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Talking through the pain

By Laurie Meyers January 30, 2018

By the time the 43-year-old man, a victim of an industrial accident, limped into American Counseling Association member David Engstrom’s office, he’d been experiencing lower back pain for 10 years and taking OxyContin for six. The client, whose pain was written in the grimace on his face as he sat down, was a referral from a local orthopedic surgeon, who was concerned about the man’s rapidly increasing tolerance to the drug.

“He often took twice the prescribed dose, and the effect on his pain was diminishing,” says Engstrom, a health psychologist who works in integrated care centers.

The man’s story is, unfortunately, not unusual. According to the National Institutes of Health, 8 out of 10 adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. As the more than 76 million baby boomers continue to age, many of them will increasingly face the aches and pains that come with chronic health issues. And as professional counselors are aware, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction can also cause or heighten physical pain.

Those who suffer from chronic pain are often in desperate need of some succor, but in many cases, prescription drug treatments or surgery may be ineffective or undesirable. Fortunately, professional counselors can often help provide some relief.

Treating chronic pain

At first, the client had only one question for Engstrom: “I’m not crazy, so why am I here?”

Although the man’s physician did not think that the pain was all in the man’s head, it is not uncommon for sufferers of chronic pain to encounter skepticism about what they are experiencing. “It was important … to defuse the idea that I might think he was imagining his pain,” Engstrom says. “So I [told him] that I accepted that his pain was real and that all pain is experienced from both body and mind. I told him that we would be a team and work on this together.”

Engstrom and the client worked together for five months. As they followed the treatment plan, the man’s physician slowly eased him off of the OxyContin.

Engstrom began by teaching the client relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation. “When in pain, the natural inclination of the body is to contract muscles,” Engstrom explains. “In the long term, this reduces blood flow to the painful area and slows the healing process. Contracted muscles can be a direct source of pain.”

Engstrom also began using biofeedback to promote further relaxation. In biofeedback sessions, sensors are attached to the body and connected to a monitoring device that measures bodily functions such as breathing, perspiration, skin temperature, blood pressure, muscle tension and heartbeat.

“When you relax, clear your mind and breathe deeply, your breathing slows and your heart rate dips correspondingly,” Engstrom explains. “As the signals change on the monitors, you begin to learn how to consciously control body functions that are normally unconscious. For many clients, this sense of control can be a powerful, liberating experience.”

As Engstrom’s client learned to control his responses, he began reporting a decrease in pain following the relaxation exercises.

Engstrom also used cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) methods, including asking the man to keep a daily journal recording his pain level at different times of the day, along with his activity and mood. Through the journal, the man started recognizing that his pain level wasn’t constant. Instead, it varied and was influenced by what he was doing and thinking at the time.

Engstrom highly recommends CBT for pain treatment because it helps provide pain relief in several ways. “First, it changes the way people view their pain,” he says. “CBT can change the thoughts, emotions and behaviors related to pain, improve coping strategies and put the discomfort in a better context. You recognize that the pain interferes less with your quality of life and, therefore, you can function better.”

In this case, the client was trapped by thoughts that “the pain will never go away” and “I’ll end up a cripple,” Engstrom says. He and the client worked on CBT exercises for several months, keeping track of and questioning the validity of such negative future thoughts. They also practiced substituting more helpful thoughts, including “I will take each day as it comes” and “I will focus on doing the best I can today.”

Chronic pain often engenders a sense of helplessness among those who experience it, Engstrom says, so CBT also helps by producing a problem-solving mindset. When clients take action, they typically feel more in control of their pain, he says.

CBT also fosters new coping skills, giving clients tools that they can use in other parts of their lives. “The tactics a client learns for pain control can help with other problems they may encounter in the future, such as depression, anxiety or stress,” Engstrom says.

Because clients can engage in CBT exercises on their own, it also fosters a sense of autonomy. Engstrom often gives clients worksheets or book chapters to review at home, allowing them to practice controlling their pain independently.

Engstrom notes that CBT can also change the physical response in the brain that makes pain worse. “Pain causes stress, and stress affects pain-control chemicals in the brain, such as norepinephrine and serotonin,” he explains. “By reducing arousal that impacts these chemicals, the body’s natural pain-relief responses may become more powerful.”

Although Engstrom acknowledges that he could not completely banish the discomfort his client felt, he was able to lessen both the sensation and perception of the man’s pain and give him tools to better manage it.

Taking away pain’s power

Mindfulness is another powerful tool for lessening the perception of pain, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Russ Curtis, co-leader of ACA’s Interest Network for Integrated Care.

Mindfulness teaches the art of awareness without judgment, meaning that we are aware of our thoughts and feelings but can choose the ones we focus on, Curtis continues. He gives an example of how a client might learn to regard pain: “This is pain. Pain is a sensation. And sensations tend to ebb and flow and may eventually subside, even if just for a little while. I’ll breathe and get back to doing what is meaningful to me.”

Engstrom agrees. Unlike traditional painkillers, mindfulness is not intended to dull or eliminate the pain. Instead, when managing pain through the use of mindfulness-based practices, the goal is to change clients’ perception of the pain so that they suffer less, he explains.

