Tag Archives: stress & anxiety

Deconstructing anxiety

By Todd Pressman January 6, 2020

I have always found it tremendously frustrating that our rational minds can’t convince us that most of our fears and anxieties are nothing to be afraid of. Many of my clients express the same frustration. As philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” Sadly, this is true for many of us, and no amount of positive thinking, affirmation or even cognitive transformation will touch any but the most superficial layers of anxiety.

In my early teens, I began a search for answers to this problem. It started with the questions that all good adolescents ask: Why are we here? Who am I really? What can be done about suffering? As a young man, this inquiry took me literally around the world as I met and had exchanges with a Zoroastrian high priest in Mumbai, a Zen master in Kyoto, fire walkers in Sri Lanka, and fakirs in Bali, as well as many of the leaders in the “consciousness” movement. One of my primary takeaways was that anxiety is fundamental in the human experience … and universally so.

This really caught my interest because I recognized the constant fear, sense of threat, and hypervigilance that seemed to be required to “survive” as not only overwhelming but as a fruitless way to live. Later, I channeled this interest into a career as a psychologist and devoted myself particularly to the study of anxiety. At some point in my search, I concluded that anxiety was not just fundamental, but the single greatest source of suffering in life — more central, even, than depression.

Over the years, my personal exploration and work with clients began to reveal certain repeating patterns about the fundamentals of anxiety. From this evolved a new model for treatment that has been gathering significant attention, not only for its effectiveness in treating anxiety but as a new therapeutic approach in general. It synthesizes several modalities, Eastern and Western, to deconstruct anxiety to its most elemental components. Positing a “basic anxiety” (cf. Karen Horney) as the underlying cause of our difficulties, the model pinpoints the precise moment and mechanism by which anxiety took root and altered our perception, creating a world of distorted and painful experience.

The model lays out what is in many ways a radically new understanding of the origin of anxiety, both in the individual and in the evolution of humanity. It describes the arrival of a “core fear” — one’s overriding interpretation of life as dangerous, and a “chief defense” — one’s primary strategy for protecting oneself from that danger. The core fear and chief defense create a singular dynamic that, according to the model, is the true wellspring of basic anxiety. Together, they open up a Pandora’s box of all our fear-based experiences, creating an anxious worldview.

The deconstructing anxiety model presumes that our original state of being is one of wholeness and fulfillment. But at a young age (and perhaps even in utero, as per Otto Rank’s concept of the birth trauma), we have our first contact with danger that establishes our core fear. Our mother leaves the room, and we think it is forever. Our father is distant and cold, and we are left wanting.

With the arrival of the core fear, we must choose a strategy for self-protection — our chief defense. This strategy, because it assumes “something out there is against us,” has us see ourselves as separate from the whole — from others, from what we need, from fulfillment. Armed with our chief defense, we embark on a quest to reclaim our original well-being.

Because this quest is motivated by fear (the fear of being separate from what we need), it can never succeed: With our focus on avoiding fear, our attention becomes consumed with all of the dangers that might sabotage our search. In this way, the core fear and chief defense become the original cause and perpetuator of our unhappiness. As a strategy to protect us from danger, they project our fears onto reality so that we may be “prepared” for them. This projection creates what I like to call a three-dimensional, multisensory hologram — a living, breathing perceptual distortion based on anxious premises. The great problem of human suffering is that we forget this is only a projection and take the hologram to be “real.”

Combining insight and action

What to do about this very human predicament? According to our model, we must thoroughly deconstruct our anxiety down to the core fear and chief defense that created the trouble in the first place. Only then can we see that they are made up of learned constructs, built from childhood assumptions that no longer serve us.

This sounds ordinary enough, but the model completely redefines what it means to perform such a deconstruction. It is only when we arrive at the “root of the root,” the original “mistake” in thinking (again, both in the individual and in humanity as a collective), that we can truly achieve the insight to show us that our fears are not founded. This depth of insight is rare. So often, we are mystified about why we suffer; despite our best efforts and insights, we become lost in the catacombs of unconscious fears, with no sure compass to direct our course.

Even if we do achieve true insight into the original thought of fear at the root of suffering, we may still need, as neuroscience shows, to take corrective action if we are to truly resolve anxiety. This is because fear can get written into our physiology in ways that insight alone cannot heal. Finding the correct action to take that will truly expose the illusion of our fear can also be challenging.

So, the right combination of insight and action is our goal. For this purpose, the deconstructing anxiety model has developed two powerful techniques that quickly reveal one’s core fear and chief defense. These diagnostic tools cut through our confusion and explain the original source of our suffering with comprehensive insight. Such insight suggests the necessary tools for action (also given in our model) to resolve the problem. Taken together, these practices help one get “behind the camera,” so to speak, that is projecting our individual and collective worlds of anxious perception.

Finding the core fear

The process of deconstruction starts with an exercise for finding one’s core fear called “Digging for gold.” With this technique, we may quickly and reliably reveal — or we may do so for our clients — the fundamental thought that has been distorting our perception for a lifetime. This exercise is the cornerstone of our model, using a process of deconstruction that goes directly to the root fear underneath all the rest. Here’s how it works:

Begin (or have your clients do so) by writing down a problem on the top left of a page. Any problem will do, because all problems are born, as we shall see, of the same core fear. Make sure your answer is stated as an actual problem and written in a short single phrase, such as “My friend slighted me” or “I can’t pay my bills.” Then write one of the following three questions on the right side of the same line of the page. Choose whichever of these questions seems most fruitful:

1) Why is that upsetting to me?

2) What am I afraid will happen next?

3) What am I afraid that I will miss or lose?

Answer the question with another short single phrase, written on the left side of the line below the first problem. This answer should state a new problem that brings you one level closer to the core fear underlying the original problem. Ask one of the same three questions on the right side of that second line and respond with a short single answer on the third line on the left. Continue with this process until you arrive at what you will clearly recognize as the core fear — a fundamental truth about the real source of the problem with which you started. (See box below for structure of exercise.)

You will know you have arrived at the core fear when you a) keep getting the same answer to the questions and can no longer find a deeper source of fear and b) have an “aha!” experience, a profound recognition that the answer explains something essential at the bedrock of your thinking. Spontaneous connections between the core fear and important events from the past will become apparent, sometimes accompanied by an evocation of powerful emotion and even catharsis.

The real significance of this tool, however, is that as you repeat it with various problems, you will discover that it reveals not only the root of a particular issue or issues but the one true root of literally any problem you can have. This is necessarily so because the core fear is your fundamental interpretation — the overarching assumption — of how the world can be dangerous or threatening. (Note: There are five core fears, or “universal themes of loss,” that capture the basic interpretations of danger that we all make. They are 1) fear of abandonment, 2) loss of identity, 3) loss of meaning, 4) loss of purpose and 5) fear of death, including the fear of sickness and pain.)

Because it is so threatening, so ego-dystonic with our previous state of wholeness, once we land on the core fear interpretation, it makes a powerful imprint on the psyche. We hold on to it as our key to survival — that which will make sense of the danger we’ve encountered and prepare us to be ready for it in the future. It becomes our new understanding of the world, the filter through which we will interpret every experience that presents (or that we can imagine might present) the possibility of danger.

Finding the chief defense

Once we have found our core fear, we must decipher our chief defense, defined as the primary strategy we use to protect ourselves from the core fear. Just as we do with the core fear, we cling desperately to the chief defense, believing it is necessary for survival. But in using this strategy, we unwittingly lock ourselves in to further anxiety because we are reacting to the idea of the core fear as if it were real, as if we are indeed in danger and our protective maneuvers are necessary.

As per the premise mentioned earlier, this is always a distortion of the truth. If we were to examine the real situation, we would at worst find a problem we can deal with rather than the catastrophe our core fear would have us imagine. More often than not, we find the situation we feared holds no threat at all — that the entire idea of danger was made up, a residue of childhood beliefs long held but never challenged.

To find the chief defense then, we simply ask ourselves, “How do I habitually respond to the core fear (or any threat to well-being, since all arise from the core fear)?” We have become so accustomed to our chief defense as our automatic (and only) response to problems that we don’t usually consider alternatives. But as a way to get perspective on our own presumptive response, we can ask ourselves, “How might someone else respond differently in this situation?” or “What is my typical response (overall) when I am challenged or threatened?”

We can also look at many of the major decisions we have made in life and how those decisions were designed to protect us from the core fear of those moments (e.g., the fear of making the wrong decision). There are several other methods for getting insight into one’s chief defense (complete descriptions of these practices can be found in my other publications), but all of them are really different ways of asking, “What is my personality style?” Because it is the core fear and chief defense that set our unique manner (our “personality”) of interpreting and responding to the variety of circumstances life can throw at us.

It bears repeating: The great discovery in this approach is that the core fear-chief defense dynamic gives a sweeping and comprehensive explanation about why we suffer. It not only builds our personality but outlines the entire way we have learned to orient to and interact with life. The extent to which we struggle is the extent to which we have not resolved these fundamental driving forces. Remember, even though they may take care of a problem in the moment, all defenses backfire in the end, reifying and exacerbating the problem they were supposed to protect us from. As we repeat these exercises over and over, we can demonstrate for ourselves that there is, in fact, one core fear and one chief defense operating behind the scenes whenever we are not experiencing the deep fulfillment and sense of wholeness that was our original state.

Once armed with insight into the core fear and chief defense, we are ready to take corrective action. The deconstructing anxiety model has developed several new techniques, including “The Alchemist,” “The Witness” and “The Warrior’s Stance,” for dismantling the chief defense and resolving the core fear. Each of these techniques has been demonstrated clinically to be highly effective in shaking off the hypnotizing effect of fear and waking us up to the truer reality it was hiding. Like pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, we “do the opposite” of what our chief defense would have us do, thereby exposing the core fear it was hiding. It is this unveiling of the core fear — the secret, primal source of our difficulties — that shows it to be ineffectual. It is but a mouse that roared, casting huge and grotesque shadows on the wall but carrying no real threat.

There isn’t space in this article to go into detail with these techniques, but each is designed to pinpoint the exact moment that our chief defense is applied. By targeting this moment, we may “do the opposite” and expose (rather than defend against) the core fear, revealing its true and distorted nature. But to do so, we must thoroughly move through the fear (at least in imagination) to “disobey” the command of the chief defense. This enables us to pull back from the automatic responses of our personality style, seeing them as arbitrary and encouraging a more effective reply. Combine this with the understanding that there is one core fear and one chief defense responsible for our way of being in the world, and these exercises give us the ability to unravel the entire world of projection that comes from them. It allows us to see through the appearance of danger and shows anxiety to be a lie — an optical illusion if you will — distorted by so much smoke and mirrors.

