Tag Archives: Counselors Audience

Counselors Audience

Putting PTSD treatment on a faster track

By Bethany Bray August 27, 2018

An exposure-based therapy method has shown to reduce the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in just five sessions, according to researchers.

Written exposure therapy (WET) consists of one 60-minute and four 40-minute sessions, during which clients are guided to write about a traumatic event they have experienced and the thoughts and feelings they associate with it. Researchers recently tested the method’s effectiveness alongside cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a more traditional talk therapy method that typically involves more than five sessions. Clinical trials were conducted at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facility with adults who had a primary diagnosis of PTSD.

The researchers’ findings, published in JAMA Psychiatry this past spring, suggested that WET was just as effective as CPT in reducing PTSD symptoms.

“WET provides an alternative [treatment] that a trauma survivor might be more likely to consent to, especially if verbalizing the trauma narrative causes a sense of shame or guilt,” says Melinda Paige, an American Counseling Association member and assistant professor at Argosy University in Atlanta whose specialty area is trauma counseling. “The more evidence-based options the trauma counselor has to consider, the more options can be offered to the client. WET provides an option for written expression rather than verbal and a shorter length of treatment, which may be preferable to survivors, including [military] service members.”

“Effective trauma treatment is the antithesis of the traumatic event itself in that survivors experience person-centered core conditions such as congruence/genuineness, nonjudgement and empathic understanding, as well as a sense of control over their recovery experience,” adds Paige, a member of the Military and Government Counseling Association (MGCA), a division of ACA.

MGCA President Thomas Watson agrees that the addition of another method to a trauma counselor’s toolbox will only benefit clients. “Those involved with service delivery to service members and others diagnosed with PTSD are always enthusiastic about how applied, evidence-supported treatment approaches have the potential for effective and ethical positive change,” says Watson, an ACA member and assistant professor at Argosy University in Atlanta. “An obvious goal of the WET approach is to implement effective treatment options that are efficient for both client and clinician.”

The research study involved 126 male and female participants, some of whom were military veterans and others who were nonveterans. The participants were randomly sorted into two groups: those who received five sessions of WET and those who received 12 sessions of CPT.

“Although WET involves fewer sessions, it was noninferior to CPT in reducing symptoms of PTSD,” wrote the researchers. “The findings suggest that WET is an efficacious and efficient PTSD treatment that may reduce attrition and transcend previously observed barriers to PTSD treatment for both patients and providers.”

The researchers reported that the WET group had “significantly fewer” dropouts (four) than did the CPT group (25).

This factor is another reason for counselors to consider using WET, Paige notes. “Maintaining a survivor’s physical and emotional safety and doing no harm by utilizing evidence-based and minimally abreactive trauma reprocessing interventions is essential to trauma competency. Therefore, WET may be a less invasive and more tolerable exposure-based PTSD treatment option,” she explains.

At the same time, Benjamin V. Noah, an ACA member and past president of MGCA, was discouraged to see that the study excluded PTSD clients who were considered high risk. Individuals had to be stabilized by medication to be included in the clinical trials.

“Many of the veterans I have worked with dropped their medications [because] they do not like the side effects. Therefore, I believe the study overlooked veterans that may be higher risk,” Noah says. “Additionally, a high risk of suicide was an exclusion for being in the study. Again, this leaves out those veterans who need help the most and could benefit from a short-term approach.”

Noah, a licensed professional counselor in the Dallas area whose area of research is veteran mental health, has used written therapy methods in his own work with veteran clients and has found the methods helpful. A therapy session provides a safe and supportive environment for clients to write about traumatic experiences – particularly clients who may be trigged by the exercise when alone, he explains.

“I have had veterans triggered doing [writing] as homework; keeping the writing in session acts as a safety measure for the [client]. Helping veterans resolve their event or events — which I call the ‘nightmare’ — that led to PTSD has been a focus of my work since I was able to put my own nightmare to bed,” says Noah, a U.S. Air Force veteran and a part-time faculty member in the School of Counseling and Human Services at Capella University.

WET is one of many methods that should be considered by clinicians working with clients who have PTSD, Noah adds.

“I would like to see more research within the VA and National Institute of Mental Health on the use of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, solution-focused brief therapy, sand tray therapy and other approaches that counselors are using in their work with veterans,” Noah says. “There are articles focusing on other approaches, but these tend to be the experiences of a few counselors and do not have the research rigor used by [the WET study researchers]. I do applaud the authors for showing the efficacy of a brief therapy approach for use with veterans, and I do plan to look deeper into written exposure therapy and perhaps use it in my future work with veterans.”

 

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Find out more:

 

Read the research in full in JAMA Psychiatry: jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2669771

 

From the National Institute of Mental Health: “A shorter – but effective – treatment for PTSD

 

Related reading from Counseling Today:

Controversies in the evolving diagnosis of PTSD

Informed by trauma

Exploring the impact of war

 

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Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.

 

The therapy behind play therapy

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2018

Ashley Wroton, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), says parents of her young clients have told her that pediatricians sometimes make comments suggesting that they try “real” therapy with their child rather than play therapy.

“Play therapy is real therapy,” says Wroton, a registered play therapist who works with clients ages 3-12 at a group outpatient practice in Hampton, Virginia. “Play is the medium through which the therapy occurs. … The play helps them open up to make better connections.”

The idea that play therapy isn’t a wholly serious or legitimate approach to therapy is a misconception with which play therapists often contend — including among other helping professionals, says Jeff Cochran, a professor of counselor education and head of the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee. Perhaps understandably, those not trained in the theory might be skeptical of the effectiveness of allowing a child to explore a room full of art supplies, stuffed animals and toys for the length of the therapy session. However, Cochran explains, under the watchful eyes of a play therapist, the toys are a medium through which the child communicates, learns, self-discovers, shares experiences and forms a trusting therapeutic relationship. The play, he asserts, serves simply as a bridge to therapy.

“Because we refer to it as play, [people assume] it’s supposed to be all light and easy for the child. But, no, it’s work,” says Cochran, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Defining play therapy

The fourth edition of The Counseling Dictionary, published by ACA, defines play therapy as the “use of play as a means of establishing rapport, uncovering what is troubling a person (often a child), and bringing about a resolution.”

Under the broad umbrella of play therapy are a number of focused methods and approaches, ranging from child-centered, filial and dyadic to animal-assisted play therapy. Although most often associated with children, play therapy can also be used in varying forms with teenagers and adults, as well as with children and their parents or their caretakers together. It can also be used in conjunction with more traditional therapy methods such as cognitive behavioral, Adlerian, Gestalt and narrative therapies.

However, simply having some toys in a therapy office or encouraging clients to draw or play with blocks as they talk with a counselor is not play therapy, stresses Dee Ray, an LPC and director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics emphasizes that practitioners should undergo “appropriate education, training and supervised experience” to become fully competent in a specialty area such as play therapy before using it in practice. Practitioners can also obtain special play therapy credentials (such as the registered play therapist credential) through training, supervision and other requirements. These credentials provide practitioners additional credibility and may be preferred by certain employers or clients, Ray explains.

The process

Play therapy generally begins with a period of observation and assessment by the counselor, followed by work to process and focus on challenges the practitioner has identified based on cues the client exhibits during play.

Wroton starts therapy by talking with her child client’s parents or caregivers to hear what they believe the presenting issue is. After first watching the child play on his or her own, Wroton conducts a session in which the child and adult caregivers (or other family members living in the home with the child) play together so she can observe how they interact. Afterward, she talks with the parents or caregivers about what she noticed.

