Tag Archives: cognitive behavioral therapy

When bias turns into bullying

By Lindsey Phillips June 29, 2018

We all have our biases — but just because bias is a universal part of the human experience doesn’t mean it is something we should ever dismiss offhandedly, either in ourselves or others. That’s because bias has serious consequences, and when left unchecked, it can turn into bullying. A 2012 study of California middle and high school students published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 75 percent of all bullying originated from some type of bias against a person’s race, sexual orientation, religion, disability or other personal characteristic.

People often talk about bullying in general terms. But as Annaleise Singh, a professor of counseling and associate dean for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Georgia, points out, “If you look more closely at ‘general bullying,’ what you’ll see is a lot of bias-based bullying.”

SeriaShia Chatters-Smith, an assistant professor of counselor education and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling in schools and communities program at the Pennsylvania State University, defines bias-based bullying as bullying that is specifically based on an individual’s identifying characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or weight. For example, adolescents might create Snapchat stories that attack someone on the basis of their race, weight or sexual orientation, and parents or teachers might treat children differently on the basis of their skin color, notes Chatters-Smith, an ACA member who presented on “Bullying Among Diverse Populations” at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Research indicates that individuals of color, particularly black and Hispanic men, are more likely to be identified as being aggressive, she adds.

In her research on transgender people, Singh, who co-founded the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and founded the Trans Resilience Project, has found that bias-based bullying can be based on appearance, gender expression or gender identity, and it can range from name-calling to physical and sexual harassment and assault.

A four-letter word

When people start talking about someone having a bias, those four letters typically trigger a negative reaction and shut down conversation, which isn’t productive. Thus, Chatters-Smith argues that helping people understand that everyone has biases is crucial to addressing bias-based bullying.

However, this task can be difficult because people often resist closely exploring their own prejudices. Counselors should help clients realize that just because everyone has biases doesn’t mean they are excused from recognizing and addressing their own, Chatters-Smith argues.

Because bias is often an emotionally charged topic, Chatters-Smith finds it helpful to start with a nonthreatening example. After pointing out bias, she asks clients when they first identified something as their favorite color. Most people can’t remember when this color preference started because they were young, Chatters-Smith says. She explains how after someone establishes a color preference, the brain starts to sort things by that color.

“When you see something that is your favorite color, you are more likely to gravitate toward it. You have more positive feelings toward cars that are your favorite color. … And sometimes a car may not be the best-looking car, but because it’s our favorite color, we gravitate toward it. That is bias,” Chatters-Smith explains.

Bias is a kind of sorting process that our brain goes through, she continues. “The experiences that we have with individuals can then cause us to have specific attitudes toward someone, and when we see them, we prejudge that they are going to act or be a certain way because of those experiences. … We do an automatic sort.”

Counselors are not immune to bias either. For example, a counselor might assume that a black male client who is unemployed did something to cause his unemployment, Chatters-Smith says. If this happens, the counselor needs to take a step back and ask why he or she is entertaining that assumption, she continues.

These internalized biases can also have a direct effect on students. For example, Singh says, LGBTQ students will not feel safe reporting bias-based bullying by their peers when they hear educators or school counselors expressing anti-queer or anti-trans views. Educators can also hold bias against students in special education, which may limit the opportunities those students have to learn, she adds.

Singh, an American Counseling Association member and licensed professional clinical counselor in Georgia, finds cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helpful because challenging irrational thoughts is at the heart of addressing bias-based bullying. Thus, counselors need to ask clients and themselves some CBT-related questions: Where did you learn this thought? What research supports this idea?

Counselors “have to become strong advocates in order to interrupt those beliefs systems because the person enacting them — whether or not they’re conscious [of it] — isn’t going to stop until there’s an advocacy intervention,” Singh says.

After making clients (or educators) aware of bias, counselors can work with them to figure out times that they might have sorted a person into a category before getting to know that person and then brainstorm ways to manage that differently in the future.

Counselors can also benefit from bias-based bullying training. In working with Stand for State, a bystander intervention program at Penn State, Chatters-Smith found that certain questions or situations related to bias would cause the counselors participating in the bias-based education to pause or stumble. “A person who is not educated to know [how to respond] can get really thrown off guard,” she says.

Chatters-Smith knows from experience. Once in a workshop, she mentioned how saying that all Jewish people are good with money is an example of a racially charged joke. One of the participants responded, “But all Jewish people are good with money.”

Chatters-Smith questioned this statement by asking, “Really? All Jewish people? Where does this stereotype come from? Is this a racially based stereotype that is meant in a negative way?”

“One of the most damaging things that can happen in [a] workshop is if a bias educator is perpetuating bias,” Chatters-Smith contends. This experience helped her realize that the trainers themselves needed training to be effective at bias and discrimination education. She is currently developing workshops and a workbook that will allow counselors to practice answering questions and go through specific scenarios related to bias-based bullying to help them gain confidence and knowledge in handling these challenging situations.

Uncovering bias

A counselor’s role is to interrupt the systems of bias-based bullying, Singh argues. This process starts with the intake assessment, which should clearly define what bias-based bullying is and provide examples, she continues.

Counselors need to ask upfront questions about bias and harassment in counseling to let clients know that these issues exist and that they affect mental health, Chatters-Smith says. The best way to know if it is happening is to ask, she adds.

Of course, when assessing clients, counselors can also be alert to signs that bias-based bullying may be occurring. Anxiety or fear of being bullied may cause younger children to wet their beds at certain times of the year (right before school starts, for example) or to avoid public bathrooms, Chatters-Smith notes. She advises school counselors to pay close attention to the dynamics between students in the cafeteria. “A child can be sitting at a table full of kids because they don’t want to sit alone, but no one is interacting with them. No one is talking to them. They’re purposely being excluded,” she says.

Singh and Chatters-Smith also urge counselors to watch for signs of depression or anxiety, client withdrawal, client complaints that are not tied to anything specific, chronic tardiness, or changes in client behavior such as nervousness, avoiding school or sessions, or missing certain classes.

