criticized, or mannerisms or things I say that affect you undesirably. I hope you can understand that this is not a usual social situation, where you don’t tell people negative thoughts, here I hope you have the courage to say them out loud. It will be very helpful to say it has it is happening; we can learn much more than if it comes out later; we know it’ll be hard—but this kind of a laboratory where we discover what goes on between us.”



Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders

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In this podcast and article Dr. Kelly Rivinius, a licensed clinical psychologist who helps women suffering from PMAD, gives her insights about PMAD, its risk factors, prevention, and her own experience with perinatal OCD and anxiety.

David Puder, M.D. and Kelly Rivinius, Psy.D. have no conflicts of interest to report.  


Article the accompanies this episode go: here

Therapeutic Alliance Part 2: Meaning and Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy

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In this week’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to be emphasizing the meaning that I, as a therapist, can help draw out of other people’s experience through a therapeutic alliance.

David Puder, M.D., Kristen Bishop, Brooke Haubenstricker, Mikyla Cho

In the celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl wrote about his intimate and horrific Holocaust experience. He found that meaning often came from the prisoners’ small choices—to maintain belief in human dignity in the midst of being tortured and starved and bravely face these hardships together.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” - Viktor Frankl

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor Frankl

Frankl argued that the ultimate human drive is the “will to meaning,” which could be described as the meaning to be found in the present and in the future. For example, I have had patients who are suicidal, yet they would not kill themselves, despite part of them desiring death, because they would not get to see their grandkids grow up. The meaning of the future moments and being able to help their grandkids in some small way empowers them to keep going to treatment.

People’s meaning keeps them going, even when other drives, like sex or desire for power, are completely gone. In this way, Frankl noted, “Focus on the future, that is on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in his future…I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could speak also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term ‘striving for superiority,’ is focused.”

This idea led to the beginning of a new type of therapy—logotherapy.

Helping a patient find meaning

Being unable to find personal meaning in our lives can lead to depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and suicidality. As a physician, I see this often, and I try to help my patients find meaning in their lives. However, the approach I have learned from Dr. Tarr (my mentor), and from my studies, is different than the normal approach of just asking people, “What is your purpose?” or, “What is your vision for the future?” The technique I use is based on another principle called “psychic determinism,” which means that everything has meaning. There is nothing that a person says, no flash of emotion, no change in body posture that is meaningless.

When you believe this, you view the patients’ words differently. The meaning may not be readily apparent; it may be expressed in primary process mentations and have an unconscious-type meaning like dreams, which may be difficult to understand. Suffice to know at this point that the mindset we have when we approach people is that everything they say has meaning; every sequence of thoughts that they say is deep and valuable.

We start from small moments of meaning that are coming from their words, their body language, their microexpressions, your experience of them in the moment, and we take those small moments of meaningfulness and start to verbalize what we find meaningful. Listening to our patients and helping them to understand the hidden meaning in their lives, even in the midst of work or difficult times, can help them withstand trauma, stress, and hardships.

No rambling is random

Sometimes patients will talk for awhile, changing subjects rapidly, and we may think it is random, but it isn’t. Even when schizophrenic patients talk, there is meaning behind what they’re saying. When we allow for free association, we can derive a sense of meaning from the commonalities in topics that come up.

For example, a patient might be talking about how they are angry at their significant other, then immediately report that when they were young their mother would often yell at their father, and their father would cower in his room in silence. How is their current anger related to how they felt as a child watching this drama? How might the two be linked? What about the microexpression of disgust that flashed as they reported both topics.  

As you look deeper, the meaning becomes more evident. In this particular situation, the disgust or revulsion they experience recollecting their father’s cowardice magnified the disgust they felt toward their significant other. Understanding the link and the uncovered meaning helped them tolerate the intensity of that negative feeling, and helped them develop new meanings about their current and past experiences.

Even hallucinations and delusions generated by some mental illnesses have meaning. When I’ve given patients antipsychotics and they’ve adapted to the medicine, we explored their hallucinations and they were able to see why they wanted to believe in an alternate reality—it gave them a sense of power or control, or related to a deep underlying fear in some way. As we developed meaning in their real lives, they felt more comfortable in their actual reality.

When we sincerely believe that everything the patients say has meaning, the patients themselves feel meaningful. Ascribing meaning enhances the patient’s esteem tremendously and makes them feel safe enough to continue to freely associate. Incredible progress can be made with patients in this way.

To get people to free associate, you need to reduce the shame enough to get people to feel safe enough to be able to share their uncensored thoughts and feelings.

Empathize with the meaning

“Men are not moved by events but by their interpretations.” - Stoic Epictetus

Relationships can allow for deeper understanding and meaning to develop in life. To strengthen our relationship with our patients, we must understand what they’re saying and then empathize with that meaning.

We often think in the context of our own lives, and as therapists or physicians we need to allow people to be the experts of their own lives. A word or phrase may mean something completely different to our patients than it does to us, so we must ask the patients to help us understand their interpretations and the meanings they assign to the events they’ve experienced. It is important that the patient communicates their meanings and that assumptions aren’t made. Misunderstandings can cause feelings of isolation, leading to strains or ruptures in the relationship. If this happens, try to reconnect, as this conveys respect.

Try to deeply connect with the patient emotionally through empathy and listening. Listen to what is said, what is not said, and what makes the patient defensive. We can listen to the rhythm, the sound, their vocal cadence, and watch their face for emotional cues.

Even if we believe the patient isn’t entitled to the emotions they are experiencing, we have to search for the meaning they’ve assigned to their pain. That meaning is what we can empathize with, no matter the circumstance. When we empathize, we can join them in their distress or enjoyment, and we can develop a deeper therapeutic alliance that is patient-centered and emotion-centered.  

“To feel with a patient and share distress and hopelessness and mistrust of the future, is therapy. You are an observer in taking history, but you’re a participant as a therapist. To share together, is therapy.” - Dr. Tarr

Meaning develops emotional endurance

People who have chronic pain who believe they are enduring it for a deeper meaning report feeling far less physical pain compared to those who do not report a deeper meaning. Even in birthing units, women report the highest amount of pain, but also often the highest amount of satisfaction. The child being born gives meaning to the pain, and this meaning is so powerful that some women choose to endure the pain instead of accepting medication.

Help patients find meaning in their symptoms. Most symptoms are adaptive, even eating disorders, cutting, and other harmful behaviors. These things have helped people cope with the realities of their lives in some way. We don’t want them to judge their symptoms, but we want them to identify what the meaning behind them.

To really connect with a patient, we must convey to them through our words and actions that they mean something to us, and that we empathize with the meanings they’ve assigned to their lives.

Here are a few phrases I like to use that convey to the patient that I want to connect with them:

  • “What we are talking about together is meaningful.”

  • “We want to make sure we are understanding each other.”

  • “I think I know what you mean. Please tell me if ______ is what you meant. I want to make sure I am understanding you and that we are in tune with each other.”

  • “If you feel I misunderstood you, please tell me right away so we can clear it up as soon as possible.”

  • “We will know together, find out together…”

  • “Could you give an example, elaborate on that, I want to be sure I understand what you are sharing with me.”

  • “I can understand in part how that interaction would make you feel that way.”

Logotherapy, created by Viktor Frankl, helps patients understand and develop meaning in their lives.

Viktor Frankl’s book not only chronicles how the principles of logotherapy helped Frankl survive the Holocaust, it also recounts his observations of how others used meaning to retain their human dignity during times of great suffering. So what is this “logotherapy” that helped people survive?

Essentially, logotherapy is a meaning-centered approach to psychotherapy. Frankl first published his ideas on logotherapy in 1938, and it is now known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.”

The Viktor Frankl Institute lists the three principles that are the basis for logotherapy:

  1. Freedom of will

  2. Will to meaning

  3. Meaning in life

The core tenants can also be elaborated in another way, as done by the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Texas:

  1. Life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

  3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frankl noted that there are a variety of ways in which we can find meaning, such as by our actions, our experiences, our relationships, and our attitude toward suffering. Indeed, logotherapy has been utilized to help treat a variety of psychiatric illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even schizophrenia. Currently, there are several logotherapy institutes around the world in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America that focus on educating the public about logotherapy and applying it to find meaning in people’s lives.

