How to overcome Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) using Exposure and Response Prevention and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Part One

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

OCD is a chronic psychological illness where a person has disturbing and reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and compulsive behaviors that they repeat over and over.

OCD is at its core an anxiety disorder. The obsessive thoughts trigger intense anxiety, which the person attempts to ameliorate or reduce by either having compulsive behaviors, or compulsive thoughts.

Typical obsessions that people have include:

  • thoughts about harming other people or being aggressive towards other people,
  • inappropriate sexual thoughts and feelings,
  • fear of germs or other types of contamination such as chemical contamination,
  • thoughts about symmetry and order,
  • taboo thoughts about religion or other “hot” issues.

Some typical examples of compulsive behaviors include:

  • checking behaviors where the person repeatedly checks to see if the stove is turned off or a door is locked
  • Excessive cleaning or handwashing or showering
  • counting behaviors
  • arranging things in a particular and precise way

Some compulsive behaviors are actually thoughts, such as saying a particular prayer to yourself over and over.

A common type of OCD that I treat in my practice is germ phobia. The typical obsessive thought in these cases is that touching something such as the floor will transfer dangerous germs onto the person’s hands, which will then be transferred either to them or to someone they care about, causing great harm. These people are typically very fearful of public bathrooms, and will avoid touching the doorknobs in them. In order to cope with perceived contamination, they will typically wash their hands many times a day, sometimes up to 30 to 50 times. When they cannot wash their hands they will use alcohol gel to sterilize their hands. Often the handwashing is so extreme that the person’s hands will look profoundly chapped and red.

When they feel particularly contaminated they will often take very long showers, washing and re-washing their body very carefully multiple times. These showers can take 30-60 minutes in some cases.

Exposure and Response Prevention Treatment (ERP) for Contamination OCD

OCD that is accompanied by clear rituals such as handwashing is easily and effectively treated using a Cognitive Behavioral Approach that focuses on something called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). Let me describe a hypothetical case. (This is a hypothetical case that may include composite aspects of clients I have treated, with all identifiable client information changed.)

Susana came to me because she had developed a very severe case of contamination OCD. Her primary fear was that by touching something that might have germs, she would transfer these germs to her children, husband, or even to strangers, and that they would sicken and die. As a result of these fears she would wash her hands more than 50 times a day, and take showers that lasted more than an hour during which she would scrub up and wash down three or four times.

She also had developed almost complete avoidances of many situations. Public restrooms terrified her, so she could not leave the home for long periods of time. She was afraid of contaminating her car, which then might contaminate people she loved, so she avoided driving. Work was out of the question since she was spending hours a day on OCD rituals.

The first step was to thoroughly evaluate her OCD. I gave her multiple questionnaires that evaluated the frequency of obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and avoidant behaviors. The same questionnaires also evaluated the level of anxiety and distress caused by both the obsessions and the compulsions. This gave us a good baseline set of numbers that described the state of her OCD. As part of the same evaluation I obtained detailed information about all of the things that she was avoiding doing.

The next step was to do some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) on her belief systems about germs and contamination. This consisted primarily of a set of conversations where I asked open-ended Socratic style questions about her beliefs. She showed a variety of common OCD distorted thoughts and beliefs.

Common Thought Distortions in Contamination OCD

  • All germs are lethal and deadly: This distortion is basically the belief that every microorganism causes serious or fatal diseases. It’s actually not true. We are surrounded by bacteria, and most of them are harmless or even beneficial. The most common kind of harmful germs or viruses are the common cold and the flu. Neither these illnesses are particularly dangerous although they are unpleasant. More dangerous germs such as HIV or tuberculosis are extremely rare in developed nations, and the virus that causes HIV is extremely fragile and cannot survive for more than a couple of minutes on most surfaces.
  • Germs live forever on any surface: This is the belief that once a germ attaches itself to a surface it will stay there forever and be capable of infecting you. In reality, most surfaces are fairly inhospitable for bacteria and viruses, and the microorganisms become inactivated fairly quickly, usually within minutes or at most an hour.
  • Things transfer at 100% potency: The law of transfer says that with each transfer the potency of what is being transferred becomes less and less. So if you touch something that has germs on it, your hand will have some germs transfer. If you then touch something, such as a computer keyboard, less germs will transfer. Then when someone else touches the keyboard, even fewer germs will transfer to them. The more transfers the less is transferred.
  • Humans have no immune system: This is the belief that every germ or virus that one contacts will cause illness. Humans actually have a very robust immune system. Every day our immune system kills off a variety of germs and viruses we get exposed to. Unless we are exposed to a large quantity of germs or viruses, our immune system usually does a good job of resisting illness.