Counselors should exercise the same level of vigilance with young adult and adult clients. Chatters-Smith finds that counselors often fail to factor in the isolation, feeling of being ostracized and lack of belonging that some minority college students experience at predominantly white institutions. Counselors “know all of [these factors] impact mental health from [the] K-12 research of bullying but seem to forget about it when people graduate from high school,” she argues.

In addition, counselors often “do not factor in the cultural pieces of experiencing bias-based bullying at work. It manifests itself differently,” Chatters-Smith says. For example, individuals may go on short-term or long-term disability, or bullying may result in harassment claims or absenteeism from work. In certain instances, clients may not be able to put a finger on the core issue causing them not to enjoy the workplace, or they find that for some unknown reason, they can’t please a co-worker or employer, she says.

Sometimes, clients don’t even recognize that bias-based bullying could be an issue until the counselor brings it up, Chatters-Smith adds. Thus, she advises counselors to ask questions such as “Have you experienced any prejudice or discrimination at work?” or “Do you have increased anxiety around yearly evaluations for work?”

“In any organization that has built-in hierarchies, bullying [is likely] to occur,” Chatters-Smith says. For example, in the military, transgender individuals still face discrimination, and often discrimination is based on race or socioeconomic status, such as enlisted individuals versus officers who require a college education and receive more money and leadership positions, she explains.

Avoiding assumptions

When people are introduced to the concept of bias-based bullying, they often assume that it involves someone from a dominant group bullying someone from an oppressed group. “When you think about bias-based bullying, typically people are going to gravitate toward majority [versus] minority … but at the same time, it can happen within group,” points out Cassandra Storlie, an assistant professor of counselor education and supervision at Kent State University. She cautions counselors not to overlook the possibility of intracultural bullying because it does happen. For example, a Latino child may bully another Latino child because that child doesn’t speak Spanish, or an individual may bully someone else of the same ethnicity because that person’s skin color is judged to be “too dark” or “too light.”

Just because someone is oppressed does not mean that they can’t be oppressing others, Chatters-Smith emphasizes. “For centuries … African Americans have bullied each other based on darker complexion versus lighter complexion, and the same thing happens in Latino and Hispanic groups as well,” she says. “What makes it identity based and bias based is because there are biases that come along with the perspectives of individuals who are of darker skin. Even though it’s within a specific racial category, the bias is still there, and then the individual still has the psychological impact because they’re being bullied just for who they are.”

In addition, although people of color have a higher likelihood of being bullied in predominantly white settings, bias-based bullying can still occur when they are in settings with higher diversity, Chatters-Smith notes. The bias may just take another form and be based on characteristics other than race, such as sexual orientation, she explains.

Within transgender communities, someone who is more binary identified and operates with certain gender stereotypes may discriminate against another transgender person for not looking enough like a woman or a man, says Singh, a past president of both the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling. Within-group bullying is particularly painful to the individuals who experience it because the group is supposed to be their source of support and belonging, she says. 

Singh also points out that bias-based bullying can be targeted at anyone based on how he or she is perceived. “If they’re perceived to step out of a gender or sexual orientation box, even if they don’t have that identity, they may experience [bias-based bullying].” In fact, Singh says, a substantial amount of anti-queer and anti-trans bullying is actually experienced by cisgender and straight people.

Creating a positive, safe environment

“Ethnic identities are strong protective factors,” says Storlie, president-elect of the North Central Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. She encourages counselors to find ways to celebrate cultures and differences. If counselors are practicing in a school district or community that isn’t taking preventative measures against bias-based bullying and being inclusive and advocating for all students, then they need to take initiative and educate those communities, Storlie says.

One approach that Storlie, an ACA member and a licensed professional counselor with supervisory designation in Ohio, suggests is to mention how diverse populations are increasing. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of white students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools decreased to less than 50 percent in 2014, while minority students (black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native and those of two or more races) made up at least 75 percent of the total enrollment in approximately 30 percent of these schools.

Storlie works with a school district that has Ohio’s second-highest number of students who speak English as a second language. Roughly 50 percent of the student body is Latino — up from approximately 2 percent only two decades ago.

When Storlie first walked into the school district, she couldn’t find any Spanish on the walls of the schools or in school materials, but since she started working with the educators and teachers, all of the school district’s documents are translated. “If you’re handing this information out to students … you’ve got to make sure it’s in the right language,” she argues.

Schools are in transition now because of increased diversity, Storlie notes. “It’s happening across the country where teachers don’t look like the kids that they’re teaching anymore, and they have stereotypes that can be pervasive,” she observes. Thus, counselors need to work with educators and communities to ensure that they are being inclusive.

Storlie advises counselors to facilitate events such as English classes for parents whose first language is not English to improve communication between teachers and parents, and workshops to educate parents, school personnel and the community on bias-based bullying. Counselors might also provide workshops for school personnel on multicultural competency, she says.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program is one helpful resource, Chatters-Smith says. The program provides training and resources such as recommended books, lesson plans and videos to school educators to help them create inclusive, supportive school environments and aid them in preventing bias-based bullying.

Building strong relationships

Storlie has found that teachers and school personnel who instill hope in their students — regardless of any identifying characteristic — have the best outcomes. These students often have higher levels of school engagement, demonstrate greater resilience and enjoy more academic success.

The therapeutic relationship can play a central role in instilling hope and achieving these positive outcomes, Storlie argues. For that reason, she adds, counselors shouldn’t become so focused on theories and techniques that they forget what it means to foster a good relationship with their clients. Among individuals who have been oppressed or marginalized, there is often an “us versus them” attitude, so the challenge for counselors is finding a way to reconnect and develop the relationship, Storlie says.

Trust is one key component of building a strong relationship with clients. However, Chatters-Smith has found that adults don’t always trust children’s reports of bias and discrimination. In her private practice, Chatters-Smith often works with children of color who report that no one believes them when they complain about bias-based bullying. Over time, this disbelief can result in their silence. Thus, she emphasizes, it is crucial that counselors believe children when they report having experienced bias-based bullying and discrimination.

In addition, Storlie stresses the importance of taking a team approach to bias-based bullying. “You can’t do it solo. … You really have to have the team approach because that’s how change happens,” she says. This is especially true for school counselors confronted with high student-to-counselor ratios, she adds.

