psychotherapy podcasts

How to Help Patients With Sexual Abuse

On today’s episode of the podcast, I interview Ginger Simonton, a PhD student finishing her dissertation. We will cover her in-depth research on alleviating the symptomology of childhood sexual abuse.

We will specifically be talking about the link between women who have been sexually abused, never given a chance to heal, and how it has affected their mental and physical health, and programs that can benefit them.

What is childhood sexual abuse?

“The CDC defines the act of CSA as “inducing or coercing a child to engage in sexual acts” that include “fondling, penetration, and exposing a child to other sexual activities” (2017).”

The facts:

  • 88% of sexual abuse cases happen with someone the child knows (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005)

  • 20-30% of women experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach 18 years old (Pereda et al., 2009; Stoltenborgh, Van Ijzendoorn, Euser, Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2011; Bolen & Scannapieco, 1999; Holmes & Slap, 1998; Finkelhor, 1994)

  • 20-40% of survivors have no adverse effects later in life (resilience is the norm) (Paras, Murad, Chen, Goranson, Sattler, Colbenson, Elamin, Seime, Prokop, & Zirakzadeh, 2009)

How does it affect health?

Statistics show that 20-40% of survivors have no negative effects later in life. This is dependent on the response of caregivers. If someone was supported, protected, validated and responded to in a therapeutic way, the child has a higher chance of resiliency, which occurs through secure attachment. If the child has secure attachment, they can usually move forward with their lives.

What Simonton’s study shows is that women who were silenced, shamed or not given a voice to resolve those childhood sexual trauma issues have more mental and physical health issues than normal. If a woman was in a multi-dimensionally unstable family—drug use, no structural stability, alcoholism, revictimization—they are less likely to have resiliency.

Bodily representations of chronic stress:

Women who experienced childhood sexual abuse that was never recognized by a loving caregiver demonstrate biopsychosocial health problems both in childhood and later on in life. Sexual abuse causes intensive stress, and there are many subsequent health issues that stem from it.

What we see is the body begin to break down in the face of cortisol and other stress-related hormones that are released over years of unresolved trauma. One of the first indicators that drives them to seek medical help is usually a physical ailment. Often the patient experiences a few health issues, and ends up medicating the physical things, but the underlying cause is never treated.

These show up in many different ways, but there are some predominant issues such as:

  • Migraines

  • Bladder problems

  • Hypertension

  • Anxiety

  • PTSD

  • Depression

  • Chronic fatigue

  • TMJ

  • Irritable bowel

  • Fibromialgia

  • Non-epileptic seizures

  • Diabetes (chronic stress makes it more difficult to control)

If your patient does have a chronic illness, that does not mean they have experienced childhood sexual trauma. However, if they are retaining stress from childhood sexual abuse, they are more likely to develop comorbid mental and physical health issues later on.

Helping patients who have experienced sexual abuse

Because we are meaning-making creatures, we assign values to situations in our lives. If something good happens, we assign positive meanings to it—we are good people, we are highly valued, we are loved, etc. If something bad happens, we assign meaning to it—we are gross, we are worthless, we are disgusting. As we internalize these beliefs, we begin to act according to those meanings in ways that further damage our bodies and minds.

So how do we help our patients revisit the meaning they’ve assigned to these traumatic experiences? Simonton’s research shows different programs and therapies that can help patients cope with the trauma and relief their symptomology.

Ask them their story

It’s important for a patient to feel they are revealing their story slowly and gradually if that’s what makes them most comfortable. Simply asking for them to tell their story, then helping them unpack the information if they mention sexual abuse, is the best way to go about it.


Don’t lead the witness

Some therapists who have been sexually abused themselves, or who are particularly drawn to sexual abuse victims, can tend to transfer other patient’s experiences and make conclusions about patients who maybe have not experienced sexual abuse. If this is the case, the therapist can sometimes “lead the witness” by suggesting and leading the patient to believe they have experienced this when they have not.

Get the right team around them

It takes a good team to help someone recover from the trauma of sexual abuse. A good friend and family support group, plus therapists and internal medicine doctors (if the patient is on medications for their comorbid physical ailments) will all bolster the patient’s healing process. As a therapist, try to work with the patient’s internal medicine doctor to get a complete picture of the patient’s whole health. That way, as the patient heals, their medication can be managed accordingly.

Family involvement is critical to patients improving quality of life. Women who had a partner or sibling did much better and received the fullest benefit of having someone with them for home care and help. Also, someone with a spiritual base or community demonstrated higher health quality of life throughout intake and therapy.

Having someone with the patient who can be there day in and day out leads to a much higher success rate than when they have isolated experiences with the therapist. What is difficult is when a person experiences positive change in their therapy, but goes back to a rigid family who relates mostly to the patient’s illness. Illness can even create a continuing underlying family rule of keeping the victim in her lower, negatively associated role.

This also helps the women establish a new relationship with whoever they bring to therapy with them in a sexual abuse program—it helps them re-relate to a person in a new healthy way. They are no longer just the victim, they can portray new goals for healing and see rapid growth alongside their partner, family or sibling.

Get them back in touch with their bodies

Many people who experience sexual abuse learn that their body is their enemy, a conduit of pain. They learn to dissociate to be able to survive, and that ability carries over into adulthood. Dissociation is a powerful tool that helps them be able to mentally “leave” their body so they can withstand physical pain or trauma.