The Treatment: Using Exposure and Response Prevention

We did some experiments to test her beliefs. One experiment I like to do is the chalk dust experiment. I have the patient touch some chalk dust, and then they touch my hand, and then I touch my keyboard of my computer, and then I have them touch the keyboard with a clean hand. Thus they graphically see that each transfer moves less and less chalk dust to the next item.

We spent a few sessions discussing and correcting the misconceptions about germs and illness. This began the process of getting ready to start the essential part of the treatment, Exposure and Response Prevention. (ERP)

To prepare for ERP we first made a laddered list of things that would be scary for her. The list went from fairly easy tasks which were a little scary, to tasks that would be terrifying. We rated the the anxiety on a 0-10 scale.

I asked her to pick a task that would be somewhat challenging but not terrifying to start with. She picked a task with moderate fear attached to it, touching the floor of my office (which is a carpeted floor.) I also told her that anything that I would ask her to do I would also do with her.

I had her rub both hands on the carpeted floor. Then I asked her to just sit with her anxiety. Initially her level of anxiety was 10 out of 10. I asked her to narrate her thoughts. “My hands are covered with dangerous germs,” she said.

Over 15 minutes or so her anxiety began to diminish. It went down to about a 7. I noticed that she was holding her hands in the air, so I asked her to put them on her lap. This increased her anxiety briefly, but after a few minutes he anxiety came back down to a 7.

Over another 20 or 30 minutes her anxiety came down even further. Now it was only a level 4. I asked her to describe her thoughts. “Your carpet probably isn’t really covered with very many germs, and therefore my hands probably don’t have very many germs on them,” she said.

Then I asked her to do something a little bit more challenging – to rub her hands on her face. This made her anxious, but she did it, and after a few minutes of higher anxiety the anxiety subsided again.

By the end of our official face-to-face session her anxiety level was a 3 out of 10. I asked her if she had any alcohol gel or cleanser in her purse, which she did, and I asked her to leave that in my office. Then I asked her to spend at least another 30 minutes in my waiting room to see if the anxiety level would come down even further, without washing or cleansing her hands. At the next session she told me that the anxiety level had come down to a level 2, which amazed her given that she had started at 10. I had asked her not to wash her hands for several hours which she did.

At the next session we tackled another item on her list, the ATM. She was afraid to touch ATMs with her fingers, and either used the back of her knuckles or used alcohol gel after touching the ATM. So we went next door to the local banks ATM, and I had her repeatedly touch the keys with her fingertips. This brought her anxiety level up to about 7, so we kept repeating the task until the anxiety began to subside. Once again I asked her not to wash or use alcohol gel.

A few sessions later after using exposure and response prevention on a variety of other issues, we tackled the top of her list – the public restroom! For many contamination OCD patients this is the ultimate challenge. We went next door to the buildings restroom, where I put a sign on the door, Closed for Maintenance. Next I modeled touching the door knob, the sink, and she did the same. We went back to my office and once again she sat with her anxiety until it came way down.

Once her anxiety had dropped we went back into the restroom and did a harder task. First I modeled touching the toilet seat, and then she touched it. Not surprisingly this raised her anxiety very high. Once again we went back to my office and she sat with that anxiety. We discussed the nature of what toilet seats are made of, and how long germs could live upon them. Gradually her anxiety diminished to about a level of 5, which was a large drop for her.

Between sessions I asked her to practice these tasks on her own. I explained that the key was to sit with the anxiety for a long enough time for it to subside naturally without any hand cleaning or sterilization. She practiced on a daily basis and made rapid progress on the items we had done together and some other items that were also on her feared list.

By this point she had lowered her hand washing from 40 or 50 times a day to only several specific situations. After using the toilet, before preparing food, and after preparing food. She had stopped using alcohol gel completely.

A few months later she began to look for work for the first time in several years, as her OCD was virtually completely resolved. I continued to see her intermittently over the next few years, and her OCD continued not to be a problem, although there were some other non-OCD challenges.

In Part Two of this article, I will discuss the use of medications for the treatment of OCD,  Thought OCD, Checking OCD, and Health OCD.

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Forgiveness and Happiness Researcher Fred Luskin Says Turn Off Your Smartphone If You Want to be Happy

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to spend several morning hours listening to Stanford professor and researcher Fred Luskin talk about happiness. Dr. Luskin is a psychologist who has done groundbreaking research on forgiveness over many years. He’s the author of many books, and frequently lectures about forgiveness. I often recommend his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness to clients suffering from anger and hurt.

