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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.

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.

 

Talking through the pain

By Laurie Meyers January 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

Treating chronic pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking away pain’s power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teamwork and support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

 

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.

Living with anxiety

By Bethany Bray May 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

Anxiety doesn’t happen in isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumping the brakes on racing thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing worry and taming anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Working with clients on medication

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

See the person, not the anxiety

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

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

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

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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