One fascinating note Simonton made is that patients never recounted physical pain when they talked about their trauma. Their minds were so disconnected from their bodies that they had no memory of the physical consequences. Women who do this have been carrying this unchartered territory of pain in their physical bodies for so long that by the time they reach adulthood, they have to learn to reconnect with their bodies.

When we start to break the meaning apart to help patients begin to heal, we have to very delicately focus on what it means to reconnect their mind and body.

Getting patients refocused on their bodies and unearthing the resident trauma that is causing the stress-related illnesses will help them unlock their emotional and mental healing processes. They have an opportunity to discover that their body has a story to tell. By reconnecting to their bodies, they give it a voice to process its trauma.

How to listen well

There are a few things you can do to make sure your patient feels heard and validated when they open up about their sexual abuse. “Witnessing” is an important one. Some people who’ve experienced sexual abuse have stories that were never heard or validated.

When someone shares a trauma story and it is not validated (shame and silencing might have occurred with their family) it can re-damage the patient. When they share and feel validated, it can be a healing experience for them.

Asking them how it makes their body feel when they share about their experience is also important. It connects the somatic representations with the emotions and thoughts, which is important because these patients have most likely dissociated from their emotions and bodily sensations in general, but more so when they talk about their experiences.

How to listen, empathize and not take on the emotional repercussions of trauma

Hearing stories of trauma is difficult as an empathic therapist.

  • Make sure you practice what you preach—have your own therapist to help when you need it.

  • Find a colleague who also helps people through childhood sexual abuse and go speak to them about your feelings.

  • Determine a way you can take care of yourself when you get home from your work day. Create a space where you can enjoy your family, spirituality and recreation (including cardio and strength training).

  • Develop a treatment team of colleagues that works together to process through the difficult stories you are each hearing.

  • Ask fellow therapists how they feel—check in with your coworkers and fellow therapists to make sure you are each sustaining your own health.

What therapy techniques work best for the sexually abused?

  • EFT - Emotionally focused therapy for couples is an effective, research based spousal support therapy system. This teaches the spouses to be effective witnesses in the trauma story and is able to bring the support to inside of their home.

  • DBT - Dialectical behavioral therapy is incredibly helpful for people who are struggling with PTSD related to childhood sexual abuse.

  • Transference Focused Psychotherapy

  • Mentalization Based Psychotherapy

How can you tell what patients should be in regular, weekly therapy versus an intensive outpatient therapy for sexual abuse?

Many excellent outpatient therapists are doing a great job at treating patients who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. There are a few specific factors that could mean your patient would be better treated in a more intensive outpatient programs, such as:

  • If they are in a multi dimensionally unstable family where their health is being impaired. (AKA If they do not have a support system at home.)

  • If they are medically fragile because the body is beginning to break down.

    • Some outpatient programs have internal medicine staff to ensure the patients who are medically fragile are being physically supported.

  • If your patient doesn’t seem to be thriving or processing well, recommend them to an intensive outpatient program, with the idea that when they become more stable, they will titrate down to weekly therapy again.

  • If the patient is on so many medications, recreational drugs or alcohol that it puts them in a dissociative state where they are unable to concentrate and do deeper therapy work, an outpatient program might help support them while they come off of medications and process the difficulty of their trauma. (Many therapists don’t realize how much medications can dull the mind and make therapy very difficult.)

    • After a few weeks, some patients may need to be detoxed before they can fully process the emotional trauma.

During supportive forms of therapy, who should the patient bring with them to be a support?

The family is not always the most supportive group for the patient. There could be a partner or friend who is therapeutic and non-judgemental enough. However, it’s important to encourage the patient to bring someone they feel completely safe around. This person is supposed to help the patient grow and move forward, to make good choices outside of the therapy office. This person must have the best interest of the patient in mind, and not prefer the old maladaptive patterns the patient was in. They must support the patient in their growth and journey of health.

Many patients end up in relationships that are similar to the dysfunction of their trauma. How do you encourage a patient to find or make a friend that is healthy and can support them?

  • Help the patient identify their feedback loops, through identifying their early narratives and early meaning-making experiences.

  • Start to make changes as to how the person sees themself so that they see themselves as worthy. This is the best way to have lasting effects on their relational patterns.

  • A victim is a victim because they have a perpetrator. If there is no longer a perpetrator because they’ve surrounded themselves with healthy people, the patient is able to shed the victim narrative.

From chronic pain to thriving

We have found that patients who receive therapy are able to reduce the negative biopsychosocial effects. They are getting back to school, getting new jobs or raises at work, setting new goals.

Some people get stuck and lose hope, they don’t see it’s possible. Eventually though, if they keep seeking help, they are able to have breakthroughs and change their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few podcasts and articles about emotional trauma:

How to Treat Emotional Trauma

How to Fix Emotional Detachment

Emotional Shutdown - Understanding Polyvagal Theory

***If you have been sexually abused, or think you have been sexually abused, connect with a therapist who specializes in this.


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 to treat violent and aggressive patients

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

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Michael Cummings. Dr. Cummings works at a state psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, so he has extensive experience in treating patients for aggression and violence.

The different types of aggression

The words “aggression” and “violence” are sometimes used synonymously, but in reality, aggression can be physical or non-physical, and directed either against others or oneself. Violence is more of a use of force with an intent to inflict damage.