“Suffering is not always related to pain,” Engstrom continues. “A big unsolved puzzle is how some clients can tolerate a great deal of pain without suffering, while others suffer with relatively smaller degrees of pain.”

According to Engstrom, the way that people experience pain is related not just to its intensity but also to other variables. Some of these variable include:

  • Emotional state: “I am angry that I am feeling this way.”
  • Beliefs about pain: “This pain means there’s something seriously wrong with me.”
  • Expectations: “These painkillers aren’t going to work.”
  • Environment: “I don’t have anyone to talk to about how I feel.”

By helping people separate the physical sensation of pain from its other less tangible factors, mindfulness can reduce the suffering associated with pain, even if it is not possible to lessen its severity, Engstrom says.

According to Engstrom, mindfulness may also improve the psychological experience of pain by:

  • Decreasing repetitive thinking and reactivity
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance of unpleasant sensations
  • Improving emotional flexibility
  • Reducing rumination and avoidant behaviors
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance of the present moment
  • Increasing the relaxation response and decreasing stress

Curtis, an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, suggests acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) as another technique to help guide clients’ focus away from their pain.

“ACT can help people revisit what their true values are, whether it’s being of service, having a great family life or creating art,” he notes. Encouraging clients to identify and pursue what is most important to them helps ensure that despite the pain they feel, they are still engaging in the things that give their lives meaning and not waiting for a cure before moving forward, Curtis explains.

Teamwork and support

In helping clients confront chronic pain, Curtis says, counselors should not forget their most effective weapon — the therapeutic relationship. Because living with chronic pain can be very isolating, simply sitting with clients and listening to their stories with empathy is very powerful, he says.

Counselors have the opportunity to provide the validation and support that clients with chronic pain may not be getting from the other people in their lives, says Christopher Yadron, an LPC and former private practitioner who specialized in pain management and substance abuse treatment. The sense of shame that often accompanies the experience of chronic pain can add to clients’ isolation, he says. According to Yadron, who is currently an administrator at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, clients with chronic pain often fear that others will question the legitimacy of their pain — for instance, whether it is truly “bad enough” for them to need extended time off from work or to miss social occasions.

Curtis says it is important for counselors to ensure that these clients understand that the therapeutic relationship is collaborative and equal. That means that rather than simply throwing out solutions, counselors need to truly listen to these clients. This includes asking them what other methods of pain relief they have tried — such as supplements, over-the-counter painkillers, physical therapy, yoga or swimming — and what worked best for them, Curtis says.

The U.S. health care system has led many people to believe that there is a pill or surgery for every ailment, Curtis observes. This makes the provision of psychoeducation essential for clients with chronic pain. “Let them know there’s no magic bullet,” he says. Instead, he advises that counselors help clients see that relief will be incremental and that it will be delivered via multiple techniques, usually in conjunction with a team of other health professionals such as physicians and physical therapists.

Curtis, Yadron and Engstrom all agree that counselors should work in conjunction with clients’ other health care providers when trying to address the issue of chronic pain. Ultimately, however, it may be up to the counselor to put the “whole picture” together.

A 60-something female client with severe depression was referred to Engstrom from a pain clinic, where she had been diagnosed and treated for fibromyalgia. After an assessment, Engstrom could see that the woman’s depression was related to continuing pain, combined with social isolation and poor sleep patterns. The woman was unemployed, lived alone and spent most of her day worrying about whether her pain would get any better. Some of her previous doctors had not believed that fibromyalgia was a real medical concern and thus simply had dismissed her as being lonely and depressed. Despite finally receiving treatment for her fibromyalgia, the woman was still in a lot of pain when she was referred to Engstrom.

Engstrom treated the woman’s depression with CBT and taught her to practice mindfulness through breathing exercises and being present. Addressing her mood and sleep problems played a crucial role in improving her pain (insomnia is common in fibromyalgia). By dismissing the woman’s fibromyalgia diagnosis, discounting the importance of mood and not even considering the quality of her sleep, multiple doctors had failed to treat her pain.

Engstrom points out that in this case and the case of his client with lower back pain, successful treatment hinged on cognitive and behavioral factors — manifestations of pain that medical professionals often overlook.

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Living with anxiety

By Bethany Bray May 24, 2017

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the adult population, or more than 40 million people, according to the National Institutes of Health. Among adolescents the prevalence is even higher: 25 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 live with some type of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are often coupled with sleeplessness, depression, panic attacks, racing thoughts, headaches or other physical issues. Anxiety can run in families and be a lifelong challenge that spills over into all facets of life, from relationships and parenting to the workplace.

The good news is that anxiety disorders are manageable, and counselors have a plethora of tools to help clients lessen the impact of anxiety. Caitlyn McKinzie Bennett, a licensed mental health counselor, says she regularly talks this through with her clients at her private practice in Orlando, Florida. She often uses an analogy of ocean waves with clients: Anxiety comes in waves, and managing the disorder means learning coping tools and strategies to help surf those waves rather than expecting the waves to disappear entirely.