Case study

Peter (not his real name) was a 48-year-old man who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder. He was especially anxious about the idea of physical sickness and pain and of emotional rejection, and he struggled with the limitations of being human. It was evident from our first meeting that he had been raised by an overprotective mother who had shielded him too well from the exigencies of life.

When Peter was 9 months old, he became very sick and was hospitalized. In addition to the physical pain he experienced, he must have been terrified about being separated from his mother in a strange, cold environment with strange people poking and prodding him. When he returned to the security of his home, he regressed, clinging tightly to his mother and showing behaviors he had previously grown out of. He stayed young and dependent throughout his childhood.

At age 14, Peter began a tumultuous adolescence, experiencing his hormonal changes as an overwhelming challenge to his identity. His first response was to try to cling to his parents for comfort, but for the first time since his hospital experience, they were not able to calm him. This increased his anxiety all the more and solidified his core fear, which he described to me as being “exposed to the elements and to death, without any real security.” His response at age 14 was to make a powerful resolve that if his parents could not protect him, then he would find a way to gain a sense of control on his own.

As Peter grew older, this translated into various behaviors (what the deconstructing anxiety model calls “secondary defenses”) in which he would be “the best” at whatever he pursued: the best student, the best athlete, the most popular kid at school and so on. These behaviors represented his strategy for trying to reclaim the sense of safety and security he once knew. Putting these secondary defenses together, he described his chief defense (the umbrella description overarching them all) as “I have to be special.”

This response style would become Peter’s personality, following him throughout his life. Although it created a good deal of ambition in Peter — a drive to evoke his fullest potential — it was clear this drive was compelled by fear, a somewhat frantic need to be special. Therefore, it belied his anxiety of accepting the necessary limits of the human condition in a way that could have led to real growth and transformation. Instead, Peter felt stuck in a self-repeating loop that was the cause of his generalized anxiety — every time he became anxious, he would try in earnest to “beat” the problem, looking for the next way to prove his worth and “specialness.” Like any defense, this would provide momentary relief but then backfire, inevitably creating more anxiety when Peter was confronted with some new vulnerability, thus beginning the process all over again.

In our work together, Peter quickly uncovered his core fear and chief defense and developed a healthy appreciation for the futility of the strategy they proposed for well-being. With these insights in hand, we began the exercises for correction in the deconstructing anxiety program. In each, we gently but firmly confronted Peter’s chief defense of being special and practiced “doing the opposite.”

These exercises targeted the exact instant when Peter would defend against his core fear and provided a structure for safely and completely moving through the defense. In doing so, Peter could see the impulse to exercise his chief defense as an arbitrary choice. This allowed him to live through (in imagination) the full force of his core fear, coming to a deep acceptance of that from which he had been running his entire life. Sticking with this process, Peter’s chief defense “dissolved” (his word), no longer able to convince him that there was something threatening to defend against. He had faced his fear of not being special and relaxed into the fact that he was “ordinary, just like everyone else.” However, he no longer interpreted this as a source of pain or disappointment.

Quite the contrary, with a great look of surprise on his face, he stated, “It’s so freeing to be ordinary. I see how my whole life I’ve been working so hard to prove I’m special. All that did was keep me anxious, always worrying about failing at my goal. How ironic. I wanted to be special so I could get love and security. But I was the one keeping myself apart from that, thinking I had to be more than I was in order to earn that love.”

This is not an isolated example. Every time we face the core fear without the interference of the chief defense, we will find that the core fear is not “real” in the sense we had thought. This is the promise of deconstructing anxiety: When we clearly see the hidden forces that have been driving our lives, we can take those therapeutic actions that will set us free. This means moving through the chief defense that was hiding our core fear, exposing ourselves gently but firmly to the fear, and discovering that our core fear does not have the power to carry out its threat as promised. Even if a problem remains to be managed, it does not represent a true call for fear once the assumptions that made it frightening are stripped away.

What’s more, we find that the vast majority of our fears and anxieties are completely made up, projections built on ideas learned long ago that have no bearing on our circumstances today. This is the great key to freedom, a prescription for how to live our lives from a new premise — one based not on fear and anxiety but on the ability to consciously choose our way according to our highest ideals and deepest fulfillments.

 

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Todd Pressman is a licensed psychologist, author and speaker specializing in the treatment of anxiety and the pursuit of fulfillment. His most recent book, Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey From Fear to Fulfillment, was published this past summer (see toddpressman.com for more information). Contact him at pressmanseminars@gmail.com.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conference.

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.

Positive actions to prevent the holiday blues

By Esther De La Rosa Scott December 11, 2019

‘Tis the season to be jolly! The season for candlelight, friends, gatherings and warmly lit fireplaces. Although the holiday season is a time full of parties and family gatherings, for many people it is also a time of self-evaluation, loneliness, reflection on past “failures,” and anxiety about an uncertain future. It is the season for the holiday blues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines the holiday blues as temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress.

There is much connected to our holiday festivities that can cause us stress. What to wear? What food to bring? What gifts to get? For some people though, the more pressing question is, “How will I get through the holiday stress and the memories that accompany the season?”

This is also the season, with the days getting shorter and shorter, when we spend a significant amount of time inside and in the dark. Waking up in the dark, going to work in the dark, and leaving work in the dark can be tough for many of us, putting us at risk for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the wintertime.

 

What causes the holiday blues?

Researchers have yet to uncover the specific cause for SAD, which is also referred to as the holiday blues. However, they do acknowledge that several factors are at play.

The reduction in sunlight in winter can throw our biological clocks out of whack and reduce our levels of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates our mood) and melatonin (a chemical that regulates sleep and mood).

The holiday or winter blues can be triggered by other factors that include unrealistic expectations, overcommercialization, or the inability to be with our families and loved ones. The increased demands of shopping, parties, family reunions, and houseguests also can contribute to these feelings of tension. Even people who do not become depressed can develop other stress reactions such as headaches, excessive drinking, overeating, and difficulty sleeping during the holidays.

 

When to seek help

Recent studies have shown that environmental factors — namely fewer hours of sunlight — can contribute to feelings of depression around the holidays. SAD is considered a category of depression that emerges in particular seasons of the year. Most people notice SAD symptoms starting in the fall and increasing throughout the winter months. If you are experiencing SAD symptoms (e.g., changes in sleep and appetite, a loss of pleasure in activities you once loved, depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, reduced sexual interest, unhappiness, thoughts of death or suicide) make an appointment with a mental health provider.

We all have days when we feel unmotivated, but if your symptoms are causing disruptions in your life, it is time to reach out for assistance. A mental health professional can help you figure out the things in your life that are stressing you out and help you make a plan to manage or minimize their impact on your emotional health. In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional and avoiding specific unhealthy habits, implementing the positive actions described in this article can help improve your symptoms.

During the holidays, there are many obligations — from attending parties to wrapping gifts to baking treats — that can cause us stress. We can easily get caught up in fulfilling these obligations rather than spending time doing the things that would actually bring us joy. Rather than letting the season take a toll on us, we can take positive actions to emotionally prepare ourselves for winter and the holiday blues. After all, the holidays are supposed to be a time for us to recharge and restore our energy for the year ahead.

 

Positive actions

Here is a partial list of positive actions that can help prevent the holiday blues.

1) Get organized. The brain functions better when structure is provided. Take time to go through your closet and put away any clothes you won’t be using during the winter months. Move the key pieces you will be reaching for during the cold months to the front of your closet. This will give you a feeling that you are in control.

2) Get festive. Decorate for the holidays to make your space feel a little less monotonous. Put on some appropriate tunes while you are decorating. This will help you feel included and as so many others are celebrating in their own unique ways. Remember that holiday cheer does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. There is room for these feelings to be present, but a little holiday spirit can help you better manage your emotions.

3) Let go of the past. Don’t be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. You set yourself up for sadness if everything has to be just like the “good old days.” Instead, prepare yourself by stocking up on delicious smelling candles, or light a fire and sit down with pen and paper to write a gratitude journal, or send handwritten notes to friends and family. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not tried before. Try volunteering some time to help others. Dopamine (“happy juice”) is released in the brain when we perform acts of kindness.

4) Go window shopping. Go shopping without buying anything. Take advantage of holiday activities that are free of charge, such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations in your neighborhood or participating in your community tree lighting or church service tradition.

5) Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. Do you ever find yourself staying late at work because you don’t have a reason not to? Make reasons to leave. Make plans with friends ahead of time so you can’t back out and just stick around the office.

 

Things to avoid

1) Do not stay inside and be alone for too long. Try going outside as often as possible; getting plenty of sunlight will lift your mood. Visit a church or gather with others. The holidays are intended to be a time to get together with people we love to express gratitude for the things in our lives that we treasure. It is a time to spread messages and acts of love to one another. Keeping sight of the true reason for the season and spirit of the holidays will help to improve your mood.

2) Do not stop your exercise routine. Exercise works like an antidepressant. It increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, boosting your mood. But for many people, the holiday season brings drastic changes in routine. They lose their sense of normalcy and stop the routines they have established that help them to feel healthy and secure. It is of great importance to maintain your usual routines — particularly your exercise routine — even throughout the holidays. Sometimes, something as simple as sticking to a routine can help you maintain a sense of control. Don’t forget to keep a reasonable sleep schedule as well.

3) Do not drink excessively or use drugs. For those who have lost someone close to them or experienced a romantic breakup, the holidays can trigger intense feelings of loss and pain. Some people fall into the trap of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to alleviate emotional pain and other symptoms of depression. In reality, treating these problems with alcohol or other substances only makes the problem worse.

Alcohol and depression have a dangerous relationship. Although alcohol can create a sense of pleasurable feelings in the short term, it is ultimately a depressant on the central nervous system and will leave you feeling worse. In addition, alcohol lowers serotonin levels in the brain, causing a person who feels depressed to slip into an even deeper depression. Alcohol also interferes with metabolic processes and sleeping patterns, which can further worsen the person’s condition.

Instead, it is helpful to prepare for these triggers with a therapist or close friend. Then you will know what to expect and how to handle the strong emotions that you may experience. Another way to mourn the loss of a loved one around the holidays is to honor their memory through a holiday tradition that they enjoyed. Perhaps this involves baking their favorite dessert, putting up their favorite decorations, or sharing stories and special memories of the person.

Make an agreement with yourself about how many drinks you plan to have in advance, and stick to it. Seek immediate help if you are using alcohol or drugs to manage your pain and are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

 

Next step

There is nothing new under the sun, and the same is true for the ideas discussed in this article. I have not suggested any strategies that are not already known or that have not been given by somebody else. But what I have done is provide an organized list of positive actions that you can take to prevent the holiday blues.