One study looked at the principle types of aggression and violence that occur in psychiatric patients, and broke it down into three categories:

  • Impulsive violence (the most common category)

  • Predatory violence (purposeful and planned violence)

  • Psychotically-driven violence (least common)

Within 5 state hospitals, 88 chronically or persistently violent patients with 839 assaults, the rate of impulsive violence was 54%, and predatory violence was 29%. Psychotically driven patients logged 17% of total violence (Meyers, M. Cummings et al., 2013). Studies show psychotically driven violence decreases the longer the patients are in care and medicated.

Predatory Violence

Predatory violence is what people typically think of when they think of psychopathy, or someone with antisocial personality disorder. It is violence with a purpose, and that purpose is usually to gain something. They typically show a lack of fear and very little autonomic arousal even when they are being violent.  The amygdala and the temporal lobe is underactive and the communication between them has a weak signal. People with predatory violence also have lower affective empathy.

Some of the early research done by Adrian Reign measured blood pressure, galvanic skin response and heart rate when showing neutral, frightening or peaceful pictures to children. Of those who lacked effective response or autonomic response to those pictures, 75% percent of those individuals became violent criminals by age 18. Interestingly, 25% of them became prosocial and entered jobs as police officers, bomb disposal experts, and so forth.

True psychopaths are a very tiny part of the population. About 2% of women score significantly on the psychopathy checklist. About 2-4% of men have elevated scores on the psychopathy checklist. Not all of those individuals, however, are violent, and many persons who are psychopathic are more interested in profit. Some become the crime bosses (not actually doing the violence themselves) and others end up in politics.

Impulsive violence

Impulsive violence or aggression is actually the most common, and in many ways the most complex, form of violence that occurs in a variety of mental illnesses, including:

  • psychosis

  • mood disorders

  • personality disorders

  • anxiety disorders

  • PTSD

It is essentially an imbalance in impulse generation and a failure of the prefrontal cortex to evaluate the impulse and weigh the consequences. All of us generate a variety of impulses, some good and some bad, including impulses driven by our irritability and anger.

In predatory aggression there is increased medial prefrontal cortex activity whereas in reactive aggression there is decreased activity.

What can cause impulsive violence to be an issue:

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Some of the dementias including frontotemporal dementias

  • Anoxic brain injury

  • Intellectual disability

  • Personality disorders

  • Drugs

  • Drug detox

Psychotic aggression

Psychotically driven aggression is most often a result of delusional ideation or the belief the person holds that they are in some way being persecuted and being taken advantage of. Psychotic or mentally ill people do have an increased rate of violence compared to the general population. The mentally ill are responsible for around 5% violent crimes, meaning non mentally ill people are responsible for 95%.

Psychotic Delusions leading to violence

Ones study looking specifically at the first episodes of psychosis found that in about 458 patients, anger was associated with certain types of delusions that led to the violence (Coid, 2013).

The underpinnings of delusion-driven violence usually stems from when people have delusional beliefs that are persecutory in nature. When they believe that someone is out to get them, it removes inhibitions against acting out violently, because that person’s view is they are protecting themselves. Typically, this violence comes from the belief they are being spied on or persecuted.

Persecutory delusions associated with a command hallucination is a particularly potent precursor to violent behavior. If your delusion tells you your neighbor is the devil, and your command auditory hallucination is that God is telling you to “kill him and save the world from destruction”  it can lead to a very bad outcome.

IQ and aggression

There is also an association between the IQ and aggression (Huesmann, 1987).

A recent study in state hospitals looked at what correlated with persisting violence, and across all of the types of violent behavior, cognitive deficits (particularly impairments and executive functioning) were associated with elevated rates of violence.

Men are more violent than women

Men are likely more violent than women because they have historically been the hunters, which involves violence. Women were gatherers more often than not, and consequently, men have a standing evolutionary tendency toward more frequent use of violence. Women can be violent, but if you look at the rates of violence between men and women, men are clearly more violent.

The purpose of aggression  

You could say the healthiest outcome for our aggressive and violent impulses is when we use our innate ability to be aggressive to engage in things like a healthy competition. Or even to provide motivation and drive to achieve.

In the beginning, humanity formed tribes, and aggression allowed someone to climb up the dominance hierarchy within the tribe. It also allowed them to protect themselves from other tribes. It was basic for survival.

If we look at animal psychology, there is a lot we can learn about the aggression and dominance hierarchy, like how apes interact with each other, or form alliances. As a way of creating alliances, often an alpha ape will groom other males.  The violence comes out when the clans come against each other. When one ape is wandering from its clan, two apes from another clan may attack one single ape viciously.

In other circumstances, if a dominant ape is taken away from his clan for a couple of days and brought back into the clan, a couple of other apes may have formed a new alliance against the prior leader and attack him.

As human beings, we are also like this. Many of our social interactions and group structures have the same kinds of alliances and effects of absence can play out similarly. Of course as humans, we do have higher verbal centers, and philosophy or spirituality, that allows an individual to be less violent and to transcend their base instincts.

Aggression and autism

People with intellectual challenges most often exhibit impulsive violence, particularly those on the autistic spectrum. The person may have a greater difficulty processing or understanding their own emotions if there are significant intellectual deficits. They may also have elements of not being able to judge a response or to moderate a response. The general pathophysiology of the autistic spectrum disorder suggests that the connections between neurons and the autistic brain is not what it should be, and they are not differentiated so that information processing can be fragmented.