Here are some studies about logotherapy:

  • One study (May, 2010) found psychological safety and psychological meaningfulness was significantly related to engagement in work. 73% of the variance in engagement in work was able to be explained, with 62% coming from meaningfulness and 42% coming from psychological safety.

  • One study (Mahdizadeh, 2016) of patients after heart surgery found that those receiving logotherapy had improvement in mood. Additionally, this study found that logotherapy did not change the physical capabilities of the patient post surgery. However in the patients who had little to no symptom relief and continued limitation of functions post-op, it still showed an improvement in mood 6 months after the study was completed.

  • Another study (Robatmili, 2014) had the logotherapy group work on describing what was meaningful, setting goals, and then had the group facilitate each other moving towards their goals. In this treatment group, the “meaning of life” scores increased and depression scores decreased. Discovering and pursuing meaning is facilitated by helping through the following steps: (a) establishing the therapeutic relationship; (b) increasing insight regarding identity, values, and goals; (c) reframing meaninglessness and depression; (d) discovering meaning within the meaninglessness and depression; and (e) pursuing the fulfillment of meaning.

  • Once you have some positive attributes, you find other positive attributes—like a snowball effect of developing positive meaning in life. One study (Zhang, 2018) showed this after surveying 1,000 elderly people in Hong Kong. There was a higher level of meaning associated with happiness, health status, and decreased healthcare utilization.

  • Another study (Mahdizadeh, 2016) showed that when educational interventions based on the main concepts of logothearpy were made, it lead to an improvement of the patient’s quality of life after CABG surgery in persons over the age of 35 (specifically, scores in QOL were improved psychologically).

  • In one study (Mosalanejad, 2013), an infertile experimental group that used logotherapy showed significant decreased psychological stress scores.

  • One case review (Southwick, 2006) looked at adding a meaning-based intervention into the treatment of chronic combat-related PTSD showed positive enhancement of outcome when combine with traditional therapies and medications.

  • A study of women with breast cancer (Mohabbat-Bahar, 2014) showed logotherapy to be helpful at reducing anxiety.  

  • I also discussed a study (Thomas, 2014) regarding how structured sessions helped cancer patients improve their sense of meaning in life.  

  • A qualitative interview study on nursing home residents (Drageset, 2017) found that meaning could be found in physical and mental well-being, belonging and recognition, personally treasured activities, and spiritual closeness and connectedness.  This present study also showed a link between well-being of patients’ hope for an improved state of health and are in accordance with previous studies showing significant associations between meaning, hope and well-being among older people in nursing homes.

  • Finally, a study (Leveen, 2017) explored how poetry can be used to increase a sense of meaning in physicians caring for patients.    

Conclusion:

By focusing on what is said by our patients and those we care about and by believing that everything that is said has meaning, we can increase our connectedness with them.  We can also slowly find the deeper sources of meaning and purpose which can help make sense of suffering and physical and emotional pain.






Psychiatric Approach to Delirium with Dr. Timothy Lee

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This week on the podcast, I am joined by Dr. Timothy Lee, the Loma Linda residency program director and the head of medical consult and liaison services. One of his specialities is delirium, so this week we will be discussing both hypoactive and hyperactive delirium.  

What is delirium?

Delirium is an acute change in a person’s sensorium (the perception of one’s environment or understanding of one’s situation). It can include confusion about their orientation, cognition or mental thinking.

With hyperactive delirium, a patient can become aggressive, violent and agitated with those around them. A patient experiencing delirium can have hallucinations and hear things, they can become paranoid, and they are overall confused. A family, or non-psychiatric medical staff, might be concerned that the patient is experiencing something like schizophrenia.

Hyperactive delirium symptoms in patients:

  • Waxing and waning—it comes and goes

  • Issues with concentration

  • Pulling out medical lines

  • Yelling profanities

  • Throwing things

  • Agitated

  • Responding to things in the room that aren’t there

  • Not acting like themselves

Hypoactive delirium is much more common than hyperactive delirium (based on research studies), but it is often missed because the presentation is much less dramatic. People with hypoactive delirium are confused and disoriented, but they do not express their confusion verbally or physically.

Hypoactive delirium symptoms:

  • Slower movement

  • Softer speech

  • Slower responses

  • Withdrawn

  • Not eating as much

Often, nurses and physicians can miss the fact that the patient has the typical confusion that denotes delirium because the patient is quieter, so it doesn’t come to the attention of the medical team or psychiatrist consult service.

Delirium can even be confused for depression. One Mayo Clinic study showed that when consulting a doctor about their depression, 67% of the time, the patient ended up having delirium.

Why does delirium happen?

Often we see it happen, even to relatively healthy people, in physically stressful situations—post surgery, during an acute illness, or even just being stuck in the hospital for a few days. This does not mean it is indicative of a sudden onset of a long term mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

To consider what can cause delirium, I like to think systematically from the top of the body and work my way down. This is by no means exhaustive, but it can be helpful.

Many things can cause delirium. I like to think about starting at the top of the body and going down, as a way to not miss the cause. Here are a few we would consider as we go down the body:

  • Stroke—check strength in both arms and legs, have the patient smile

  • Hypertensive emergency

  • Infection or meningitis

  • Physical trauma—concussion, head injury with initial loss of consciousness, then after regaining consciousness they can have delirium

  • Brain bleeding

  • Medications that affect the brain, such as ones that produce anticholinergic side effects. (They suppress acetylcholine, causing brain imbalances and confusion. Anti-allergy medicines, pain medications, and some psychiatric medications are anticholinergic.)

  • Circulatory issues

  • Thyroid imbalances or parathyroid hormones

  • Cancer

  • Heart attack

  • Traumatic injury to the heart

  • Aspiration pneumonia

  • Lung infection

  • Lung cancer

  • Viral pneumonia

  • Pancreatic inflammation

  • Urinary tract infections in women

  • Liver cirrhosis

  • Hepatitis

  • Gallbladder inflammation

  • Low bilirubin

  • Hepatic encephalopathy

How do we identify delirium in a patient?

Asking certain questions to the patient and/or medical team and family can help us understand if the patient is experiencing delirium. Often, a patient experiencing delirium will still know where they are, what they are doing, and who they are. The main test to really determine if it’s delirium is the “clock drawing” where we ask the patient to draw a clock with the hands showing 11:10.

Here are some questions and tasks we ask the patient to answer and perform to test for delirium:

  • Does the person know who they are?

  • Does the person know where they are?

  • In what detail does the person understand where they are?

  • Does the person know the date?

  • Can they orient to the situation? Do they know why they are there and the circumstances that led to them being in the hospital?

  • We might ask the patient to repeat back a few words for us.

  • We will ask them later if they remember the three words we asked previously.

  • We test for concentration, like asking the days of the week in reverse order.

  • We try to assess their visual and spatial ability.

  • We might ask them to draw a clock to look for spacing, impairments, or difficulties.  

Some tests that are common to determine delirium are:

  • The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE)

  • The Montreal Cognitive Assessment

How to help

It is important, if the patient has loved ones with them, to educate the family about delirium, because both hypoactive and hyperactive delirium can be terrifying to watch.

When it comes to giving medications, it’s important to follow a few rules, Dr. Lee says. Giving medications with anticholinergic side effects can make the patient more agitated. When prescribing meds, be careful not to switch from a hyperactive delirium presentation to a hypoactive delirium presentation by just sedating the patient but maintaining confusion. Medications like benzodiazepine, barbiturates, sedatives and pain medications (beyond what is needed for pain) can all cause worsening of delirium.

If the confusion is from an infection, an antibiotic should eventually help the cause of the delirium, however it may take a few days for the confusion to improve after the cause is eliminated.  At times antipsychotic medications are used to help the delirium and reduce the time needed to stay in the hospital.