If you anticipate that the holidays may be a challenging time for you and you could use a little extra support implementing any of the positive actions from this article, make an appointment with a mental health provider. Counseling in one of the most powerful weapons we have to protect against emotional pain, depression, the holiday blues, and even the everyday ups and downs of life. Having someone who is trained and there specifically to talk about your feelings is invaluable. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength and movement toward a better version of yourself.

You can’t force yourself to have fun, but you can push yourself to take the positive actions necessary to protect yourself against the emotional impact of the holiday blues. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it is painting, singing, playing the piano, working on crafts, or simply hanging out with friends. And consider how you can start implementing these positive actions today for a more meaningful, well-balanced, healthier life this season and every season.

 

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Esther De La Rosa Scott is a licensed professional counselor. She is a solution-focused specialist and couples therapist. Her specialties include relationship counseling, grief, depression, and teaching coping skills. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.

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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.

Pushing through the vape cloud

By Lindsey Phillips November 26, 2019

Four years ago, Hannah Rose, a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Baltimore, started vaping as a way to quit traditional cigarettes, but she ultimately found that it was even more difficult to stop vaping. “I was vaping at work, round-the-clock, in between clients,” Rose recalls.

One day after leaving a yoga class, she instantly reached for her vape. In that moment, she felt conflicted because her nicotine addiction did not line up with her values of being mentally and physically healthy. This values conflict made her want to quit, but the thought of doing so gave her anxiety.

Part of Rose’s anxiety stemmed from the fact that nicotine, which is in most vape juices, can be highly addictive. One pod (about 200 puffs) of the electronic-cigarette brand Juul contains 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine. Gail Lalk, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor in private practice at Young Adult Therapy in Morristown, New Jersey, says she has seen teenagers who have gotten addicted after vaping one or two pods.

E-cigarettes often introduce nicotine to teenagers who were not previously smoking traditional cigarettes. This has been the case for the majority of Lalk’s younger clients. Lalk asserts that she hasn’t had a single client younger than 18 who started vaping because they were trying to quit cigarettes.

Recent statistics confirm the popularity of vaping among teenagers. According to the Food and Drug Administration, from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use grew by 78% among high school students (from 11.7% of students to 20.8% of students) and increased 48% among middle school students (from 3.3% to 4.9% of students). In December 2018, Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory about the dangers of e-cigarette use among teenagers and declared it an epidemic in the United States.

But why have e-cigarettes gained popularity so quickly? The big draw is the flavor, says Rose, who has experience working with clients battling addiction. Traditional cigarettes aren’t known for their good taste. The first time someone smokes a traditional cigarette, they usually start coughing and are left with a tobacco or menthol aftertaste.

Compare that experience with vaping: It doesn’t feel harsh when the user inhales, yet the user still gets a buzz of nicotine. And this experience comes in almost any taste imaginable — mango, mint, apple pie, cake, bourbon, coffee and so on. The options are so plentiful that some online vape shops organize the flavors by categories such as cream and custard, candy, sour and beverage. 

However, after a recent outbreak of lung injuries associated with vaping, e-cigarettes have been coming under increased scrutiny. The Trump administration has proposed a policy to ban flavored vaping liquids, and several states such as Michigan, New York and Massachusetts have already enacted similar bans. In October, Juul announced it was immediately suspending sales of its e-cigarette flavors.

Watch your language

Jennifer See, an LPC and a licensed chemical dependency counselor in private practice in San Antonio, advises counselors to be honest with their clients about the attraction of vaping. “These substances make these kids feel good, even if it’s just temporary. So, saying that they don’t is just not a good approach,” notes See, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Instead, counselors should acknowledge that vaping can be pleasurable and ask clients what they like about it, she says. At the same time, clients can be reassured that they have the ability to quit, even though it will be difficult, and that the counselor will be there with them every step of the way, she adds.

When referring to the issue of vaping during intake or in session, counselors need to be specific about the language they use, See says. Smoking is not “an umbrella [term for vaping] because people don’t really associate [vaping] with tobacco or nicotine,” she explains. “It’s almost its own category.”

On her intake form, See used to ask clients if they were using nonprescribed substances such as alcohol, tobacco or nicotine, or whether they smoked. However, she was finding that clients who vaped often responded no to these questions because they didn’t consider it to be the same as smoking. Now, See clearly asks if clients vape or Juul (the most popular brand of e-cigarettes).

This advice extends to the language counselors use on their websites and in how they advertise their clinical services. Rather than listing only general terms such as substance use or smoking, counselors should specifically list vaping if they are trained and feel comfortable working with the issue, See suggests.

Rose doesn’t believe that vaping should be the focus of counseling sessions, at least not initially. “Vaping is not the problem,” she explains. “It’s just a symptom of the problem. So, counselors [first] need to tap into that core-issue work.”

As Rose points out, even 12-step programs view substances as symptoms of a larger issue. “The 12 steps are not about not drinking [or smoking],” she says. “The only step that even mentions alcohol or nicotine is the first step. The other 11 steps are all about introspective work, practicing integrity, and looking at what patterns of behavior are no longer useful.” The success of this approach lies in looking for the underlying issue, not treating the substance as the problem, she says.

Parents often call See in a panic because they have caught their child vaping and want the child to stop. Parents — typically out of concern and fear — may try to punish or shame their children into quitting. See avoids any hint of shaming her young clients for their choices or even making assumptions about their readiness to quit whatever substances they are using “because I think that is a great way to alienate [the client],” she says.

Rather than launching into a discussion about vaping, See instead starts her sessions by getting to know the client. She will ask about school, home life and friends. She may ask, “What do you do in your free time? What activities are you involved in? Did you recently move? Do you have any pets?”

Often, these conversations reveal the role that vaping plays in clients’ lives, See says. For instance, a client may have started vaping because they just moved and wanted to fit in with a new group of friends, or because they are stressed out about applying to college.

See specializes in substance use and abuse and has expertise working with clients and their family members on issues around vaping. She has found that younger kids want to talk about vaping not only in social settings but also in counseling because they don’t consider it illicit and because they feel it is novel or cool to bring up the latest vape tricks and challenges. One popular challenge is for users to “hit a Juul” as many times as they can for 30 seconds. Another involves the “ghost inhale,” in which users inhale the vapor into their mouths, blow it out in the shape of a ball, and then quickly sip it back into their mouths.

Finding the underlying issue

Using motivational interviewing, See eventually asks clients if they want to quit vaping, if they are worried about their health if they continue vaping, and what their goals are for therapy. Part of the purpose of this questioning is to figure out the underlying reason that clients are vaping in the first place, See says. Is it because they are anxious or depressed? Is it simply because they want to appear cool?

To help clients pinpoint their underlying issue, See asks them to keep a journal to track their thoughts and behaviors connected to vaping. Often, as clients track when and where they vape — for example, when they’re alone in their room, when they’re with friends in their car, or when they’re bored — they also discover the real reasons they do it.

Clients keep track of their vaping habits for a few weeks or in between sessions, and then with See’s help, they look for patterns and clues that point to the underlying reason. This exercise also helps clients gain greater awareness of how much time and energy they devote to vaping, See notes. Often, people spend much more time vaping than they would smoking a cigarette, she adds. “Vaping is almost like chain smoking,” she explains. “That’s just another element that people don’t take into account.” See says some of her clients were vaping for two to three hours per day and didn’t realize it until they started tracking it in their journals.

As Rose notes, “Counseling can be helpful to look under the surface of the behavioral piece and bring a level of mindfulness to what is the thought or feeling that precedes [a client] picking up that vape.” She contends that this is not the time for counselors to use a solution-focused approach to try to quickly get clients to stop vaping.

“Smoking or vaping is a symptom, and the core problem is something internal,” Rose asserts. That’s why she believes counseling has so much to offer to people who want to quit vaping — because counseling goes beyond merely reducing the symptoms and helps to address the underlying issue. “A good competent counselor can really bring a deeper level of awareness to that core issue, [and] if that wound begins to heal, it prevents the problem from continuing,” Rose says.

A few years ago, Lalk, an ACA member who specializes in working with adolescents and young adults, had a teenager come to her because she had attempted suicide, was depressed, had past trauma, and was using lots of substances, including vaping. For the next two and a half years, Lalk worked with the client on her anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors such as lying. After successfully addressing these underlying issues, the client announced on her own that she wanted to quit vaping and be substance free when she started college. In addition to continuing with counseling, the client used a nicotine patch and was able to slowly wean herself off of nicotine. Lalk says this was possible because the client started from a state of good mental health.

A mindfulness ‘patch’

See has had clients who, without thinking, pulled out their vaping devices in session. That showed how much of a habit it had become for them, she says.

Rose admits that she used to be on autopilot with vaping, and the first few days after she quit, she found herself instinctively reaching for her device. Because vaping can help release a person’s anxiety, making them feel better, it can quickly become a habit, Rose says. The challenge is unlearning this habit, which is a deliberate process, she emphasizes.

Similar to See’s tracking activity, Rose has clients journal to help them become more mindful about how and why they vape. She asks clients to write down (or at least notice) what was going on before they vaped, including their thoughts and feelings and their environmental and internal cues. She tells clients not to judge or change the situation. She simply wants them to notice it and make note of it.

“That awareness makes it more difficult to continue engaging in the same self-destructive pattern, and that pain and discomfort lead us to eventually stop the pattern,” Rose says.

Meditation is another effective way for clients to practice nonjudgmental awareness. “Yoga essentially saved me from smoking because it forced me to be still in my own body, and my cravings started to decrease the more I did yoga and the more I got comfortable with myself,” Rose says. “Any kind of mindfulness practice in any capacity can really help calm that craving because it forces you to … pause and be aware instead of act on impulse.”

“When you’re trying to quit vaping, it’s likely to unmask other anxieties,” Lalk says. The trick is to find healthy ways to process this underlying anxiety. Lalk finds patterning techniques helpful for her clients in this regard.

Lalk uses the common technique of deep breathing to illustrate patterning. Counselors often tell clients to breathe in a numerical pattern: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for six seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds, for example. This technique works because of the counting pattern, Lalk says. “Once you start trying to do [this patterning], your brain shifts and it calms you down,” she explains.

Lalk encourages clients to find a patterning technique that works for them. It could be doing beats with their hands, taking deep breathes and counting, writing poetry, or going for a walk and looking for patterns (counting every orange object that they see, for example). The key is to be mindful while doing the activity, Lalk explains. “Running is a beautiful way to pattern because you can count your steps. Just running for the sake of running if you aren’t being mindful about it isn’t nearly as helpful,” she adds.

With the help of a relaxation patterning activity, clients can calm themselves as they discuss their underlying anxiety or other issue with a counselor. Lalk points out that people often hide from whatever makes them anxious. Counselors can work with clients to instead address and acknowledge their anxiety and move toward it, not away from it, she says. Lalk says one of her clients can do four different beats with each of his hands and feet. Once he starts doing his beats, he relaxes and starts talking about his underlying issues.