Play therapists learn much through observation, including how the child handles separation from the caregiver when the child is brought into the therapy room, Wroton says. Some children are clingy or start crying when the parent leaves, whereas others don’t seem to mind at all. This provides play therapists cues about the child’s level of attachment.

Other cues can be found in how clients play with objects in the playroom. For example, clients with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors or control issues are often very structured in their play, Wroton says. They might engage in organizing behaviors rather than playful play. She remembers one young boy who gravitated toward arranging the stuffed animals by category: jungle animals, farm animals, aquatic animals and so on.

At the same time, Wroton says, practitioners need to watch from session to session to see if clients’ play behaviors change at all. At first, organizing behaviors might be a way for clients to soothe themselves or to create order because they’re nervous. But if those same behaviors continue across sessions, they could be an indication of anxiety, autism, past trauma or other issues.

Most important, each client in play therapy will need a tailored approach and a different degree of involvement from the counselor, Wroton says. She notes that some of her clients are very independent while playing, hardly making eye contact with her as she makes observations and asks questions, whereas others invite her to play with them.

Play can run the gamut from imaginative to soothing or sensory, such as child clients painting or placing their hands in water or sand elements. As clients explore and play, Wroton narrates with questions such as “I wonder why this toy is doing that?” or “I notice that you don’t invite me to play. Do you invite other friends to play?”

In imaginative and role-play scenarios, Wroton might ask her child clients, “What could have gone differently?” or “What do you wish had gone differently?” Their answers, along with the scene they have acted out previously, can provide clues about the issues troubling these children. For example, repeatedly arranging toy figures with a “bad guy” in the scene might indicate that a child is struggling with trauma or violence from his or her past.

Wroton says she determines the course of sessions “once I learn how they [the children] do the work and how engaged they are. … I use the dynamic I see in session with them. I use my narration to challenge their thought process, make observations and ask questions. [I] guide and tease at those threads I see coming out.”

The power of play

A quote from play therapy researcher and author Garry Landreth is often used to explain the method’s effectiveness: “In the play therapy experience, toys are like the child’s words, and play is the child’s language.”

In addition to speaking a child’s language, play therapy provides a supportive, therapeutic environment and, therefore, an incubator for learning and healing, Cochran says. “When a therapist is reaching out to the child in kindness, [the child] will gradually open up. It makes all the rest of the pieces work from that therapeutic relationship core,” he says. “They cherish the undivided attention that for some adults might be too intense.”

Cochran and his wife, Nancy, both specialize in child-centered play therapy and together present trainings and workshops on the topic. They co-led an education session titled “Growing play therapy up for older children, adolescents and adults” at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this past spring.

“Once the child knows that the therapy hour is a place where they are safe, a spark is lit,” says Nancy, an ACA member and a trainer and consultant in child-centered play therapy with the National Institute for Relationship Enhancement. “With children, that’s the purity of it. The child has the ability to … take the lead and work through to mastery.”

In fact, the crux of what makes play therapy so effective — and different from most other counseling methods — is that it is directed by the client, the Cochrans assert. Play therapists don’t suggest that clients play with a certain toy or work on a presenting problem. Instead, play therapists offer warmth, empathy and a gentle structure for clients to make their own meaning through the exploration and play they chose to engage in.

In play therapy, Jeff explains, the counselor sets up the process that leads to self-discovery on the part of the client. “You let the process teach them,” he says.

“It’s really the child that directs,” Nancy says. “They’ve got a unique voice in here [the play therapy room] which doesn’t always include words. When children are given the chance to go on a journey of self-discovery, they come in and they find a unique voice within that room. Once they find their individual voice, they become more accepting of self. Not only that, but they embrace self.”

Play therapy gives clients a safe space to explore what it feels like to be in control, she adds, with learning opportunities presenting themselves at every turn. As young clients try out the various toys in the playroom, they are learning what they do and don’t like, explains Nancy, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee. They can also push against preconceived ideas — whether of their own making or instilled in them by others — of what they are and aren’t good at.

In the process, Jeff adds, these clients are learning not only that they can play the xylophone, for example, but that they can take on a challenge and master it.

“They can try and fail and put themselves at risk in sessions [in ways] that they wouldn’t otherwise,” Nancy says. “The process and the therapist’s unconditional positive regard allow the child to make choices and be their own guide. They can be surprised by what is discovered.”

Giving clients control

One of the Cochrans’ graduate students worked with a child referred to play therapy because he was exhibiting obstinate behavior at preschool and not connecting with classmates. The 4-year-old had experienced abuse in his past, and his fear of taking risks discouraged him from trying new things or learning at school. Nancy says that the boy was nonverbal until the 10th session of play therapy.

In his first appointment, the boy was withdrawn and anxious, alternately slouching against the wall, crawling underneath a rug and hiding behind a shelf of toy bins for much of the session. Throughout the session, the Cochrans’ graduate counseling student offered gentle narration, such as “You’re not too sure about this” and “This is difficult for you.” She stayed with him, talking him through the process, which showed that she was committed to allowing him to choose how to proceed in his playtime, Nancy says.

Afterward, the graduate student confided to Nancy that she thought she had failed and had just made the young boy miserable. When they went back and watched video footage of the session together, however, Nancy pointed out something that the counseling student had missed. The boy had repeatedly tossed toys out from behind the shelf where he was hiding, but in the very last minute of the session, he found a pair of toy binoculars and had looked through them directly at the counseling student.

“It showed that he was curious, reaching out and was open to an eventual relationship,” Nancy says. “[I told the student], ‘Think of all the things he expressed and you helped him express. It was so beautiful that you stayed warmly right there with him.’”

Over the course of therapy, the young client opened up more and more. At the second and following sessions, he went behind the shelf and dumped toys out, both to explore and to see how the student counselor would react. He later gravitated to self-expressive work in a sand tray and used the counselor as an ally as he fought with a punching bag and engaged in imaginative role-play and rescue schemes. Eventually, the boy and the counselor played together, with the boy proudly setting up challenges and showing off his skills tossing balls into a toy bin.

The client was in foster care, and over the course of therapy, his play evolved from symbolic to direct expression as he drew pictures of what he wanted his family to look like, Nancy adds.

At one point early on in therapy, the counselor moved in to sit next to the client as he was working at the sand tray. He responded during the next session by putting objects in all the chairs to let her know that he wasn’t quite ready for that, Nancy recalls with a chuckle. “He was in control to let her in, little by little. But from the start, he wanted to know her and wanted her to know him. That connection was made from the very first session by giving him control of when and how — even though that first session wasn’t very playful.”

Watching video footage of the difference between when the client first came to play therapy and later sessions is remarkable, according to Nancy. “When you look across the sessions we did with him, his whole physical presence in the room changes, from looking downcast, to playing, laughing and making eye contact.”

In play therapy, clients learn to shed the defensive behaviors they have established to hide a vulnerable core, Nancy says. “They grow up — or down — to the age they’re supposed to be. You can have a child in play therapy who is 7 years going on 40, or 7 years going on 2. They develop the skills [in play therapy] to be a good, solid 7 years old,” she says. “They try on roles, explore what it feels like to be in control, integrate what is useful and let go of what they don’t need.”

Jeff acknowledges that play therapy’s power of self-discovery “sounds deceptively simple. … It’s hard to believe it can be so impactful.” However, through play, clients are able to examine themselves and push limits to discover patterns of repeated mistakes and blind spots.