Even after the cause of the delirium is gone, and the delirium seems to have improved very quickly, a person may still have lingering cognitive issues. It’s important to be conservative in terms of how quickly you taper them off of the antipsychotic medication used to treat the delirium.





Ketamine and Psychedelics with Dr. Michael Cummings

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Link to show on: iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, PlayerFM, PodBean, TuneIn, Podtail, Blubrry, Podfanatic

Blog by David Puder, M.D., Mark Ard, M.D., Mikyla Cho,

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Cummings, a reputable psychopharmacologist, about ketamine. We talk about psychedelics, the research behind it, both the positives and the negatives. We will look at how it is or is not helpful in psychiatric treatments.

(Disclaimer: There are no conflicts of interest to report. Neither Dr. Puder or Cummings is affiliated with any companies in favor of ketamine and other drug companies.)

Ketamine

Although ketamine has recently become a medication of great interest in psychiatry, it actually is a fairly old medication. It was first synthesized in 1962 and began human trials for anesthesia in 1964. It was finally approved by the FDA as a dissociative anesthetic in 1970.

What has piqued interest in psychiatry is that infusion of a smaller dose of ketamine produces a rapid response in terms of reversal of depressed mood, suicidality, and some treatment-resistant depressed patients.

The literature is rich (in one sense) as the most recent consensus statement (Sanacora, 2017) looked at seven randomized controlled trials, all of which support a robust antidepressant response and anti-suicide response. The difficulty with those trials is the majority of them lasted only one week. A few of the later trials lasted two to three weeks with two to three infusions per week. So, what’s lacking at this point is adequate data regarding long term treatment response and data about transitions to more traditional antidepressant treatments.

This area is of great interest, largely because of the limitations of our current antidepressants. In the STAR D antidepressant trials, 48.6% of people got a 50% reduction in depressive signs and symptoms with the first antidepressant, whereas only 37% of depressed patients achieved remission with the first medication.

Limitations of ketamine in Psychiatry

People receive low-dose infusions of ketamine for depression and suicidality, and there seems to be short term response to this, though the long term effects have not been measured.

The decrease in depression and suicidality is typically robust, but short lived. There is a fairly rapid decay of the antidepressant response following infusion. The infusions are done over 40 minutes. About thirty percent of the patients will become fairly unresponsive to light verbal stimulation. They then recover, but within a few days their mood will begin to deteriorate.

The study comparing 2 days/week to 3 days/week showed fairly equivalent effectiveness of ketamine for the several weeks it was studied. The other limitation of ketamine in terms of an ongoing treatment for depression is like all NMDA antagonists, these drugs are psychotomimetic and cause dissociation. They can induce psychotic signs and symptoms, and those do begin to become more prevalent with repeated infusions.

Currently adverse effects are known for chronic abusers, and can include cognition problems and bladder issues and we don’t have adequate data telling us how long it would be safe to continue ketamine infusions and how to make a transition from ketamine to a more stable, longer lasting treatment.

Ketamine and Dissociative States

Those who described their experiences during the ketamine infusion note a loss of sense of personal boundaries and a sense of union with the universe. There are fairly dramatic changes in their thinking.

Ketamine inhibits the brain’s primary activating receptor, the N-methyl-D-aspartatic receptor, blocking the effects of glutamate, which transiently enhances plasticity.  Ketamine blocks presymptic inhibitor interneurons, blocking glutamate, leading to more glutamate overall in the brain. This “glutamate surge” leads is what is thought to lead to a rapid release of BDNF which is a growth factor for the brain.  This may be responsible for the short term improvement in depressive symptoms.

People also use ketamine as a recreational drug because of its ability to induce a dissociative state. It has been a drug of abuse for a number of years since its introduction in the 1970s. It goes by “Special K,” and a number of other names. Many people abuse it after drinking and at raves. If they take a high enough dose, they can lose their ability to hear and see and become stuck in a “frozen state.”

It can produce delirium, which can be either stuporous or agitated. The related drug, phencyclidine (PCP, aka angel dust), causes more severe dissociation and psychosis. However, the effect of ketamine and phencyclidine are in the same direction and by the same mechanism.

People refer to Ketamine’s dissociative state as the “K Hole,” when one can’t move and experiences this depersonalization. Ketamine is sometimes used as a “date rape drug” because the person can be in a very vulnerable state.

Ketamine dosage

  • Ketamine dosage given for depression is at 0.5 mg/kg, which results in a plasma concentration of approximately 70-200 ng/mL.

  • Ketamine dosage given for anesthesia results in plasma concentrations of 2000-3000 ng/mL.

  • Doses people use at raves or for anesthesia are about an order of magnitude higher than those used for infusion for treatment of depression.

  • Peak plasma concentration with antidepressant infusions of ketamine are about 200 ng/mL. For recreational or ICU anesthesia purposes, it is closer to 2000 ng/mL.

Side effects/risks of ketamine infusion

When people are recovering from the antidepressant infusion, there is still a risk. They may become agitated, confused, or hallucinate, which is why one of the recommendations for treatment centers using ketamine is that they have adequate expertise in controlling psychomotor agitation and confusion if those things occur.

During ketamine infusion, about one-third of patients also exhibit a fairly pronounced sympathetic arousal during the initial portion of the infusion.

  • About 30% of patients achieve a heart rate of 110 and a blood pressure of approximately 180/100. (Sanacora, 2017)

  • One of the recommendations for ketamine infusion centers is that they take a good cardiac history and be sure that the person can tolerate exercise. Additionally, the drug should be administered by someone who is ACLS certified and has access to a crash cart.

  • For cats recovering from surgery (Jasani, 2015) on ketamine use for animals), it is helpful and ideal to put them in a quiet environment. The same is true for humans. Patients should be put in a quiet, safe environment so that one does not induce an agitated delirium because the patient is responsive to the environment, but their interpretation of that environment may not be based on reality and can produce an agitated response.

Mechanism of action

In many cases of treatment-resistant depression, it is necessary to alter the plasticity of the brain to get a response. Ketamine, perhaps via the blockade of glutamate at NMDA receptors, and perhaps via downstream mechanisms from that, seems to do this.

This correlates to some extent with how we know antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy works. They have looked at CT scans for what is important in gaining a response, and for decades, it was thought that it was the seizure. Now, it may actually be the postictal neuronal suppression period that accounts for the therapeutic benefit because that is associated with turning on rapid response genes.

One small study looked at simply exposing people repeatedly to isoflurane, an anesthetic agent, causing repeated neuronal suppression. They also received an antidepressant response from that. So it may be that turning neurons off transiently can be beneficial in terms of resetting them at the DNA level and making them more plastic. Ketamine may not be the only anesthetic agent that alters longer term functioning of neural circuits.

Ketamine Clinics

Although ketamine has become popular, the major risk is not that the drug may not have psychiatric utility, but that we are still fairly early on in using it. The risk is that the use will outrun the data we have available to guide us. This may already be happening, as evidenced by the surge of new ketamine clinics.

Often, the clinics are started by anesthesiologists, and there is no clear psychiatric evaluation that may precede patients starting ketamine.

Currently, the data we have now essentially points to ketamine as treatment for major depression, refractory to other treatments. In many ketamine clinics, they’re using it to treat all complaints, but the data on this ranges from slim to none at all.

There may be a lucrative pull toward these clinics as they are usually cash pay since insurances don’t currently cover this.

Advice to Those Considering Ketamine Clinics

One should first get a very careful psychiatric evaluation, including a diagnosis of their mental disorder and a careful review of their treatment history to be sure that they have received optimal treatment in terms of established long term treatment options.

If one does decide to pursue ketamine treatment, then they should work with a psychiatrist who is well-versed in not only using ketamine, but is also knowledgeable in using other means to address depression, such as more traditional antidepressant medications and psychotherapies (especially day treatment programs).

Other Concerns with Ketamine

According to existing literature, ketamine is not a cure all for major depression. It may help “jolt” a brain that has become resistant to treatment into being more plastic and transiently being less depressed, but it is not a cure for the underlying condition.