When school counselors notice bias-based bullying in their schools, they should connect with other leaders in the school district and position themselves as a part of the leadership team, Storlie advises. Then, in this leadership position, counselors can educate school personnel on warning signs and interventions for bias-based bullying, thereby creating a team approach to intervening, she explains.

School counselors should also strive to work with families to address bias-based bullying. Because family members’ work schedules may not coincide with school system hours, counselors might have to get creative to find ways to reach families, Storlie continues. “School counselors who stay in their offices are not going to be able to reach families the same way that … [counselors] doing outreach with families would,” she adds.

In Storlie’s work with undocumented Latino youth, she found that the school counselors who were present, who made a point of getting out of their offices and who were visible to parents — for example, showing up at basketball games after school hours — enjoyed the most effective relationships with families and students. Their students were also more receptive to looking ahead and thinking about their future careers, she adds.

Bystander intervention

“What hurts [children] typically is not specifically the bullying itself. What hurts them is the other children around who stand and watch it happen,” Chatters-Smith asserts. The inaction and silence of bystanders causes people who are bullied to feel depressed and isolated, and it feeds into dysfunctional thinking that they are not good enough and no one cares about them, she adds.

In workshops, Chatters-Smith uses an active witnessing program to train people how to respond to discrimination and bias. Because bias-based bullying is often verbal, onlookers can state that they disagree with what is being said and question the validity of the biased comment, she elaborates. Bystanders can also support the person being bullied by telling them they are not alone or calling for help, she says.

Bystanders can also help people who commit the offense to self-reflect by asking them to repeat what they said and letting them know that it was hurtful, Chatters-Smith continues. If a bystander doesn’t feel safe to intervene at the time of the incident, they can later call a manager (if the bullying incident happened in an establishment or organization) or notify someone about what they witnessed, she advises.

Chatters-Smith has also used ABC’s What Would You Do? — a hidden-camera TV program that acts out scenes of conflict to see if bystanders intervene — in her workshops. She plays the scenarios from the show but not the bystanders’ reactions. Instead, she has workshop participants use the skills they have learned in the workshop to see how they would respond.

The more aware counselors become of bias, prejudice and discrimination in their day-to-day lives, the more it will affect them in their work with clients, Chatters-Smith says. “Practice is what helps us move forward as individuals,” she explains. “When you are at the store, when you are eating in a restaurant, when you are in the mall, when you see these things happening, if you feel [like you] know what to do, you’ll become more aware of what it is and you’ll feel more confident at not only being able to intervene and be empowered in your everyday life but also being able to talk to your clients about their experiences.”

Storlie and Singh both tout training student leaders as an effective approach to preventing bias-based bullying. Often, students — not counselors — are the ones who hear about or witness these instances of bullying. So, counselors can work with these student leader groups to teach them how to intervene, Storlie says.

Another way to create a team approach to bias-based bullying intervention is through the use of popular opinion leaders, Singh says. With this approach, school counselors and teachers nominate student leaders who represent different groups in the school (à la The Breakfast Club). With the counselor’s guidance, these students discuss bias-based bullying, what they’ve noticed and how they might be able to change it. Then, after learning bias-based bullying interventions, the popular opinion leaders try them out and report on which ones worked and which ones didn’t, Singh explains.

An ongoing issue 

Singh warns of the danger of minimalizing bias-based bullying — such as saying that people “don’t mean it” — because it sends a message that it is OK to have bias. Comments that dismiss bias-based bullying “can really add up over time in the form of microaggressions for transgender people,” she argues. “But, more importantly, [these comments create] a hostile environment in society, and that hostile environment in society can set transgender people up for experiencing violence.”

“When children grow up in an environment where they are taught implicit and explicit messages about whose identities matter and whose don’t, and then there’s power attached to that, then you’re going to see those negative health outcomes,” Singh argues. “And they’re not just negative health outcomes and disparities. They’re verbal, physical and sexual harassment that play out across people’s bodies and communities. Those microaggressions add up to macroaggressions on a larger scale.”

Apologizing isn’t the answer either. Often, people who bully, commit a microaggression or say something prejudiced will apologize by saying that they didn’t intend it that way, Chatters-Smith says. “It’s not intent that matters. It’s impact. … Whether or not you intended it, it doesn’t matter. It hurt the person.”

One possible solution is to start bias education at a young age so that over the life span, people are more aware of bias-based bullying and discrimination, Singh says. Counselors can challenge the internalized stereotypes that people learn in society about themselves and others and counter those biased messages with real-life experiences and compassion, she adds.

Education and awareness are key because bias-based bullying is an ongoing issue. “[Bias] is not going to go away. … People are going to find a way to treat each other differently. I think that what will change is more and more people not accepting it,” Chatters-Smith says.

This past spring, social media revealed another case of discrimination when two black men who were waiting for a friend were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia on suspicion of trespassing. The incident might have received little notice except that a white woman posted a video of the arrest on Twitter and challenged the injustice, which prompted protests. Starbucks responded by apologizing and announcing that it would close thousands of stores for an afternoon to conduct racial bias training in May.

Even though this injustice never should have occurred, the public outcry sent a message that these two men were not alone and that bias is not acceptable, Chatters-Smith says. “The intervention is what’s going to change [things],” she says. “If we have more eyes on it, hopefully we can reduce the impact and reduce the duration and the longevity of the impact of these instances.”

Chatters-Smith, Singh and Storlie all agree that counselors have an important role to play in educating people about bias and building strong partnerships between educators, parents, students and communities. “[Counselors] are in the business of helping people challenge inaccurate, internalized thoughts,” Singh points out. “Counselors have to challenge those thoughts and help rebuild beliefs systems that include the value of a wide variety of social identities.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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.

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.

 

Behind the book: Cognitive Behavioral Therapies: A Guidebook for Practitioners

By Bethany Bray November 16, 2017

What makes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) such a tried-and-true, “go-to” method for professional counselors?

Ann Vernon and Kristene Doyle put it simply in the preface to their book, Cognitive Behavior Therapies: A Guidebook for Practitioners: “CBT readily lends itself to a broad array of interventions that are practical in nature and have been proven to effect change.”

Their book, recently published by the American Counseling Association, explores CBT and its many branches, from acceptance and commitment therapy to mindfulness.