Treatment of aggression

Psychotic aggression treatment

Treating with an antipsychotic medication is helpful and decreases violent episodes. In one study, clozapine helped psychotic aggressive patients with executive dysfunction more, compared to using haldol or olanzapine (Krakowski, 2011).   

Psychopathic aggression treatment

A predatory-violent individual needs to be contained in prison if there is a demonstrated past of persistent violence.

There is evidence that by enhancing intellectual empathy, psychopaths will be less violent. There is also interesting research that by giving oxytocin, the hormone that increases affiliation and collaboration, may have a moderating effect on some psychopathic individuals.

However, in terms of psychopharmacology, we don’t have any specific medications to control that behavior. Some medications, such as clozapine, can affect the underlying issues behind psychotic behavior and thereby reduce it, but there is no direct treatment for psychopathic violence pharmacologically.   

Impulsive aggression treatment

Dr. Cummings discussed the use of Mood stabilizers helping in persons with borderline personality disorder, SSRIs and trazodone helping in dementing illness in the elderly and alpha 2 agonists in people with things like autism or TBI. Alpha 2 agonists (clonidine) can fool the brain stem into thinking enough norepinephrine has been released, then less norepinephrine is secreted, making the brain stem calm down.

Essentially, in an emotional disorder, if you change the affective (limbic) tone, you can decrease the likelihood of emotionally reactive aggression, for example, by using mood stabilizers lithium and divalproex.  

Using an antipsychotic, and not just a mood stabilizer, doesn’t show any benefit for traumatic brain injury patients. Antipsychotics have been used for people with autism spectrum disorder, and some evidence shows that drugs like risperidone can be helpful to control outburst issues. If there is evidence of sexual aggression (or aggression occurring at women after puberty), using an GnRH agonist—antiandrogen treatment—can sometimes be necessary).

Psychotherapy for aggression

There have been a number of anger management therapies that have been used over time. Therapists can help people be aware of their anger and manage their impulses, or push their anger and aggression toward a more prosocial response.

For people with borderline personality disorder, dialectical behavioral therapy, mentalization based therapy or transference therapy are important. For schizophrenic patients, a good therapeutic alliance is important to create medication compliance. I have touched on how to process anger in my microexpression series and will have future episodes focusing more on the psychotherapy approaches to anger.  

Overall in therapy, we must assume that our patients will lie to us sometimes because they are afraid, and double check to insure they are following our prescribed protocol. We must also work hard to build trust and a therapeutic alliance.

Final Thoughts

Violence and aggression deserve much more attention as a specialty than we have given it in the past. It is a major burden for family members and friends.

Please submit any questions you have and we will submit them to Dr. Cummings and to answer.

(In the podcast details about specific medications are discussed for psychiatrists who are interested in advanced psychopharmacology.)

Further reading:

Link to Ideal blood levels are found in Resource Library

“California State Hospital Violence Assessment and Treatment (Cal-VAT) guidelines”




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

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.

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

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!  

 

Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory

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“Polyvagal Theory Simplified”

By David Puder, M.D.

Polyvagal theory explains three different parts of our nervous system and their responses to stressful situations. Once we understand those three parts, we can see why and how we react to high amounts of stress.

If polyvagal theory sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, stick around, trust me. It’s a fascinating explanation of how our body handles emotional stress, and how we can use different therapies it to rewrite the effect of trauma. 

Why is polyvagal theory important?

For therapists, and pop-psychology enthusiast alike, understanding polyvagal theory can help with:

  • Understanding trauma and PTSD

  • Understanding the dance of attack and withdrawal in relationships

  • Understanding how extreme stress leads to dissociation or shutting down

  • Understanding how to read body language

We like to think of our emotions as ethereal, complex, and difficult to categorize and identify.

The truth is that emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.

Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive. That’s where polyvagal theory comes in to play.

The nervous system is always running in the background, controlling our body functions so we can think about other things—like what kind of ice cream we’d like to order, or how to get that A in med school. The entire nervous system works in tandem with the brain, and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.

A story about a gazelle...

Animals are a great example of how we handle stress, because they react primally, without awareness. They do what we would, if we weren't so well tamed.

If you have ever watched a National Geographic Africa special, you’ve seen a lioness chase a gazelle. A group of gazelles is grazing, and suddenly one looks up, hyper aware of what is happening around him. The whole group notices and pays attention.

After a moment, the lioness starts her chase. The gazelle she’s singled out runs as fast as he can (sympathetic nervous system), until he is caught. When he is caught, he instantly goes limp (parasympathetic nervous system).

The lioness drags the gazelle back to her cubs, where they begin to play with it before they go in for the kill. If the lioness gets distracted, and the gazelle sees a moment of opportunity, he’s up and sprinting off again, looking like he suddenly came back to life (back into sympathetic nervous system response).

When the gazelle was caught, with fangs around his neck, his shutdown response kicked in—he froze. When he saw the opportunity to run, his fight or flight kicked in, and he ran.

Poyvagal theory covers those three states—connection, fight or flight, or shutdown. 

Here's how they work...

Connection Mode

or...rest and relaxation...or myelinated vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system coming from the nucleus ambiguus response

During non-stressful situations, if we are emotionally healthy, our bodies stay in a social engagement state, or a happy, normal, non-freak-out state.