For example, a play therapist might see young clients use a doll to act out, fluctuating between caring and nurturing behaviors and hurtful behaviors. Jeff says the counselor can narrate with empathy, accepting all play behaviors and attending to the child’s process as the child makes choices of how she or he wants to be in life.

“Being with a child while she tries on hurtful ways of being can be like allowing a child to have all chocolate for lunch to find out that it’s not actually good,” Jeff says. “They’re playing out what they’re thinking about: ‘How does it feel? What does it mean to me?’ They can fluctuate between what they’ve seen in their life versus what they want.”

Testing limits and making connections

Ray, an ACA fellow and a professor in the counseling program at the University of North Texas, is a registered play therapist and a certified supervisor in both child-centered play therapy and child-parent relationship therapy. She estimates that roughly 70 percent of a play therapist’s work is nonverbal and 30 percent is verbal. When play therapy practitioners do speak, it is typically to offer reflection and encouragement on the play they are observing or to offer guidance such as setting limits, she says.

“If [the child client] is depending on an adult to make decisions, I would respond, ‘In here, it’s up to you.’ If they’re asking, ‘How do I spell this?’ or ‘How do I draw this?’ the answer would be, ‘In here, you can draw or spell it any way you want to,’” Ray says.

When a young client becomes angry or tests limits, the counselor can recognize how the client is feeling and redirect the behavior. For example, when the child gets agitated, the play therapist can suggest that rather than drawing on the wall, they draw together on paper, rip the paper or punch a punching bag, Ray says.

“The child learns that every decision they make has consequences,” she says. “Acknowledge that they do have that feeling, and the feeling is OK. But never say, ‘You can’t.’ Say, ‘This [behavior] is not for doing.’”

This type of limit setting emphasizes that the child’s feelings are valid, Ray explains. It also sends the message that the child’s behavior — not the child himself or herself — is the problem and that there are always other ways of expressing strong feelings through an acceptable behavior. If a counselor presents the limit as “You can’t,” it implies that something about the child is not OK, Ray says. This type of response also might engage the child in a power struggle with the counselor by personalizing the expression of the feeling, she explains.

Children will naturally bump up against limits as a form of exploration, so play therapists will often see young clients who want to climb on things, break toys or exhibit other destructive behaviors, Jeff Cochran says. As with so many aspects of play therapy, the manner in which the counselor diffuses these urges can be an opportunity for self-discovery.

“We start with a simple opening message: ‘In this room, you can say anything you want and do almost anything you want, and if there’s something that’s not OK to do, I will tell you,’” Cochran says.

When the child does bump into a limit, the play therapist responds with empathy to the child’s experience in that moment and limits as little of the child’s behavior as possible — just enough to keep the child and therapist safe and the therapy room functional. “That in itself becomes therapeutic,” Cochran says. “They learn that there are ways to express themselves other than pushing boundaries. The therapist doesn’t have to make that happen; it’s a naturally occurring thing. They learn themselves who they are and what they want. Is what you are doing going to get you what you want?”

The growth and learning that begin in play therapy naturally carry over and are applied elsewhere in clients’ lives, Wroton says. In other words, the “work” of play therapy continues, even if the play therapist doesn’t observe a direct cause and effect in sessions, she says.

Wroton remembers one client, a 9-year-old boy, who had been adopted after going through the foster care system. Before being removed from his birth home, he had been exposed to graphic sexual content, anger, violence and alcohol abuse. In play therapy, he responded well and gravitated to making scenes in a sand tray.

Wroton told the boy, “I want to know what it’s like to be in your world.” Repeatedly, he would respond to this prompt by creating a scene that involved a king figure and several blue Smurfs. He would bury and uncover the Smurfs, and then rebury them. When he was finally finished making his scene, the Smurfs would always remain buried beneath the sand. They weren’t uncovered until it was time to clean up, Wroton says. The boy didn’t identify who or what these figures might represent, simply referring to them as “Smurfs,” she adds.

Then, one day, something changed for the client: He buried and reburied the Smurfs like usual, but he also buried the king and left him beneath the sand. Afterward, Wroton received a call from the client’s adoptive mother. Her son, who previously had never talked much about his past, was suddenly opening up and connecting more with her.

Wroton thinks the Smurfs and king figure in the boy’s sand tray scenes represented experiences and feelings that the young client had tucked away — including family members who were abusive yet for whom he also held some positive memories. Through the sand tray, he was processing these feelings and coming to terms with what the memories meant to him.

“Typically, a change in play means a change in processing,” Wroton says. “What motivated him that day, I’m not sure. For a month and a half, he had played out that scene over and over with the same characters. We might do the work here, but the application of it, and the completion of the work, is done [outside of session]. And that’s the end goal.”

What lies beneath

Ray thinks there is no better method than play therapy for reaching children who have behavioral or mental health challenges. “So many of our interventions are about telling, doing and suggesting. But in play therapy, we trust the client to know where they need to go,” says Ray, a past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “It’s an intervention that trusts the child — they know where to go to solve their own problems and move toward self-enhancing solutions. If you offer a relationship that facilitates growth, the child is able to make the change through the developmentally appropriate language of play.”

“It’s something that is very, very different than most mental health interventions,” Ray continues. “It’s not acting upon the child; it’s acting with the child.”

The self-directive aspect of play therapy reached one of Ray’s clients in ways that other more direct methods might have failed to do. The 8-year-old girl was referred to Ray by her school because of aggressive behavior, which included being suspended after trying to hit her teacher. However, in play therapy, the girl never mentioned any anger regarding school, her teacher or her classmates. Instead, she played out scenes from her family and home life, where, it turns out, she was being abused.

In play therapy sessions with Ray, the client gravitated toward drawing her family and setting up scenes with figures in a dollhouse. As the characters in the dollhouse would interact, the girl would exhibit what Ray calls a “play disruption.” In the middle of a dollhouse scene, the girl would become more active and move through the room, often throwing or trying to break things. After directing her energy and aggression in this way, she was able to finish her scene in the dollhouse.

The girl wasn’t willing to talk with anyone about her family issues at school. The style of her play in play therapy, however, was an outlet for her to communicate and process what was happening. The young client talked about specific abuses that were happening at home during the family scenes she played out in therapy, Ray says.

Once the root of the child’s struggles became clear, Ray took the necessary steps to report the suspected abuse, documenting what the client had verbalized in session. Through play, the client formed a therapeutic bond with Ray and was able to work through what was troubling her. As a result, the child’s aggressive behavior at school dissipated.

“If I had brought the child in and said, ‘Let’s talk about how you’re aggressive at school,’ she would have shut down and not talked,” Ray says. “Having a counselor who trusts a child is so different than what many children experience [from adults]. That message of, ‘I’m going to accept you no matter what and trust that you know where you need to go,’ that, to me, is the healing factor of play therapy. It’s predicated on this amazing factor that if you put a child in an environment where they have control, they will move toward change.”

Not just for kids

Missy Galica, an ACA member and LPC intern in Lubbock, Texas, uses sand tray therapy in her work with adult clients, including college students from Texas Tech University. The medium can be particularly helpful for clients of any age who are struggling to find the words to articulate how they are feeling, she says.

What brings many of Galica’s college-age clients to counseling are academic struggles. By creating scenes in a sand tray, the students are often able to work through nonacademic issues that are troubling them and spilling over into their behavior and schoolwork.

Sand tray work “is good for those who just aren’t good at [verbal] communication or for those whose brains work faster than their mouths,” Galica says. “The sand tray makes them slow down. You really have to think about what you’re doing. You have to think about the representation and object placement. It’s also good for those who get nervous or people who just don’t like getting grilled with questions [from a counselor.] It gives them time to explore what they want to say, and they don’t have to have answers right away.”