Both Vernon and Doyle  trained and worked with Albert Ellis, the father of what was a groundbreaking method when he introduced it in the 1950s. Ellis is considered the originator of cognitive behavioral therapy, although he used the term rational emotive therapy, and later, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT).

Doyle is director of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, and Vernon is president of the institute’s board of trustees.

 

 

Q+A: Cognitive behavioral therapy

Counseling Today sent Vernon and Doyle some questions, via email, to find out more. Responses are co-written, except where noted.

 

In your opinion, what makes cognitive behavioral therapy a “good fit,” particularly, for professional counselors?

CBT is a good fit for professional counselors as it is evidence-based and supported by empirical research. CBT has been shown to be effective for a variety of clinical problems individuals face and work on in counseling, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.

Many insurance companies are requiring short-term, evidence-based therapy in order for individuals to be reimbursed. Given the nature of today’s society, with individuals wanting results at a fast pace, CBT affords that opportunity.

 

In the preface, you mention that one of the goals of your book is to dispel myths and misconceptions about CBT. Can you elaborate on that – what are some common misconceptions counselors might have about CBT?

Without a doubt, the major misconception is that there is only one CBT theory, when in reality there are many different theories under the cognitive behavioral “umbrella,” as described in this book. Rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) was the first theory, developed by Albert Ellis in 1955 when he revolutionized the profession by being the first to break from psychoanalysis. Shortly thereafter Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy (CT), known as cognitive behavioral therapy, which adds to the confusion about what CBT actually is!

Another myth is that the emphasis is on cognitions with very little focus on feelings. In reality, CBT theories stress that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are interconnected in that feelings and behaviors emanate from beliefs. There is a major focus on helping clients see how their thoughts impact their feelings and helping them change their thoughts in order to develop more healthy and adaptive behaviors as opposed to unhealthy, negative emotions.

Yet another myth, which relates more to REBT in particular, is that there is very little importance placed on the relationship. This myth can be traced back to Albert Ellis, who did not place as much importance on the relationship as current REBT practitioners do, in part because he did not believe that a good client-therapist relationship was sufficient [on its own] to bring about change. REBT practitioners still believe this,  however, Ellis’ style was often more abrasive and confrontational.  Current REBT practitioners are less confrontational, more empathic and believe strongly in the importance of a good therapeutic alliance – which they consider an integral part of this theory.

 

What inspired you to collaborate and create this book? What new aspects of CBT did you hope to highlight?

We were inspired to create this book because upon review of available counseling-related materials, a book solely dedicated to the different CBT approaches [written] specifically for counselors was lacking. We saw a need for a solid understanding of how similar and different the CBT approaches are, as well as how they are applied in the counseling setting.

To demonstrate the unique aspects and nuances of each of the CBT approaches, we had the authors submit a transcript of a session that brought to life the theory that was addressed in the chapter. In addition, in Chapter 9, we had all the authors address the same client, highlighting how their particular approach would be utilized in counseling. It was our intention to provide readers a crystallized perspective of each of the various CBT approaches. Finally, each chapter includes sidebars to allow readers to apply what they learned in the chapter.

 

Do you feel that CBT is growing in popularity, or remaining steady as a “go to” method for counselors?

CBT, in our opinion, is growing in popularity amongst counselors. At The Albert Ellis Institute, we have noticed a trend in our professional continuing education courses of mostly counselors attending with the desire of learning specific theory and applications. Given that counselors are often on the “front lines” of treatment, they are realizing CBT is not simply a series of techniques that can be applied to various problems, but rather a generic term that encompasses a variety of different approaches that all have a common theoretical foundation. As more and more counselors acquire specialized training in CBT, the conclusion is that it will continue to grow in popularity with graduate programs requiring their students to be exposed to the theory and application.

 

What suggestions would you have for a practitioner who has been using CBT with clients for decades? What should they keep in mind?

Counseling practitioners who have used CBT for decades must be convinced that CBT theories are empowering because while clients may not be able to change certain life circumstances, they can change the way they think and feel about them, which is the essence of CBT. They should continue to read about and employ new techniques and practices to enhance their work with clients. They should keep in mind that under the CBT umbrella there are slightly different approaches to helping clients change. This is especially true for the “third wave” of CBT theories — acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and mindfulness. Experienced practitioners may want to explore these theories and utilize them with clients who might be a good fit for a particular approach, thus expanding their CBT toolbox.

 

What suggestions would you have for a practitioner who is just starting out and is interested in using CBT with clients? What should they keep in mind?

New practitioners who are just beginning and are interested in CBT should, of course, familiarize themselves with the particular CBT theory they are most interested in learning about and practicing, understanding that CBT is the “treatment of choice” for many disorders and has wide applicability cross-culturally, as well as with children and adolescents, couples and families. In addition, practitioners in private practice or mental health settings should be aware that managed care companies are huge CBT fans because it is generally a shorter-term therapy and the focus is on goal achievement and concrete markers for change and accountability.

Another factor that both seasoned and practitioners new to CBT should consider is that while CBT is generally individualistic, practitioners need to also see clients in the context of their environment and their culture. The goal of CBT is to help clients function in their world more effectively, which may often result in social advocacy. CBT practitioners can work with clients to reduce the intensity of their negative emotions that may prevent them from being appropriately assertive in confronting injustices.

This last statement actually reflects another myth about CBT, which is that CBT therapists only focus on changing the way clients think about their circumstances, which can imply passive acceptance of the status quo. In fact, from a CBT perspective, a counselor working with an abused woman would work with her to challenge the belief that she isn’t worthy and therefore deserves the abusive treatment – and then help empower her, so she is able to effectively confront a pervasive problem that affects far too many women.

 

What draws you, personally, to CBT? What do you like about the method? What led you to specialize in it – and also become involved with the Albert Ellis Institute?