Another concern is that we don’t know what the patient will be like after long-term treatment with ketamine. Will they have had a full recovery? Experience persistent issues or treatment complications?  Cognitive issues? Bladder issues?

Ketamine may be most helpful for patients who have failed multiple treatment modalities, such as full doses of antidepressants or even ECT. It may provide a means to enhance treatment response to get the person out of the immediate danger of severe depression and suicidality. However, at this point it is not a standalone treatment.


Ketamine and Psychotherapy

If ketamine is a dissociative drug, it might be best to have the person off of ketamine before starting psychotherapy so that their brain is fully functional. The psychotherapy would need to follow after the person’s dissociation has dissipated.  The half life of the parent compound of ketamine is about 2.5 to 3 hours. The active metabolite (norketamine or N-desmethylketamine) is up to 12 hours.

By the time the person is 60 hours post-infusion, the ketamine is gone. It is unlikely that there are prolonged dissociative effects, at least not with one, two, or three exposures. However, there is no data stating just exactly how many exposures to ketamine is considered safe in terms of avoiding a more protracted delirium.  

Final Thoughts on Ketamine

This is still a new frontier that will most likely be revisited as newer and larger studies are done. Ketamine is promising in that it does suggest that if we can discover more useful and somewhat more gentle NMDA antagonists, we may discover a new avenue into treating more resistant depressive illnesses.

Psychedelics

History of Psychedelics

Psychedelics are illegal is most areas of the world. Because of a few studies and their ability to alter mental states, they are a gaining interest in some areas of psychiatry.

They have been used for millennia in some Native American and other indigenous populations. Historically, they have been used primarily in terms of religious rituals, often under the guidance of a shaman or medicine man helping to guide an individual in respect to life issues. Traditionally, they were often used only once or very sparingly as a support to what were ritual-based psychotherapies. The interest in psychiatry is if these would facilitate some form of psychotherapy while using the psychedelics.  

All of these drugs, such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca, are all essentially very potent 5-HT2A serotonin agonists, with many of them also being agonists at other serotonin receptors.  

They produce a state similar to ketamine.

      • The person has an alteration of their sense of self, a loss of boundaries.

      • They have a sense of being in touch with the universe.

      • They become much more influenceable under those circumstances.

Of course, like ketamine, psychedelics have also been prone to being drugs of abuse like the psychedelic area of the late 1960s. Studies (Kalasinsky, 2014; Palamar, 2016) of people who have used street ecstasy have found that the drug was often mixed with other chemicals, such as methamphetamines and bath salts, making it very different than what could potentially be given at a pharmaceutical grade.

Psychedelics dosage

Psychedelics in high doses

Much has to do with the dosing and concentration that is present when abused, which are often both very high. These drugs can cause permanent changes. For example, LSD can induce a persistent hallucinosis that’s essentially the result of a permanent change in receptor status that usually occurred with repeated, very high dose exposures.

Psychedelics in modest doses

Frankly at this point, we don’t know very easily how to separate the benefits and risks of these drugs. Although used as they were traditionally, there were often very limited exposures and very controlled environments. This suggests that these drugs should perhaps be used with caution for therapeutic benefits.

Studies about Psychedelics (Rafael, 2018 for most recent review)

  • Psychedelics have shown benefits in a variety of open label, small studies, and lack adequate control group of mostly short duration for everything from depression, to anxiety, and to even inhibiting the use of substances like alcohol.

  • Psilocybin has been studied in decreasing depression in cancer patients

  • Patients will take the medication or placebo, wear an eye covering, and listen to some light music while lying down on the hospital bed. If patients do undergo an experience of some sort, there is a person in the room they can talk to.

Most studies typically report a positive primary result, but are limited by their very small samples and lack an adequate control group. Therefore, much of our data is still very early on with respect to the hallucinogens and their possible benefits.

In contrast, the wealth of data from traditional cultures that have used these substances for millennia shows that when these drugs are used in a very controlled, limited manner, they do not seem to induce ongoing mental disorders.

Research is still at an early stage and may open new routes for treatment by modulation of serotonin receptors in ways that we haven’t approached before. It may turn out that hallucinogens themselves may or may not be the right agents to use in the long run. But, this may point to a new approach to altering brain plasticity to enhancing treatment.

Study designs and placebos affect study results.

Some studies use saline or sugar pills as placebo, and patients are likely to know they have not received the treatment in those cases. A good placebo produces some degree of change and level of consciousness. For example, an infused benzodiazepine might be a possibility.

A normal saline infusion or an oral sugar pill would not produce an adequately blinded study since both hallucinogens and ketamine produce a fairly rapid effect that anyone being exposed to the drug would be aware of.

Another example is a study that used botox for depression (Finzi, 2014). 75% of the Patients knew if they have actually received the botox or just an injection of normal saline since the effects on the muscle were so different. These studies would then become suspect because particularly in treating mood disorders, the placebo response rate is typically fairly high, often around 30-40%. Therefore, studies really do need to blind both the participants and the researchers by giving an active comparative placebo.

The Hawthorne effect can bias the study because if you expect something to happen, you tend to see it, whether it actually exists or not. However, the results of a study can change once it becomes a multi-site study.

Open label studies have a higher rate of positive findings than those of randomized controlled trials.

  • In an open label trial, the patient and the prescriber of the treatment both know what the patient is receiving and consequently, they can be biased by their beliefs.

  • If you compare open label studies to studies in which neither the patient or the prescriber knows what the patient got, the rate of positive results is about twice in the open trials than what it is in the controlled trial.

    • We can fool ourselves into seeing something that wasn’t actually there about half the time.

Final Thoughts

Longer trials of up to six months should be done for ketamine research to address several questions.

  • How often can a patient receive treatment?

  • What are the long-term effects?

  • What is the point at which one should stop because of any long-term effects on a person’s brain?

  • How do we transition from ketamine infusion to alternative treatments?

  • Does ketamine ultimately make the person more responsive to other pharmacologic interventions or psychotherapeutic interventions?

Psychedelics also still need to be studied more extensively.

  • We need to understand more fully what is happening in the brain as a result of very potent stimulation of 5-HT receptors.

  • Perhaps we can use that as a jumping off point to look for other means to modulate or encourage treatment response using those receptor systems.

We do not know enough about ketamine and psychedelics to be able to tell if they will have positive long term effects on mental health and be useful to psychiatry. These topics will need to be revisited as more research is done.

dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., Alcázar-Córcoles, M. Á., & Hallak, J. E. (2018). Efficacy, tolerability, and safety of serotonergic psychedelics for the management of mood, anxiety and substance use disorders: a systematic review of systematic reviews. Expert review of clinical pharmacology, (just-accepted).

Finzi, E., Kels, L., Axelowitz, J., Shaver, B., Eberlein, C., Krueger, T. H., & Wollmer, M. A. (2018). Botulinum toxin therapy of bipolar depression: A case series. Journal of psychiatric research, 104, 55-57.

Kalasinsky, Kathryn S., John Hugel, and Stephen J. Kish. "Use of MDA (the" love drug") and methamphetamine in Toronto by unsuspecting users of ecstasy (MDMA)." Journal of Forensic Science 49.5 (2004): JFS2003401-7.

Palamar, Joseph J., et al. "Detection of “bath salts” and other novel psychoactive substances in hair samples of ecstasy/MDMA/“Molly” users." Drug and alcohol dependence 161 (2016): 200-205.

Sanacora, G., Frye, M. A., McDonald, W., Mathew, S. J., Turner, M. S., Schatzberg, A. F., ... & Nemeroff, C. B. (2017). A consensus statement on the use of ketamine in the treatment of mood disorders. JAMA psychiatry, 74(4), 399-405.



What is psychodynamic theory?

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On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interviewed Allison Maxwell-Johnson, a social worker and PhD student of clinical social work. I refer patients to her regularly for psychoanalysis, and she has had a wonderful impact on their mental health journey.