I like to call it “connection.” By connection, I mean that we are capable of a “connected” interaction with another human being. We are walking around, unafraid, enjoying our day, eating with friends and family and our body and emotions feel normal.  

It’s also called ventral vagal response, because that’s the part of the brain that is activated during connection mode. It’s like a green light for normal life.

How does this look and feel?

  • Our immune system is healthy.

  • We feel normal happiness, openness, peace, and curiosity about life.

  • We are sleeping well and eating normally.

  • Our face is expressive.

  • We emotionally relate to others.

  • We more easily understand and listen to others.

  • Our body feels calm and grounded.

 

Freeze, Flight, Fight, or Puff Up

...or the sympathetic nervous system response

The sympathetic nervous system is our immediate reaction to stress that affects nearly every organ in the body.

The sympathetic nervous system causes that “fight or flight” state we have all heard of. It gives us those cues so that it can keep us alive.

How does this happen? How does this look and feel?

  • We sense a threat and freeze to scan the surroundings for real danger.

  • We release cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine to help us accomplish what we need to—get away, or fight our enemy.

  • Our heartbeat spikes, we sweat, and we feel more mobilized.

  • We feel anxious, afraid, or angry.

  • There may be flashes of facial expressions of fear and anger, with the background of more of a still face.  If positive emotions are present, they usually look forced.

  • Our digestion slows down as blood rushes to the muscles.

  • Our blood vessels constrict to the intestines and dilate to the muscles needed to run or fight.

  • We may want to run away, or punch someone, or react physically in some way, or just puff-up and look scary.

  • Our muscles may feel tense, electric, tight, vibrating, aching, trembling, and hard.

  • Our hands may be clammy.  

  • Our stomach may be painfully knotted.

  • All our senses focus.   

  • Our gestures may show guarding of our vital organs, fists clenched, or puffing ourselves up to look bigger or stronger.

In fight or flight, at some level we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.

Shut Down

...or the Unmyelinated Vagus of the Parasympathetic Nervous System coming from the Dorsal Motor Nucleus

What’s interesting about this part of the parasympathetic nervous system? Its function is to keep us frozen as an adaptive mechanism to help us survive to either fight or flight again.

When David Livingston was attacked by a lion, he later reported, “it caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.”

When our sympathetic nervous system has kicked into overdrive, and we still can’t escape and feel impending death the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system takes control.

It causes freezing or shutdown, as a form self preservation. (Think of someone who passes out under extreme stress.)

How does this look and feel?

  • Emotionally, it feels like dissociation, numbness, dizzy, hopelessness, shame, a sense of feeling trapped, out of body, disconnected from the world

  • Our eyes may look fixed and spaced out

  • The dorsal motor nucleus through the unmyelinated vagus nerve decreases our heart rate, blood pressure, facial expressions, sexual and immune response systems

  • We may be triggered to feel nauseated, throw up, defecate, spontaneously urinate

  • We may feel low or no pain

  • Our lungs (bronchi) constrict and we breathe slower

  • We may have difficulty getting words out or feel constriction around our throat

  • Our brain has decreased metabolism and this causes a loss of body awareness, limp limbs, decreased ability to think clearly, and decreased ability to lay down narrative memories

  • Our body posture may collapse or curl up in a ball

In shutdown mode, at some level our nervous system believes we are in a life-threatening situation, and it tries to keep us alive through keeping our body still.

Some people who have had both attachment trauma and subsequent trauma can have chronic suicidality, and dissociation episodes that last days to months. Research shows that long term solutions include:

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy

  • Mentalization based therapy

  • Transference focused therapy

How trauma affects the nervous system

As humans, we do the same thing as that gazelle when we perceive emotional or physical danger. We alternate between peaceful grazing (parasympathetic - connection mode), fight or flight (sympathetic system- fight and flight) or shutdown (parasympathetic- shut down mode).

Our response is all in our perception of the event. Maybe someone was just playing a game when they jumped out to scare us, but we fainted. Whatever the reason, whether the incident was intentional or not, our body shifted into shutdown mode, we registered it as a trauma. our body shifted into shutdown mode.

Or maybe the trauma event was really, life threatening, and our nervous system responded appropriately to the stimuli.

No matter what the cause was, our brain believed what was happening was life threatening enough that it caused our body to go into flight, flight, or shutdown mode.

If someone has been through such a traumatic event that their body tips into shutdown response, any event that reminds the person of that life-threatening occurrence can trigger them into disconnection or dissociation again.

People can even live in a state of disconnection or shutdown for days or months at a time.

Veterans often experience this during loud, sudden noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms. A woman who was raped might quickly switch into hypervigilant or dissociated response if she feels someone is following her. Someone who was abused might be triggered when even another person starts yelling.

The problem occurs when we haven’t processed the original trauma in such a way that the original trauma is resolved.

That’s what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is—our body’s overreaction to a small response, and either stuck in fight and flight or shut down. 

People who experience trauma and the shutdown response usually feel shame around their inability to act, when their body did not move. They often wish they would have fought more during those moments.  

A Vietnam vet may feel they failed their companions who died around them while they stood, frozen in fear. A rape victim may feel he or she didn’t fight off their rapist because they froze. A victim of abuse may feel they quit trying to escape their abuser, and that they are weak or failed.

