Tag Archives: Depression

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.

Is depression lurking in your medicine cabinet?

By Bethany Bray July 16, 2018

An estimated one in three American adults are taking one or more medications that can – and often do – cause depression.

A recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study found that many common medications that Americans take regularly, such as drugs for acid reflux or high blood pressure, have the potential to cause depression as a side effect.

The study, published in JAMA‘s June 12 issue, analyzed federal health survey data collected from U.S. adults between 2005 and 2014. Of the more than 26,000 participants, 7.6 percent who were regularly taking one medication reported having depression — and this doubled in those who were taking three or more medications.

“The estimated prevalence of depression was 15 percent for those reporting use of three or more medications with depression as an adverse effect, vs 4.7 percent for those not using such medications,” wrote the article’s co-authors.

The study also found that the number of Americans who regularly take medications that carry depression as a side effect has increased from 35 percent to 38.4 percent between 2005 and 2014. The percentage of people taking three or more these medications concurrently increased from 6.9 to 9.5 percent over the same timeframe.

American Counseling Association member Dixie Meyer says these findings only affirm the importance for counselors to familiarize themselves with medical diagnoses and commonly prescribed medicines. Also, counselors should routinely screen for depression in clients who take medications with depressive side effects, as well as those in at-risk groups, such as minorities, clients with low socio-economic status or who identify as LGBTQ.

As the evidence for the intertwined nature of the medical and mental health fields continues to accumulate, it becomes increasingly important for counselors to bring themselves up to speed on medical research that may inform clinical practice, says Meyer, an associate professor in the medical family therapy program in the department of family and community medicine at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. This can happen both through individual professional development and a profession-wide focus.

“We know that for professions to succeed, there needs to be a continual adaption. For the counseling field, counselor training programs need to include not only counseling but medical research evaluation,” Meyer says. “Counselors need to be trained in understanding the relationship between physical and mental health disorders. For example, trauma increases the likelihood for chronic health conditions.”

Meyer is also the director of the Relationships and Brain Science Research Laboratory at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. She frequently gives presentations to counselors on the importance of understanding their clients’ medications, including at ACA’s 2016 conference in Montreal. She recommends that all counselors have a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference on hand so that they can quickly look up any medication. Counselors can also refer to resources like Medscape.com for updates on the latest medical research that may inform clinical practice.

“Because this [JAMA] research is not a clinical trial or a prospective study that can inform the reader of temporal implications, we should interpret the results with caution as they are correlational in nature,” says Meyer. “It is not uncommon for physicians to prescribe, at the onset of treatment or later concurrently with treatment, a medication intended to manage side effects. While the sample with the 15 percent increased risk were taking three or more medications with the depression side effect, we can still expect the majority of individuals using these medications will not experience an increase in depression. Thus, any preventative care could be needless without symptoms present.”

 

 

When it comes to counselors, clients and medication, Meyer suggests the following:

  1. Intake forms should include use of both prescription and over-the-counter medications. The form should specify that he or she should include medications taken periodically or on an as-needed basis.
  2. Counselors should implement regular, monthly checks to assess if medication usage has changed.
  3. In addition to counselors systematically assessing how clients perceive the effectiveness of their psychotropic medication and side effect evaluation, the medication management component of counseling should include an assessment of those medications associated with depression risk, like anti-hypertensives, hormonal contraceptives and other hormone replacement therapy and proton pump inhibitors (commonly used to treat acid reflux).
  4. Clients being treated for depression, those in at-risk groups (LGBTQ, racial minorities, women, low-income) and those taking medications with depressive side effects need to be routinely screened for depression. A monthly screen for depression using widely available tools like the PhQ-2 or PHQ-9 can easily be incorporated into clinical practice without being too cumbersome for clients.
  5. Counselors need to monitor both the mood and somatic symptoms of depression in high-risk groups. Many of the symptoms of depression are somatic; thus, clients may be experiencing depressive symptoms that go unnoticed because they are unrelated to mood changes.
  6. Counselors need to be well-versed in who is at risk for depression. The [JAMA] research reported that the medications with potential depressive side effects were more likely to be given to those individuals already at an increased risk for depression (e.g., female, widowed, older populations and those with more chronic health conditions). Not only does this make it difficult to determine if the research is uncovering depression prevalence already present or if vulnerable populations are being placed in a position that increases their depression risk. Thus, counselors need to understand what the research tells us about who is at risk for depression — and counselors need to identify if these individuals are also taking medications with this potential side effect.
  7. Counselors need to encourage self-monitoring of mood symptoms and discuss with clients taking medications with depressive side effects how to intentionally monitor their mood at home. For example, smart phone apps designed to track mood are widely available.