“Anxiety can be a long-term thing,” says Bennett, who is also a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Central Florida. “With clients, I try and explain that [anxiety] is the body’s response that something’s not right — based off of what’s happened to you [such as past trauma] or what’s happening currently. Then we can work to accept it, cope and be happier in your life. Some things you can’t necessarily get rid of in their entirety, and that’s OK. It’s learning to be you and have a fulfilling life with anxiety, where you’re able to feel anxious and [still] be productive and be a mother, a student, a partner. I try and normalize that [anxiety is] going to come and go. It’s OK, and it’s human.”

Anxiety doesn’t happen in isolation

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, such as worry over an upcoming work responsibility, school exam or first date. Anxiety disorders, however, are marked by worry and racing thoughts that become debilitating and interfere with everyday functioning.

“It’s a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety,” writes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America on its website (ADAA.org). “But you may experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming. If it’s an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.”

A number of related issues fall under the heading of anxiety disorders in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), including specific phobia, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and others. According to the DSM-5, anxiety disorders “include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.”

Racing thoughts, rumination and overthinking possibilities — from social interactions to decision-making — are central to anxiety. In addition, people with anxiety often struggle with insomnia or sleeplessness and physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweaty palms and headaches, says Bennett, an American Counseling Association member who is currently leading a study for her doctoral dissertation on the effects of neurofeedback training on college students with anxiety. Adolescents sometimes turn to self-harming behaviors such as cutting or hair pulling to cope with anxiety. In adults and adolescents, anxiety can manifest in physiological issues such as stomachaches or irritable bowel syndrome. Although adults may channel their anxiety into physical problems, they’re also generally much more capable than adolescents and children of identifying and articulating the anxious thoughts, ruminations and social struggles that they’re facing, Bennett says.

Bennett worked with a 14-year-old female client whose anxiety had manifested as the behaviors of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including avoiding the number six, leaving her closet door open a certain way and struggling with crossing thresholds. Bennett worked with the client to identify her triggers and find coping mechanisms, such as connecting with friends and her Christian faith.

“A big part of her improvement was creating the awareness of what was happening,” Bennett says. “Typically there’s a large, irrational fear. With her, she was afraid that her mom was going to die. She would focus on it so much that it would cause her to start the [OCD] behavior. … For her, it felt so real. It was so scary for her that she felt compelled to do these behaviors to keep her mom alive, so to speak.”

Bennett worked with the young client to confront her fears in small doses through exposure therapy, such as listening to a song at volume level six and talking through how she felt afterward. This method allowed Bennett to first address the client’s OCD behaviors and then — once trust was built and the client had progressed — move on to work through the bigger, deeper issue of her fear of her mother’s death.

“It helped her to feel safe enough and have the confidence to work through some smaller things and move on to work on bigger things,” Bennett says. “For her it was talking it out, normalizing that for her and drawing attention to [her anxious behaviors].”

Christopher Pisarik is an associate professor in the Division of Academic Enhancement at the University of Georgia and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who works with students in need of academic support. He says that stress and irregular sleep and eating patterns — which are often ubiquitous parts of college life — can go hand in hand with anxiety.

“Sleep is a big one — if they’re just not sleeping, or sleeping too much,” says Pisarik, who also treats many college-age clients at his private practice in Athens, Georgia. “This is really, really common — clients who can’t get to bed until 4 a.m., and then they can’t get to class, and it snowballs. Their thoughts just race with worry. … Sleep seems to be a big diagnostic indicator [for anxiety], and not being able to go to bed. [I ask clients,] ‘What are you thinking about, and can you stop thinking about this? Is that what’s keeping you from getting back to sleep?’ They get tired and fatigued, and it’s perpetuated.”

In addition, anxiety is often coupled with — or is an outgrowth of — other mental illnesses, most commonly depression. Counselors will need to treat a client’s anxiety alongside other diagnoses, Bennett says. For example, a client with schizophrenia will have hallucinations that provoke extreme anxiety. If the counselor doesn’t address the client’s anxiety, those symptoms will get worse, explains Bennett.

“Depression and anxiety are like brother and sister,” she adds. “They play off of each other and exacerbate the symptoms. You need to work through both. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who solely experienced anxiety.”

Stephanie Kuhn, an ACA member and LPC at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, agrees. She regularly sees client anxiety paired with other issues such as specific phobias, insomnia, chronic pain issues, depression, panic disorders and OCD.

“It’s never really one thing,” Kuhn says. “It’s never just anxiety.”

Pumping the brakes on racing thoughts

The first step for many people who struggle with anxiety is to create awareness of their thoughts and then learn to manage those thoughts with a counselor’s help. Although the strategy of identifying negative self-talk and addressing one’s thoughts is old hat to most counselors, it may be an entirely new concept for some people, especially younger clients, says Pisarik, an ACA member who uses cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in his private practice. Clients with anxiety often polarize, exaggerate or catastrophize details in their minds as they ruminate over them, he explains.

“Even being able to identify anxious thoughts is big,” Pisarik says. “They just assume it’s normal to walk around [feeling] anxious because of these thoughts. … It gives them a language and a real usable and rudimentary skill they can use in the moment when they’re walking in [to a stressful exam]. They can identify that their inner narrative isn’t healthy.”