See also helps clients find mindful replacements for vaping. One of her clients tracked her vaping behavior and discovered that she mostly vaped in her car — a place she spent a significant amount of time driving to school, work and other activities. Together, See and the client reviewed various alternatives that she could engage in while in her car: Would playing music help? Did she need something to do with her hands, such as squeezing a stress ball or play dough or twirling a pen in her fingers? Was her vaping habit the result of an oral fixation?

They finally decided the client would keep a water bottle in her car, and every time she wanted to vape, she would take a sip of water instead. In many cases, it’s about figuring out what clients can do so that vaping is not at the forefront of their minds, See says.

Changing the narrative

Lalk points out that people who vape are not strangers to negative, shame-based and judgmental comments from others. But this sends the wrong message, she says. The person may have tried vaping at a party and, in a short time, become addicted. This doesn’t make them a bad person; it just means they are struggling, she says.

Counseling can help clients manage negative internal and external comments. Rose has her clients practice nonjudgmental awareness. For example, a client might set a goal of not vaping all week, but at the next session, he confesses that he did vape, which in his eyes, makes him a “horrible person.” Rose helps the client separate shame (“I am a bad person because I vaped this week”) from guilt (“I feel bad for relapsing and using nicotine”). Whereas feelings of guilt can be healthy, shame and negative thinking aren’t productive, Rose says. Clients can’t shame themselves into quitting, even though they often try to do just that, she adds.

Rose frequently uses narrative therapy to help clients identify and change these harmful thoughts. She asks clients to write down all of the thoughts they have about themselves at the end of each day. Maybe they vaped that day and feel like a failure, or maybe they went the entire day without vaping and feel good about themselves.

Rose encourages clients to be mindful of the story they are creating with their words and thoughts. She asks clients, “What is the narrative you have created about yourself and your vaping?” Sometimes clients have internalized a narrative of “I’m a smoker,” and the more they say this, the more it becomes true, Rose says. So, if a client states, “I’m a smoker who quit two months ago,” Rose works with the person to change the story to an empowering one, such as, “I don’t vape. I’m not a smoker.”

“Those narratives are going to illuminate some more core issues like self-esteem or a lack of self-worth,” she adds.

Focus on the wins

See suggests that counselors can also help clients focus on their small victories. “Every time you don’t [vape] is a win,” See says. “And if a day didn’t go as great as you wanted it to, then just press that reset button and start over. You can start over at any point in the day. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow.”

See collaborates with clients to identify rewards and motivations that would work best for them. That could be buying new shoes with the money saved from not vaping that week or not allowing themselves to watch a Netflix show until they make it one day without vaping. The goal is to have clients build up their toolboxes, so she has them come up with a list of about 25 things that aren’t substances that make them feel good, such as running or going out to eat at a favorite restaurant.

Having a sufficient stockpile of motivators in their toolboxes ensures that clients will have an alternative to turn to when the craving to vape hits, See notes. Having only a few options — even if they are strong motivators — can backfire because not every tool will work in every situation. For instance, if a client is stuck in class and can’t go running when the urge to vape arises, he or she will need another tool to use in that moment. Clients should also make their goal visible to help motivate them, See adds. For example, they can put the goal on their mirror so that they see it every day.

Rose recommends the app Smoke Free because it focuses on positive reinforcement, not consequences. “It’s very strength based,” she notes. The app doesn’t show a picture of an unhealthy lung or treat the user as naive. Instead, it focuses on the benefits of not smoking and the progress people are making toward their goals.

Upon opening the Smoke Free app, users see a dashboard displaying how long (down to the hour) they have been smoke free. It calculates the degree to which the person’s health is being restored with icons that display improvements (by percentage) for pulse rate, oxygen levels, and risk of heart attack and lung cancer. It also shows users how much money they have saved by not vaping. The app includes a journal component where users can note their cravings and identify their triggers. To further encourage users, it includes progress made such as life regained in days and time not spent smoking.

“A knowledge of consequences does not dissipate the problem,” Rose says. “We absolutely know that smoking is highly correlated with lung cancer, and yet millions of people still smoke.” Younger generations often feel invincible, so focusing only on the consequences of vaping isn’t a sufficient motivator, she adds.

Forming alliances

Counselors must take steps to reach children and parents even earlier because vaping is increasingly making its way into elementary and middle schools, says See, who wrote the article “The dangers of vaping” for the website CollegiateParent. With parents, it is also helpful to educate them on what to look for because vaping devices, which can resemble a flash drive or pen, are often hidden in plain sight and are easily overlooked, See adds. 

Lalk recommends that counselors also take the time to learn from their clients. Through her alliance with some of her seventh- and eighth-grade clients, she found out which local stores were selling e-cigarettes to underage patrons. These clients also confided that one store owner said he knew the kids were underage but that the possibility of getting caught and having to pay a $250 fine was worth it because each vape sold for $60.

This knowledge helped Lalk take action in her community, including writing an article on how the shops, rather than the children, should be prosecuted, and participating in a movement to create ordinances setting new rules for establishments that sell vapes to minors. The businesses in her town now have to secure permits to sell vaping products, part of which requires acknowledging that they will not sell to minors. If store owners are found in violation of their permits, they risk losing their businesses. 

Rose used to facilitate two hours of group counseling at a rehabilitation center five days a week, and she regularly witnessed the shame reduction and healing that can happen in groups. “I believe the opposite of addiction is not just abstinence,” she says. “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

Accountability is another big piece in quitting, Rose says. She often tells clients who are struggling to call a friend with whom they can be honest or to find another way to keep themselves accountable to their goal of quitting or reducing the amount of time they vape.

Rose personally found that documenting her journey of quitting in a blog post kept her accountable. Others reached out and told her that her post made them feel less alone and motivated them to quit too. In turn, she thought twice before using her vape again because she wanted to respond to incoming emails by confirming that she was still vape free.   

See agrees that accountability and healthy rewards are smart strategies for helping clients who want to quit vaping. Peer pressure can become a big issue, especially for teenagers who don’t want to feel like the odd person out when seemingly everyone else in their crowd is vaping, she says. She advises clients to let people know they are quitting and to surround themselves with people who will empower and support them in their decision.

Accountability becomes even more important with adults, See points out, because they have more freedom and don’t automatically have someone watching over or checking in with them. That’s why having a support system is so important, she says. When clients feel like vaping, they can reach out to someone they trust and ask them for five reasons not to, See says.

See says clients might also consider posting on social media that they are quitting and openly ask for support, or they could participate in a 30-day challenge. One of Lalk’s clients participated in a challenge the person referred to as “No-Nic November.” These positive challenges can provide a good counterbalance to the vaping challenges that are so popular on social media currently.

When See dropped one of her children off at college, she noticed the dorm had placed a whiteboard with the words “Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress” written at the top. The students were adding their own suggestions, such as going to a pet store and petting a cat or going for a run. See loved this self-empowering technique and plans to incorporate it into her own practice by adding a Post-it wall where clients can add their own healthy ways of coping or their own words of encouragement.

Taking the first step

Quitting can be overwhelming, and sometimes clients don’t know where to start. See advises these clients to begin by taking small steps. Harm reduction can be a particularly effective early strategy because it empowers clients, See says. “Once they see they can harm reduce, then maybe [they] can harm reduce all the way to zero use,” she explains. “But putting them at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro and saying ‘get up to the top right now’ is daunting.” Instead, she asks clients what their “climb” to being vape free looks like for them. Do they want to climb fast, or do they want to climb slow?

Recently, See worked with a teenager who had been vaping for three years. She had been scared by the recent health reports related to vaping and wanted to quit. See asked this client about her motivators, and the client said she wanted to quit to protect her health, for her parents who were pressuring her to quit, and because of the monetary costs associated with vaping.

See asked the client, “What does 30 days without vaping look like?” The client’s eyes bulged. The thought of it was too much for her. So, instead, See and the teen client talked and decided she would remove e-cigarettes from just one place in her life.

By tracking her habits, the client learned she vaped mostly in her car. So, See suggested she remove the vape only from her car and also not allow her friends to vape there. See also instructed the client to notice and write down how it felt not having the vape in her car. Did she miss it? Did she reach for it without thinking? Together, they also made a list of possible replacements she could keep in her car, including a pen, candy flavored like her favorite vape juice, and a stress ball.

“That was one part of the mountain that she could climb,” See says. Feeling empowered by her success, the teenager eventually decided that she was ready to tackle the prospect of no longer vaping in her room at home.

Others, such as Rose, decide to take a faster approach and quit cold turkey. She notes that counseling can bring a level of mindful awareness to quitting and help clients figure out the underlying reasons they turn to vaping to fill an internal void. “The nicotine [and] physical addiction is a part of it, but that’s not the core issue,” she asserts.

Since she stopped vaping, Rose’s mindfulness practice has increased. She has trained herself to pause before acting on impulse. “The mental aspect is infinitely more difficult to unlearn than the physical addiction — ‘I’m sad, I’m going to vape. I’m happy, I’m going to vape. I’m bored’ — that’s the most common — ‘I’m going to vape.’ It’s something to do, something to reach for, essentially something to [help] avoid just sitting with [one’s] self in one’s own skin,” she says.

As Rose opens her Smoke Free app, her dashboard proudly displays that she hasn’t vaped for six months, 16 days and 13 hours.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Procrastination: An emotional struggle

By Lindsey Phillips October 24, 2019

Procrastination is a common issue — one that people often equate with simply being “lazy” or having poor time-management skills. But there is often more to the story.

William McCown, associate dean of the College of Business and Social Sciences and professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, cites a case example of a man in his mid-30s with a degree in chemical engineering who was procrastinating about applying to graduate school. The client reported just not being able to “get it together.” Through therapy, however, the man discovered that he had an emotional block. His parents supported his choice to get another degree, but their own lack of formal schooling often led them to make detractive comments, such as the father stating that when his children thought they were as smart as him, he would just die. The client came to realize that comments such as these sometimes incited him to self-sabotage his career.

According to Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” His research indicates that as many as 20% of adults worldwide are true procrastinators, meaning that they procrastinate chronically in ways that negatively affect their daily lives and produce shame or guilt.

According to McCown, a pioneer in the study of procrastination and co-author (along with Ferrari and Judith Johnson) of Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment, procrastination becomes problematic when it runs counter to one’s own desires. “We all put things off,” he notes. “But when we put off things that are really in our best interest to complete and we do it habitually, then that’s more than just a bad habit or a lifestyle issue.”

McCown finds that clients with chronic procrastination often come to counseling for other presenting concerns such as marital problems, depression, work performance issues, substance use, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. He has noticed, however, that younger generations are starting to seek counseling explicitly to work on procrastination.