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Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy where the practitioner work focuses on the patient’s emotion, fantasies, dreams, unconscious drives and wishes, early and current life relationships, and the relationship that is forming between the patient and therapist.  

The history of psychodynamic therapy

Sigmund Freud is known as the father of psychodynamic therapy. He practiced in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Some psychiatrists and therapists think that Freud has been debunked because he is a controversial figure. But my colleague, Allison Maxwell, and I, think his impact on furthering the mental health field has been positive.

Historically, people with borderline personality disorder, somatic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were all grouped under the title of “hysteria.” A few hundred years ago, these people would have been killed as witches, put in asylums, and there wasn’t much ability to, or interest in, digging into their psyche. There was certainly no warmth or empathy given to them.

Freud began to grapple with those deeper, tougher issues, claiming it wasn’t just a medical disorder. He gave empathy, and a level of connectedness to his patients that hadn’t been done before. As the first psychoanalyst, he was a pioneer in his field, and he figured out that having an emotionally connected relationship with his patients (he would even have is patients over for dinner and go for walks with them) could actually heal the patient.

Affect

Affect is something therapists need to pay attention to when it comes to each individual patient. It’s about noting the facial and emotional state of the person. Is the patient emotionally flat or expressive? Are they depressed or happy? Are they peaceful or agitated?

We focus on their emotional state and try to lean in to understand what a patient is feeling during a session. As the doctor or therapist, what is the emotional reaction you're having to the patient, in the moment? Analyze the situation—both your feelings and theirs. Ask them for clarification on their feelings, then ask yourself how you can use that information to understand and connect with the patient emotionally.

There are multiple emotions going on which can be conflicting. We need to ask ourselves if we can empathize with the distress that is in the room.  

It’s not only about intellectually understanding what’s happening with a patient, or diagnosis. It’s about understanding how to create an emotional connection and help someone.

Transference

A therapist applies the principle of transference when we pay attention to the emotional state the patient has towards them. If the therapist reminds them of their abusive father, and they react emotionally, it’s a classic transference situation.

Understanding transference can help a therapist remain empathic and curious, even when a patient is angry at them. Transference can be seen in their complete reaction towards you, both from their past, and how you are interacting with them.  

Countertransference

As therapists, we are also humans. We will have reactions to the patients we work with.  Countertransference is the complete reaction we have towards our patients, both coming from how the patient reminds us of people from our past, and our reaction towards the things that the patient is uniquely doing.

The unconscious exists both in our patients and in us. If we can keep countertransference in our awareness as therapists, we can try to understand what is happening interpersonally—why we do or don’t like our patient, and why we feel angry or upset with our patients.

As therapists, we should not react to our patients out of direct emotion, but understand that countertransference is happening, and be curious about the meanings behind our feelings, and their feelings towards us.

Studies that show psychodynamic theory works:

  • For the curious, read this article by Jonathan Shedler, “The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy” PDF

Mentalization-based therapy

Mentalization therapy is an emotion-focused therapy for people with borderline personality disorder. It helps them question whether they are accurately mentalizing, or understanding, their own experiences and their therapists emotional experiences. The positive effect of mentalization-based therapy is measurable. It has a mean effect size of 1-2, meaning it is 1-2 standard deviations from the control group—it works.

People who were in and out of psychiatric hospitals with suicide attempts, after mentalization therapy, can have great success in achieving a normal life.

  • Study on Mentalization based therapy with 8 year follow up: PDF

Transference Based Therapy:

  • Article on transference focus therapy increasing a patient’s narrative coherence and reflective function: PDF

In conclusion

As therapists, including psychodynamic principles can help us connect with our patients. It will protect us from burnout, and give our patients the chance to feel emotionally connected with someone, in a corrective and healing way. It can be incredibly rewarding, rather than draining, when we feel connected, and our patients usually express gratitude as they heal.



Therapeutic Alliance Part 1

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What is a therapeutic alliance?

The therapeutic alliance is a collaborative relationship between the physician and the patient. Together, you jointly establish goals, desires, and expectations of your working partnership.

Every interview with a patient, whether it’s for diagnostic, intake, evaluative, or psychopharmacology purposes, has therapeutic potential. The treatment starts from your first greeting—how you listen, empathize, and even how you say goodbye.  

It’s built from a partnership and dialogue, like any other relationship. It’s not built from medical interrogation. It’s not about pulling medical information to be able to make a diagnosis. We have to make it a positive experience for patient, so they can begin to talk about what's negative in their lives.

The therapeutic alliance is full of meaning, and it uses every emotional transaction therapeutically. If they get angry, sad, or have fear you will abandon them, as a therapist, it’s our job to figure out how to help them through that feeling within the relationship. The doctor can express desire for the patient to share, in real time, how the patient is feeling, even about his or her relationship with the doctor.

Why do we care?

We all know that some talk therapists have better outcomes than other talk therapists. What’s interesting though, is that some some psychiatrists’ placebos worked better than other psychiatrists’ active drugs. One study of NIMH data of 112 depressed patients treated by 9 psychiatrists with placebo or imipramine, found that variance in BDI score (a score that measures depression) due to medication, was 3.4% and variance due to psychiatrist was 9.1%. One-third of psychiatrists had better outcomes with the placebo than one-third had with imipramine.  

Another book argues that the therapist is more important to outcome than theory or technique. Many other studies have shown that therapeutic alliance directly correlates to success rates.

What builds a therapeutic alliance?

Research shows there are a few things that grow therapeutic alliance:

Expertness

  • Facilitating a greater level of understanding

  • When residents are worried they are an imposter, I tell them that humility is good, but realize that you have experience that most will never have, medical school, being highly educated, being around vast different ways of thinking and reflecting on the world...

Consistency

  • Structuring your office to run on time.

  • Being consistent to respond to refill request, lab results, or patient’s questions.

Non-verbal gestures

  • Eye contact

  • Leaning forward

  • Mirroring of emotion occurs naturally when people pay attention to emotion

Maintenance of the therapeutic frame

  • A dual relationship (eg, dating) breaks down therapeutic alliance. Patients will test the frame. It can be helpful to say, "There will be positive and negative feelings between us and what will be safe is to talk about them."

Empathy, attunement, positive regard

  • Patient: “Therapist is both understanding and affirming."

  • Patient: “Therapist adopts supportive stance.

  • Patient: “Therapist is sensitive to patient’s feelings, attuned to patient, empathic.”

  • Research has found that for beginning therapists, setting and maintaining treatment goals is harder

  • Research has shown that strength of therapeutic bond is not associated with level of training

  • Therapist should appear alert, relaxed and confident rather than bored, distracted and tired

Foundational concepts of the therapeutic alliance

Our profession gives us a privileged glimpse into the human heart and mind. Each patient is idiosyncratic, unique, precious. Each patient has unique strengths which we should place focus on.  Some therapists can be in a hurry to find out what's wrong, but we should also want to find out what's right with our patients.

Our own feelings, as therapists, about the session are not intrusions but clues. If you are experiencing boredom, perhaps you are not understanding the main point the patient is trying to explain. Be curious for what you are missing. If you start feeling something different than you did at the beginning of the encounter, notice it. Try to empathize for the patient with what changed.

Our goal is for the patient to feel understood, heard, accepted, felt. To be understood is to be accepted.

A strong alliance will provide a "Corrective Emotional Experience"  (Franz Alexander), which means past relational pain and difficulties are worked out in a new relationship. When your subjectivity (your feelings, thoughts, goals) come into contact with the patient's subjectivity, a unique "intersubjective relationship" is formed from your mutual influencing of each other. A new dyad (2 coming together) is formed by looking at new meanings, understandings and connectedness. As a therapist, you are a “participant observer” as you observe the patient’s behavior and also become a “significant other” in their life through your interactions (Harry Stack Sullivan).

Here are some things to consider on a first encounter with a patient:

The patient will feel: examined, fear being seen as crazy, fear of not being liked, discouraged, hopeless, helplessness, needy, fear you are a mind reader, or even fear that you sleep with your patients.