For example, a college student might come to a counselor expressing worry about an upcoming exam in a class that he or she needs to pass for a major in pre-med. The student might have allowed negative and catastrophic thoughts to snowball: “If I get a C on this test, I will never get into medical school, which will derail my entire career plan and make my parents angry and disappointed.”

“For … a student who is 20 years old and [still] learning to think critically, it would be easy to blow everything out of proportion and catastrophize everything,” Pisarik says. “I am really big on helping them understand negative thinking and false cognitions, and getting them to self-monitor and renarrate [their unhealthy thoughts].”

Following the CBT approach, Pisarik says he would talk such clients through their thought patterns to identify and restructure their negative thoughts about the exam. He would also suggest that they focus on and remind themselves of prior successes, such as other exams or classes in which they earned A’s and B’s.

“I would try and systematically educate the client [about] what type of thinking that is,” Pisarik continues. “There are many doctors out there who got C’s and got into medical school, and probably [who] got C’s in medical school. I will explain that they are catastrophizing this … [and] try and get them to think about it in a different way, evaluate it carefully and create a different narrative about it. Are there people who have gotten C’s and gotten into medical school? If it stops you from getting into medical school, would that be the worst thing in the world?”

“It takes a consistent effort to practice and challenge one’s thinking,” adds Pisarik, who co-authored the article “A Phenomenological Study of Career Anxiety Among College Students.” The article will be published in the December issue of The Career Development Quarterly, the journal of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA.

CBT works well for anxiety because “it lets people see that their own thinking and their behaviors are not productive for the way they want to live or the life they’re living right now,” says Kuhn, who uses both CBT and exposure therapy with her clients at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago. “It’s giving people an outside perspective — getting them to look at their own thoughts and behaviors objectively rather than letting those anxious thoughts take over everything, making it harder to function.”

One way Kuhn works with clients on challenging their unhealthy thoughts is by asking them to identify the best, worst and most likely outcomes of situations they are ruminating over. “I ask, ‘Would [the outcome] matter in a week, a month or a year from now?’ Typically the answer is no,” Kuhn says. “After we go through that, we reframe the original thought [and] transform it into something more rational, more realistic.”

Both Pisarik and Kuhn encourage their clients to keep thought logs to track anxious thoughts and the situations that triggered them. This exercise increases self-awareness, helps identify triggers and creates an opportunity to discuss how the client might change the negative narrative.

“Writing helps a lot because it slows people’s minds down, and they can go back and read about it,” Kuhn says. “Creating that awareness is the only way to understand yourself, understand what you’re worried about and be able to accept it and push it away.”

In addition to using thought logs, Pisarik gives his clients a list of automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs, to check themselves against. The collection lists the most common types of unhealthy, anxious thoughts and types of thinking, including catastrophizing and either-or thinking (polarizing).

Kuhn has a particular phrase that she often repeats with clients: “Handle it.” She acknowledges that it’s not the most empathic of mantras, but it does help to focus on the manageability of anxiety. With clients, she works toward a goal of “being able to sit with the uncomfortableness [of anxious thoughts] and tolerate the stress.”

Kuhn says her style when working with clients matches her personality: “Let’s go forward and hit our fears hard instead of tiptoeing around them.”

Exposure therapy, which introduces things in small, controlled increments in session that make a client anxious, is another good way to focus on handling anxiety, Kuhn adds. Whether the scenario is a fear of speaking up in class or a fear of being rejected by a loved one, exposure therapy can help clients learn to live with the issue and the anxious feelings that come with it.

“When I talk to people about ‘handling it,’ it’s creating that awareness and understanding [of] themselves that they’re able to manage or take on more than they think they can,” Kuhn says. “Anxiety a lot of the time makes us believe that we can’t handle the tiniest things. That’s why our body has created or learned how to respond to things in an overactive or hypersensitive way.” This is most commonly experienced in our fight-or-flight response, she says.

Managing worry and taming anxiety

From CBT and mindfulness to a focus on wellness and coping strategies, professional counselors have a wide range of tools to help clients who struggle with anxiety. Here are some ideas and techniques that can be particularly useful.

> Controlling the controllables. Kuhn says it can be helpful for clients to talk through and identify what is out of their control during situations that make them anxious. “A lot of times, anxious clients want control over everything, and that’s just not realistic,” Kuhn says. “It’s important to go over what’s controllable and what’s not. That creates awareness and a pathway to reevaluate [their] own thinking and behavior. I like to call it ‘controlling the controllables.’ I talk with clients about this a lot.”

Kuhn often uses an exercise with clients in which she draws a target with concentric circles. Things that clients can control, such as their own thoughts and behaviors, go in the center circle. Things that they partially control, such as their emotions or what they focus on sometimes, go in the middle ring. Things that are out of their control, such as what other people think or do, go in the outside circle. In a simpler alternative, Kuhn draws a center line down a piece of paper and works with clients to list what is and isn’t in their control in situations that make them anxious.