I (Ann Vernon) began my counseling career as an elementary school counselor who was trained in client-centered therapy. I rather quickly became disillusioned with this approach when working with young clients, because despite the fact that I listened well and the clients seemed to feel better, they really didn’t get better. So when I heard Albert Ellis speak at an ACA conference in New York [in the 1970s] and read about the training at his institute, I decided to pursue [it]. During the primary practicum I was so excited to hear Virginia Waters talk about how REBT could be adapted for children, and after her lecture I asked if she would provide feedback on a social-emotional education program I had written but wanted to adapt in order to incorporate REBT principles. With her helpful feedback, I wrote Help Yourself to a Healthier You, followed by Thinking, Feeling, and Behaving and the Passport Program.

So that really started my love affair with this theory because it was educative and skill-oriented and comprehensive – addressing feeling, thinking and behaving. I was also drawn to this method because of the emphasis on problem prevention, which was something that I readily endorsed as a school counselor. After becoming a mental health counselor working with adults as well as with young clients, I continued to find that REBT was the best “fit” for me as well as my clients.

I have been so fortunate to be a part of the Albert Ellis Institute for so many years, first as a trainee, then as a board member and now president of the Albert Ellis Institute [Board of Trustees]. It has been extremely rewarding to do training in various parts of the world and to see firsthand how influential this theory is and how it has had an incredibly positive impact on so many people, including myself!

 

I (Kristene Doyle) was drawn to CBT when I learned about it in undergraduate psychology classes at McGill University. The theory made sense, and I appreciated the evidence-based nature of it. When I entered my doctoral program, it had a heavy emphasis on CBT orientation. There was a close relationship between Hofstra University and The Albert Ellis Institute (AEI), and AEI was one of the internship sites available for fourth-year students.

Having the honor of the founder of CBT,  Albert Ellis, be my mentor and train me has contributed to my passion of practicing a theory that has empirical support. I began my career at AEI as a doctoral student and have worked in various capacities for the past 20 years, and now serve as its director. I laugh at the letter of recommendation Dr. Ellis wrote for me when I was preparing for job applications upon graduation. Little did I know I would end up as the director [of his institute]! Furthermore, I believe in and carry out the mission of AEI, which is to promote emotional and behavioral health through research, practice, and training of mental health professionals in the use of REBT and CBT.

 

 

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Cognitive Behavior Therapies: A Guidebook for Practitioners is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-347-6647 x222

 

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

 

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.

 

A protocol for ‘should’ thoughts

By Brandon S. Ballantyne October 31, 2017

As a licensed professional counselor, I believe that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) offers clients a natural platform to gain insight into the relationship between thoughts and emotions. Using cognitive behavioral techniques, I invite clients to explore the specific nature and content of their thoughts and examine the ways in which these thoughts influence emotional distress.

Through CBT-oriented trial and error, thought records and behavioral experiments, clients can develop a comprehensive tool belt for responding to stressful events in a self-structured and practical manner. The active identification and disputation of negative thinking leads to improved emotional states and healthier behavioral reactions. I often introduce this concept as an enhanced version of the common treatment goal of learning how to “think prior to reacting.”

 

Framework

Before an individual forms an emotion, that individual needs to observe an event. This event can be a person, place, thing or activity. The important criteria here is not what the individual observes but simply the fact that an event has been noticed.

Once an event is observed by the individual, the brain produces a thought. A thought is very different from an emotion. A thought is a statement that is verbalized or experienced silently. A thought has sentence structure. Every thought has punctuation. Some thoughts end in a period. Some thoughts end in a question mark. Some thoughts end in an exclamation mark. It is important for the counselor to offer this education to the client. To experience success with CBT coping tools, it is essential for the client to be able to differentiate between thoughts and emotions.

Once a thought is produced and experienced by the individual, an emotion is formed. I tell my clients that in some cases, it feels as if the emotion occurs before the thought, but CBT tells us this is not exactly true.

Individuals experience emotions as an internal continuum of distress. This means that emotions can fluctuate from low distress to moderate distress to high distress. Most of the time, individuals will experience emotions consistent with mad, sad, glad or fearful. The continuum of emotional distress is often experienced parallel to physical symptoms. In other words, certain emotional states will produce certain physical symptoms. Counselors can assist clients in recognizing which physical symptoms are most typically associated with each emotional state.

For example, the emotional state of mad often occurs parallel to a headache or clenched fists. The emotional state of sad often occurs with tearfulness and internal weight between the stomach and lungs. The emotional state of glad most often occurs with smiling or laughter. The emotional state of fear most often occurs with a rush of adrenaline, quickening heart rate and sweaty palms. Of course, individuals can experience many other emotional labels and physical symptoms, but acquiring this basic education about emotion-body response can enhance our clients’ abilities to more clearly identify what they are feeling at any given time. This also provides clients with another important layer in understanding the difference between thoughts and emotions.

Once an emotional state is experienced, a behavioral reaction will be provoked. A behavioral reaction is simply something that the individual says or does that leads to a desirable or undesirable environmental/social outcome. Behavioral reactions that lead to undesirable outcomes typically create more barriers and perpetuate the cycle of life problems. Positive behavioral reactions lead to desirable outcomes and ignite a cycle of positive change.

The key to all of this is for individuals to identify where they can initiate intervention in their cognitive behavioral processes. Intervention can occur immediately after thoughts or immediately after the formation of the emotion. As long as intervention is implemented prior to the behavioral reaction, then positive change can take place.

Counselors can assist clients in building cognitive behavioral skills through the examination of self-talk. Self-talk is another term used for thought. Because thoughts have sentence structure to them, the sentence content in our thoughts is directly responsible for the formation of emotion.

Certain “words” increase emotional distress when they are experienced within our self-talk. One of the biggest culprits is the word “should.” When individuals experience “should” in their thoughts, it produces an emotional state associated with a demand to achieve extreme standards or ideals. The emotional consequence is likely to be guilt, frustration or depression. When directing their “should” thoughts toward others, individuals are likely to feel anger and resentment.

 

Protocol/intervention

I have developed the following intervention as a tool that counselors can use with clients consumed with persistent “should” thoughts and who identify unpleasant emotional responses that have led to patterns of undesirable behavioral reactions and environmental/social consequences. The intervention’s goal is to offer a protocol for effective identification, practice, application and implementation of cognitive restructuring, specifically in the context of problematic “should” thoughts.