But this morning he was discussing happiness. He came into the room with no pretense. His hair was wild and curly, partly dark and partly gray. He was wearing a puffy black down jacket, a T-shirt, running tights, and sneakers. Clearly a man comfortable with himself, and not trying to impress.

He started off by doing something quite outrageous. He asked the audience of 30 people to turn off their cell phones. Not to lower the volume, or turn off the ringers, but to actually shut down their cell phones. This clearly caused some discomfort among the audience. He explained that the reason he wanted people to turn off their cell phones is so that they would truly focus on the present and to listening to him. He cited a statistic that people check email on average 79 times a day. Each time they check their email they get a burst of adrenaline and stress. Clearly this is not conducive to genuine happiness.

He pointed out that you can’t really be happy unless you can sit still and relax. “We are all descended from anxious monkeys,” he said, and clearly most of us do not know how to sit still and relax. “Happiness is the state of ‘enough’ “, he said, “and is not consistent with wanting more.”

He pointed out that wanting what you have equals being happy. And that wanting something else than what you have equals stress.

He talked about the beginnings of his career, when clinical psychology was focused on unhappiness and problems. There was no science of happiness. Now there is a huge area of research and writing on happiness called Positive Psychology.

He shared some simple techniques for enhancing happiness. One simple technique revolved around food. When you’re eating don’t multitask. Give thanks for the food, and really focus on tasting and savoring that food. One technique I have often used is to close my eyes while I savor food, which greatly intensifies the taste.

Another simple practice is whenever you are outside, take a few moments to feel the wind or sun on your skin.

He also talked about phones and how we use them. We are completely addicted to the little bursts of dopamine and adrenaline that we get each time we check our email or we get a text. And rather than be present in most situations, we simply look at our phones. Go to any outdoor cafe and look at people who are sitting alone. Most of them are looking at their phones rather than experiencing the surroundings or interacting with other people. Even sadder, look at people who are with others, either at a cafe, or a restaurant. Much of the time they too are lost in their smartphones.

He discussed how happiness is not correlated with achievement. Nor is it correlated with money once you have an adequate amount to cover basic needs. What happiness seems to be most correlated with is relationships. If you like yourself and connect with other people you will tend to be happy.

He reviewed  the relationship between impatience, anger, frustration, judgment and happiness. He pointed out that whenever we are impatient or in a hurry all of our worst emotions tend to come out. When someone drives slowly in front of us we get annoyed. When someone takes too much time in the checkout line ahead of us, we get angry.

I really liked his discussion of grocery stores. He pointed out what an incredible miracle a modern American grocery store really is. The variety of delicious foods that we can buy for a relatively small amount of money is truly staggering. But instead of appreciating this, we focus on the slow person in the line ahead of us, or the person who has 16 items in the 15 item express line. What a shame!

He pointed out we have a choice of what we focus on, and this choice greatly influences our happiness. We all have a choice to focus on what’s wrong with our lives, or what’s right with our lives. And we have a choice of whether to focus on how other people have treated us poorly, or how other people have treated us well. These choices of focus will determine how we feel.

We also have the choice of focusing on what we already have, or focusing on what we do not have and aspire to have. For instance, let’s imagine that you are currently living in a rental apartment. The apartment is quite nice, although there are things that could be better. The kitchen could be bigger, and the tile in the bathroom could be prettier.

Perhaps you imagine owning a house, and you feel badly about renting an apartment. Rarely do we appreciate what we have. Having a place to live is clearly infinitely better than being homeless. And even a flawed apartment is still home.

All of us need to work on learning to emphasize generosity, awe, and gratitude in our lives if we want to be happy. Generosity means kindness and acceptance in contrast to anger and judgment. Awe is the ability to be astounded by the wonder and beauty in the world. Gratitude is appreciation for all the good things in your own life and in the world.

He cited one interesting study where researchers observed a traffic crosswalk. They found that the more expensive cars were less likely to stop for people in the crosswalks. Thus wealth often correlates with a lack of generosity and a higher level of hostility. Other data shows that there is very little correlation between wealth and charitable giving, with much of the charitable giving in the USA coming from those of modest means.

He also talked about secular changes in our society. He quoted a statistic that empathy is down 40% since the 1970’s. At the same time narcissism has increased by roughly 40%. This has a huge negative impact on relationships.