 

 

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Find out more

 

Read the full JAMA article: jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2684607

 

From NPR, “1 In 3 Adults In The U.S. Takes Medications Linked To Depression

 

From the Counseling Today archives:

The counselor’s role in assessing and treating medical symptoms and diagnoses

Healthy conversations to have” (on discussing psychiatric medication usage with clients)

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

Finding balance with bipolar disorder

By Laurie Meyers April 24, 2018

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) John Duggan didn’t plan on bipolar disorder becoming one of his specialties, but providing emergency room support gave him a close-up view of the consequences when the disease was left uncontrolled. Duggan, who is also a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), noticed the escalation in manic and hypomanic crises that accompanied the increased light and time change in spring. He also saw people who had been diagnosed with depression but whose manic or hypomanic symptoms had gone undetected until they ended up in the emergency room with full-blown mania, psychosis or dysphoria.

Some of these individuals had no one to help them remain stabilized after leaving the hospital. Seeing the need for, as Duggan puts it, “boots on the ground,” he began seeing more and more clients with bipolar disorder in his private practice in Silver Spring, Maryland. Duggan, who is now the manager of professional development at the American Counseling Association, says some of those clients came as referrals from counselors who didn’t feel qualified to work with individuals struggling with bipolar disorder.

It is not uncommon for counselors to be hesitant to take on clients with a bipolar diagnosis, according to practitioners who specialize in the disorder. At the same time, there are many individuals with bipolar disorder who truly need the support of counselors and other mental health professionals to help them manage their condition. Although the public — and perhaps even some mental health professionals — may think that the disease is rare, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that approximately 2.8 percent of U.S. adults currently have bipolar disorder and that 4.4 percent will experience it in their lifetime. NIMH also estimates that approximately 2.9 percent of adolescents currently have bipolar disorder.

Some mental health practitioners may buy in to the stereotype that clients with bipolar disorder are volatile and resistant to treatment, whereas others may be daunted by the disorder’s elevated risk of suicide. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that for those with bipolar disorder, the lifetime risk of suicide is at least 15 times higher than it is for the average person. However, Duggan and others who treat bipolar disorder say that counselors have a crucial role to play in helping clients manage the disease.

Bipolar basics

Counselors are already trained to obtain a detailed client history that includes, among other things, emotional symptoms, family history and sleep and lifestyle habits, all of which can be crucial to spotting bipolar disorder.

“Bipolar clients often seek help only when depressed. Because of this, their manic or hypomanic symptoms are often not reported or observed,” explains Valerie Acosta, an LPC who counsels a number of clients with bipolar disorder in her Richmond, Virginia, practice.

A first step is for counselors to educate clients. Although they may be familiar with the symptoms of depression, they are much less likely to know how mania or hypomania present, adds Acosta, a member of ACA. Many clients think mania involves feeling very “up” and happy, but symptoms actually include intense irritability, anxiety and distraction, she explains.

Sleep patterns are also instructive when looking for evidence of mania or hypomania, says Regina Bordieri, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York who specializes in bipolar disorder. “If they’re not sleeping, are they feeling energetic or tired?” she asks. Most people feel tired after a short night’s rest, but in hypomanic or manic phases, those with bipolar disorder feel energized despite very little sleep, Bordieri explains.Bordieri also asks clients about times when they weren’t depressed. Did they have high levels of energy and feel like they could get a lot done? Depressed moods that alternate with periods of intense activity and feelings of almost limitless energy may be signs of bipolar disorder.