In developing this relationship, it’s important to understand they can formulate defenses that are adaptive. Try to empathize with that underlying emotion. Starting with what's an adaptive response and solves something, looking for what’s maladaptive does not.

The patient may question your competence. They might say you look very young to be a doctor. The appropriate response would be to dig down and see why they are feeling what they are feeling. Say something like,"Perhaps you were looking for someone who looks older; of course you’re entitled to worry about how competent I am and how much I may be able to help you."

Therapists are always worried about being ineffectual. It's very natural to feel like an impostor in our position. It’s also normal to feel—when someone's angry at us, our mirror neurons lead us to be angry back.

Always face the patient, without desks between you, lean slightly forward, give appropriate eye contact, and do not do excessive note taking (you should be observing at least 90% of the time). Ideally, a clock is positioned behind the patient which can easily be seen by you without making obvious movements.

On Listening: An Active Process

Connection is non-verbal, and is equally as important as verbal communication, sometimes more so.

  • Omissions (what is not said) in the patient's stories and memories are important.

  • Point out common patterns you hear.

  • If every time you say something to the patient he says "no, that's not it" then point out that to the patient.  

  • Be aware when asking "why" questions, you are likely going to arouse the same defensive emotional reactions that occurred when the patient as a child was asked "why did you do that?" by the parent.  At times, "why" can communicate disapproval. For example you ask, "Why do you feel that?" And they say, "I DON'T KNOW! Are not you the doctor!"

  • Dr. Tarr has some good advice on nonverbal communication: "I participate. I respond. I react to my patient and to his verbal and nonverbal communications.  At the same time I observe what's going on, what the patient is saying and what he is not saying. I am particularly attuned to evidences of anxiety, to what I am feeling and thinking, and where, if anywhere, the interchanges are going. I am wondering how best to formulate for this particular patient what I observe that may help him feel understood and responded to."

  • Observe that defenses (sublimation, reaction formation, intellectualization), although they reduce anxiety, may misrepresent reality.  

  • Assume an attitude of "reverie," like a good maternal object, receiving toxic stuff from patients and then giving it back to them in a detoxified form (Wilfred Bion).

  • Create a "holding" place for patients in which patients have a transitional or play space (Donald Winnicott).

  • Listen in a way that notes what the patient is trying to say about your relationship.

    • Patient: "I feel lonely even when I am with people."  Doctor: "Do you feel lonely here with me now?" Patient: "No, I feel you understand me somewhat."  Doctor: "I want to know if there are any times where you feel more lonely in our sessions, it will help me to understand what is going on between us."

  • Listen to their moment to moment change in emotions.

    • Try to enter a bit into their feeling, be present with them, mirror the emotion/feeling, use their own words, ask them to find their own words.

    • If you don’t get why they are sad, then stay with it, ask them more questions, have them deepen your understanding of it.

    • Once they feel you truly understand the effect will change. When people feel heard, deeply understood, it is pleasurable.  

    • Shame- patient looks down

      • “I can understand why talking about this must be difficult.”

      • Perhaps as you talk about this you feel…”

      • Try to find the adaptive function: “I hear switching to a new doctor is hard, I think that is a common experience, I think it is adaptive to be hesitant at first in what you share, we are just meeting."

    • Anger/Frustration:

      • “Would you say that as you mentioned this you feel frustrated.”

      • Find the adaptive function: “your anger here seemed to have the goal to protect you and your family”  “your anger likely kept you alive!"

    • Sadness

      • “Perhaps you are feeling sad as you say this?”

      • Find the adaptive function: “it makes sense that you feel sad here, I think crying and feeling sad shows how much you valued your dad and therefore the loss hurts that much more."

    • Disgust

      • “I am wondering if you feel disgusted by this?”

      • “I hear you feel disgusted…” (ask with a questioning tone).

      • Find the adaptive function: “Feeling disgusted by how your sisters turned on you and cast you out of the family makes sense, it sickens you to see the level of their resentment and bitterness."

    • Fear

      • “I hear a deep concern or perhaps fear regarding this.”

      • “Might there be a deep concern or perhaps fear regarding this?”

      • Find the adaptive function: “After your traumatic event, it makes sense that you would no longer want to put yourself in that situation, it sounds like you are trying to protect yourself."

Listen to the patient’s goals, purposes, aspirations, fears, hopes, values, meanings.

How do you create and maintain a working alliance:

Be sensitive to empathic strains and prevent them from developing into empathic ruptures.  

Ask for feedback. Reflect on the "we" aspect of the encounter. If the intervention/participation failed to have the desired result then look at what went wrong with the communication.  

  • “As we were talking together when did you really feel we were on the same page?”

  • “When did you feel we were understanding each other?”

  • “When did you feel we were communicating meaningfully?”  

  • “When were you feeling disappointed?”

  • “When did you fell I was not responding enough?”  

  • “When did you feel frustrated, misunderstood, or impatient?”

Be able to define and predict interpersonal conflicts that may cause a disruption of the shared empathic relationship. Set the groundwork for openness.

For example:  

Doctor: "Tell me about your past psychiatrist?  “What worked and what were your disappointments with your past psychiatrist?"

Patient: "He was kind of a jerk."  

Doctor: "Can you tell me more about that?"  

Patient: "He always would just stare at this computer, and often answered his pager during sessions."  

Doctor: "Thank you for sharing that, I will stop typing and finish this later, I hope that if you ever have any feedback for me you will know that I will want to hear it, even if it is negative, and will appreciate knowing your experience of things."

Patient: “Ooo I was not talking about you.”

Doctor: “Ok, nevertheless it is a good reminder to not be focused on the computer, but if you are bothered by things or frustrated it will be helpful to know.”

The therapeutic alliance is an incredibly powerful relationship, and if it is managed with care, it can affect positive change in a patient’s life.

In future episodes on therapeutic alliance I will dig deeper into specifics of it, and pull upon the depth of my mentorship from Dr. John Tarr.

How to Treat Emotional Trauma

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This week on the podcast I spoke with fellow therapist, Randy Stinnett Psy. D, about how trauma works, and how we can help our patients overcome it.  

What is trauma?

Emotional trauma comes from stress that is overwhelms a person’s neurological system. Some stress can be good and formative, or it can be bad and get stuck in the brain, causing someone deep emotional pain.

Think of climbing Mount Everest. Some people choose to do that, and it’s easily one of the most stressful situations you can put yourself in on purpose. That’s good stress if you have trained for years and are ready for it. If someone forced you to climb Mount Everest, it would register in the brain as a trauma.

Trauma is too big for the mind, brain, and nervous system to assimilate. It’s a memory, or experience, that gets stuck because the person believed it would result in their death, or at least serious injury.

The brain has several mechanisms to keep something stuck so that the person will remember it, and try to avoid getting hurt in the same way in the future. It is a survival instinct.

People commonly demonstrate symptoms of trauma when they’ve:

 

  • Experienced a sexual violation

  • Seen violence

  • Experienced violence or abuse

  • Been neglected—experienced the absence of something that they should have had.

  • Been in near death experiences like car accidents or war

People who have PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, have experienced a soul-level of brokenness, and even talking about the event, or having a memory of it, can bring it back with the same force that occured in the actual accident. They often have recurring nightmares, or repetitive symptoms that continue long after the event.

Typical PTSD symptoms alternate between chronic shut down and fight and flight

  • Fight and flight symptoms are:

    • Sweating, nightmares, flashbacks, anger, rage, panic, hypervigilance, tense muscles, painful knotted gut

  • Shut down symptoms are:

    • Dissociation, freezing, emotional detachment, voice trembling, difficulty getting words out, numbness, apathy, fear, helplessness, dizzy, empty, nausea

  • Moments in connection mode look like:

    • curiosity, exploration, relaxed and full breathing, feeling grounded, true smiles

 

Body movement and trauma

We’ve all heard the reference to Pavlov’s dogs—the bell rings and the dogs salivate because they know it is dinnertime. Pavlov discovered many more things than that dogs drool. Once, his lab was flooded with freezing water that nearly filled the cages of the dogs. When they were finally able to get the dogs free, the dogs interacted differently with the world around them. They seemed hopeless.