As is the case with child-centered play therapy, sand tray work is nondirective. The client chooses what gets made in the sand tray and the meaning attached to it. Counselors should be careful to prompt clients to describe and talk about the scenes they have made in the sand tray without interjecting their own observations, Galica emphasizes.

“If you don’t ‘get it’ at first, if you don’t see a meaning, it’s OK. It’s the client’s space to do what they need to do,” she says. “Anything you can think of that happens in life can be represented in a sand tray, [but] don’t make any assumptions. Ask the client what things represent. You may see something and assume, ‘Oh, this is XYZ,’ but it may be the opposite.”

As part of the meaning-making process, Galica takes photos of each scene after clients finish their sand trays. Later, they look at the photos together, talk about the progress the client has made and discuss how the person’s sand tray scenes have evolved. This is also a good way to track and prompt discussions of representations that come up repeatedly with clients, Galica says.

Clients often have to take some time to think it through before they can explain the scenes they have created in their sand trays. Many times, Galica says, issues and challenges that have been troubling clients don’t become clear to them until they see the issues played out in a sand tray. For example, a client who is feeling overwhelmed with school or home life might put figures all in a jumble on top of one another. Or a client may use one object to represent themselves and place another object or objects at a distance or facing away from them. In this case, the client may be struggling with loss, attachment issues or fear of letting loved ones down. Ultimately, however, it is up to the client — not the counselor — to discover and talk through the issue that has taken shape in the sand tray. At the same time, the counselor provides the prompting and support to help and encourage the client, Galica says.

“It can be tempting to ask, ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘What does that mean?’ But don’t stop them. Let it play out. Wait to the end and then say, ‘Talk to me about this. Describe it for me,’” Galica suggests. “Often, it will be something you [the counselor] never would have thought of. I learn something new every day.”

Galica recalls a particular client whose parents wanted him to become an engineer and were paying his way through college. He hated his engineering courses, however, and harbored a desire to become a jazz musician. This had manifested into academic and other struggles while he was away from home. When the client made sand tray scenes, he often placed a female figure at a distance from the figure he used to represent himself. After multiple sand trays and discussions, it became clear that the client was terrified to tell his mother he didn’t want to be an engineer.

Galica began to focus on that fear with the client, asking him to express his feelings in a draft letter to his parents. She also had him speak to an empty chair as if his mother were there, which is a technique often used in Gestalt therapy. It took the student the entire semester before he felt prepared to tell his parents about his own dreams for his future.

As clients play out situations in sand trays, Galica asks them to show her what they would want life to look like if they had a magic wand to fix everything they were struggling with. What would a resolution look like? What would it look like in five, 10 or 20 years? From there, Galica and her clients talk through the issues and consider options for arriving at realistic resolutions.

Galica says sand trays can easily be used in conjunction with any modality to which a counselor is loyal. She regularly uses them along with cognitive behavior therapy for her college-age clients. Another benefit, she notes, is that the materials are readily available and easily transportable. Practitioners can pick up a plastic tray, sand and small figurines at any big box or craft supply store.

Sand tray work is a method that many counselors might not consider for adult clients “because we’re culturally conditioned [to think] that we don’t play after a certain age,” Galica says. However, sand tray work is very accessible (for both counselor and client), creative and versatile, she asserts.

“Broadly, it’s a way for clients to communicate without having to use words, because they may not have the words,” Galica says. For the client, it means, “I don’t have to stare you in the eyes and tell you all my secrets; the sand tray will tell you. … The beautiful thing about this is that as a counselor, there is no [need to assign] meaning. The only meaning comes from the client.”

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Additional resources

Books published by ACA (Available at counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

From Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA divisions

  • The Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling: acachild.org

Search for podcasts, online courses and other ACA resources at aca.digitellinc.com/aca/

 

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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 editorct@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.

Conquering the fear of flying

By Bethany Bray August 15, 2018

National Football League (NFL) commentator John Madden famously crisscrossed the United States for years in a custom coach bus so that he could make it to games and other commitments without having to board a plane. The former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and Pro Football Hall of Famer’s aversion to flying also led him to decline the opportunity to call the NFL’s annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

Madden is hardly alone in his avoidance of air travel. Research indicates that up to 40 percent of the general population experiences flight-related anxiety.

One of the things that makes aviophobia, or fear of flying, so common is that the average person just doesn’t do it that often, says Stephnie Thomas, an American Counseling Association member and licensed clinical professional counselor at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland.

Assuring clients that a fear of flying is relatively common can lessen the sense of shame or embarrassment that they might feel about it, Thomas says. This plays an important first step in addressing the issue with a counselor.

“Sometimes the counselor may be the first person the client has ever revealed this ‘big secret’ to,” she says. That is especially true with male clients, she adds. “For some [clients], it’s been so long since they have flown that the plane has grown into a monster in their mind — more enclosed, larger and scarier than it actually is.”

For most people, Thomas says, the fear of flying is rooted in loss of control — of their surroundings, of navigation, of travel schedules and of their own bodies (some people experience panic-related symptoms such as heavy breathing, sweating or vomiting).

Thomas works with clients to find ways to tolerate the distress and anxiety they feel regarding air travel rather than trying to avoid or make those feelings disappear altogether. She explains that if they work through their anxiety, it will lessen naturally over time.

“The goal is not a reduction of their anxiety. The goal is to learn tolerance, which is really hard. I always tell clients that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” says Thomas, who has a private counseling practice in Westminster, Maryland.

In Thomas’ experience, fear of flying is rarely a stand-alone issue. Careful assessment is essential with these clients, she stresses, because their phobia can be tied to other issues that need therapeutic attention, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks or posttraumatic stress disorder. It can also dovetail with other anxieties, such as a fear of enclosed spaces or germs — for example, obsessing over disinfecting their armrests and tray tables on the airplane.

“The clients who only have a fear of dying in a plane crash are few and far between, even though this is a common reason many give for avoiding flying,” Thomas says.

In her work at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Thomas flies with aviophobia clients as part of their therapy program. Boarding a plane, however, is a final step in a thorough process that begins with traditional talk therapy. She uses cognitive behavior therapy from an acceptance and commitment therapy perspective, in addition to exposure therapy and other techniques.

Lessening the anxiety symptoms that clients experience when flying is a byproduct of therapy, not a goal, Thomas emphasizes. She works with clients to accept the feelings that come with flying and to deflect catastrophic thoughts. It can also be helpful for clients to focus on their reasons for boarding an airplane.

“I ask, ‘Why is it important for you to do this? Let’s hold on to that value,’” says Thomas, a fellow of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “In order to get through to that outcome, we’ve got to go through this swamp of anxiety. We’re going toward that anxiety rather than running away from it.”

Some of Thomas’ clients want to overcome their aviophobia because they are required to fly for work and their career depends on it. For others, an airplane flight stands between them and a vacation that they’ve wanted to take for a long time, a family visit, a wedding or another important event. Thomas had one client whose dream was to go to Europe to visit the country of his ancestry. Eventually, he was able to make that flight and sent Thomas a postcard to commemorate the achievement.

A key aspect of overcoming aviophobia is breaking things into small pieces — both with the therapeutic preparation and with the coping mechanisms on the day of the flight, Thomas says. For instance, when clients are ready to fly, it can be helpful for them to focus only on the next bite-sized task: checking in, getting through security, finding their gate, etc. They aren’t allowed to worry about what happens in steps three or four while they’re still on step two, Thomas emphasizes.