Because it can be difficult for individuals to recognize their mood and behavioral shifts, family members and partners can also play a significant role when it comes to identifying and gauging symptoms, Bordieri says. Then, of course, there is the other role that family plays in diagnosis — namely, family history. Bipolar disorder is strongly tied to genetics, so clients with a family history of bipolar disorder are more likely to develop the disease.

Duggan urges counselors who are treating clients with bipolar disorder to work closely with medical professionals. Consulting a client’s primary care physician (with the client’s permission) is particularly crucial during diagnosis so that physical causes such as sleep disorders, thyroid disorders or a reaction to medication won’t be mistaken as symptoms for bipolar disorder.

Counselors — and clients — should also be aware of their ideas concerning which symptoms and forms of bipolar disorder are most debilitating, say Acosta and Bordieri.

“Bipolar II is not a milder form of bipolar I, but a separate and different diagnosis,” Acosta explains. “Bipolar I is also not necessarily more difficult to treat. … While the manic episodes in bipolar I can be severe and dangerous, the depressive episodes associated with bipolar II can be longer lasting, causing severe impairment to the individual. While clients with bipolar II have hypomania and not full manic episodes, their depressive episodes can be more debilitating than the depressive episodes of bipolar I.”

Although the depression of bipolar II may take a greater overall toll and be harder to treat, the mania inherent in bipolar I comes with its own set of “baggage.” In the popular imagination, mania — especially more extreme episodes — is the phase most associated with bipolar disorder and contributes to the perception that those who have the disorder are “crazy.” Mania is also extremely disturbing for clients and is highly stigmatized, especially when it leads to hospital stays, Bordieri says.

Ultimately, however, each client’s experience of bipolar disorder is different, Acosta says. “A therapist might be working with two people with bipolar II, and these individuals may present with very different symptoms,” she says. “Helping clients and their families to understand the individual’s unique symptoms, and have a variety of tools and strategies for managing their moods and specific symptoms, is essential for recovery.”

Managing medication

The counselors interviewed for this article stress that because of the neurobiological nature of bipolar disorder, medication is an integral part of treatment. Cheryl Fisher, an LCPC practicing in Annapolis, Maryland, whose specialties include bipolar disorder, says that counselors should work closely with a psychiatrist when treating these clients. In fact, when Fisher sees new clients with bipolar disorder who are working with a primary care physician, she strongly urges them to begin seeing a psychiatrist. Fisher, a member of ACA, believes that psychiatrists possess the specialized psychopharmaceutical knowledge necessary for prescribing the medication “cocktail” that works best for each individual with bipolar disorder. And because counselors see clients more often (and for longer chunks of time) than their physicians do, Fisher thinks that counselors are in a better position to track the effectiveness and side effects of clients’ prescriptions.

Counselors can also help clients become better self-advocates, says ACA member Dixie Meyer. Sometimes clients aren’t comfortable speaking up at the doctor’s office or are unaware that they are even experiencing side effects, she says. Counselors are in a position to spot such problems.

Meyer gives the example of a client who was showing signs of lithium toxicity. “I asked him when was the last time he had his blood levels checked [lithium requires regular blood testing to guard against toxicity]. He asked me what I was talking about. Somehow, he never knew he needed to have levels checked regularly.”

Meyer, an associate professor in the medical family therapy program at the St. Louis University School of Medicine’s Relationships and Brain Science Research Laboratory, says counselors should also be aware that clients with bipolar disorder might be given antidepressants for depression that can cause the onset of mania or hypomania.

“Clients might feel like, ‘Wow, I’m really starting to have a good mood,’” she notes. “They don’t really think to bring that up to the doctor, but the counselor can easily recognize the difference between remission of depression symptoms versus the development of manic symptoms. [Clients] might become more impulsive, snippier, their motor behavior more agitated … Counselors and family members are often the best [resources] to spot mood shifts.”

Sometimes clients don’t want to take medication for bipolar disorder because they have experienced unpleasant side effects, says Meyer, who frequently gives presentations to counselors on the importance of understanding their clients’ medications. She urges counselors to talk through this decision with clients. Meyer informs her clients with bipolar disorder that all medications have side effects, some of which may be temporary. She then asks these clients to give the medications some time and encourages them to talk to their physicians about which side effects might be permanent.