McCown says that among Gen Xers and particularly among baby boomers, tremendous stigma existed around procrastination. But that largely changed with the Great Recession, he contends, because people realized that having a procrastination problem hurt them at work — a luxury they could no longer afford.

Managing emotions, not time

A growing body of research suggests that procrastination is a problem of emotion regulation, not time management. Julia Baum, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, agrees. “Poor time management is a symptom of the emotional problem. It’s not the problem itself,” she says.

Nathaniel Cilley, an LMHC in private practice in New York City, also finds that chronic procrastination is often a sign of an underlying, unresolved emotional problem. People’s emotional triggers influence how they feel, which in turn influences how they behave, he explains. However, clients may incorrectly assume that procrastination is their only problem and not connect it to an underlying emotional issue, he says.

People procrastinate for various reasons, including an aversion to a task, a fear of failure, frustration, self-doubt and anxiety. That is why assessment is so important, says Rachel Eddins, a licensed professional counselor and American Counseling Association member who runs a group counseling practice in Houston. “There’s not one answer to what procrastination is because [there are] so many things that lead to it,” she says.

Procrastination can also show up in conjunction with various mental health issues — ADHD, eating disorders, perfectionism, anxiety, depression — because it is an avoidance strategy, Eddins says. “Avoidance strategies create psychological pain, so then that leads to anxiety, to depression, and to all these other things that people are calling and seeking counseling for,” she explains.

Sometimes, procrastination may even mask itself initially as another mental health issue. For example, overeating in itself is a procrastination strategy, Eddins says. She points out that if certain people have a hard task they are avoiding, they may head to the refrigerator for a snack as a way of regulating the discomfort.

If a client comes to counseling because he or she is binge eating and procrastinating on tasks, then the counselor first has to determine the root cause of these actions, Eddins says. For example, perhaps the client isn’t scheduling enough breaks, and the stress and anxiety are leading to binge eating. Perhaps food acts as stimulation and provides the client with a way to focus, so counselors might need to explore possible connections to ADHD. Maybe the client is rebelling against harsh judgment, or perhaps the root cause is related to the client experiencing depression and feeling unworthy.

One approach Eddins recommends for finding the root cause is the downward arrow technique, which involves taking the questioning deeper and deeper until the counselor uncovers the client’s underlying emotion. For example, if a client is avoiding cleaning his or her house, the counselor could ask, “What does it mean to have a messy house?” The client might respond, “It means I can’t invite people over.” The counselor would follow up by asking, “What does that mean?” These questions continue until the client and counselor get to the issue’s root cause — such as the client not feeling worthy.

Eddins and Cilley both find imaginal exposure helpful for accessing clients’ actual memories and experiences and discovering the underlying cause of procrastination. For instance, if a client is procrastinating over writing an article, Cilley may have the client imagine sitting at his or her desk and staring at the blank computer screen. Cilley would ask, “What’s going on in this moment? Where are we? What is around you? How are you feeling emotionally at the thought of writing this article?” The client might respond that he or she feels anxious about it, which means the underlying cause is emotional.

“Imagination is really great with drumming up emotions,” Cilley notes. “The emotion starts to come into the session when [clients visualize what they are avoiding].”

Addressing irrational thoughts

“You can do all the time-management skills in the world with someone, but if you haven’t addressed the underlying irrational beliefs fueling the anxiety, which is why they’re procrastinating, they’re not going to do [the task they are avoiding],” notes Cilley, an ACA member who specializes in anxiety disorders.

As described by Cilley, the four core irrational beliefs of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) are:

  • Demands (“should” and “must” statements such as “I should go to the gym four times a week”)
  • Awfulizing (imagining a situation as bad as it can be)
  • Low frustration tolerance, which is sometimes referred to as “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” (belief that the struggle is unbearable)
  • Self-downing (defining oneself on the basis of a single aspect or outcome, such as thinking, “If I mess up one work project, then I am a failure”)

“When we’re having procrastination problems, a lot of times we awfulize about the task and have abysmally low frustration tolerance about the energy required to do it,” observes Cilley, a certified REBT therapist and supervisor and an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. “And we disproportionately access how bad it would be to do it or to be put through it and minimize our ability to withstand or cope with it.” Put simply, sometimes when people think something will be too difficult, they don’t do it.

Another common reason people procrastinate is a fear that they could fail, and they interpret failure to mean that something is inherently wrong with them, Cilley says.

For example, imagine a client who comes to counseling because he procrastinates responding to work emails out of fear that he will answer it incorrectly and his co-workers will realize he is a failure. To first identify the root cause, Cilley would ask a series of open-ended questions to the client’s statements regarding procrastination: I am avoiding responding to emails at work. What would it mean if you responded to the emails? I’m afraid I would do it incorrectly. What if you did respond incorrectly? My boss would think I’m an idiot. What would that mean to you? That I’m no good at my job. I’m a bad employee.

A self-label of “bad employee” causes the client to filter everything through that lens, including minimizing the good that he does, Cilley points out. In addition, the man will act as if he is a “bad employee,” which reinforces this label and makes him more prone to procrastination, Cilley says.

One technique that Cilley uses with clients to challenge unhealthy thinking and break the vicious cycle is the circle exercise. He draws a big circle, and at the top he writes the client’s name. At the bottom, he writes the negative thought in quotes — “I’m a bad employee.” Then, he places six plus signs and six minus signs inside the circle and asks the client to think of six things that he or she does poorly at work. The client might respond, “I procrastinate on tasks, I show up late, I make mistakes when I respond to emails” and so on. Next, Cilley has the client name six things that he or she does well. For example, the client could say, “I care about the work I do, I stay late if needed, and my co-workers can depend on me.”

If clients respond by saying that they don’t have any positive qualities at work, then Cilley will ask them to think about what positive things another co-worker would say about them (even if the clients don’t believe the statements themselves).

Next, Cilley circles one of the statements in the minus category and asks the client if this one negative statement erases the other six positive statements. To emphasize the flawed logic, he may also ask if one positive trait causes all of the negative ones to go away and makes someone a “perfect” employee.

This exercise challenges black-and-white thinking and helps clients separate their identities from their actions or the task they messed up on, such as sending an incorrect email, Cilley explains.

Even after clients identify their irrational beliefs and create rational coping statements (positive beliefs used to replace the negative and irrational ones), they still may not believe the rational ones. When this happens, Cilley uses an emotiveness exercise he refers to as “fake it till you make it.” He asks clients to read the rational beliefs out loud 10 times with conviction — as if they were Academy Award-winning actors and actresses who wholeheartedly endorse and embrace the beliefs.

If clients are going to rebut thoughts such as “I am a failure” and “I can’t do anything right,” then a monotone voice won’t help them change their thoughts or calm down, Cilley notes. “Anyone can go up on stage and read a speech,” he says. “The emotion and conviction behind your voice is what moves the audience, and that’s what we have to do to ourselves when we’re trying to convince ourselves of the rational beliefs.”

Even though clients may not initially believe what they are saying, by the eighth or ninth time they repeat it, they are finally internalizing the beliefs, Cilley says. On the 10th time — when clients are starting to actually believe what they are saying — he records them repeating the rational beliefs. Clients are then instructed to listen to this recording three times per day throughout the week as a way of talking themselves into doing whatever they have been procrastinating over, he says.

Cilley has also used role-play to help clients put stock in more rational thoughts. He does this by adopting the client’s irrational belief (e.g., “I am a failure” or “I am unworthy”) and then asks the client to try to convince him of more rational thoughts. By doing this, the clients start to convince themselves. Even though clients often laugh at this exercise, Cilley has found it to be one of the quickest ways to change clients’ irrational thoughts.

REBT and other short-term therapy techniques are not just effective but also efficient for clients who procrastinate, notes Baum, a rational emotive and cognitive behavior therapist and supervisor, as well as an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. With procrastination, clients often want to see results quickly, she says. They want to finish the work project, clean their house or get to the gym next week, not next year. REBT helps clients quickly “take responsibility for their behavior and recognize that they have agency to change it,” Baum emphasizes.

Learning to tolerate discomfort

Often, people procrastinate to avoid discomfort, Eddins notes. This discomfort comes in many forms. Maybe it’s procrastinating on beginning a complex task at work out of fear of failure, or avoiding having a difficult conversation with a friend.

The first step is helping clients become aware of the discomfort they are avoiding, Eddins says. “When we suppress our feelings, that’s when the procrastination and avoidance habits emerge,” she adds.

Eddins often uses the “name it to tame it” technique. She will first ask clients what they are feeling when thinking about the task they are avoiding. Clients may not have a word for this discomfort, so she will ask them to identify what they are feeling physically, such as a tightness in their chests.

Baum, a member of the New York Mental Health Counselors Association who specializes in helping creative professionals and entrepreneurs overcome procrastination, helps clients learn to cope with feelings of discomfort through imaginal exposure. First, Baum teaches clients coping skills such as breathing exercises to use when they experience discomfort. She also helps them identify, challenge and replace irrational thoughts that contribute to emotional distress and self-defeating behaviors. Then, she asks them to imagine walking through the scenario they have been avoiding.

For example, a man procrastinates about going to the gym because he feels ashamed of being out of shape. The client thinks to himself, “I’m out of shape. I won’t fit in at the gym. I’m no good because I let myself go.” These thoughts and his fear of others judging him prevent him from going to the gym despite the health benefits.

To address this emotional problem, Baum would have the client imagine walking into the gym and getting on the treadmill as others stare at him. During this exercise, she would guide the client to breathe slowly to keep his body calm and have him practice rational thinking, such as accepting himself unconditionally regardless of the shape he is in or what others may think. This will help him overcome his shame and productively work toward a healthy fitness routine.

Eddins also uses a mindfulness-based technique called “surfing the urge” to help clients. She instructs clients to stop when they feel the urge to procrastinate and ask themselves what the urge feels like in their bodies and what thoughts are going through their heads. For instance, clients may notice having an urge to get up and grab a snack rather than work on their task. This technique helps them learn to sit with their discomfort and face the urge rather than distracting themselves from it or trying to change it, she explains.

The power of rewards and consequences

Cilley finds rewards and consequences a useful motivational tool for those clients who are good at identifying irrational beliefs and who already possess coping and emotion-regulation skills yet are still procrastinating when faced with certain tasks (or even their therapy homework). For example, clients could reward themselves by watching their favorite show on Netflix after they complete the task. The ability to watch the show could also become a consequence — they would withhold watching the show until they complete the task.

Counselors may need to help clients determine appropriate rewards. McCown, a clinical psychologist at the Family Solutions Counseling Center in Monroe, Louisiana, finds that clients sometimes want to use grandiose rewards that really aren’t helpful motivators. For example, a client may decide that he or she will take a trip to Europe after finishing writing a novel. McCown notes that the likelihood of this motivating the client to make progress on the novel isn’t as strong as if the client used smaller rewards, such as going out with a friend or taking a walk to celebrate completing 300 words of their novel.