To help her clients prepare, Thomas works with them to imagine, visualize and become accustomed to what getting on a plane involves. Videos on YouTube are one helpful tool. Thomas often watches footage taken midflight with clients so they can get used to the sights and sounds of an airplane. There is even a six-hour video on YouTube of an entire flight from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States, Thomas says. One of her clients would put the video on his television at home, playing it in the background to expose himself to the idea of flying.

Thomas also assigns homework that will expose her aviophobia clients to some of the uncomfortable sensations they might experience on a flight. For example, individuals who don’t like feeling the G-force of takeoff could be tasked with going to a local amusement park to get more accustomed to the sensation. She would have them start with a smaller, more tame ride and work up to the bigger roller coasters, Thomas says.

For those who are afraid of being away from home, she might suggest that they ride the subway system around Washington, D.C., or take a small day trip, such as a bus trip to New York City. Similarly, those who are afraid of heights or small spaces can expose themselves, little by little, to diffuse the fear while they are close to home, such as going to the top of a tall building or riding an elevator.

When client anxiety spikes in therapy sessions, the first instinct of many well-meaning counselors may be to try to help clients calm down or make their symptoms go away. “Unfortunately, this sends a message that anxiety is a bad thing to be avoided instead of a normal physiological reaction to perceived danger,” Thomas says. “Instead, I encourage counselors to welcome anxiety in the office and encourage the client to be willing to sit with it and make room for the anxiety. I tell clients that without moderate anxiety, we would be an extinct species, because it has been advantageous for the humans to be anxious and avoid saber-toothed tigers, bears, lions, etc. The problem is not that we have anxiety. The problem is that in this modern world, there is rarely an opportunity to be faced with real dangers, so for those of us who are blessed with a strong alert system, the system gives us a lot of false alarms.”

Thomas also works with clients to internalize the concept that although flying is a risk, it is an acceptable risk. Her clients often create notecards reminding them of this and bring the cards with them when they fly.

“Being anxious [on a flight] only means that your body is paying attention. Is this discomfort, or are you actually in danger?” Thomas asks. “I tell them, ‘When the wings fall off the plane, only then are you allowed to panic.’”

She often repeats a saying from psychologist David Carbonell, author of the Fear of Flying Workbook: Overcome Your Anticipatory Anxiety and Develop Skills for Flying With Confidence: “As an airline passenger, your only job is to be breathing baggage.” You simply have to stay in one place and be transported from point A to point B, she says.

“Since loss of control is the underlying fear for most clients, this is a tough idea,” Thomas adds.

After years of specializing in this area, Thomas has developed a relationship with representatives of Southwest Airlines at the nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Occasionally, she coordinates with the airline to bring groups of clients to the airport to sit in an unused airplane, talk with airline employees and try out a mock boarding process. She has also organized events at her office at which Southwest pilots or employees come to speak and answer questions.

Thomas doesn’t require her aviophobia clients to take a flight with her. But many find it helpful to have her accompany them as they take a first “practice” flight after seeking therapy.

Once a client is ready, they schedule a flight together that leaves and returns to the Baltimore airport in the same day. They choose destinations roughly a one-hour flight away that feature something fun and relaxing to do, such as the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

After completing that first flight with Thomas, she advises them to book or start planning their next flight right away — this time on their own or with loved ones. The desired treatment outcome, she says, is for clients to be able to fly regularly and to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that may come with that experience.

 

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Stephnie Thomas’ reminders for fearful flyers

1) Flying is an acceptable risk. Remember that the statistics are in your favor.

2) Move with the turbulence. Rate it on a 1-10 scale.

3) Notice when you’re anticipating the worst-case scenario.

4) Mindfully accept your initial anxious thoughts as just “white noise.”

5) Notice when you add a second fear.

6) Be willing to accept panic when it happens.

7) Practice allowing your physiological symptoms to get stronger.

8) Mindfully let yourself be in the plane (or wherever you are physically located).

9) Practice relaxation and mindfulness coping skills before you fly.

10) Remind yourself: “It took time to get this way; it will take time to recover.”

11) Tell yourself: “Each time I take a practice flight, I can learn that I can see it through by accepting the anxiety.”

12) Book your next flight before the practice flight is completed.

Source: stephthomas.com/fear%20of%20flying%20info.htm

 

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Contact Stephnie Thomas at stephniet@gmail.com or through her website, stephthomas.com.

 

Find out more

Stephnie Thomas suggests the following resources for practitioners looking to help clients with aviophobia:

 

Related reading from Counseling Today:

When panic attacks

Living with anxiety

 

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

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.

When panic attacks

By Bethany Bray July 30, 2018

Kellie Collins, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who runs a group private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon, experienced her first panic attack when she was 14. She remembers suddenly feeling cold, losing sensation in her hands and her heart beating so rapidly that it felt like it was going to leap out of her chest — all for no readily apparent reason.

“I thought I was dying. That’s what it felt like,” Collins says. “It was the worst experience of my life up to that point. It felt like it lasted forever, even though it was just a few minutes. Afterward, I was left with a feeling that I had no control.”

When Collins subsequently experienced more panic attacks, the situation was exacerbated by a close family member who didn’t understand what was happening. The family member suggested that Collins might be having the panic attacks on purpose, to get attention.

Collins’ life changed for the better in high school, when she began seeing a counselor. She learned not only that her panic attacks were manageable but also that she wasn’t to blame for their occurrence.

“Hearing that I didn’t cause this and that it wasn’t my fault set me on the path to get better. It made all the difference,” says Collins, a member of the American Counseling Association. “The biggest thing [counselors can do] is to validate the client’s experience. What they experience is real and not under their control in that moment — and it’s terrifying.”

‘Fear of the fear’

In addition to overwhelming feelings of fear, panic attacks are usually marked by shortness of breath or trouble breathing and a rapid heartbeat. Other physical symptoms can include sweating (without physical exertion), a tingling sensation throughout the body, feeling like your throat is closing up or feeling that you’re about to pass out, explains Zachary Taylor, an LPC and behavioral health director at a health center in Lexington, Virginia. Symptoms vary, however. “I’ve never had two patients describe it the same way,” he says. (Taylor refers to patients instead of clients because he works at a medical health center.)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 4.7 percent of adults in the United States experience panic disorder at some point in their lives. The past-year prevalence was higher among females (3.8 percent) than among males (1.6 percent).

Panic disorder is marked by recurring, unexpected panic attacks (or, as NIMH describes, “episodes of intense fear” that are “not in conjunction with a known fear or stressor”). People who experience panic disorder typically worry about having subsequent attacks, even to the point of changing behavior to avoid situations that might cause an episode.

“It’s such a jarring and uncomfortable experience, and it feels so much like a real medical emergency, that they begin to fear the sensations themselves. This fear of the fear is what drives panic disorder,” explains Taylor, a member of ACA. “If it gets too bad, they begin to arrange their life around trying not to experience anything that might resemble or trigger any of those feelings that are associated with a panic attack, and it becomes a vicious cycle.”

At the same time, panic attacks can occur in people who do not have a panic disorder diagnosis. Although panic attacks are often coupled with stress, trauma or anxiety-related issues, they can also occur in clients without complicating factors, says Collins, who notes that she has seen clients who experienced their first panic attack in their 50s or 60s.

“They can happen even when life is going well and have no apparent reason. … Some people have them for a period of time in life and then never have them again, while others will have them throughout life,” she says. In addition, significant life changes, such as getting married, starting retirement or having a child, can trigger recurrences in clients who previously were able to manage their panic attacks, Collins adds.