Much of “stress” training, which trains people to continue to remain in fight and flight mode, aims to keep people out of dissociation during real life or death situations. Unfortunately, these practices aren’t common beyond elite sports teams or special forces.  The right amount of stress, with good recovery, can lead our nervous systems into higher levels of adaptation.  

Coming out of shutdown mode

So how do we climb back out of shutdown mode?

The opposite of the dorsal vagal system is the social engagement system.

So, in short, what fixes shutdown mode is bringing someone into healthy social engagement, or proper attachment.

Getting down into the nuts and bolts of how this works in our body can help us understand why we feel the way we do physically when your body is in fight, flight, or shut down mode.

When we understand why our body reacts the way it does, like a string of clues and some basic science about the brain, we can understand how to switch states. We can begin to move out of the fight or flight state, out of the shutdown mode, and back into the social engagement state.

As therapists, whether we are just establishing a connection with a new, anxious patient, or helping them deal with their deepest traumatic memories, knowing how to navigate the polyvagal states is important.

It can also be helpful if you have just identified yourself in some of these symptoms. Such as, “When I’m with my parents, even as an adult, and they start fighting, I feel lightheaded and disconnected.”

If you’ve seen some of these things in yourself, hopefully through therapy, and even understanding how this works, you can pull yourself out of a disconnected state.

Studies show that some parts of the brain shut down during the recall of traumatic events, including the verbal centers and the reasoning centers of the brain (Van Der Kolk, 2006).

This is why it’s important to conduct therapy, or coming out of shutdown mode, in a safe, healthy way, in a safe, healthy environment. This is why positive attachment is imperative. Otherwise, you run the risk of retraumatizing the patient.

Because I am a psychiatrist, I am going to write this to demonstrate how to help a patient switch out of shutdown mode.

However, these tips still apply to those who are just understanding how shutdown mode works. And it can even help those who feel shut down to begin to know how to try and attain a healthy social engagement mode again.

  • Have a trust-based relationship. Because of the potential to re-traumatize, don’t even address intensely traumatic events—especially ones where you think shutdown mode kicked in, until the therapeutic relationship feels deeply connected.

    It’s important as the therapist to allow the patient to express things they couldn’t express to other people—shameful feelings, anger, sexual response, anything that feels frightening to share with others.

  • Find your own calm center. If you can empathize with their distress, stay in the moment with them, and help them feel connected during their shutdown, you are throwing them a lifeline. You’re helping them come out of shutdown, into social engagement.

    It’s important to fight against the urge to dissociate, no matter how gruesome the subject matter is. As therapists, we could dissociate because of the mirror neuron response—to mirror our patient’s brain, and because when hearing horrific trauma, it’s easy to imagine it happening to us.

    The human experience is so powerful that when we re-engage the trauma, with someone else to support us, it rewrites that event in our brain, adding in the feeling of being supported within the trauma memory. We create new neural pathways around the trauma, and we can change our body’s response to it.
     

  • Let the patient lead. Don’t go on a witch hunt. If the patient brings it up, lean into the subject. But it is harmful to prompt the patient into something that isn’t there by asking leading questions and trying to get them to confess. Don’t let your own experience lead you to imagine they have also experienced something.  

  • Normalize their response. The entire polyvagal theory should make us say “thank you!” to our bodies. Even if that systems is overactive at times—unwarranted panic or anxiety—that our body is watching out for us, trying to keep us alive.

    Our body reacting in that way is the same thing as the gazelle either running away or going limp. And gazelles have no idea what emotions are in the first place.

    Now that the patient understands that their emotional response was adaptive, primal, and appropriate, we can get rid of the shame that their non-reaction caused.

  • Help them find their anger. Anger is an incredibly adaptive emotion, and it’s one we don’t allow ourselves to have. We think anger is bad. But really, anger shows us where our healthy boundaries were crossed.

    Anger gives us energy to overcome the obstacle. We can help the patient see they had the emotional energy to overcome, but the energy wasn’t able to be manifested at the time they wanted it.

    If, in a session, we can get a patient to identify their anger, they will see that they were not completely unresponsive to the traumatic event. If we can help them feel even the tiniest movement of a microexpression of anger on their face—the slight downturn of the inner eyebrows—we can show them their body didn’t totally betray them in that moment.

    We can reconnect their body and their feelings to their emotions. This helps develop a state of congruence—where their inside feelings match their outer demonstrations of those feelings.

Further, as a dissociative memory is explored, finding anger and reducing shame allows for the memory to fundamentally change. Anger brings them out of dissociation, even if it is anger at you, the therapist!
 

  • Introduce body movement. Because shutdown causes us to freeze, reactivating body movements while talking about the trauma is a great way to reconnect the body and mind, to bring them out of shutdown.

    For example, one of my patients was in an accident. When the EMS showed up, they strapped her to a gurney to load her into the back of an ambulance. More than the actual accident, being trapped on that gurney was traumatic for her. For the entire ride to the hospital, she was terrified that she’d hurt her neck, and all of the anxiety that surrounds a neck injury caused her to be frozen in fear.

    Even in talking about the trauma in the therapy session, her body was stiff, frozen, and she was dissociating.

    I asked her, “In what way would you have wanted to move during that moment?” She said she would have wanted her arms to be able to move. I asked her to slowly, mindfully, move her arms in the way she would have wanted to.