If the side effects of the medication aren’t going to go away, Meyer talks with clients about whether the side effects are something they can live with. In some cases — especially with medications that cause significant weight gain — the client’s answer is no. In those situations, Meyer says that she, the client and the physician go back to the drawing board and look for other medications or explore whether lifestyle changes might help reduce the side effects.

Meyer says all counselors should have a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference on hand so that they can quickly look up any medication. She also recommends Drugs.com as an excellent online resource.

Sometimes clients with bipolar disorder get stabilized and decide that they don’t need to take their medications anymore. When that happens, Acosta says that she “reflects back” what happened the last time the client stopped taking his or her medication. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t good.)

Fisher tries to educate clients about bipolar disorder, emphasizing that a biochemical reaction underlies their mood shifts and that the medication helps buffer that process.

Medication, however, is not the only tool in the box to help individuals with bipolar disorder. Counselors can provide the emotional and lifestyle keys that help clients manage and, hopefully, decrease their mood and behavior shifts.

Prevention and stabilization

Multiple research studies continue to demonstrate the link between the circadian rhythm and bipolar disorder. Researchers are still teasing out the specifics, but what is clear is that maintaining a schedule — particularly a sleep schedule — that hews to the circadian rhythm plays a key role in controlling the disease.

Research has shown that insomnia is not just a symptom of depression but can also cause it. Likewise, Bordieri says, disturbed sleep can be either a symptom of hypomania/mania or the trigger for an episode.

Sleep is one of the first things that Fisher investigates with all clients, but it is particularly important in those with bipolar disorder. “I ask them what their sleep routine is,” she says. “How do you end your day? How do you prepare your body to rest? What is your sleeping environment like?” Fisher talks about how the blue light from devices such as smartphones and tablets disrupts sleep and advises clients to establish total darkness in their bedrooms.

Some clients reveal that a racing brain regularly prevents them from going to sleep. For these clients, Fisher recommends tools such as guided meditation or performing what she calls a “brain dump” — emptying the mind by writing down all of the thoughts that are keeping clients awake.

Acosta encourages clients with bipolar disorder to go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every day and take their medications at the same time daily. She has found this routine has a stabilizing effect.

Fisher and Duggan both believe sleep is so essential to mental and physical health that if good sleep hygiene isn’t working, they advise clients to get a sleep aid from their physician.

Duggan has found that the changing of the seasons can also have a profound effect on bipolar disorder. It’s a component of the bipolar resiliency program he came up with called SMART.

S — (Control) stress, sleep, maintain a schedule, seasons: Duggan asks clients with bipolar disorder to track their moods and sleep. He also teaches sleep hygiene and makes note of clients’ responses to the different seasons. Summer, when there is a lot of activity going on and plenty of sun, is usually a good time for many clients with bipolar disorder. But as the season draws to a close, Duggan reminds them that once fall arrives and there is less light, they are likely to start feeling less upbeat and may feel overwhelmed. He urges these clients not to overschedule themselves in summer and to step up their self-care efforts when the calendar turns to September.

M — Medication as prescribed

A — Adjunctive treatment such as yoga, acupuncture, massage or other complementary or alternative practices: Duggan says these are all areas that are outside of his expertise but that clients have found helpful. He also works with clients on self-soothing techniques and meditation. If a client is going through a severe manic or depressive phase, however, he strongly recommends against mindfulness. “I don’t want them to ‘be’ with the bad depression or the bad mania,” he explains.

R — Recreation and relationships: Duggan urges clients with bipolar disorder to stay engaged socially and to “do things that bring you joy, that you love, that give you a sense of flow.”

T — Therapy and counseling as needed

Fisher is a proponent of what she calls “nature therapy.” Research has shown that nature has a beneficial effect on mental health, so she urges clients to find a way to get outside — even if only for a short time — every day.

“Encouraging clients to track their moods can be a very valuable tool,” Acosta adds. “There are a wide variety of apps that clients can download to help with tracking their moods. Daylio is one that a lot of my clients like to use. By recording this information over time, clients learn about how their moods cycle, and this helps them to better understand the nuances of their moods, their triggers, and what helps and does not help with stabilizing their moods. I routinely review data from these apps — or paper mood charts — with my clients. I also routinely review symptom charts with my clients to help them monitor their symptoms.”