Humans work the same way.

PTSD rates were 16% for survivors of 911, and 33% for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Why? Traumatologists speculate it was because during 911, survivors were running away from the catastrophe to save their lives. In Katrina, the victims were airlifted out and placed in gyms, for sometimes months at a time. Those in lower socioeconomic levels had no money, no home, and nowhere to go—they were trapped.

The body is designed to move away from danger, but if the body can’t move, trauma can set in.

 

Attachment based trauma

Having a negative attachment with parents often sets people up for later traumas in life to be a bigger assault on the nervous system and psychological functioning, than it would have been as a standalone event.

Patients who experience unhealthy attachments often struggle with emotional regulation and boundaries.  

Many people, as children, were not heard and mirrored in their emotions and experiences. When they discussed their problems with their parent, and it was met with disdain or shut down, the patient has most likely developed the idea that they have no voice. The stress was not contained and thus all the raw emotion is still there and unprocessed. This leads something to continue to be traumatic in the brain.  

This follows the same pattern as polyvagal theory. When we are in connection mode, we are open hearted and happy. When we feel stress, or lack of connection, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we switch into fight or flight mode. If that disconnection continues, our parathetic nervous system takes over and we go into full-on shutdown. When children are repeatedly ignored or abused, they switch in and out of shutdown mode, causing trauma.

Polyvagal theory and attachment theory, and how they affect children (and adults too), are demonstrated best in the Still Face Experiment video (link to prior article I wrote on that experiment).

Attachment trauma is repeated trauma. It can occur in childhood, or any other time throughout our lives within relationships.

 

Notes to therapists on dealing with PTSD

Studies show that having an emotionally connected therapist, while someone is reprocessing their traumatic memories, can help heal the emotional damage of those memories.

Displaying emotional stability

Patients often superimpose all of their abusers onto their therapists. As therapists, we need to realize this, and stay steady during the entire course of therapy. Remaining calm, safe and empathic is one of the most healing things we can do for them.

It is a way of being, not just an action, or a reaction, towards our patients.

Receiving feedback

As therapists, it’s important to be able to receive feedback from our patients about what is working for them without it being an adversarial situation.

We must respond in a way that allows the patient to have their own voice. First, validate their emotional experience of the patient. Next, thank them for being honest with you. Ask for the whole story behind their feedback.

I am not saying this as some sort of technique, but rather this should come out of the belief that 1) their emotional experience is valid and needs a voice 2) it takes courage to voice any feedback and this is important for their growth and success.

When these things are truly believed, we are empathizing and thanking them, out of the core of our being, and not just as a technique.  

Where they were expecting rejection, you end up validating their experience. Finally, ask them how it feels, in the moment, to be heard and to be able to safely express their opinion. Allow them to experience a felt difference between you and their abusers. This provides a corrective emotional experience!

Know when to limit the stress

Understanding the different nervous system’s functions will help you know when enough is enough for your patient.

Study the symptoms of the activation of the somatic, autonomic, sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous systems. This is imperative, and if you cannot slowly uncover the stressful situations in a way that the patient can manage it without engaging shutdown mode, you will end up doing more damage than good.

Emotional connection

One psychiatry resident asked my mentor, Dr. John D Tarr, if it was better to keep inpatient people at an emotional distance, so the patient would not get attached and want to continue to stay in the hospital. My mentor responded that we always want to be connected to our patients, to be empathic. When we feel they are getting attached and don’t want to leave, we need to open up that dialogue to how we can help them experience connection outside of the hospital.

Studies show that patients who feel connected to their doctor are more engaged in treatment—they go to therapy, take their medications, and continue their mental health journey.

Trauma-based memories are different from normal memories, like knowing what you ate for breakfast this morning. Trauma-based memory has a sensory aspect to it. They are stored in a different part of the brain than where we function for our daily, normal connection mode.

As therapists, when we access those memories with patients, the patient begins to switch to a different part of their mind, and demonstrate symptoms of trauma physically. They may tremble, sweat, and sometimes even their voice changes—it can be hard to get the words out, they whisper, they sound child-like.

To understand how people respond to trauma, we have to know that emotions have primacy, or first dibs, on our reactions. Our brain deems them more important than our executive functioning—our ability to reason and plan our lives’ daily tasks.  

If the patient is open to it and we have established a good, trusted attachment and connection, we will talk about their traumatic memories. If we do not have a connection in that way, I will not explore deep traumatic memories with them. It is more important to build a safe, secure relationship first.

Trauma gets stuck in the non-analytical parts of the brain—our emotions, creativity, experiences, art. It’s image-based, somatic (physical body), it’s non-verbal. Parts of the left hemisphere of the brain deals with logic, reasoning and language. To integrate this part of the brain, the patient will have to access the emotional parts and then put words to their experiences.   

In that conversation, these are some of the questions I will ask:

  • What did you see?

  • What did you feel emotionally?

  • What did your body experience?

  • What do you believe about yourself as a result?

Allow for freedom

Also, when we require our patients to do anything, even to stay for the whole hour of therapy if they do not want to, we are reinforcing the trapped feeling. Keep an open dialogue about what your patient is feeling throughout the therapy session.

If the patient is suicidal with a plan and intent, they likely need a safe place to get through the intense time. I will tell them, “My goal is to not keep you here indefinitely. We will come up with a plan to get you out of here, and for you to be healthy.”

In general, try to give your patients, especially the PTSD ones, choices. Create boundaries and give guidance, but allow them to have freedom in their choices.

Summary  

In this first discussion with Dr. Stinnett, I wanted to highlight some introductory understanding on trauma.  We discussed how trauma is stored differently in the brain and how the polyvagal theory is connected with this journey.  We highlighted the importance of emotion, connection and feedback. Please leave comments below on your thoughts regarding this blog and podcast!  

 

Setting Boundaries in Relationships

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What are boundaries?

When we refer to boundaries, we are talking about emotional walls that are healthy. Boundaries are meant to keep us in relationship with the people that we love.

Think of them as your property lines around your house. You know where your lines are, where your property ends and your neighbors begins. Therefore you know what you are supposed to take care of and what your neighbor is supposed to take care of.

A boundary defines our self. Within ourselves, our “property” consists of our physical body, our desires, our intellect, and our ability to make decisions. It gives us a sense of defining what is “me” and what is “not me.”

We are not supposed to take on too much of other people’s emotional experiences. When I was a newly practicing psychiatrist, I didn’t know that, and I felt depressed after meeting with a depressed patient. It is possible to have an understanding of what is happening in someone’s emotional world, but not take it on yourself.

There is a psychological principle that is common among people who struggle with having good boundaries with others. It’s called “siding with the aggressor.” For example, if someone grows up in a home where the father is constantly displaying angry behavior, a child might learn to develop a sense of humor if he or she learns that will diffuse the situation. Rather than running away from, or fighting back, these people joined with the aggressors, paying attention to them, calming them, helping them.

Early on in childhood, people who side with the aggressor understand how to make others happy. This continues into adulthood and is formative in new relationships in how the person would choose to interact with others.

I don’t think of it as a weakness, I think of it almost as a superpower—these people are incredibly skilled interpersonally when they get older. They know how to react to others, how to make others happy, and how to make angry people calm down. They are great peacemakers, therapists, and psychiatrists. It was an adaptive feature for them in childhood.

But as they grow into adulthood, they need to learn to choose when to use this superpower, or when to have a boundary.

My wife, Lindsay, first began learning about boundaries when she was experiencing burnout as a young, working woman. She never said no, always went above and beyond the requirements of her job. And at the end of the night, she was exhausted. After awhile, she started to become upset—upset at herself, and even a her situation.

Within the Big 5 personality types test, Lindsay scores high in Trait Agreeableness. People who are high in that trait value relationships, are empathic and helpful. They will do things they don’t want to, merely to maintain their relationships. Women typically test higher in the trait than men.