    It’s important to do the movement mindfully and slowly, focusing on the sensation of the movement. That patient felt a huge release of energy. In the following sessions, she was able to tell the memory as a narrative, instead of dissociating.

    Having the patient move—slow punching, kicking, twisting, running slowly in place—flips the person from shutdown into the fight or flight mode, with the goal being to move into connection, or social engagement, mode.

    Body movement exercises, in conjunction with talking to a therapist, can fundamentally change the memory.
     

  • Practicing assertiveness. Emotional shutdown can occur within relationships where one person feels they cannot communicate with the other person well.

    One therapist, John Gottman, describes this practice as stonewalling. Practicing assertiveness can help the patient feel more in control of their emotional state, and feel safe to move into healthy relationship patterns.

  • Breath work, mindfulness, and yoga all have a role in becoming more connected to your here and now body. I will discuss this subject at length in a future podcast.  
     

  • Become a Judo Master and practice strength training. Teaching yourself how to better protect yourself in the future can be powerful and also resets the stress system over time. I talked about strength training in a prior episode, and in the future will talk about learning to fight as an active way to not remain passive or a victim both in mindset and capability.  Further doing something hard, on an ongoing basis, allows for building inner strength which can keep you in fight and flight longer before going into shut down.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 277-293.

 

The Psychology of Procrastination

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My podcast guest this week, Dr. Jackson Brammer, says he used to be an expert procrastinator.

But after some research into why people procrastinate, he found a few tricks and tips to help him on his journey to live a more balanced life.

Dr. Brammer started this path by investigating Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome involves feeling like you're not the person people think you are—as if you’re deceiving everyone. People with Imposter Syndrome believe if someone knew the real them, they would never receive the same level of trust or responsibility.

People who deal with Impostor Syndrome take negative statements and magnify them, adding them to the pile of proof that they aren’t as capable as people believe them to be.

For Dr. Brammer, Imposter Syndrome came from his ability to excel in school, despite consistently cramming for assignments and tests. He felt that someday he would be “caught” and everyone would know that he had “faked” competence.

Recognizing this link led to the revelation that fighting procrastination might help him stop feeling like he didn’t deserve to be in his position.

The Psychology of Procrastination

Jackson Brammer, M.D., David Puder, M.D.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the act of avoiding something through delay or postponement.

You might be procrastinating when:

  • There is a gap between your intention and action

  • You feel like avoiding something

  • You find yourself  easily distracted

  • You feel overwhelmed by tasks at the last minute

  • You always feel rushed to complete a project

  • You’re hesitant to truthfully update someone on your progress

It usually brings about feelings of:

  • Shame

  • Guilt

  • Anxiety

  • Regret

  • Anger

  • Inauthenticity

Why do we procrastinate?

We procrastinate because our brains receive a reward for avoidance. Avoidance brings immediate relief from the distress associated with the task. Although we may experience discomfort in the final moments before a task is due, we rarely think about the past or future when procrastinating.

This creates a problematic cycle, one that erodes at our self-confidence. It also causes us to keep up a steady stream of “I should be…” in our subconscious minds.

The ingredients for procrastination


Personal Factors of Procrastination

There are fixed factors related to procrastination, things that are innate to each of our different psychological experiences. For example, someone with ADHD is more likely to procrastinate.

The fixed personal factors are:

  • Higher Impulsivity

  • Lower conscientiousness—lower drive to be organized and accomplish.

  • Limited attention-span

  • Boredom / Low Interest - Interest can be considered an emotion with motivational properties related to approach

There are also variable factors—things like our environment, our health that day, and other things that might affect our tendency to procrastinate.

The variable personal factors are:

  • Willpower

Willpower is like a muscle. It can become tired, temporarily, after extensive use. However, we can strengthen our willpower through routine exercise. Try to place your willpower-hungry tasks at the beginning of the day. Also, take up some form of regular willpower exercise.

  • Distress tolerance

  • Willingness to ask for help

Being unwilling to ask for help can relate to Impostor Syndrome, and can fuel procrastination. It is often based in the lie that we “should” be able to complete something without assistance.

  • Task-focused vs value-focused

  • Self-consciousness & anxiety

A common but counter-intuitive driver of procrastination is fear of failure. We protect the self temporarily by avoiding the task that threatens it.

The variable task or system-based factors are:

  • Unclear goals & expectations

This can become paralyzing, especially when we are unwilling to ask for help. Procrastinators may find themselves unable to start something because they don’t know how to start, but they don’t want to show “weakness” by needing to ask for clarification.

  • Unrealistic goals & expectations

Can lead to thoughts such as "I might as well not even try."

  • Distractions

Distractions from electronic notifications and office visitors can contribute significantly to our tendency to avoid.

  • Lack of accountability or mentors

Procrastination thrives in secrecy and isolation.

How do we procrastinate?

As we build a habit of procrastinating, we develop false beliefs that worsen the habit.

“I work better under pressure.”

This is simply not true. It would be more accurate to say, "I work under pressure." The adrenaline spike and stress of the situation make us think we are better off waiting, but in reality it’s unlikely that our delay will make the final product any better.

“I’ll feel more like it later.”
We deceive ourselves into thinking that we'll feel like completing the task later. We think we’ll drink caffeine, get a mental boost, or find the “perfect time” to do the task, but it never comes.

“I did pretty well, considering I waited until the last minute.”
This is a self-protective belief. If we don’t try and we fail, there is less reflection on the self than if we try our hardest and fail. We won’t discover our true potential if we don’t give ourselves ample time.