Among clients with mental illness, panic attacks can co-occur with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobias (particularly emetophobia, or fear of vomiting) and other diagnoses. Taylor says they can also be associated with a medical or physical issue.

“One of the most overlooked problems that can lead to developing panic is chronic sleep deprivation or insomnia,” he says, explaining that a lack of sleep can overexaggerate the fearful thoughts related to panic. When treating panic attacks, counselors should ask clients about their sleep habits within the first few sessions, Taylor advises. Counselors can also remember the acronym CATS and ask clients about their consumption of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugar — all of which can worsen the feelings associated with panic attacks, he adds.

Learning coping skills and identifying triggers

Clients who come to counseling after experiencing a panic attack may start therapy without understanding the complexity of panic attacks or harbor feelings of shame or embarrassment about succumbing to panic seemingly out of the blue, Collins says.

It is sometimes helpful to explain to clients that during a panic attack, their body is launching into the fight-or-flight mode that is part of their biological wiring, Collins says. However, in this case, there is no tiger chasing them.

“I like to say that [a panic attack] is tripping the sensor, like when a leaf falls on your car and the alarm goes off. It trips the sensor, but your car doesn’t know” that there isn’t any actual danger, she explains. Collins says it also can be helpful to assure clients that “it will never be as bad as those first few times when you didn’t know what was happening to you.”

To identify triggers, Collins suggests walking clients through the months, days and hours that led up to their first panic attack — but only when the individual is ready to relive the experience, she adds. Some triggers can be easily identifiable, such as a spike in work-related stress or the loss of a loved one. Other triggers may be less obvious, meaning more work will need to be done to unpack the experience later in therapy.

“I like to make sure clients have really solid coping skills before they work on the underlying stuff that might be contributing” to their panic attacks, such as trauma, Collins says. “Spend the first few sessions identifying what’s been going on. Once they’re confident and capable of managing and getting through an attack, then ask about what might be contributing” to the attacks occurring.

Outside of session, counselors can encourage clients to devote time to journaling, relaxation, deep breathing and counting exercises that can boost self-reflection and change negative thought processes, Collins suggests.

Counselors can also equip clients with coping mechanisms such as mindfulness to help them remain calm and feel more in control in the event of a panic attack. Collins often gives her clients a small stone to carry with them and hold in their hand when a panic attack strikes. She tells them to focus on the stone and describe it to themselves — is it rough, smooth, cold, heavy? This can help divert their attention from the panicky sensations, she explains. The same technique can be followed using car keys, a coffee mug or whatever else clients can hold in their hands that wouldn’t readily draw undue attention from others, she adds.

Clients can also develop mantras to remind themselves in the moment that even though a panic attack feels all-consuming, it is a finite experience. Among the phrases Collins suggests as being helpful:

  • “I’ve gotten through this before.”
  • “This is only temporary.”
  • “Even though this feels like it’s going to last forever, it will end; it always does.”

Collins acknowledges, however, that “once it gets to a certain point, these things don’t work. You have to accept it for what it is when you’re in the middle of an attack. You have to ride the wave, accepting that it will be temporary and it will go away.”

“Sometimes, even getting angry at the panic attack can help,” she adds. “When [people] allow themselves to accept that anger, it takes away some of the power of the attack itself. Admit that it stinks but it’s something you can get through.”

Uncomfortable but not dangerous

Thinking that a panic attack can be halted or avoided by using breathing or relaxation techniques is a misconception, according to Taylor. Those methods are often the first choice of well-meaning practitioners, but Taylor argues that “it sends a subtle message to the patient that what you’re experiencing is dangerous and we need to do something to prevent it.”

“The first thing you need to do is teach [clients] that what [they are] experiencing is uncomfortable but not dangerous,” he says. “It’s your avoidance of the uncomfortable feelings, and trying to stop it, that has unintentionally made it worse. When it comes to symptoms of panic, trying to suppress or avoid those symptoms is the exact opposite of what you want to do.”

Diaphragmatic breathing and other relaxation techniques can be helpful to manage anxiety, Taylor clarifies, but they won’t stop the symptoms of a panic attack altogether. “The only way to truly stop it is to become accustomed to the feelings” and to understand that a panic attack is not dangerous, he adds.

Taylor finds the DARE method developed by author Barry McDonagh particularly helpful. The technique focuses on overcoming panic with confidence rather than employing futile attempts to calm down, Taylor says. The four tenets of DARE are:

  • Diffuse: Using cognitive diffusion, counselors can teach clients to deflect and disarm the fearful thoughts that accompany panic attacks. The thoughts that flood people’s minds during these episodes are just that — thoughts — and are not dangerous, Taylor explains. “Teach them to say ‘so what?’ to their thoughts: ‘What if I embarrass myself or pass out or throw up? So what?’ Take the edge off that thought by not only demoting it but separating ourselves from the thought: ‘It’s not me. I didn’t put it there.’ Teach patients to say to themselves, over and over, ‘This sensation is uncomfortable but not dangerous.’ Think of it like a hiccup. It’s uncomfortable but not dangerous. There’s nothing medically wrong. The more you focus on it, the more uncomfortable it gets.”
  • Allow for psychological flexibility: It is more important that individuals allow and become comfortable with their negative associations than it is to try to get rid of them, Taylor says.
  • Run toward the symptoms: Moving toward feelings of discomfort is antithetical to human instinct, but in the case of panic attacks, it can actually be an effective tactic. Taylor teaches people who deal with panic attacks to tell their bodies to “bring it on. Ask your heart: ‘Give me more. Let’s see how fast you can beat.’ One of the fastest ways to stop a panic attack, ironically, is to ask for more and try and make it worse. It’s the resistance to the sensations that makes it stick around.”
  • Engage: Teach clients to engage in the moment once the panic attack has peaked and is starting to wind down. This is when grounding and mindful exercises can be helpful, Taylor says. “What’s important is to focus on right here and right now. That will help you continue to move forward and get unstuck,” he adds.

An attachment approach

All of the counselors interviewed for this article noted that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an effective, tried-and-true method to support clients who experience panic attacks by helping them refocus the fearful and overexaggerated thoughts that accompany the experience.

Linda Thompson, an LPC and licensed marriage and family therapist in Florida, finds that using CBT through the lens of attachment theory can be particularly helpful in addressing panic attacks. That holds especially true for clients who struggle with feelings of abandonment or rejection or have experienced attachment trauma, including the loss of a loved one or caretaker. Counselors can identify clients who might benefit from attachment work by asking questions at intake regarding past relationships and loss, Thompson says.

“If they are the kind of person who is very relationship-oriented and attachment is very important to them or there is trauma there, that has to be brought into the conversation,” says Thompson, an associate professor at Argosy University with a private practice in the Tampa area.

Thompson suggests that counselors invite someone to whom the client is attached, such as a partner or a spouse, into the therapy sessions (with the client’s consent). The practitioner can prompt discussion that helps the client share some of the inherent fears that he or she is harboring. Often, Thompson says, the partner’s response to this sharing is “I had no idea you felt that way. How can I help?”

From there, counselors can introduce techniques that the client and the client’s attachment figure can use together when the client is feeling anxious, Thompson says. Eye contact, hand holding and other physical connections can be particularly helpful. “It’s making it about connecting,” she explains.