> Creating common ground. Kuhn says she also talks openly with clients about how common anxiety is, alerting them that they are among literally millions of Americans who are battling the same challenge. “I let them know they are not alone. It creates a universality,” Kuhn says. “To let people know that they’re not the only ones suffering like this can help. … It does create a common ground for people not to feel ashamed of [their anxiety] or feel like they can’t talk to someone about it. Just creating that education typically makes people feel a ton better.”

> Acknowledging and naming worry. Journaling and making lists to document anxious thoughts can help clients address and reframe the everyday rumination that accompanies anxiety. Kuhn offers two variations on this intervention: worry time and the worry tree.

With “worry time,” clients set aside a dedicated amount of time (Kuhn suggests 30 minutes) every day to write down any anxious thoughts that are troubling them. Clients don’t need to engage in long-form writing to complete this exercise, Kuhn says. Making a bulleted list or jotting thoughts down on sticky notes will work just as well. When the designated time is up, clients put all the notes in a box or container that they have set aside for this purpose. This action signifies that they are leaving those thoughts behind and can move on with the day.

“They have to leave those thoughts or sticky notes there and be done with them,” she says. “Obviously more [anxious] thoughts will come, but you have to remind yourself to leave them behind.”

With Kuhn’s “worry tree” intervention, clients create a flowchart of their anxious thoughts. With each item, clients ask themselves whether their worry is productive or unproductive (see image, below). “Is it something that you can actually do something about?” Kuhn asks. “If it’s unproductive, then you need to just let it go. Do something you enjoy or focus on something else to reset [your mind].”

 

> Mind-body focus and exercise. Mindfulness, meditation and other calming interventions can be particularly helpful for clients with anxiety. Kuhn recommends the smartphone app Pacifica, which prompts users with breathing, relaxation and mindfulness exercises, for both practitioners and clients. Kuhn, who has a background in sports counseling, and Pisarik, who is a runner himself, also prescribe exercise to anxious clients. Exercise boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to feelings of well-being, and comes with a host of other wellness benefits. In addition, exercise allows a person to get outdoors or disengage from work and home activities and other people for a brief period to “have time to hear your thoughts and challenge them,” Pisarik says. “You have to hear your thoughts if you’re going to challenge them.”

> The butterfly hug. Beth Patterson, an ACA member and LPC with a private practice in Denver, teaches deep breathing exercises to anxious clients to help them become grounded, focusing on the flow of energy through the body. She also recommends the “butterfly hug” technique. With this technique, clients cross their arms across their chests, just below the collarbone, with both feet planted firmly on the floor.

Clients tap themselves gently, alternating between their right and left hands. This motion introduces bilateral stimulation, the rhythmic left-right patterns that are used in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. “It’s phenomenally self-soothing,” Patterson says. “Doing that with deep breathing really helps with anxiety. I love the idea that you’re hugging yourself. Even just doing that helps.”

> Walk it out. Along with deep breathing and grounding, Patterson also recommends walking and movement for clients who are feeling anxious. She instructs clients to focus on the feeling of each foot hitting the ground instead of their anxious thoughts. As with the butterfly hug, this action creates bilateral stimulation, Patterson notes.

Bennett also uses walking as a way to help clients refocus their thoughts. She will take clients out of the office during a session for a “mindful walk” up and down the block. During the walk, they talk about what they’re sensing, from the sunshine to the breeze to the smell of flowers. Bennett says this allows her to work with clients “in the moment,” recognizing and refocusing anxious thoughts as they come. Afterward, they process and talk through the experience back in the office.

“It’s a lesson that [anxious] thoughts are going to come up for you, and you can refocus on your sense of touch or hearing,” Bennett says. “Thoughts will come up, and it’s really easy to attach to those thoughts and become anxious, but we can acknowledge the thought, be accepting of it in the moment and refocus. Change and connection can come that way.”

> This is not that. Clients commonly transfer anxiety-provoking personal issues onto relationships or situations in other facets of life, including the workplace, Patterson says. For example, Patterson worked with a client who had a very domineering, controlling mother, and this client felt triggered by a female boss in her workplace. Patterson introduced the client to the mantra “this is not that,” and they worked on reframing the anxiety the client experienced when she felt her boss was being controlling.

“She had to work through it in a beneficial and compassionate way for herself and really remember ‘this is not that,’” Patterson says. “Our minds are brilliant, but they’re binary computers. When something happens, it will immediately associate it with something else it knows. If a co-worker is being overly competitive, it might trigger feelings about sibling rivalry. This [mantra] offers a great opportunity to work through family-of-origin issues [with clients] when you see them replicated in the workplace.”

> Abstain from negativity. Another empowering tool clients can use is to become conscious of and then avoid unhealthy or toxic situations and people who trigger their anxiety, Pisarik says. He advises clients to “stay away from groups of people or individuals who they know will engage in negative self-talk or negativity. If you’re feeling anxious already, the last thing you want to do is to go and talk to that toxic person.”

Similarly, he commonly advises anxious students to avoid waiting outside the room where they’re about to take a big exam, surrounded by 30 classmates who might be saying that they are going to fail, they didn’t study enough, they don’t feel prepared and so on. Counselors can coach anxious clients to think ahead and prepare ways to remove themselves from these types of situations, regroup and redirect their thinking, Pisarik says.