Some of Acosta’s clients have also had their own highly personal methods of tracking problematic mood changes. One client monitored her mood elevations by the number of packages that appeared for her in her apartment lobby (overspending). Another client could connect his manic symptoms to times when he would spend several days engrossed in building things (an increased focus on goal-directed activities).

Developing this degree of self-awareness can be beneficial for clients with bipolar disorder. “Linking symptoms to behaviors, thoughts and triggers can help to foster recovery,” Acosta says.

Meyer also teaches clients to spot patterns. She has premenopausal women chart their menstrual cycles so they will be aware, for example, that three days before their periods begin, they will feel more depressed. Meyer instructs clients to note their moods throughout the day and record what was going on. She believes that when clients can identify these patterns and recognize that there was a specific reason they were particularly manic or depressed, it provides them a greater sense of control.

Meyer teaches clients to self-soothe on hard days by going for a walk, going to the park and sitting on a bench or doing whatever else makes them feel good in a healthy way. 

“It’s really important … that our clients be empowered with a strategy for their symptoms,” Fisher says. For instance, if clients with bipolar disorder are having a down day and feel as though they are shifting toward a depressive episode, they could start to manage the switch by making a plan to get together with a friend or even just calling someone close to them.

Acosta tries to equip clients with bipolar disorder against life stressors. “They need to find healthy ways to cope with stress,” she says.

Acosta teaches clients mindfulness meditation and gives assignments outside of session, such as trying yoga or a new form of exercise. She believes that physical activity helps rein in racing thoughts. Acosta also recommends music for relaxation.

Seeking support

In addition to individual therapy, Acosta has found that group therapy is very effective for clients with bipolar disorder. She runs a monthly support group for adults over 18. “Some participants have been living with bipolar disorder for decades, and some have just been diagnosed,” Acosta says. “This is an open group, so members are constantly joining and leaving the group. On average, we have three to 10 participants per group. Because this is a therapy group, participants bring in and discuss any issue that they’re currently dealing with in their lives. Some of the topics of discussion include challenges such as the struggle to be on time for work or losing a job because of their bipolar symptoms, relationship conflicts, the side effects of medication, healthy strategies for managing symptoms, grieving the losses in their lives caused by their illness and building healthy living strategies.”

Acosta also provides education as needed in the group on topics such as understanding symptoms, exploring apps to track mood and locating resources for further education and support. She believes the peer support is what is most helpful to group participants.

“Many people have never met someone else with bipolar disorder, and learning that they are not alone or the only person dealing with the challenges of bipolar disorder can be extremely comforting and helpful,” she says. “Seeing peers recover, build healthy relationships and obtain their goals and dreams is most powerful.”

Support for these clients is essential, agrees Meyer, who recommends that counselors help recruit family members and romantic partners as a kind of support team whenever possible. Loved ones can be there when counselors can’t and are often the first to spot mood changes, she explains. “We also know when clients are in good, healthy relationships, it helps stress levels, and that helps keep them in good health,” Meyer adds.

Sometimes support can come from the strangest of sources, notes Fisher, relating the story of a woman who was in particular need of connection. “I had a client who had a trauma history in addition to bipolar disorder, and she was engaging in really unhealthy behaviors and self-loathing. She was just not in good shape,” Fisher says. “She came in one day, I did a checkup, and she showed really high levels of depression.”

Fisher didn’t think the client was in immediate danger, but she felt bad leaving her without another source of support, particularly because it was a Friday and Fisher was going away for the weekend.

“I asked, ‘Who can you be with? Who can you talk to?’’ Fisher says. “The client said, ‘No one. There is no one.’”

The woman was estranged from her family, and her only “network” involved her sexual hookups.

Suddenly, Fisher had an idea. She had just bought a betta fish for her office, so she asked the client to watch it for her over the weekend.   

Fisher saw the client the following Monday — sans fish — and asked how she was doing. The client replied that she was feeling better and more upbeat.

“Then she started talking about her weekend and spending time with ‘Olive’ and watching TV with ‘Olive,’” Fisher continues.