“I have plenty of time, I'll do it later.”
We are undervaluing the future self when we think this way. Humans are terrible at predicting the future. We often don’t start the project early enough to know how much time we’ll actually need.

“I’ve planned and organized how I will complete the task, it’s time for a break!”

Planning more than only the first step can be its own form of procrastination. Sometimes doing “good” for awhile gives us permission to do “bad.”

“This is stupid, I don't even care about it.”
Our fear and insecurities can lead to us devalue the entire project altogether. If you talk yourself into believing you don’t care about it, it won’t hurt as much if you fail. This is another self-protective belief.

“There must be some way I can just not do this.”
There isn't an easy fix for procrastination—we usually still have to complete the task.

How do we stop procrastinating?

Admit it

To even begin to change, we have to become aware of the problem, then accept it. Once we accept it, we can often find the courage to change our patterns.

Catch the cognitive distortions

If you want to pursue therapy for your procrastination, cognitive behavioral therapy can help. More specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy will help you identify your cognitive distortions. The second episode of the Psychiatry and Psychotherapy podcast deals with cognitive distortions.

Go through the list of false beliefs we listed and journal your common cognitive distortions.

Here’s the quick breakdown of how you can look at your thinking patterns when you decide to procrastinate:

  1. Recognize when you have the emotion about the task you want to delay. Sometimes the emotion will disguise itself as a physical sensation, such as anxiousness, nausea, or a rapid heartbeat.

  2. Look at the thoughts that come with that emotion. Such as, “This is stupid, I don’t even care about it.”

  3. Look at the cognitive distortions that came with the thought. Is the task actually “stupid,” or is it something you should do, you’re just afraid to do it, so you’re demeaning it in case you fail? Be honest with yourself in your answer.

  4. Repeat. This can help you rebuild a habit of identifying the things we tell ourselves and have always accepted as truth.  

Build your willpower

  • Tackle the high-willpower tasks earlier in the day. Earlier in the morning, when your cortisol is high, when your brain is fresh, you’ll be able to take on the tasks you’ll need to be highly motivated for.

  • Start strength training, or another disciplined physical task. I’ve found that with strength training, even if I don’t want to begin, and even if the whole workout is miserable, it teaches me that I can will my body to do what the program requires.  This is good for willpower training.  Another will power builder is to choose a difficult book, decide to read it in let us say 60 days, and then divide the book up into 60 parts to read every day.  I often recommend this to psychiatry residents and NPs I train, challenging them to read 3 books in 60 days using this method.

Forgive yourself

Practice self-forgiveness when you identify the pattern. We are both aware that we feel frustrated with ourselves when we know we’ve been procrastinating. That frustration is a sign we are trying to change, but it isn’t helpful in the actual change. It can lead to sadness and a lack of self confidence, which can worsen the pattern of procrastination because negative emotions lead to avoidance.

Self-forgiveness reduces the negative emotions we associate with a task, thus reducing future avoidance and offering ourselves an encouraging approach instead.

How can you practice self-forgiveness?

  1. Identify the emotions you feel that are associated with past tasks you haven’t completed.

  2. Identify the emotions behind tasks you felt you didn’t excel in, or that didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to when you did complete them.  

  3. Accept the emotion that is there, have self compassion and forgiveness for the emotional experience you had.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is another way to help fix procrastination. Mindfulness will help you be able to identify mental patterns, such as cognitive distortions. When we pay attention to ourselves through the gentle observation of mindfulness, we aren’t striving to “fix” or self-judge. Since becoming aware of the problem is one of the first ways we are able to change, mindfulness helps us be more aware of our actions in general. It can also serve as a form of willpower training.

Download a good meditation, or use the app Headspace, and practice it daily to develop a habit of mindfulness.

Define and focus on your values

One of the most important things you can do is align your tasks and goals to your values. This automatically undercuts any excuses you’ll have because ultimately, the task, if you’ve signed up for it, aligns with your values.

For example, if there’s a task associated with your job that you don’t want to do, you can still link it with something you believe in. Bottom line is that we value patient care, so even we don’t necessarily feel like doing small tasks throughout the day, we still do them because we link them to our deeper values.

Define your goals

It will also help to be able to clarify your goals—daily, weekly, monthly. Make those goals realistic so you don’t talk yourself out of them. Then, merely focus on starting the tasks, not completing them.

Make the goals small and manageable, and focus only on what the very next step should be. In this way, you’re setting yourself up for positive reinforcement, instead of the negative thoughts that usually accompany procrastination. Avoid over-planning as a form of procrastination.

Psych yourself up for the task

Sometimes we need more encouragement to complete a task we are dreading. It’s why people have workout playlists. You can use the same psychology behind that to prepare for even daily tasks. Get a pour-over, trendy coffee, plan a reward for when you complete the task, figure out what makes you want to follow through, and do it.

Since using all of these tools to beat his habit of procrastination, Dr. Brammer has been able to add more things to his life, and is still able to accomplish it all and feel confident. He’s happily married, a father of two, involved in his church, in a band, and is a practicing psychiatrist.

Have you ever dealt with procrastination? What do you find your cognitive distortions are—what are the things you tell yourself to make yourself feel better about putting things off?

For further reading on procrastination, check out some of Timothy Pychyl’s research.

 

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