Once they understand that their loved one’s worry and panic are spurred by issues related to relationships or a fear of isolation, friends and family members can be better prepared to respond differently when the person begins to struggle. If the client is willing, counselors can play a role in training the individual’s support system to help with attachment-oriented responses. For example, if a client wakes up in the middle of the night feeling panicked, a spouse or partner could respond by rubbing the person’s back or whispering affirmations such as “You’re not alone,” “I’m here” or “We’re going to get through this together,” Thompson says.

Attachment-oriented clients may also benefit from learning to do breathing techniques with someone to whom they are attached, Thompson adds. For example, a client may start to feel the symptoms of a panic attack while driving. Relying on techniques learned in session, the client would pull the car over and focus on their child in the backseat — holding the child’s hand, making eye contact and breathing together. The physical touch will boost oxytocin, a hormone connected to social bonding and maternal behavior, Thompson explains.

Thompson also suggests that these clients try yoga to help with relaxation and self-control. She says the practice is more beneficial if it involves a social aspect, so she recommends that clients practice yoga in a class with other people instead of alone at home.

Similarly, Thompson suggests helping attachment-oriented clients build a “tribe” or circle of support beyond the counselor. This is especially important for those who have lost a spouse or partner and those who are more susceptible to isolating themselves. Counselors can guide clients in finding connections that are personally meaningful to them, whether that is through participation in spiritual or religious activities, volunteer work or other community groups such as a book club. Focusing on relationships rather than the physical symptoms of a potential panic attack can help these clients feel less vulnerable, says Thompson, a past president of both the Pennsylvania Counseling Association and the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, a division of ACA.

Thompson recalls one client who struggled so acutely with panic attacks and a fear of losing her loved ones that it kept her from leaving the house for two years. CBT alone wasn’t helping, so Thompson added attachment techniques to their therapy work together.

After a substantial amount of in-session exploration, Thompson discovered that the client’s panic attacks were tied to family-of-origin issues. The physical feelings the client experienced during her panic attacks were in the same part of the body where one of her parents had experienced a significant health problem.

In addition to conducting one-on-one therapy, Thompson included the client’s husband in sessions. They worked together on attachment-focused techniques, and, eventually, the couple was able to go outside of the home for the first time in a long while to celebrate their anniversary.

To prepare, they created notecards with attachment-focused feelings and reminders, such as what their first date felt like. They referred to the notecards throughout the evening and connected consistently via holding hands and making eye contact.

After the date, the client reported to Thompson that instead of thinking of where the exits were in the restaurant, as she would have done previously, she remained focused on the man — her husband — in front of her.

Thompson urges counselors to remain open to adding attachment theory or other complementary methods on top of go-to techniques such as CBT to reach clients who are experiencing panic attacks. “Expand your toolbox,” she says. “A person’s fear, the fear that is triggering panic, can have multiple origins. Help the client to find the source of their fear, and work on that. … Broaden your perspective to recognize that human beings have to be attached with people, no matter what the disorder. Ask, ‘How do I make sure the social needs of my client are being met?’”

Controlled exposure

Taylor knows firsthand how terrifying a panic attack can feel. He began experiencing anxiety in his teens and early 20s that intensified to the point of daily panic attacks.

When things were at their worst, he would often go to the emergency room of his local hospital. He wouldn’t register as a patient but would simply sit in the waiting room, knowing that those uncomfortable, uncontrollable feelings would eventually overtake him again. “Sometimes [I would go] because I was having a panic attack, or other times it was just because I felt I might have a panic attack,” Taylor recalls.

Eventually, Taylor did check himself into the hospital, and a doctor explained that he was going to be OK. That was the life-changing encounter that put him on the path to getting help; he credits medication and therapy for helping him overcome his panic attacks. The experience also inspired him to become a counselor.

This personal history plays into his work with clients. As a specialist in treating chronic anxiety and panic, he often emphasizes to clients that feelings of fear and excitement share the same neurological pathways. “It’s just our perception that makes them different. … You have to be able to ride the waves of panic without resisting it,” he says.

In addition to teaching clients to tolerate and deflect the invasive thoughts and physical symptoms that accompany panic attacks, Taylor finds exposure therapy to be a powerful treatment for panic. In fact, Taylor believes that exposure, or intentionally bringing on a panic attack in a controlled setting (such as the counselor’s office), must necessarily play a large role in overcoming the episodes.

“Patients are not moved by information; they’re moved by what they believe is possible, and they’re moved by new experiences. Just giving them the information [that panic attacks are survivable] is about as good as baptizing a cat,” he says. “If you give them the experience of exposure work in your office, they walk out a changed person. The focus should not be on staying calm but [on knowing] that no matter how hard their heart beats or [how much] they feel a sense of doom, they’re actually safe. It’s just a brain hiccup.”

Inducing a panic attack in the safety of a counselor’s office can prove to clients that what they might experience is uncomfortable but far from fatal, Taylor says. “When a counselor is doing exposure therapy with a patient and inducing panic-like symptoms in the office with them, we as counselors need first to be confident that a panic attack truly is not dangerous to the patient,” he explains. “If they start to panic and then we get scared and try to calm them down, the exposure will fail. We have to be able to stay with it, let the panic attack fully develop and subside on its own, so the patient learns that their fear of having a heart attack, passing out or losing control won’t happen. And unless we can really allow them to go all the way through a panic attack and come out the other side, the exposure just won’t work. They will continue to believe that a panic attack is dangerous and continue to try to suppress and avoid them.”

A good amount of therapeutic work may be required before clients are ready for exposure techniques, Taylor says. Once they are, counselors should begin the experience by asking clients to verbalize the worst thing they can imagine happening to them as the result of a panic attack, he says. Fears that clients typically voice include passing out, vomiting or even having a heart attack.

Taylor says the counselor’s response could be, “OK, are you ready to test that out” in the safety of the counselor’s office?

To induce the elevated heart rate and rapid breathing that accompany panic attacks, the counselor might suggest that the client do jumping jacks, run up and down the stairs or breathe through a straw for an extended period of time. As the panic symptoms swell and peak, the counselor will remain close by to remind the client of the cognitive diffusion and other techniques previously mentioned by Taylor.

Afterward, the counselor can talk about how the things the client feared happening as the result of a panic attack did not actually come to pass. The moment clients realize that they can endure panic attacks without their worst fears materializing is the moment they can begin to overcome the attacks, Taylor says.

Conquering avoidance

Individuals who have experienced panic attacks will sometimes start avoiding situations or places where a prior attack occurred. Often, this includes public places such as shopping malls. If this inclination is left unchecked, it can spiral into the person missing work and social engagements or engaging in other isolating behaviors, Collins says. On top of that, avoidance will serve only to make things worse, she notes.

“That fear of having another panic attack can be crippling,” she says. “One of the fears a lot of people have is having an attack in front of people or being in a place where they can’t escape, such as an airplane or a meeting at work.”

When Collins broaches this subject with clients, she frames it as taking their power back and not letting panic attacks control their lives. “We talk about starting small and [taking] baby steps, especially if they’ve been terrified of a place for a while,” she says.

Counselors can begin by having clients visualize in session the place they have been avoiding. Ask them to describe it and talk about how their body feels as they think about that location, Collins suggests. This process may need to be repeated several times before clients feel comfortable and confident enough to make a plan to actually go to the places they have been avoiding, she adds.

When they do go, make sure the client takes a friend or other trusted person with them for support. Clients should also be directed to stick to the plan they have created and talked through in their counseling sessions, Collins says.

For example, if a client has been avoiding going to a shopping mall out of fear of having a panic attack, a first step in the client’s plan might be simply driving to the mall, parking the car and sitting inside it for five minutes before leaving. The client might even need to repeat that step of the process multiple times, Collins says.