She asked the client who Olive was. Olive was the name the client had bestowed on the betta fish. The client had neglected to bring Olive back because she didn’t want to leave the fish in the car but promised to return her later in the week.

Fisher told the woman to keep the fish but was curious as to why she had named her Olive. The client said that Olive made her think of hope — like the olive leaf the dove brought back to Noah’s Ark to show the waters were finally receding after the Great Flood described in the Bible.

What lesson did Fisher take away from this experience? “We have to get our clients to connect — even if it’s just with a betta fish,” she says.

Fisher urges counselors to overcome any reservations they might harbor about treating clients with bipolar disorder. “Get more training if you’re uncomfortable,” says Fisher, who encourages counselors to ask themselves why they might be uncomfortable and then to address those reasons.

Counselors already possess the skills needed to empower these clients, Fisher adds. “We have clients who are walking in the door with this diagnosis and identifying it with who they are,” she says. “Bipolar disorder is not who they are — their diagnosis is not their identity. People think, ‘My body is betraying me. I feel like crap. I’ve alienated all my friends — I am the monster.’ Counselors can exorcise the demon of the [bipolar] diagnosis.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Podcasts (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “Bipolar Resiliency Program” with John Duggan (HT056)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca)

  • “Depression/Bipolar” with Carman S. Gill

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Counseling Adults Who Have Bipolar Disorders” by Victoria Kress, Stephanie Sedall and Matthew Paylo

 

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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.

 

Assessing depression in those who are chronically ill

By Cathy L. Pederson, Kathleen Gorman-Ezell and Greta Hochstetler Mayer March 7, 2018

You receive a referral for a new client from a local physician. Great! As you review the materials, it is clear that the physician thinks the client’s issues are “all in her head.” Perhaps she is depressed. A good strengths-based and ecologically grounded counselor is just what she needs.

On the day of the first appointment, you wonder about this 24-year-old woman. You make a quick assessment upon meeting. Diane is pale, thin and has bags under her eyes. She looks exhausted and almost fragile. Yet she is neatly dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and her light brown hair is pulled into a ponytail. She is not wearing makeup and is naturally pretty. She has an easy smile and is quite pleasant.

As you begin your work with Diane, you realize that a number of her complaints sound like the somatization of depression. She clearly suffers from fatigue. She has also struggled with insomnia the past several months, adding to her exhaustion. Diane reports a decreased appetite and has lost 10 pounds in the past couple of months without effort. Furthermore, she suffers from neuropathic pain in her legs — a chronic pain condition from abnormalities in the sensory nerves that often results in constant pain that may feel like explosions, stings or burning aches. In addition, she frequently has abdominal pain and headaches.

Because of these symptoms, Diane was often absent at work and was subsequently fired. She now relies on her parents for financial support and has moved back home. Diane is clearly depressed … or is she?

Overlapping symptoms

Many people suffering from invisible illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, mast cell activation disorder, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and Sjögren’s syndrome are first diagnosed, often incorrectly, as suffering from depression. Although troubling, this is understandable because the symptoms for these chronic illnesses overlap with somatic complaints associated with depression.

Many people in the general population who are depressed suffer changes in appetite, sleep and weight, and have increased fatigue and pain. Among individuals in the chronic illness community, these are common symptoms related to their physical illness. They may also suffer from other symptoms that make gainful employment or social relationships difficult. These symptoms include brain fog that makes concentration and processing of information challenging, orthostatic intolerance (increased symptoms when standing), exercise intolerance, joint subluxations and dislocations, severe allergic reactions to foods or chemicals, hot flashes, and muscle and joint stiffness or pain.

Many current depression screening instruments have at least a third of their questions related to somatization of depression. This can artificially elevate the depression score in those individuals with a chronic, invisible illness because of the physical symptoms they experience.

For instance, consider the free version of the Beck Depression Inventory. The last seven questions of this popular instrument ask about physical, rather than psychological, changes. Thinking about those with chronic invisible illnesses, imagine their scores for the following somatization of depression items.