> Lifestyle choices. Counselors can also educate clients on the connection between anxiety and lifestyle choices such as sleep patterns, exercise and diet, Pisarik says. For young clients especially, this also includes social media use, he notes.

Pisarik says he frequently talks with his college-age clients about their alcohol consumption, drug use, irregular diet and other aspects of the modern university experience. “The lifestyle of a college student is absolutely conducive to generating anxiety,” he says. “While they are college students, I get that — their job is to have fun and sleep whenever [they] want. But building some sort of healthy routine is important, [including] getting enough sleep and making sure they eat well. I tell them to try and maintain the diet they had at home. … If you’re struggling with anxiety to begin with, any one of those [elements] can add to it, and those are really easy fixes.”

For Bennett, conversations with clients about lifestyle also include questions about smoking and caffeine use. Both tobacco and caffeine can make a person shaky or make his or her heart and mind race, which can trigger or exacerbate anxiety, she points out.

In addition to social media use, Pisarik also asks clients about their social engagement, such as participating in sports or other hobbies. Clients who struggle with anxiety often isolate themselves, he notes, so he works with them to identify social outlets, from volunteering to joining a school club. This sense of connection can reduce anxiety, he says.

> Narrative therapy and externalization. Patterson finds narrative therapy helpful when working with clients with anxiety because it allows them to externalize what they’re feeling. When clients uses phrases such as “I am worried” or “I am anxious,” Patterson will gently redirect them by saying, “No, you’re Susan, and you have a problem called worry.”

“Externalize the problem,” Patterson explains to clients. “Externalize it and dis-identify it. See it outside of yourself. … ‘I can deal with that because it’s not who I am.’ … If you’re carrying it around as if it’s you, you can’t do anything about it. The truth of the matter is, it’s not you.”

Counselors can also help clients with anxiety to focus on a time in their lives when they faced a similar challenge and got through it, Patterson says. She asks clients questions to help them probe deeper. For example: How did you handle that challenge? What worked, and what didn’t work?

 

Working with clients on medication

Anti-anxiety medications are commonly prescribed in the United States. Their prevalence means that counselors are likely to encounter clients who are taking medication to control their anxiety symptoms.

Regardless of their feelings about the use of psychotropic medications, practitioners must treat and support clients who are taking such medications the same as they would any other client, Kuhn says. “I never treat someone differently based on their medication. They get the same CBT therapy that anyone else would get,” she says, adding that the most important thing is to ensure that clients don’t feel judged by the counselor.

Kuhn has seen anti-anxiety medications work well for some clients. “It can take that little edge off that they need to get through the day and be able to function,” she says. At the same time, she also has clients who express a desire to be able to stop taking their medication eventually.

Pisarik notes that for anti-anxiety medication to work well, clients must remember to take it faithfully, keep track of how it makes them feel and schedule the repeated appointments needed to monitor and adjust dosage levels. Each of these elements can pose a challenge to college-age clients. “It’s a lot of work, and [college students] often lack the discipline and time to get it right,” Pisarik says.

Bennett agrees, suggesting that even though professional counselors are not the ones prescribing medications, they still need to discuss and explore medication use with their clients. She also stresses that practitioners should be knowledgeable about the different kinds of medications that clients may be taking and their possible side effects.

Bennett sometimes conducts conference calls with her clients and the medical professionals who are prescribing them medications so that she can help clients ask questions and otherwise be a support to them. “We [counselors] don’t prescribe, but at the same time it’s very important to collaborate with whoever is prescribing the [client’s] medication,” she says. “Be supportive and involve the client in conversations: How long have you taken it? Have you noticed any side effects? Has it been helping? Talk about how often they’re supposed to take it and if they’re adhering to that. There can be stigma about taking medications, so it’s important to normalize it. … It’s comforting too for the client to know that you’re on their side, and part of that is collaboration [about medication].”

 

See the person, not the anxiety

Given how common anxiety disorders are, it’s likely that any counselor’s caseload will be filled with clients presenting with symptoms of anxiety. It is important, however, for counselors to treat each client as an individual and to tailor the therapeutic approach to meet that client’s unique needs, Bennett emphasizes.

Building trust and a healthy therapeutic relationship are key in treating anxiety because clients can feel very vulnerable as they talk about what makes them anxious, Bennett points out. That is why it is critical to get to know these clients as individuals rather than through the lens of their anxiety.

“Don’t assume that because they’re anxious, they’re going to think and behave like other people with anxiety,” Bennett says. “Meet them where they are and find out what’s most effective for them based off of their interests. It can be empowering for clients to integrate their own interests and life experiences into the therapeutic process. Not only does this create buy-in for the client, but it can also help in creating a safe space to begin exploring the vulnerabilities that come along with anxiety. … Hear their story, find their strengths and give them a voice in the process. It’s important to honor them as individuals.”

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Tossing and turning in the digital age

By Laurie Meyers May 27, 2014

Branding-DragonFor centuries, poets and playwrights have ascribed a kind of magic to sleep: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” says Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Poet e.e. cummings wrote, “over my sleeping self float flaming symbols of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains.” Sleep used to be regarded as transcendent and restorative — a place where dreams connected to a better self. But in today’s 24/7 digital age, sleep is often perceived as a thief of time, an elusive lover or even a sign of weakness.