If clients are having trouble enforcing rewards or consequences themselves, counselors can become the enforcers — but only as a last resort, Cilley says. For example, Cilley had a client who was procrastinating when it came to taking steps toward starting a side business because he feared he would do it imperfectly, and that would make him a “failure.” After learning how to identify his irrational thoughts and how to regulate his emotions, the client still needed one final push to start his business. The client was a gamer, so both he and Cilley agreed that if he didn’t start his business that week, Cilley would change the client’s PlayStation 4 password so that he couldn’t play video games until after the business was launched.

“You want to make sure you have a good working alliance with the client and that they feel safe to be vulnerable and that [you] can laugh about this [with them] because it’s kind of unorthodox. But sometimes that’s what works for some people. They need that accountability,” Cilley says. “Just laughing about how silly the consequence is in therapy can make it more of a fun challenge.”

Giving yourself permission

Eddins finds that shame is a big factor with people who procrastinate. “Somehow we learned that shame [is] a way of motivating — ‘If I’m just hard on myself, then maybe I’ll get it done’ — and that for sure backfires and leads to procrastination,” she says.

For some people, their inner critic is shaming them constantly with “should” statements (e.g., “I should work out four times a week”). Procrastination is their way of rebelling against this harsh judgment, Eddins explains.

Self-compassion is one way to address critical thoughts and shaming, Eddins says. For example, the critical inner voice that declares a client lazy if he or she doesn’t go to the gym could be changed to use more motivating statements such as “It feels good when I go outside and move my body.”

In addition, if critical thoughts start to surface when clients are trying to complete a task, they can use a self-compassionate voice to remind themselves that they will feel better after they take a break, Eddins advises. In fact, the act of giving oneself permission to take a break, practice some self-care, and rest and relax can sometimes break the cycle of procrastination, Eddins says.

A 2010 study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam were less likely to procrastinate when studying for the next one. The researchers concluded that self-forgiveness allows people to move past the maladaptive behavior and not be burdened by the guilt of their past actions.

At the same time, Eddins advises counselors to be careful with the technique of giving permission. Clients with black-and-white thinking may interpret that as the counselor telling them it is OK to be “lazy.” Instead, she recommends that counselors use this strategy within a context that the client will accept.

Eddins had a client who put off meal planning each week because it was stressful. When Eddins asked why it was stressful, she discovered the client was preparing up to three different meals each night to accommodate each family member’s personal preferences. Eddins knew that if she told this client to give herself permission to cook only one meal each night, the client would engage in black-and-white thinking: “Well, that would make me a bad mom.”

So, instead, Eddins said, “No wonder you are exhausted. You are trying to do everything for everyone else but not for yourself. This doesn’t work for you. You have permission to take care of yourself and do what works for you. And that does not make you a bad mother.”

Strategies for success

Procrastination does offer momentary relief and reward, which only reinforces the behavior and continues the cycle of avoidance, Eddins notes. So, the more times that an individual avoids a task, the more difficult it becomes to stop the cycle of procrastination.

In counseling, clients can learn strategies that are more effective than avoidance. One therapeutic technique that Eddins likes involves breaking tasks into smaller ones that are realistic and obtainable. For instance, an individual who hasn’t formally engaged in exercise in the past year might be tempted to set a goal of working out four times a week. This person has created an ideal “should,” but because the goal is overwhelming, he or she is likely to continue avoiding exercising, Eddins points out.

Should this happen, Eddins might explore why the client is procrastinating on the goal: “Tell me about the last time you worked out. When was that?”

When the client responds that it was a year ago, Eddins would suggest establishing a smaller goal to ensure success and build motivation. For example, the client could start by exercising one day a week for 10 minutes and build from there.

“I want [clients] to take the smallest possible step because I want to [help them] build success,” Eddins says. “That is actually reinforcing in the brain because … it gives you that sort of reward and that success, and then that allows people to achieve the goal.”

McCown points out that “the rehabilitation of a severe procrastinator is almost like working with a severely depressed person: Once they are able to … do anything, they will feel better about themselves, and they’ll have more self-efficacy.” That’s why it is important to get these clients to succeed at some task, even if it is a small and relatively meaningless one such as going to the grocery store or getting the car washed, he says.

Counselors can also help clients who procrastinate to create specific — rather than generic — goals, Eddins says. For example, a goal of “meal planning” would become “planning four meals for dinner on Sunday afternoon.” The counselor can then collaborate with these clients to identify the specific actions they will need to take to meet that goal: What typically happens on Sunday afternoons? What could get in the way of this task? How can you make time on Sunday afternoons? What do you need to prepare in advance? What steps will you take to complete this task?

Some clients, especially those with perfectionist tendencies, may resist setting a small goal or task because they don’t see it as “good enough” or as an effective way of achieving their larger goal, Eddins says. In these cases, counselors may need to address the client’s black-and-white thinking and the role it can play in procrastination, she adds.

Counselors can also help clients identify optimal times to complete tasks that they have been procrastinating on, Eddins says. For instance, clients might tell themselves they will complete an unpleasant task right after getting home from work. But if the counselor knows the client doesn’t like his or her job and will likely need some time to decompress after getting home, the counselor can point that fact out and note that it increases the likelihood of the client avoiding the task, she says.

Shifting clients’ focus to what they will do — rather than what they won’t do — is another way to motivate clients, Eddins says. For example, counselors can encourage clients to think along the lines of “I’m going to come home, get a glass of water, put on my tennis shoes, go out for a 10-minute walk, and then come home and fix dinner” rather than “I’m not going to sit on the couch this evening and watch television.” Trying to avoid procrastination or its underlying emotional root makes procrastination more active and powerful in one’s mind, Eddins points out.

All of these strategies can aid clients in addressing the deeper emotional problems connected to their procrastination. McCown stresses that procrastination won’t go away by itself. “Joe Ferrari phrases it quite beautifully: ‘It’s not about time.’ It’s often something deeper,” McCown says, “and I think counselors are in a great role to figure out whether it’s just simply a bad habit or whether it’s something a little more serious.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

Finding strength in sensitivity

By Lindsey Phillips September 24, 2019

When Louisa Lombard, a licensed professional clinical counselor in private practice in California, worked as a school counselor, parents would sometimes come to her saying, “My child is so sensitive. I don’t know why he’s like this. Everything is such a big deal. I parent my children the same way. Why is he like this? His brother’s doing great in school and not throwing tantrums and crying. What’s wrong with this kid?”

In actuality, nothing was “wrong” with the child. What the parents didn’t know was that their child had an innate temperament trait referred to as sensory processing sensitivity. Approximately 20% of the population has this sensitivity trait and is categorized as a “highly sensitive person.” Narrow that focus to the therapeutic world, and closer to 50% of psychotherapy clients possess this trait, according to Elaine Aron, a pioneer in the field of sensitivity, in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person.

People with this trait often look carefully before entering new situations or retreat from overwhelming ones. For this reason, they are sometimes mislabeled as being shy, when in fact, an estimated 30% of highly sensitive people are extraverted.

Because no one person’s experience is the same, Aron identified four basic characteristics of the highly sensitive person (also known as the DOES model):

  • Depth of processing
  • Overstimulation
  • Emotional responsiveness and empathy
  • Sensitivity to subtleties

Aron points out that the sensory processing sensitivity trait is a survival advantage in some situations because it allows individuals to process information more thoroughly and increases their responsiveness to the environment and social stimuli.

So, why do highly sensitive people — who have this survival advantage — make up roughly 50% of therapy clients? Julie Bjelland, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in California, thinks the number is so high because highly sensitive people are a) more responsive to therapeutic work and self-help and b) more likely to have higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Heather Smith, an assistant professor of human development counseling at Vanderbilt University, posits that because these individuals process deeply, they are more inclined to seek out answers and are drawn to counseling for its penetrating conversations. In addition, she says, these clients may have developed low self-esteem because of negative stereotypes about sensitivity, or they might want tools to help them navigate times when they feel more emotional intensity.   

Misdiagnosing a trait for a disorder

According to Erica Sawyer, an American Counseling Association member in private practice in Vancouver, Washington, misdiagnosis of the highly sensitive person often occurs because people aren’t aware that the trait exists or of the trait’s specific characteristics. The scientific name for the trait — sensory processing sensitivity — doesn’t help. The similarity in name between sensory processing sensitivity and sensory processing disorder often leads to confusion. But sensory processing sensitivity is a temperament trait, not a disorder. (Aron notes on The Highly Sensitive Person website, hsperson.com, that sensory processing disorder, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder involving the senses.)

As Lombard points out, most therapists receive limited training on temperaments. She first learned about sensory processing sensitivity after graduate school when her oldest daughter started showing signs of the trait, including being sensitive to noise, facial expressions and food. As Lombard learned more, she realized that she is also highly sensitive. She had long suspected that she had attention-deficit disorder because she had a hard time paying attention in her college classes if another student was kicking a desk in a rhythmic pattern behind her or if there was a bright light overhead in the room.

In fact, because highly sensitive people can get overwhelmed and overstimulated more easily when a lot is going on around them, they can commonly be misdiagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Bjelland says. However, whereas a highly sensitive person is typically able to concentrate in the right environment — when at home in a quiet room, for example — someone with ADHD might not be, she explains.

One confusing aspect to the highly sensitive temperament is that it doesn’t necessarily produce problems in daily life other than overstimulation, says Smith, a licensed professional counselor and an ACA member. Thus, when clinicians hear about a client’s distress due to overstimulation, they can erroneously attribute it to symptoms of a disorder, she explains. To help prevent this, Smith recommends that counselors investigate whether a client’s issue (such as anxiety, stress or an inability to concentrate) decreases if he or she is no longer in an overstimulating environment. If the client’s issue is still present, then it might be a symptom of a disorder.

Smith also points out that counselors often rely on observable behaviors to indicate a possible symptom or disorder. However, depth of processing is not easily observable, she notes. To help counselors learn to identify this characteristic, Smith describes some cues: Highly sensitive people think more about the meaning of life. If in an environment where they are not overstimulated and their ideas are valued, they have the ability to describe all facets of a problem and generate potential prevention steps or solutions — often before others realize there is a problem. They are observers, not the ones to jump into action. They often don’t make decisions quickly. When they speak, it seems as though they have grasped the insight or concept quickly, in large part because they have been thinking about all of these connections for most of their lives.

One tool that can help counselors assess for sensory processing sensitivity is Aron’s 27-item self-test (see hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test). Smith, Julie Sriken and Bradley Erford analyzed the strength of this scale and found it to be a valid screening instrument that counselors can use in their practices (see “Clinical and Research Utility of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale” published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling.) Smith presented on this topic at the ACA 2019 Conference.