  • I can work about as well as before (0). … I can’t do any work at all (3).
  • I can sleep as well as usual (0). … I wake up several hours earlier than I used to and cannot get back to sleep (3).
  • I don’t get more tired than usual (0). … I am too tired to do anything (3).
  • My appetite is no worse than usual (0). … I have no appetite at all anymore (3).
  • I haven’t lost much weight, if any, lately (0). … I have lost more than 15 pounds (3).
  • I am no more worried about my health than usual (0). … I am so worried about my physical problems that I cannot think of anything else (3).
  • I have not noticed any recent change in my interest in sex (0). … I have lost interest in sex completely (3).

There are 21 questions total on the Beck Depression Inventory, each ranging in point value from 0 to 3, with the higher numbers reflecting an increased possibility of depression. For how many of the seven questions above do you think that Diane might report a 2 or a 3 because of her physical ailments? If she chose the most severe response (a score of 3) for each of these seven questions, this would give her 21 points — placing her in the category of moderate depression on the Beck Depression Inventory — without even considering the first 14 questions on the survey.

It is important to realize that some clients who might appear moderately, severely or extremely depressed on a screening instrument such as the Beck Depression Inventory are actually suffering from an undiagnosed physical illness. We urge counselors to explore these somatic symptoms with their clients, particularly if the counselor notices an imbalance in the affective versus somatic parts of the instrument. With an integrated conceptualization of the person within her or his environmental context, counselors can go beyond addressing surface symptomology to explore underlying concerns.

Taking time to build a therapeutic alliance is critical, especially as many in the health care industry feel pressure from insurance companies to conduct quick patient exams. Unfortunately, many health care practitioners don’t get reimbursed for really listening to their patients and probing these multifaceted issues to arrive at a correct diagnosis. As counselors, you have the opportunity to give your clients something that they have been lacking — someone who is willing to take the time to truly listen and piece together the complexity of their problems.

Chronic illness and depression can be comorbid

Just as someone with chronic illness may not have depression, comorbidity of depression with chronic illness is possible and must be ruled out. There is a known link between chronic medical illness and depression for people with heart disease, cancer and a variety of other well-understood medical issues. Approximately 50 percent of people with chronic invisible illnesses also suffer from clinical depression. The trick is to separate those individuals with elevations purely from physical symptoms from those individuals who are truly depressed. There is a paucity of literature to guide clinical practice in this area.

Chronic illness encompasses more than just the physical symptoms. Many clients/patients become socially isolated because they can’t work or go to school. Friends and family members may slowly drift away as the illness drags on for months, years or decades. In the case of invisible illnesses, these clients often look “normal,” so it is not uncommon for people to completely dismiss their affliction. Many of these disorders are not well-understood, and a stigma can be attached to them that adds shame and guilt for being ill.

Poor treatment from health care workers can compound the problem. Many people with these illnesses have perfectly normal blood and urine tests, electrocardiograms and MRIs. If the tests are normal, then the symptoms must be “all in the person’s head,” right? Can people truly be suffering when traditional testing can’t find the cause? Many individuals working in the health care professions would say no. As a result, many of these patients are labeled as being high maintenance, and their own physicians may not believe that they are truly ill. Even for those individuals with a chronic or invisible illness who are not depressed, counseling can be important to increase their hope, improve their quality of life, help them gain perspective and help them work through social issues as they learn to deal with their new reality.

Properly diagnosing clinical depression for people with chronic illnesses is important, just as it is in the general population. Interestingly, not all people in the chronic illness community who die by suicide are clinically depressed. Research has shown that individuals with chronic invisible illnesses, particularly women, are at an increased risk for suicide. Some studies have reported that nearly 50 percent of people with POTS or fibromyalgia report suicidal ideation. Among those with chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis, approximately 20 percent are at high risk for suicide. These are staggering numbers.

Although most counselors routinely assess for suicide, it is important to know that individuals with chronic invisible illnesses often do not present with the same symptomatology. Whereas most people in the general population who are suicidal tend to have comorbid depression, people with chronic invisible illnesses may not present this way.