 

S-H-O-U-L-D

Say: It is important to encourage the client to verbalize the “should” thought out loud. This brings life to the negative thought process and makes the negative self-talk a concrete, tangible item to work on in the counseling process. It also creates a safe opportunity for the counselor and client to work at restructuring negative internal dialogue within the realm of trust and rapport that they have developed.

Counselor: “Help me understand these should thoughts. I would like to invite you to verbalize them out loud to me.”

Client: “I should not feel depressed. I have no reason to be depressed.”

 

Hold: It is important for the client to learn to tolerate the distress created from the negative self-talk. The counselor encourages the client to practice tolerating the emotional discomfort through a pause and delay. This creates an opportunity to enhance distress tolerance ability, while engaging in safe examination of the negative self-talk.

Counselor: “There is pressure to react to these emotions. Try not to react. Let’s slow things down so we can address this rationally. I would like you to try and sit with these emotions, in the presence of my support, for as long as you can tolerate. Let’s try to pause and delay a reaction for one to two minutes.”

Client: “I will try my best.”

 

Offer: The counselor and client engage in a discussion of possible alternative ways of thinking that could potentially lead to more desirable emotional states and healthier behavioral reactions. This is a brief trial-and-error component within the intervention. The counselor will engage with the client in a balanced, rotational practice of coping thoughts.

Counselor: “If we were to remove the word should from your negative self-talk, what can we replace it with that might reduce the emotional pressure that you feel? Let’s discuss all the possibilities together.”

Undo: It is important to identify one coping thought that the client can continue to practice within his or her routine internal dialogue. For example, the counselor might ask the client to write one coping thought on an index card that can be kept in a safe, visual space. This encourages proactive, routine practice of healthier self-talk. It also makes the coping thought a concrete, tangible tool that can be used both in the present and in the future, as needed, in the context of counseling goals.

Counselor: “Which one of the coping thoughts that we discussed today do you feel you could continue to utilize as positive self-talk during future episodes of distress?”

Client: “I have experienced depression for a reason. I have permission to feel how I feel. I am always working on finding ways to cope with my life stressors, and I am doing the best that I can.”

 

Learn: The counselor and the client identify a homework assignment or task for the client to complete that encourages ongoing utilization of this tool. For example, the counselor might invite the client to begin a thought log, in which the client actively records dates and times when the tool is utilized and how effective it was in reducing emotional distress or contributing to healthier behavioral reactions. This provides opportunities for the client to begin constructing a cognitive behavioral blueprint for effective thought substitution.

Counselor: “I would like to introduce you to an exercise called a thought log. This will provide you with a platform to practice replacing ‘should’ thoughts with more positive self-talk this coming week. Remember, the most effective change takes place when you can take the skills learned in counseling and apply them to situations outside of these office walls.”

 

Do: Follow-up is essential to the counseling process. If the counselor and client agree on homework assignments or behavioral experiments, it is important for the counselor to follow up with the client to examine the client’s beliefs about what is effective versus ineffective. This holds both the counselor and the client accountable for maintaining diligence and dedication in their roles within the counseling relationship.

Counselor: “In the prior session, we discussed problematic ‘should’ thoughts, and I offered you the assignment of a thought log. How did you do with that?”

 

Conclusion

As a professional counselor, I am always looking for ways to enhance my practice and also share my interpretation of theories and treatment approaches. I hope that this piece will help you reflect on ways in which you may be able to use a tool such as the one I described with the clients you serve. Through continued consultation, collaboration and publication, mental health professionals can become unified in our mission to initiate genuine counseling processes that contribute to the enhanced well-being of our clients. I would love to hear your feedback on how this CBT tool is working for you and the individuals you serve.

 

 

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Brandon S. Ballantyne is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor who has been practicing clinically since 2007. He currently practices at Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Advanced Counseling and Research Services in Lancaster. He has a specialized interest in using cognitive theory to help his clients recognize problematic thought patterns and achieve more desirable emotions and healthier behavioral responses. Contact him at Brandon.Ballantyne@readinghealth.org.

 

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Other articles by Brandon S. Ballantyne, from the Counseling Today archives:

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

A light in the darkness

By Bethany Bray October 30, 2017

Erin Wiley, a licensed professional clinical counselor in northwestern Ohio, once had a client tell her that seasonal depression was like diving into a deep, dark pond each fall. Wiley understands the comparison. With seasonal depression, “you have to prepare to hold your breath for a long time until you get across the pond, reach the other side and can breathe again,” she says.

Wiley routinely sees the effects of seasonal depression in her clients — and in herself — as summer wanes, with the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder. Ohio can be a hard place to live when daylight saving time takes effect and the sun starts setting just after 4 p.m., she says.

Seasonal depression “feels like a darkness that’s chasing you. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know when it’s going to pin you down,” says Wiley, a member of the American Counseling Association. “[It’s like] getting pinned down by a wet blanket that you just can’t shake, emotionally and physically. … For those who get it every year, you can have anxiety because you know it’s coming. There is a fear, an apprehension that it’s coming. [You need] coping skills to have the belief that you have the power to control it.”

For Wiley, the owner of a group practice with several practitioners in Maumee, Ohio, this means being vigilant about getting enough sleep and being intentional about planning get-togethers with friends throughout the winter months. Keeping her body in motion also helps, she says, so she does pushups and lunges or walks a flight of stairs in between clients and leaves the building for lunch. If a client happens to cancel, “I will sit at a sunny window for an hour, feel the sun on my face, meditate and be mindful,” she adds.

Seasonal depression, or its official diagnosis, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can affect people for a large portion of the calendar year, Wiley notes. Although there is growing awareness that some people routinely struggle through the coldest, darkest months of the year, it’s less well-known that it can take time for these individuals to start feeling better, even once warmer weather returns in the spring. According to Wiley, seasonal depression can linger through June for her hardest-hit clients.

“It takes that long to bounce back,” she says. “They’re either sinking into the darkness or coming out of it for half the year.”

Symptoms and identifiers

SAD is classified as a type of depression, major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, roughly 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, and it is more common in women than in men. The disorder is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain caused by the shorter hours of daylight through the winter, which disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm.

People can also experience SAD in the reverse and struggle through the summer, although this condition is much rarer. Wiley says she has had clients who find summers tough — especially individuals who spend long hours inside climate-controlled, air-conditioned office environments with artificial lighting.