However, to avoid labeling, Smith cautions counselors against placing too great an emphasis on the cutoff score of this self-test. Instead, she recommends having a conversation about how the client marked each item on the scale. This approach focuses less on the total score and more on the person’s experience overall and with each item.

Smith also advises counselors to be careful about interpreting the results from these test items or problem-solving a client’s distress too early on the basis of these initial conversations. In addition to risking misdiagnosis, counselors run the risk of not being seen as credible by clients who have been deeply thinking about issues related to this trait for a while, she says.

Wired differently

Misunderstandings about the sensory processing sensitivity trait also occur when it is assumed that this population is just sensitive to lights and sounds. It is more than that. The brains of highly sensitive people are wired differently than the brains of other people. A 2018 post on the website Highly Sensitive Refuge notes four differences in the brains of highly sensitive people:

  • Their brains respond to dopamine differently.
  • Their mirror neurons (which allow people to “mirror” the behaviors of others and be more empathetic) are more active.
  • They experience emotions more vividly than others (as enhanced by their ventromedial prefrontal cortex).
  • Their brains are more finely tuned to noticing and interpreting other people.

A recent fMRI study published in Brain and Behavior found that highly sensitive people have increased brain activation in regions related to awareness, action planning, empathy, and self-other processing. Lombard, who specializes in working with teenagers and adults who are highly sensitive, shows clients brain scan images from studies such as this one to illustrate how the highly sensitive brain differs in emotional situations such as watching a scary movie or seeing a picture of a loved one. She finds that these images help normalize the trait for clients.

On a podcast for Unapologetically Sensitive, Esther Bergsma, a counselor in the Netherlands and an expert on high sensitivity, reported that highly sensitive people have more brain activation, especially in the areas surrounding social context (e.g., wondering what others think about them, how others view them, or if others accept them). Bergsma pointed out that always being tuned into social contexts is a strength; it is only when people can’t regulate their emotions well that it leads to increased anxiety and stress.

Because people who are highly sensitive have to process more information and can experience nervous system overload as a result, they can be prone to chronic health conditions if they do not have adequate self-care and downtime, says Bjelland, author of The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person: How to Harness Your Sensitivity Into Strength in a Chaotic World.

She likens the way that highly sensitive people deeply process information to cups of water being dumped into the nervous system (“the container”). Highly sensitive people might have 100 cups that they dump into the container, whereas other people have only a few cups to dump. In other words, these individuals notice and process more detail. For example, a highly sensitive child in a classroom might simultaneously notice that a teacher is upset and the happy expression on a classmate’s face across the room and a tree branch tapping against the classroom window.

One way to simplify these brain differences is to think of the brain as two parts: the emotional brain and the cognitive brain. The emotional part of the brain in highly sensitive people is more activated, and if it becomes too activated, the cognitive part of the brain goes to sleep in a sense, Bjelland says. “That’s why [highly sensitive people] might have a hard time with emotional regulation and can get stuck in worry, rumination, anxiety and overwhelm,” she explains. “During times of high stress, the brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, so it sends out alarm bells in the system to prepare for fighting or fleeing. In those moments, [highly sensitive people] can’t even access facts, memory and rational thought because that all comes from [the] cognitive brain.”

However, counselors can teach clients ways to reactivate the cognitive brain to support their system and to let the brain know that it isn’t time to send out those alarms, Bjelland continues. For example, she uses a simple breathing technique to calm the body and let the brain know that the person isn’t in danger. Clients breathe in for four counts, hold for two counts, and exhale for seven; they repeat this for about five to seven breath cycles. “The exhale is very long and slow because that sends a signal to your brain that you are not in danger and that it can stop sending out adrenaline and stress hormones. When you exhale slowly, your brain realizes you are OK because that is not how you breathe when you’re in danger,” she explains.

The counting part (whether done out loud or silently) is important because it helps “wake up” the cognitive part of the brain, she adds.

Reframing the perception of sensitivity

As a highly sensitive person herself, Bjelland grew up hearing the negative messages often directed toward people with the sensory processing sensitivity trait: “Why are you so sensitive? What’s wrong with you? Why are you reacting that way?” When people hear those messages as children, she says, they do begin wondering what is wrong with them.

That internalized message is why psychoeducation about the trait is so important, along with validating clients’ experiences. Most highly sensitive people spend their entire lives feeling misunderstood and that something is different about or wrong with them, Bjelland says. Therapy is the place where these clients can begin changing this narrative and turning it into something empowering, she notes.

In her experience working with this population, Bjelland finds that clients often have a transformative experience once they realize that their temperament is normal, that they are not alone, and that they can take steps to improve their experience.

On the other hand, Smith has noticed that some highly sensitive clients experience a grief response after first learning about the trait. They may need time to grieve that they are unlike the other 80% of the population and yet live in a world designed by those without the sensitivity trait, she observes.

Sawyer, a licensed mental health counselor and art therapist, also helps clients reframe their negative experiences, such as being labeled crybabies as children. Counselors can help clients understand that they feel both negative and positive emotions more intensely than other people do. So, when they cried, they were just naturally expressing what they were sensing, which is normal for someone with this trait, she explains.

“They don’t have the problem,” Sawyer says. “It’s the perception that they have a problem that can turn it into one.” So, rather than thinking that they can’t control their emotions, clients can come to understand that with the right support, they can regulate their emotions. They can also take pride in the fact that they feel not only sadness on a deeper level than most people do but also experience incredible happiness, Sawyer says.

Lombard carefully selected the name of her private practice, Strong and Sensitive, to counter the tendency to equate sensitivity with weakness. Many of her clients come in with low self-esteem because of negative stereotypes about being sensitive. She reassures them that it is a normal temperament variation and not a problem. By normalizing the trait, counselors can help clients to embrace it and see it as a strength rather than a weakness, Lombard adds.

Smith teaches clients to more effectively communicate with those who seem to point out sensitivity as a problem. For instance, rather than taking on the onus to defend their sensitivity, clients could ask the other person, “What part of my sensitivity are you having a problem with?” This question reverses the normal assumption that something is wrong with the client’s sensitivity and shifts the conversation to how the other person may need to adjust his or her language or thinking to help problem-solve the relationship dynamic.

Susceptibility to the environment

Research has shown that in a positive developmental environment, highly sensitive children are more likely to thrive than are their peers who are not highly sensitive. However, in a stressful environment, highly sensitive people tend to do worse than do their peers who are not highly sensitive. In other words, this population is highly susceptible to both the good and bad aspects of their environment — a concept known as differential susceptibility.

A highly sensitive person once told Bjelland that when she was younger, her parents made her wear a wool sweater. After repeatedly asking her parents if she could stop wearing it because the material bothered her, they simply replied, “Wear it anyway.” Bjelland notes that this is an example of a highly sensitive person not being supported, and that circumstance can lead to problems.

Bjelland has also noticed that if a highly sensitive child has anxiety, then almost always one or both parents do too. Therapists can’t easily help anxious children if they have an anxious parent, she says, because the child mirrors the parent and will feel unstable if the parent also feels that way.

Parents who are highly sensitive should also be on counselors’ radar because they can suffer from overstimulation and neglect of self-care, Lombard says. The highly sensitive population is also more negatively affected by sleep deprivation, which is common for parents of young children, Lombard notes. She has noticed that highly sensitive parents are sometimes so focused on being the best parents they can be that they don’t take good care of themselves, pumping breast milk constantly or not making time for meaningful adult conversation, for example.

Lombard and Sawyer both recommend that highly sensitive parents get extra support in the form of family members, friends, daycare or a nanny. If finances are an issue, these parents could consider setting up a rotation with another trusted parent to watch each other’s children on occasion, Lombard says. She also encourages highly sensitive parents to wear earplugs or noise-reducing headphones when appropriate because they turn the noise down a bit and can lessen overstimulation.

Other life changes such as a death in the family, menopause, illness or other stressful events can make highly sensitive people feel unbalanced and overwhelmed, especially if they aren’t taking care of themselves, Bjelland says. If they experience too much emotional activation, they may temporarily lose access to the tools and strategies they normally use to cope with overstimulation, she adds.

To counter this, Bjelland tells clients to keep a “positive journal” to record positive events, such as someone saying something nice to them, or techniques that make them feel good, such as going on a hike in nature. Then, when they are having a bad week, they will have a visual record of self-care tips and positive reminders.

The acceptance of sensitivity within a culture also affects one’s environment. Some clients, but especially men, deny having this temperament because society reinforces the idea that sensitivity is not a positive characteristic, Smith says. (Research suggests that the sensory processing sensitivity trait is equal among men and women.) Thus, counselors should be careful about labeling clients as highly sensitive.

Lombard agrees. In fact, if a client grew up in a machismo culture that considers sensitivity to be negative for men, then she might not directly use the term “highly sensitive person” because it may distract from their treatment or therapeutic progress. “Depending on the culture and family of origin, men can carry more shame around [their heightened] sensitivity,” Lombard says. Instead, she mentions that all people have different temperaments and explains that some situations, such as witnessing a car accident, for example, might affect them differently. She also teaches these clients many of the same coping skills without labeling them as being for highly sensitive people.

Bjelland, who is a global educator on this trait and teaches courses for highly sensitive people, doesn’t see as many self-esteem issues in cultures where sensitivity is more accepted. “In the United States where it’s not so accepted, we see a lot of self-esteem issues. And that’s connected to shame too. Most of us walk around with the narrative that something is wrong with us because that’s what we’ve been told,” she says. “Helping to change the client’s narrative to a positive one, where they recognize why this trait is important to the world, is incredibly important.”

Recently, a male client who identified as highly sensitive came to see Sawyer because he needed a safe space to talk. He was struggling to find and maintain a romantic relationship because he found that women often wanted a stereotypical man — someone bold, assertive and athletic. As they talked, Sawyer discovered that he had internalized the belief that being sensitive was negative, which caused his own social anxieties and made relationships even harder for him. After Sawyer reassured the client that he possessed a normal temperament trait and explained its four main characteristics, he felt less self-judgment.

Although simply providing psychoeducation around the trait can be liberating for some clients, counseling often requires a longer process to help clients begin shifting their negative self-perception of being “weak” or “weird,” she adds.

Mindful changes in an overstimulating world

The good news is that highly sensitive people can makes changes so that their lives are more compatible with this trait and they can more readily cope with the challenges posed by living in an often insensitive and overstimulating world.

Bjelland recommends that highly sensitive people carve out two hours of alone time per day and dedicate one complete day each week to downtime. Not surprisingly, many clients balk at this suggestion, saying they don’t have the available time to do that. Bjelland will ask them to try it for one week and, according to her, they will universally report that they had more energy and were more productive because they were more focused, calm and balanced.