I see many women come into my practice who have high markers of agreeableness—they haven’t found (or been able to express) their boundaries. They have issues with chronic pain, problems with expressing anger, either within themselves, or towards others.  

It’s also common that these people have no idea that their “helpfulness” is causing them huge amounts of physical pain. People who are caretakers, who feel looped in to being someone’s source for happiness, life, wellbeing, often get looped into these types of situations if they don’t have a strong sense of self. Obviously, many people are caretakers for their relatives. I’m not talking about being a nice person versus being selfish, or being a caretaker versus letting someone you love be alone.

I’m talking about the emotional position of your heart during those situations. Are you able to say no when you need to? Are you asking for help when you need to? Are you taking time for yourself? Are you in pain? What is your emotional state when someone calls and asks for help? Do you check in with yourself before you say yes?

How do you know when you need to start establishing boundaries?

Typically, with people who have no boundaries, the resentment will build and build, and they will do something drastic to relieve their pain—cut off the relationship, quit caretaking altogether, stop being friends with the person, get a divorce. Or the resentment will build up in their body, causing either depression (as the anger is turned inward) or body pain (as the body carries the burden).

The truth is though, that when someone with no boundaries says yes, it might be ingenuine. They are saying yes out of guilt and obligation, not out of a true desire to say yes.

When we do things out of obligation or compulsion, we lose passion for that task, and begin to build resentment. If we aren’t making the choice to say yes, we are thus protecting our ability to say yes to our passions, joys and desires.

Good fences make good neighbors

As you’re setting up your “fence,” you want to keep the bad out, but it will also keep the good in.

When we talk to people about boundaries, they are often scared of beginning to say no.

When you learn to say no, and you begin to make new friendships with people, you will tend to set higher standards for how you want to be treated during those relationships.

How to set up healthy boundaries

  1. Look at the people you have a hard time saying “no” to. Is it your boss? Someone in authority? Someone who is a family member?

  2. What do you fear losing from them if you say no? Is it love? Respect? Provision? For a boundary-less person, being a pacifier has some advantage. Maybe you were the peacekeeper in your house growing up. Maybe you weren’t allowed to say no. Maybe abuse was involved. Or maybe you were simply a sensitive, sweet child who heard repetitively that it was a good thing to be kind and helpful. Whatever the case, there is some sort of relational reward to say yes, and to keep the peace. Pay attention to what you’re getting out of saying yes to that person.

  3. Become aware of body sensations you're having when you think of setting boundaries, of saying no to someone. Do you feel tightness in your chest? Numbness in your hands? Is your heart racing? Do you have anxiety?

  4. Have a pre-programmed response for when someone asks you for something. Lindsay likes to say, “Can I get back to you later with an answer?” It allows her to take off the social pressure of saying yes immediately, and be able to respond with a truthful answer later on.

  5. Before you say yes to anything, think about your ultimate goals and boundaries. We all have a purpose, we are all unique. If we spend all of our time doing only what other people want us to do, we won’t accomplish our goals. When we start to focus on ourselves more, we can see where the opportunities to say yes, or no, will take us, and we can see if they line up with our ultimate goals.

  6. Have safe people in your life, so that when you don’t have the strength to say no or speak up, you can talk to them. You can ask for help. It could be a therapist or just someone you can feel safe with. Lindsay has a group of women she has talked to once a week for 12 years. On that phone call, they discuss what they are dealing with and how they are growing.

  7. Have conversations with your current friends where you set boundaries. I go on walks with people all of the time. I often ask if we can switch topics on the way back. Normally I would be the listener the whole walk, but with my new boundary, it lets me also talk about something that’s going on in my life. People are always responsive when I ask for this, and it’s always positive. People who are higher empathy have a harder time asking for what they need.

  8. Throughout our lives, we have new possibilities for relationships every day. We can take care with adding those who are good, positive, safe people, who will understand our “no” and will allow us to uphold our new boundaries. When you’re looking for new, good friends, look for people who are full of grace. They are also full of truth—they are kind and open, but also honest.

Parenting and boundaries

Children are difficult to have boundaries with. It can be because we love them and want to give them the world, because we know they aren’t fully emotionally developed, or because we want to ease some of our own exhaustion by giving in!

One key to holding our boundaries when our kids throw temper tantrums is to respond to tears with empathy, not just say “yes” to ease our discomfort. If we resonate with them, it will help both us and them. For example, if your child is screaming and crying about leaving the park early, try saying, “I know it must feel hard for you to leave something that is so fun. We will come back again. Nevertheless right now, it’s time to go. At home, you have toys too and can play with them.” This offers empathy, hope and it keeps a boundary.

If we give in and let them stay, we are teaching them a bad habit. We should never set a boundary that we aren’t willing to follow through on. It helped Lindsay and I to remember the statistic that even giving in to 1 out of every 8 tantrums taught the child that tantrums worked, and they would win. It reinforced their negative behavior.

If we make them leave and don’t care that they are upset, we aren’t recognizing their emotions and are being unempathic.

Letting children feel stress, and being empathic and reassuring when they’ve completed the task, is more helpful for them as they grow. If you step in every time and relieve the stress (such as not making them go to school when they don’t want to), you’re not preparing them for adulthood.

Keep your boundaries, and express empathy.

Boundaries in romantic relationships

Dating is hard work. There are several boundaries to navigate during dating. When you have talks about boundaries in dating, if they don’t respond appropriately, you definitely need to evaluate whether you want to continue dating them or not.

Be honest and open right from the start.

Physical boundaries

This is a hot topic in society today—consent, verbal consent, being able to talk and have conversations. Many of my patients do not want to follow through with physical relationships with people, but they have a hard time saying the actual word “no” when they are in the moment. Define what you want and don’t want, long before you get into another relationship. If someone does not respect your “no” that should be a deal breaker.

Spiritual boundaries

Define what you want and don’t want, what you believe spiritually. What are your worldview deal breakers? Defining your deal breakers and writing them down, and asking your friends to help keep you accountable, is important.

If you are Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, make sure that you know what you want in a partner, and that you aren’t letting go of boundaries that will one day matter to you again, just so you can date someone.

Conversational boundaries

Part of dating now is “ghosting,” or shutting down communications when you don’t want to have real conversations about how you’re experiencing someone. I believe this has developed unhealthy communication patterns in society.

When Lindsay and I were dating, she almost broke up with me because I demonstrated some anxious behaviors during our dinners together. I would shake my leg, or eat three loaves of bread in ten minutes! She nearly ended it without telling me why—she just thought I was odd.

But when she talked to her friends, they urged her to communicate how she was experiencing me. When she told me what she was feeling, and I told her I was behaving that way becuase I was nervous—I was so into her! She was pleasantly surprised and we continued dating. Now, we have been married for 6 years and have two children together.

When you’re dating, make it a point to not shut down just because you’re having a negative experience of someone (if that experience isn’t too bad, of course). Try communicating to the person what you’re feeling. This will go a long way in setting up the relationship (and changing your personal habits) to developing positive communication patterns.

Dealing with relationships and change

People view consistency as a positive. That means that as humans, we are wired to strive for create an equilibrium in our relationships. And agreeable, boundary-less people strive for consistency in behavior more than others.

When someone that didn’t have boundaries starts saying “no,” the people in their lives start to sit up and notice what they would deem “inconsistency.” The first time you say you cannot help with that thing you’ve helped with every week, they may be nice about it. But the second and third time, they’ll start to say that sentence we all fear…”you’ve changed…”

When you grow in your boundaries, there will be people who don’t like them. They will shame you, yell at you, push every button that they can to get you to comply in the way that you used to.

Understand that by saying no, you may not be as helpful in relationships, volunteer organizations, or work situations as you used to be.

But, by saying no, you will also free up your time to be able to accomplish what only you can accomplish in your life. Saying no to trivial things that are daily time-vampires will free you up to do the things you are passionate about. That passion will grow, your freedom will grow, and you’ll be able to really start to feel in control of your own life and schedule again. People will respect you.

 

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