Regardless, a diagnostic label of SAD isn’t necessary for clients to be affected by seasonal depression, say Wiley and Marcy Adams Sznewajs, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Michigan. Sznewajs says that SAD isn’t a primary diagnosis that she sees often in her clients, but seasonal depression is quite common where she lives, which is less than 100 miles from the 45th parallel.

“I live in a climate where it is prevalent. I encounter it quite a bit and, surprisingly, people are like ‘Really? This makes a difference [with mental health]?’” says Sznewajs, an ACA member who owns a private practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan, and specializes in working with teenagers and emerging adults. “We change the clocks in November, and it’s drastic. It gets dark here at 4:30 in the evening, so kids and adults literally go to school and go to work in the dark and come home in the dark.”

Likewise, Wiley says that she frequently sees seasonal depression in clients who don’t have a diagnosis of SAD. “I notice it with my depressive clients,” she says. “I have been seeing them once a month [at other times of the year], and they ask to come in more often during February, March and April, or they need to do more intensive work in those months. It’s rare for someone to be healthy the rest of the year and struggle only in the winter. It’s [prevalent in] people who struggle already, and winter is the final straw. They need extra help in the winter and reach out [to a mental health professional] in the winter.”

In other instances, new clients begin to seek therapy because life events such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one push them to a breaking point during a time of the year — typically winter — when they already feel at their lowest, Wiley notes.

Cindy Gullo, a licensed clinical professional counselor in O’Fallon, Illinois, says that she doesn’t encounter clients who have the SAD diagnosis very often. However, she says that roughly 2 out of every 10 of her clients who have preexisting depression experience worsening mood and exacerbated depression throughout the fall and winter months.

The symptoms of SAD mimic those of depression, including loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, oversleeping and difficulty getting out of bed, physical aches and pains, and feeling tired all of the time. What sets seasonal depression apart is the cyclical pattern of symptoms in clients, which can sometimes be difficult to see, Sznewajs says. If a client presents with worsening depressive symptoms in the fall, counselors shouldn’t automatically assume that seasonal depression is the culprit, she cautions. Instead, she suggests supporting the client through the winter, spring and summer and then monitoring to see if the person’s symptoms worsen again in the fall.

“If they show improvement [in the spring/summer], and then I see them in October and they start to slide again, that’s when I have to say it could be the season. And certainly if they point it out themselves — [if] they say, ‘I’m OK in the summer, but I really struggle in the winter.’ It’s really when you start to notice a pattern of worsening mood changes in November and December [that alleviate] in the summer.”

Sznewajs recalls a female client she first worked with when the client was 13. She saw the client from October through the end of the school year, and the young woman showed significant improvement. The client checked in with Sznewajs a few times during the summer, but Sznewajs didn’t hear from her much after that. Then, when the client was 16, she suddenly returned to Sznewajs for counseling — in the wintertime. In recounting the prior few years, the young woman noted that her struggles usually seemed to dissipate around April each year, even though the pressures of the school year were still present at that point.

“‘I don’t know what’s going on with me,’” Sznewajs remembers the client remarking. “‘I’m a mess right now.’ It was very evident that there was a pattern [of seasonal depression] with her.”

Wiley notes that clients with seasonal depression often describe a “heaviness” or feelings of being weighed down. Or they’ll make statements such as, “It’s just so dark,” referring both to the lack of sunlight during the season and the emotional darkness they are enduring, Wiley says.

Gullo, an ACA member and private practitioner who specializes in working with teenagers, keeps an eye out for clients who become “very flat” and engage less in therapy sessions in the fall and winter. Other typical warning signs of seasonal depression include slipping grades (especially among clients who normally complete assignments and are high achievers at school), changes in appetite, sluggishness, weepy or irritable mood, and withdrawal from friends and family. For teens, the irritability that comes with seasonal depression can manifest in anger or frustration, Gullo says. For example, young clients may have an outburst or become agitated over small things that wouldn’t bother them as much during other times of the year, such as a parent telling them to clean their room, Gullo says.

John Ballew, an LPC with a solo private practice in Atlanta, estimates that up to one-third of his clients express feeling “more grim,” irritable or unhappy as winter approaches. He contends that the winter holidays “are a setup to make things worse” for clients who are affected by the seasons.

Overeating and overconsumption of alcohol are often the norm during the holidays, and this is typically coupled with the magnification of family issues through get-togethers, gift giving and other pressures, notes Ballew, a member of ACA. In addition, many coping mechanisms that clients typically use, such as getting outside for exercise, may be more difficult to follow in the winter. And although many people travel around the holidays, that travel is often high stress — the exact opposite of the getaways that individuals and families try to book for themselves at other times of the year.

“It’s a perfect storm for taking the ordinary things that get in the way of being happy and exacerbating them,” Ballew says. “People feel heavily obligated during the holidays, more so than in other seasons. It means that we’re not treating ourselves as well, and that can be a problem.”

[For more on helping clients through the pressures and stresses of the holiday season, see Counseling Today‘s online exclusive, “The most wonderful time of the year?https://wp.me/p2BxKN-4TI]

In the bleak midwinter

The first step in combating seasonal depression might be normalizing it for clients by educating them on how common it is and explaining that they can take measures to prepare for the condition and manage their feelings.

“Educating [the client] can give them control,” Sznewajs says. “People often feel shame about depression. Explain that you can take steps to treat yourself, just like you would for strep throat. You can’t will yourself to get better, but you can do things to help yourself get better. When you know what’s causing your depression, it gives you power to take those steps.”

Ballew notes that many of his clients express feeling like a weight has been lifted after he talks to them about SAD. “Many of them won’t think they have [SAD], but they will say, ‘Winter is a hard time for me’ or ‘I get blue around the holidays.’ They’re caught off guard by this unhappiness that seems to come from nowhere. People seem to feel a certain amount of relief to find that it’s something they will deal with regularly but that they can plan for and be cognizant of. It doesn’t mean that they’re defective or broken. It’s just that this is a stressful time. That helps us take a more strategic and problem-solving approach.”