It’s also a biological wonder. A growing body of research is connecting sleep — both its quantity and quality — to a variety of physical and mental health issues. These findings suggest that sleep is no longer a bit player in health prevention and maintenance but a candidate for center stage. Clearly, the digital age needs to tune out, turn off and go to bed. Some counselors are making sleep therapy a significant part of their practices and helping clients learn to get more and better sleep.

Although sleep disturbances have long been associated with mental illnesses, new findings indicate that the link may be more complicated and intertwined than previously thought. For example, insomnia is known as a side effect of depression, but a growing body of research suggests it can precede and perhaps even cause depression. And now there is evidence that specifically targeting co-occurring insomnia can reduce depression symptoms. A recent study at Ryerson University in Toronto found that patients with both depression and insomnia who were successfully treated with cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) were almost twice as likely to experience significant relief from depressive symptoms. A 2007 study in SLEEP, the peer-reviewed scientific and medical journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, determined that chronic insomnia is not only related to stress but may also cause anxiety disorders. Another SLEEP study, published in a 2013 online supplement, found that insomnia alters the brain’s emotional circuitry. Specifically, it raises the activity level in the amygdala, which plays a significant role in emotional processing and regulation.

In addition to wreaking havoc with people’s mental health, lack of sleep puts stress on the cardiovascular system, suppresses the immune system and can cause endocrine dysfunction. These outcomes cause or are associated with obesity, heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

A recipe for insomnia

Lori Puterbaugh, an American Counseling Association member from Tampa, Florida, believes sleep deprivation is an epidemic in the United States. She says counselors, because of their behavioral training and other skills, can help remedy the problem.

Puterbaugh, a licensed mental health counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, asks all of her clients about their sleep habits. At intake, she gives them a short questionnaire that asks about sleep duration and quality, including hours per night spent sleeping, time spent falling asleep, instances of waking up during the night and how rested they feel the next day.

Puterbaugh, who is also a member of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, a division of ACA, finds that many of her clients aren’t sleeping well and often are doing all the wrong things to actually get a good night’s sleep. “Most people’s routine is a recipe for insomnia, and they don’t even realize it,” she says.

In fact, many of the activities people engage in to relax before going to bed, including watching TV, surfing the Internet or interacting with other electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets, are stimulating the brain, Puterbaugh asserts. Even worse, she says, some people are convinced that these habits — their “sleep safety” activities — are actually essential for them to be able to sleep.

Some clients have the right mind-set about attempting activities and routines that promote sleep, but they don’t possess the know-how to follow through properly, says Robert Turner, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and ACA member from Littleton, Colorado, who devotes part of his practice solely to treating insomnia. “There is a lot of access on the Internet to positive things people can try, but they don’t do it correctly,” he says. “For example, they may try deep breathing, but they actually hyperventilate, or they exercise, but they do it too soon before bed.”

Other people find that the more they chase sleep, the faster it seems to run. “They perpetuate sleep problems by going to bed early, staying in bed longer and napping during the day,” says Kim Restivo, an LPC in Wilmington, North Carolina, who also dedicates part of her practice to the treatment of insomnia.

“People will sometimes say, ‘It takes me awhile to get to sleep, so I will go to bed earlier,’ and that backfires,” says Turner, who has been working with sleep issues for more than 30 years. They instead end up tossing and turning, which adds to their anxiety and makes it even less likely that they will be able to fall asleep.

Puterbaugh says she often has to dispel myths about what qualifies as good sleep. “Many people are under the impression that the normal way to fall asleep at night is that your head hits the pillow and then you’re sleeping peacefully,” she says. They don’t realize that the time it takes to fall asleep varies according to the individual and changes throughout life, she explains.

“Clients sometimes have this idea of sleep as an on/off switch,” adds Turner.

Restivo tries to normalize occasional lack of sleep with her clients. “Everyone has bad nights,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that you are always going to have them.”

Some people also mistakenly think that waking up in the middle of the night should be an aberration, so when it happens to them, they lie there worrying about why they woke up, what is wrong with them and how they’re going to get back to sleep, Puterbaugh says. “I tell them that it’s not that uncommon to wake up to move over, to go to the bathroom or because you’re in the middle of a light sleep cycle and there was a noise,” she says.

“If people aren’t aware of the variations, they sometimes think that it’s just them — that there’s something really wrong with them,” she explains. “Sometimes you can reduce anxiety about bedtime just by giving them that kind of information.”

People often develop a kind of performance anxiety when it comes to sleep, Turner says. Restivo adds that it is important to reduce that anxiety because it often causes catastrophic thinking.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m awake,’” Puterbaugh says. “‘What if I lie here all night and can’t get back to sleep? I’m going to have a horrible day at work tomorrow because I’ll be too tired.’ It’s just this cavalcade of things that are going to go wrong, and [counselors] can help them interrupt that.”

“You want to remove the sense that the bedroom is where you go to fight this dragon,” asserts Turner.

Rest for the weary

To slay that dragon, counselors and clients need to work together to change thinking and behavior.