After that, the client can move on to walking through the doors of the mall and then leaving immediately. On the next visit, the client might enter the mall and go into a store, and so on. The idea is to continue going until the client no longer associates that place with feelings of fear.

Often, after repeated visits, “people will say, ‘OK, I don’t need baby steps. I want to go now,’” Collins says.

Above all, compassion

Counselors can provide a holistic approach to addressing panic attacks that clients might not have experienced previously with medical professionals or other mental health practitioners. Most of all, Collins says, counselors should offer empathy to clients who are confronting such a distressing, overwhelming and, often, seemingly unexplainable experience.

“That validation is the most powerful thing I’ve seen that helps people,” she says. “Clients get better with the relationship, the validation, the compassion. Compassion: That’s the No. 1 thing to remember.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

 

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Learn more:

ACA Practice Brief on panic disorder: counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs

 

Zachary Taylor recommends these resources for counselors who want to learn more about the treatment of panic attacks:

  • DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks by Barry McDonagh
  • Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: Seven Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons
  • Interview, “Maximizing Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders” with Michelle Craske, professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles: sscpweb.org/craske
  • Article, “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement” by Allison Brooks, assistant professor, Harvard Business School: apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-a0035325.pdf
  • Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 Breathing Method: drweil.com/videos-features/videos/the-4-7-8-breath-health-benefits-demonstration/

Linda Thompson recommends these resources for counselors wanting to learn more about attachment-focused responses:

 

 

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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 editorct@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.

Five pragmatic tools to become a nonanxious presence: Tips and tricks for being a mindful counselor

By John Wheeler June 26, 2018

One of the most uplifting and powerful things counselors can do for their clients is to become a “nonanxious presence.” The term, originally coined by Jewish Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman, is used to describe an individual who provides a calm, cool, focused and collected environment that empowers others to be relaxed.

This can be especially helpful for clients who have varying levels of anxiety, are in crisis or share information that could be traumatizing. By being a nonanxious presence, the counselor can model emotional regulation and invite clients to see that there is more than the anxiety or other feelings they may be experiencing.

As a counselor-in-training and certified empowerment coach, here are the five pragmatic tools that I use in my own practice.

 

1) Don’t buy in to the story; it only makes your client a victim. Everyone has a story about life. They use this story to determine who they are, where they are from, who they hope to become and all the difficulties they have overcome. As counselors, we must acknowledge the stories our clients share and the significance they assign to these stories. However, we must further consider how clients may use these stories to limit themselves and give up control in their life. If, as counselors, we allow ourselves to be swept into the story, we do a disservice to our clients and allow them to serve in the role of victim.

How does that apply to being a nonanxious presence? By not buying into the story and the role your clients have assigned themselves, you invite them to see the story from a different perspective. When you resist the urge to emotionally join their story, you are able to see all the ways in which their story is playing out in their daily lives. You, as counselor, are then free to identify patterns of behavior and gain insight into clients’ lives, thus empowering them to create something greater than they currently have.

2) Be you and trust your training. As a counselor-in-training myself, it seems the hardest thing to remember is to be yourself and to trust your training. Many times, we can be swept up in what we must “do” as counselors and fail to connect with the client. If we get caught up in the information we must gather, the treatment goals we are measuring and the skills or techniques we plan to implement, we may miss the opportunity to make a true connection, which so many people are missing in their lives.

The most influential measure of success in counseling is the client-counselor relationship. Have you ever noticed that some of your best sessions take place when you are willing to simply be present with your clients and let go of using a specific technique? How different might your practice be if you were willing to just be you, had faith that you possess the training you need and allowed yourself to meet the client in the here and now? Truly being present with yourself also invites your clients to be with themselves and to lower their barriers. In the process, you become the nonanxious presence that allows for greater change in clients’ lives.

3) Empower your clients to know that nothing is personal. Take a moment and consider a time when you experienced difficulty in a relationship, either romantically or otherwise. How differently might you have reacted to the event if you had known it wasn’t personal? This is another tool I use as a nonanxious presence with my clients. I empower them to know that nothing they have experienced or believe was done to them is personal.

This approach can be particularly helpful when dealing with abuse, trauma or relationship problems that arise in session. Clients can sometimes use their abuse or trauma as a coping skill to ensure that no one is able to get that close to them again. It is a means for them to know they have control and will not allow more abuse in the future. Reframing your clients’ perspective to “it wasn’t personal” invites them to see where they were a convenient target for the other person to release what they were experiencing. When individuals choose to abuse someone, they seldom consider who the other person is; quite frankly, they are just looking to relieve whatever level of stress, anxiety or other feeling they are experiencing.

When using this tool with your clients, it is important to have a strong rapport and relationship with them because challenging someone’s view on abuse can be difficult for the person to accept. If you are able to empower your clients to see that nothing is personal, however, it opens the door for them to separate themselves from the abuse or trauma and to begin the healing process.

4) Practice having an interesting point of view about everything. The greatest tool I have learned from my training with Access Consciousness is to practice having an interesting point of view about everything. An interesting point of view is the place where you can hear, see or become aware of anything without judgment.

As counselors, we receive training in cultural competency and learn the importance of maintaining an environment of nonjudgment with our clients. This is exactly what invites our clients to trust, share and be present with us in session.

How many times have you been judged? How did that make you feel or react? Now imagine if you were sharing the most intimate parts of your life and became aware that someone had a point of view about you? I am not saying that counselors should not be observant and make notice of things taking place in session, but we must be willing to put our points of view aside and be with our clients.

Another way to use this tool is to teach our clients that they can also have an interesting point of view in any area of their own life. This can help them detach from the high level of emotions that prevent them from going beyond the problem. What might this approach add to your daily life inside and outside of your counseling practice?

5) Ask questions, never give answers. As counselors, we can fall into the habit of dispensing advice. As someone who studied for a few years as a life coach, one of the greatest tools I used was to always ask questions and never to give answers. As a nonanxious presence, you can empower your clients by asking questions that allow them to see what is true in their lives.

Depending on your clients’ level of cognition, the use of this tool can lead to greater levels of healing and insight into their choices in life. It also helps to eliminate the possibility of setting up the counselor as the “power” in the relationship and prevents clients from developing a high level of dependency. As counselors, we must allow our clients to see their difficulties from a different light and empower them to trust in themselves.

Questions always empower clients, whereas providing “answers” disempowers clients. Acknowledge that your clients are the experts in their own lives; we, as counselors, are simply a resource they can use to gain new information.

 

Many of us who choose this profession believe we are called to serve others or have the ability to make a difference in the world. If you truly embrace your role as a nonanxious presence in the lives of your clients and the power this can have to create change, I firmly believe that you will have a rewarding career. What if you were willing to not simply diagnose and treat your clients but to empower them to live their best lives? What if you were willing to acknowledge the gift that you are and the ability you have to invite something greater to exist on the planet? We often hear that “human beings are messy.” What if you being you, as a nonanxious presence, is exactly what is required to begin untangling the mess?

 

 

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John Wheeler is a graduate student at the University of Dayton and a counselor-in-training at Riverscape Counseling in Dayton, Ohio. His focus in therapy is helping to address people’s unique needs while also assisting in facilitating a healthy, self-sustaining outlook on life. He encourages clients to take a proactive approach in fostering a lifestyle that promotes mental, emotional and physical well-being. Contact him at wheelerj7@udayton.edu.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “When help isn’t helpful: Overfunctioning for clients

 

 

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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.