Many counselors find cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helpful in addressing seasonal depression because it combats the constant negative self-talk, catastrophizing and rumination that can plague these clients. CBT can assist clients in turning around self-defeating statements, finding ways to get through tough days and taking things one step at a time, Sznewajs says.

Gullo gives her teenage clients journaling homework (she recommends several journaling smartphone apps that teenagers typically respond well to). She also encourages them to maintain self-care routines and social connections. For instance, she might request that they make one phone call to a friend between counseling sessions.

Wiley guides her clients with seasonal depression in writing a plan of management and coping mechanisms (or reviewing and updating their prior year’s plan) before the weather turns cold and dark. She types out the plan in session while she and the client talk it over. Then she emails it so that the client will have it on his or her smartphone for easy access. The plans often include straightforward interventions — such as being intentional about going outside and getting exposure to natural light every day — that clients may not think about when dealing with the worst of their symptoms midwinter.

“It sounds simple, but those [individuals] who are down may not realize that the sun is shining and they better get outside to feel it on their face,” Wiley says. “We list exercises that are feasible. You might not join the gym, but what can you do? Can you walk the staircase at your house five times a day? Or, what’s one [healthy] thing you can add to your diet and one thing you can take away, such as cutting down to having dessert once per week, cutting out your afternoon caffeine or drinking more water. And what’s one thing you can do for your sleep routine? [Perhaps] take a hot shower before bed [to relax] and go to bed at the same time every night.”

Wiley also reminds clients to simply “be around people who make you feel happy.” She suggests that clients identify those friends and family members whom they enjoy being with and include those names on their therapeutic action plans for the winter.

All of the practitioners interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of healthy sleep habits, nutrition and physical activity for clients with seasonal depression. “All of these things are really hard to do when you feel lousy, so that’s why the education [and planning] piece is so important,” Sznewajs says. “Let them know that this [the change in seasons] is why you feel lousy, and it’s not your fault. But there are ways to feel better.”

Sznewajs typically begins talking with clients about their seasonal action plans in early fall and always before the change to daylight saving time. One aspect of the discussions is brainstorming how clients can modify the physical activities they have enjoyed throughout spring and summer for the winter months.

One of the cues Wiley uses to tell if clients might be struggling with seasonal depression is if they mention cravings for simple carbohydrates (crackers, pasta, etc.), sugars or alcohol when the days are dark and cold. They don’t necessarily realize that they are self-medicating in
an attempt to boost their dopamine, Wiley says.

Of course, exercise is a much healthier way of boosting dopamine levels. “Exercise is important, but it’s really hard to get depressed people to exercise,” Wiley acknowledges. “Telling them to join the gym won’t work when they just want to cry and lay in bed. So, turn the conversation: What is something you can do? If you already walk your dogs out to the corner, can you walk one more block? Take the stairs at work instead of the elevator, or park farther away from the grocery store.”

Effectively combating seasonal depression might also include counselor-client discussions about proper management of antidepressants and other psychiatric medications. Gullo recommends that her clients who are on medications and are affected by seasonal depression set up appointments with their prescribers as winter approaches. Sznewajs and Wiley also work with their clients’ prescribers, when appropriate, to make sure that these clients are getting the dosages they need through the winter.

Wiley will also diagnose clients with SAD if the diagnosis fits. “For someone who is really struggling and could benefit from [psychiatric] medication, the prescriber is often thankful for a second opinion. It adds weight and clarity to what the client is saying and what the doctor is hearing,” Wiley says. “It also helps the client to have a diagnosis so they don’t just wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ It removes the blame and shame for people who are really struggling.”

Seeking the light

Many factors contribute to seasonal depression, but a main trigger is the reduced amount of daylight in the winter. It is vitally important for clients with seasonal depression to be disciplined about getting outdoors to feel natural light on their faces and in their eyes, Wiley says. She coaches clients to be disciplined about making themselves bundle up and get outside on sunny days or, at the very least, sit in their car or near a window for extra light exposure.

Wiley cautions clients against using tanning beds as a source of warmth and bright light to fend off seasonal depression. However, she acknowledges that she has seen positive results with tanning beds in severe cases of seasonal depression in which individuals were verging on becoming suicidal. In those extreme cases, counselors must weigh the long-term risks of using a tanning bed versus the more immediate risks to the client’s safety, Wiley says.

In addition to encouraging those with seasonal depression to get outdoors, Gullo and Sznewajs have introduced their clients to phototherapy, or the use of light boxes. Roughly the size of an iPad, these boxes have a very bright light (more than 10,000 lumens is recommended for people with seasonal depression) that clients can use at home.

Sznewajs recommends that clients use a light box first thing in the morning for at least 30 minutes to “reset their body,” increase serotonin and boost mood. If a client responds positively to phototherapy, it also serves as an indicator that he or she has SAD (instead of, or in addition to, nonseasonal depression), she notes.

Neither Gullo nor Sznewajs require clients to purchase light boxes. Instead, they simply introduce the idea in session and suggest it as something that clients might want to try. Insurance doesn’t typically cover light boxes, but they can be purchased online or at medical supply stores.

Gullo does keep a light box in her office so she can show clients how it works. She also recommends “sunrise” alarm clocks, which feature a light that illuminates 30 minutes before the alarm sounds. The light gradually becomes brighter and brighter, mimicking the sunrise. Gullo uses this type of alarm clock at home and finds it helpful.

The light box and sunrise alarm clock “are game changers,” Gullo says, “and a lot of people don’t know they exist.”

Powering through

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second book in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, characters struggle through never-ending cold that is “always winter but never Christmas.” Grappling with seasonal depression can feel much the same way: an uphill battle in a prolonged darkness in which occasions of joy have been snuffed out.

The key to making it through is crafting and sticking to a plan. Sznewajs says she talks with clients in the early fall to help them prepare: Yes, winter is coming, and you’re probably going to feel lousy, but it won’t last forever, and there are ways of getting through it.

“People need to understand that this is a totally predictable kind of concern,” Ballew concurs. “It’s not weak or self-indulgent [to feel depressed]. This is a hard time of year for many people, and you need to plan for it. … We [counselors] are in a great place to validate clients’ concerns, but also help them to strategize beyond them.”

 

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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.