Suicide risk factors for individuals with chronic invisible illness include loneliness, perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness. The acquired capability for lethal self-injury is a critical area of risk to explore for those with chronic invisible illness due to repeated exposure to painful or fearsome experiences. These risk factors should be routinely assessed and worked into the treatment plan to target the underlying suicidality and reasons for living. Determining specific goals and objectives on the treatment plan, as well as providing regular check-ins on these topics, may help to decrease the risk of suicide.

The individual’s support system, including the treating physician, should also be made aware of the link between these risk factors and suicide. By facilitating this conversation between clients who are chronically ill and their support systems, some of the concerns related to loneliness, perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness may be addressed proactively and conversely serve as protective factors rather than risk factors.

Counseling clients who are chronically ill

Many individuals with chronic illnesses need a safe place to vent their frustrations while receiving validation for their emotional, social and physical suffering, even if they are not clinically depressed. You may be the only person who believes them as they explain their symptoms and how the chronic illness impacts their daily life.

The therapeutic relationship and the ability to establish rapport are imperative to initiating change in the treatment process. Individuals with chronic invisible illnesses may benefit from individual therapy, couples or family-based interventions, multidisciplinary case coordination and group therapy with other people who are chronically ill. Integrating teletherapy or online therapy can ensure that these individuals, particularly those who are partially or completely homebound, have access to the care that they need.

Some people with chronic invisible illnesses struggle to get through the day. Because of their physical struggles, they often miss activities that they enjoy and may feel disconnected from their social circles. Feelings of loneliness and isolation may develop. As their illness progresses, individuals may require more assistance to perform tasks of daily living (e.g., showering, cooking, cleaning, shopping), which can lead to feelings of burdensomeness. As counselors, it is important to help these individuals find strong support networks and to provide psychoeducational information to the significant people in their lives. It is also crucial to assure these clients that they are resilient and have inherent value that is untouched by their illness.

Many individuals with chronic invisible illness are accurately diagnosed later in life. This fact illustrates how the course of chronic illness can impact the developmental process and quality of life at different stages. The diagnosis and ensuing disability can alter many of these individuals’ plans for the future, including college, career, family life and, at times, independence. This may cause them to redefine themselves within the scope of their chronic illness. Often, they must develop new roles in school, at work and within their families and friendships as they live within the confines of their health issues. As a result, their self-esteem and identity may be negatively impacted and must be addressed within the therapeutic context at different points in time.

This may be done by challenging negative self-talk, focusing on intrinsic motivation and using techniques such as radical acceptance, acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and a strengths-based, ecological perspective. By focusing on these individuals’ strengths, counselors may empower them to create new roles that will provide joy while also embracing the changes in their physical abilities.

In addition to the physiological changes that they are experiencing, clients who are chronically ill may simultaneously be going through the grief process. It is important for counselors to work with these clients to acknowledge the reality of the loss of their physicality, address feelings associated with their loss and help them to adjust to a new “normal.” Magical thinking often accompanies the process of grief and loss and occurs when an individual creates an improbable theory or belief system (often self-deprecating) around why a loss might have occurred. This often serves as an initial defense mechanism but can become detrimental over time. As a result, it is important for counselors to work with chronically ill patients to challenge any magical thinking that may be in place.

Finding normalcy after loss takes time. It is important to remind those with chronic invisible illnesses that there will be good days and bad days, while simultaneously working with them to instill hope for the future. Counselors can play a valuable role in helping people with chronic invisible illnesses to accept their physical limitations, while also empowering them to live rewarding and fulfilling lives.

 

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Cathy L. Pederson holds a doctorate in physiology and neurobiology. She is a professor of biology at Wittenberg University and is the founder of Standing Up to POTS (standinguptopots.org). Contact her at cpederson@wittenberg.edu.

Kathleen Gorman-Ezell holds a doctorate in social work. She is a licensed social worker and an assistant professor of social work at Ohio Dominican University. Contact her at gorma111wnek@ohiodominican.edu.

Greta Hochstetler Mayer holds a doctorate in counselor education and is a licensed professional counselor. She is CEO and initiated suicide prevention coalitions for the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison Counties in Ohio. Contact her at greta@mhrb.org.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “The tangible effects of invisible illness” by Cathy L. Pederson and Greta Hochstetler Mayer

 

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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.