Bjelland also advises clients to follow a slower routine in the morning to help set the tone for the day. Why? Think of the nervous system like a motor, she says. If a highly sensitive person jumps out of bed to get the kids ready for school and then races into work, their nervous system revs up, she explains.

The process of slowing down applies to the bedtime routine as well because, as Bjelland points out, this population often struggles with sleep issues. “If a highly sensitive person wakes up from having a good night’s sleep, they get to have their full 100 points of energy for the day, but if they’re having sleep issues, maybe they’re only going to get 50 points for the day, and they’re already starting out depleted,” she says.

She often tells clients to adopt a ritual of doing the same five things before bed, such as taking a warm bath, reading a nonstimulating book, listening to soft music, meditating, and shutting off all electronics. By the time they reach the third action, the brain realizes sleep is coming, she explains.

“You’re teaching them a new type of self-care because [they’ve] been trying to do what the 80% [of the population that is not highly sensitive] are doing, and it’s not working,” Bjelland adds.

Smith agrees that counselors may need to have conversations centered on how self-care for these clients may differ from what rejuvenates other people. For example, if a highly sensitive person tries to relax by going to a concert with lots of lighting and sound effects after work with friends, he or she may instead feel drained and overstimulated by the end of the night.

Overstimulation is a difficult challenge for people with the sensory processing sensitivity trait because they need so much downtime, Lombard points out. She finds mindfulness techniques helpful for teaching these clients how to stay in the moment and self-regulate. For example, a highly sensitive person may find a coffee shop with loud music and people talking overstimulating. However, counseling can provide the client with strategies to successfully navigate such a space. For instance, perhaps the client limits his or her amount of time in the coffee shop or brings noise-canceling headphones, Lombard suggests.

Because these clients feel so deeply, they often need help learning to calm their nervous systems, Lombard continues. Highly sensitive people “are taking in so much more sensory information, and it’s really overwhelming,” she says. “And sometimes [they’re] not even aware, if [they’re] not mindful, of what it was that made [them] feel down or anxious.” She asks her clients to meditate daily using an app such as Calm or Ten Percent Happier and practice breathing techniques to help them become more mindful, present and calm.

Sawyer also suggests that clients use meditation apps such as Headspace or Insight Timer and practice yoga. Sometimes, even the simple act of closing one’s eyes, listening to nature sounds, or going to a quiet spot such as a bathroom or car can be helpful, she adds. The key is finding activities that “help retrain the brain to slow down [and] pay more attention to what’s happening in [the] body,” she says.

Retraining the brain in this way also helps highly sensitive people realize that they have some control and do not have to feel overwhelmed all the time, Bjelland says. For example, every time clients catch their mind wandering during meditation and bring it back to what they’re focusing on, such as their breath, it is like strengthening a muscle. Then, if clients become overwhelmed at work or a large event, they have trained their brains to notice, and they recognize that they need to take a break, she explains.

To help clients exercise this “muscle,” Bjelland instructs them to ask themselves two questions every time they go to the bathroom: 1) How am I doing? and 2) What do I need? This process makes them aware of preventing depletion or overwhelm, she explains. “Highly sensitive people tend to be very externally focused because they’re always scanning the environment for other people’s needs,” Bjelland says. “Most highly sensitive people need to be taught how to explore internally to learn what they need without always filtering it through other people’s needs.”

Of course, the heightened sensitivity to one’s environment also has benefits. Smith has often heard highly sensitive people talk about spending time in nature because there isn’t as much stimulation there. It is a place where they can escape and delight in the beauty of the natural world.

For some highly sensitive people, listening to a bird chirp or watching a sunset can elicit intense feelings of joy or elation, Sawyer says. Spending time in nature — simply walking barefoot in the grass, for example — can also help calm the nervous system, she adds.

Lombard recommends that counselors take these clients outside if they can or, alternatively, bring the natural world into their offices with nature sounds or a water fountain to help create a sense of calm. Lombard has noticed that clients often feel calmer when they see, touch or hear water, so she frequently has clients listen to the sounds of a rainstorm or flowing brook.

Learning to communicate one’s needs

Although highly sensitive people’s empathetic nature often makes them great partners in life and work, relationship issues are one of the primary reasons that they seek counseling. “Highly sensitive people in relationship are going to be so attuned to what the other person is feeling that sometimes they allow that to dominate over their own needs,” Smith says. For example, they may take on more work to please their boss even when they are already overwhelmed.

Smith finds role-play beneficial for helping these clients learn how to assert themselves in relationships. In counseling, they can safely practice communicating their own needs even if it initially seems strange or dramatic to them, she says.

Because highly sensitive people often hold themselves up to the standards of the 80% of the population that is not highly sensitive, they may not be aware that they need more downtime or need to do less so they can maintain their health and wellness, Sawyer says. To help these clients identify their needs and build new habits and coping strategies, she sometimes has them create a values collage of images that speak to them or make them feel good. Through this visual exercise, clients often will discover a common theme, such as nature. The values collage also serves as a reminder of ways that clients can calm an overstimulated nervous system the next time they find themselves in a stressful or overwhelming situation, Sawyer says.

For example, if a client’s collage contains mainly pictures of the ocean, Sawyer will ask how much time the client is spending near the beach or water. If the client says only once or twice a month, Sawyer will recommend increasing the time that the client engages in activities that will replenish them. For example, the client could go for regular walks on the beach or, if that isn’t feasible, pull up YouTube videos of ocean waves and sounds or simply take a bath to connect with water.

Working with these clients also involves helping them learn to set boundaries and communicate their needs, Sawyer says. She finds that nonviolent communication, an approach developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, is a useful tool for highly sensitive people because it provides them with structure for setting boundaries. This type of communication involves:

  • Observing what does or does not contribute to their well-being
  • Identifying how they feel in relation to what they observed
  • Identifying the needs or values that cause their feelings
  • Making a request to fill that need or have that need met (the concrete actions they would like to see)

Sawyer provides a hypothetical case example. A highly sensitive person is worried about going on vacation with her friends because they are extraverted. The client also fears she will be expected to participate in every activity they have planned and that she won’t get enough downtime. First, Sawyer would help this client identify her needs and preferences for this trip. The client says she would like to have the room farthest away from the common areas because it will provide less stimulation if others stay up late talking. She would also like to tell her friends that she will opt out of an activity to stay in and read.

Next, Sawyer and the client discuss her fear of appearing antisocial if she communicates these needs to her friends. Sawyer uses emotional freedom techniques to help the client ease that fear and calm her nervous system. She asks the client to identify her fear. The client responds, “I feel nervous about talking to my friends.” Sawyer then asks where she feels that fear. The client says, “My stomach feels like it has butterflies.”

After ranking the intensity of the feeling (on a scale from 1 to 10), the client taps different pressure points while repeating the phrase, “Even though I feel nervous about speaking to my friends, I deeply and completely accept myself.” The goal is to have the intensity of her fear drop to a 2 or below.

Next, Sawyer and the client role-play scenarios of the client having this conversation with her friends. For example, she could say, “I’m someone who needs downtime. Would it be OK if I stay in from an outing so I don’t feel so anxious?” or “I’m excited about this trip and love hanging out with you, but I wanted to let you know that I will probably need a couple hours of alone time each day.”

Being a more sensitive counselor

Highly sensitive people “have higher responsivity to counseling interventions,” according to Smith. “Where they have positive fit with the counselor, they do better or they have more of a treatment response, and they seem to get more out of the counseling relationship.”

But how can counselors ensure that they are a good fit for a highly sensitive client? Smith recommends that counselors first think about their own temperament because it will inform any strategy they use. Are they highly sensitive, or are they among the other 80% of the population? At the same time, highly sensitive therapists shouldn’t assume that clients’ experiences are the same as their own, she adds.

“The 80% are very capable of working with highly sensitive people, but they need to be very careful of their own biases because they represent the majority,” Smith continues. “They may jump to a conclusion, or they may have some internalized negative biases of people who are highly sensitive.” If counselors aren’t aware of their internal biases, they risk unintentionally perpetuating some of those negative messages in the therapeutic process, she says. “And the highly sensitive person is coming to counseling because they’re looking for something different than what they’re getting in society.”

The good news is that “many counseling approaches would work well if the counselor is able to adapt it in light of what they know of the client’s high sensitivity,” Smith says. For example, if the counselor stares intently while the client is doing a sand tray intervention, then the client could become overstimulated and have a negative experience, making the intervention less effective, she explains. Instead, the counselor could step back and say, “I’m going to let you do this activity for 10 minutes. I’ll be over here doing my notes.”

Counselors should also think about the way they use language and how the highly sensitive person might perceive it. “The highly sensitive person is probably going to pick up more on nuanced language because, in general,” Smith says, “they’re wired to pick up more subtleties in their environment.” This also includes tone of voice, surroundings in an office, and nonverbal language, she adds.

Bjelland advises counselors to consider the environment in their offices. Is the lighting too bright? Is the client looking into a window? What is the texture of the couch? Does the office have a lot of strong smells such as cleaning products, perfumes or incense?

Smith also cautions counselors to be careful with cognitive behavior therapy. Because highly sensitive people process their environment and emotions deeply, asking them to think about cognitive distortions — the simple ways that the mind convinces a person that something isn’t true — can seem simplistic to them. It can even come across as patronizing to ask a highly sensitive client to reframe a cognition when he or she is having thousands of cognitions on a very deep level, Smith adds. Instead, she suggests saying, “Are these cognitions or depths of processing working well for you, or are these cognitions moving more into rumination?”

Counselors should also be careful when using interventions that might not value the depths of processing because they may unintentionally indicate that there is something wrong with the way the client is processing information, she notes.

Counselors also have the opportunity to reinforce clients’ gift of high sensitivity by validating the strengths and positives of the trait, Smith says. For example, a teacher might feel frustrated because he or she can’t soothe a crying boy. But a highly sensitive child in that same class probably would have noticed that the boy is upset because his crayon rolled under his desk, or the highly sensitive child might even notice the crayon rolling under the desk before the other child does and could grab it and prevent the boy from getting upset in the first place.

Thus, working with highly sensitive people can have far-reaching effects. As Bjelland points out, “You’re really creating a domino impact across the globe when you help a highly sensitive person lift off that layer of overwhelm and help them access those gifts and teach them how to care for their sensitive system because when they are thriving, they go out and help people and make a difference in the world. It’s just who they are.”

 

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The highly sensitive therapist

Many professional counselors don’t just treat highly sensitive clients — they have the sensory processing sensitivity trait themselves. Find out how they manage the benefits and challenges of this trait in the article “Advice for the highly sensitive therapist,” available exclusively at CT Online.

 

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

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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