“It becomes an education process,” Puterbaugh says. “And initially their anxiety levels go up because you are asking them to give up their security blanket [sleep safety activities].”

Puterbaugh and her clients discuss how spending a significant portion of the evening surfing the Internet or watching TV in bed, or other habits such as drinking alcohol or eating right before bedtime, can disrupt sleep. They then explore changes the client could make to promote more and better sleep.

“There’s a difference between having a cup of chocolate ice cream in the evening and having a whole gallon,” Puterbaugh says. “There’s a difference between watching TV in the evening for a little while and watching or falling asleep to it in bed.”

Puterbaugh tells her clients that the changes they make don’t have to be drastic to produce a significant difference. “Can you stop watching TV [or engaging with other electronic devices] an hour before you’re ready to go to bed and use that time to do something quiet under softer lighting?” she asks.

In addition, Puterbaugh advises clients to use relaxation exercises or positive visualization rather than lying in bed feeling anxious as they try to fall asleep or when they wake up during the night.

When working with clients struggling with insomnia, Turner starts with cognitive restructuring. “We shift the focus to ‘how can I manage’ rather than ‘I can’t manage because I didn’t sleep,’” he says.

Turner learned the principles of CBT-I during his time as a guest at the School of Sleep Medicine at Stanford University.  CBT-I uses the tools of cognitive behavior therapy to change sleep behavior. Among the techniques are having clients keep a sleep diary to look for patterns, identifying triggers that make some nights worse than others and establishing good sleep hygiene. In part, that involves ensuring the bedroom is a dark and quiet place that is used exclusively for sleep (and sex).

Turner may also use another CBT-I technique, sleep restriction/sleep scheduling, but he acknowledges this is difficult because it requires the client to stick to a rigid sleep schedule temporarily. The client uses the sleep diary to track his or her sleep for a week to determine the average number of hours of actual sleep time.

“If by the end [of the week] you have averaged five hours, then you get only five hours to sleep, and you get out of bed until you’re having more success,” Turner says. This means staying up until five hours before a client’s normal wake time, whether that is midnight or 3 o’clock in the morning. The idea is to greatly increase the body’s desire for sleep so that when the client goes to bed, he or she actually falls asleep and stays asleep. Once the client is consistently falling asleep on this schedule, the interval is slowly increased until he or she is able to consistently get a full night’s sleep.

By reducing the number of hours spent tossing and turning, sleep restriction helps client to consistently see the bed as somewhere to sleep, not just “try” to sleep, explains Restivo, who also uses CBT-I with clients.

Restivo was trained in CBT-I at a seminar led by Michael Perlis, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania. There is no specific certification in CBT-I, but doctoral-level practitioners can become certified in behavioral sleep medicine (go to the American Board of Sleep Medicine’s website at absm.org for more information). Non-doctoral-level clinicians who are actively involved in behavioral sleep medicine clinical care, education or research are eligible to join the SBSM as associate members. Members of SBSM can be listed on the site as behavioral sleep medicine providers.

Not all counselors who work with their clients on sleep issues choose to use CBT-I. Some simply combine their usual counseling methods with the principles of good sleep hygiene, which were originally developed by psychologist and sleep researcher Peter Hauri. According to the National Sleep Foundation, these principles include:

  • Avoid napping during the day because it can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol too close to bedtime. Although alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half of the sleep cycle as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise to promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be done in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, such as yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
  • Stay away from large meals close to bedtime. Dietary changes can also cause sleep problems, so if someone is struggling with a sleep problem, it is not a good time to start experimenting with spicy dishes. And, remember, chocolate has caffeine.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Also avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before trying to go to sleep. Don’t dwell on problems or bring them to bed.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It is not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio or read.

Sometimes sleep therapy uncovers other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, a condition that causes the individual to briefly stop breathing frequently throughout the night. Sleep apnea puts incredible pressure on the cardiovascular system and can be deadly. Restivo, Turner and Puterbaugh emphasize that counselors who are treating clients with sleep problems should advise those clients to see their physicians for a thorough physical checkup.

These counselors say that tracking the quantity and quality of their clients’ sleep and working with them to improve their sleep is an important process because sleep is such an essential part of overall wellness.

Puterbaugh believes that the high incidence of depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder occurring within a sleep-deprived society is no coincidence. “Sleep therapy isn’t going to make everything better,” she says, “but it is a factor — a factor that’s free to treat.”

 

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To contact individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Lori Puterbaugh at puterbaugh@mindspring.com

Robert Turner at turnercounseling@gmail.com

Kim Restivo at krestivolpc@aol.com

 

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Additional information

To read more about cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), see stanfordhospital.org/clinicsmedServices/clinics/sleep/treatment_options/cbt.html, an online resource developed by the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine.

To learn more about insomnia and other sleep disorders, as well as sleep research, see the National Sleep Foundation’s website at sleepfoundation.org.

In addition, the following publications were mentioned in this article:

  • “Chronic insomnia as a risk factor for developing anxiety and depression,” SLEEP, November 2007
  • “Elevated amygdala activation during voluntary emotion regulation in primary insomnia,” SLEEP, online supplement, 2013

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org