I was impressed by this simple but profound message of Dr. Luskin’s talk. Slow down, smell the roses, turn off your phone, focus on relationships, appreciate what you have, and become happier.

It’s a simple message, but hard to actually do.

I’m off to go for a hike in the hills, without my phone!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Good News! You May Be Getting More Sleep Than You Think, Especially If You Suffer Insomnia!

The Wall Street Journal today had a very interesting article about how people with insomnia tend to greatly underestimate how much sleep they get and overestimate how long it takes them to fall asleep. They also overestimate how often they wake up at night.

Roughly 30% of adults have some insomnia each year. About 10% of people have chronic insomnia which means that you have trouble sleeping three times a week or more. According to the Journal article, 42% of insomniacs who actually slept the normal amount (6 hours or more) underestimated how much they slept by more than an hour. I looked up the research article which was published in Psychosomatic Medicine. According to this research, insomniacs who slept six hours or more typically showed a profile of high depression and anxiety and low coping skills according to psychological testing.

What’s also interesting is that even though insomniacs may be sleeping six or more hours a night, there does appear to be some real differences in their brainwave activity compared to good sleepers. Even though they are asleep, their brains are more active, which may account for why they perceive their sleep to be less than it really is.

Another interesting factoid was that normal people tend to overestimate how much sleep they get. Most people when asked how much sleep they get will answer between seven and eight hours, but they are actually getting six hours. That’s why people tend to be so sleep deprived. For most people six hours is not enough sleep to feel really good.

So what’s the answer to this sleep estimating dilemma? It turns out there is a very simple answer. The two gold standards for measuring sleep are brainwave measurements and activity measurements. While brainwave measurements are difficult to come by in the home, activity measurements are very easy and inexpensive to obtain. Many of the current fitness tracker’s have a sleep tracking function. For instance, according to my Xiaomi Mi Band, which cost me the grand sum of $15, last night I was in bed for seven hours and 58 minutes, and got three hours 20 minutes of deep sleep and four hours and 38 minutes of light sleep. I was awake for one minute. (Yes, I know, please don’t hate me all you insomniacs!)

For insomniacs who worry about how much sleep they are getting, I recommend buying a fitness tracker and wearing it every night. The best ones automatically track sleep without having the requirement that you push a button to activate sleep mode. This is pretty important as most people forget to press the button. I have been pretty happy with my Xiaomi Mi Band, which you can buy directly from the company  but I’m sure there are other brands of fitness trackers which offer similar features.

Also, as I’ve written about previously here and here, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) may also improve the quality of sleep as well as the quantity. Some studies show that CBT-I improves people’s ability to accurately estimate their sleep time, and it also may calm  the over-activity of the brain that occurs when insomniacs sleep.

So here’s the executive summary for all of you sleep-deprived folks:

1. If you are an insomniac who is anxious and depressed, then you are probably getting more sleep than you think. Buy a fitness tracker with a good sleep tracking function, and you will see how much sleep you are actually getting.

2. If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, either practice meditation or see a CBT psychologist for CBT-I, as both of these interventions seem to lower the activity of the brain during sleep, which will improve your perception of your own sleep.

3. If you consistently feel anxious or depressed, consider getting some cognitive behavioral therapy for these problems, as they may contribute to sleep difficulties.

I’m off to bed now and hope I don’t have insomnia now that I’ve written about it!

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) Outperforms Drugs for Insomnia

The New York Times today had an excellent article The Evidence Points to a Better Way, which summarized what I have written about before. Cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic insomnia (CBT-I) kicks the butt of drug therapy!

One study compared CBT with a common sleeping pill called Restoril and found that the CBT treatment led to larger and longer lasting improvements in sleep. Another study found that CBT treatment outperformed the drug Ambien, and that CBT alone was even better than CBT plus Ambien combined.

Even more impressive are the results of a large meta-study which was published today. This meta-study, which combined data from 20 clinical trials and involved over 1000 patients with chronic insomnia showed that CBT I resulted in these patients falling asleep 19 minutes faster and having 26 minutes less wakefulness during each night on average. The actual study is protected by a pay wall, but the summary results are here.

One might question the clinical relevance of these outcomes. Does falling asleep 19 minutes faster really make that much of a difference? Does sleeping an extra 26 minutes a night make patients feel better the next day? As a good sleeper, I don’t really know the answer to these questions.

But I suspect that the biggest impact of CBT-I is in affecting the person’s perception of control over sleep. One of the horrible things about chronic insomnia is that patients feel out of control in terms of their sleep. They worry tremendously about the impact of loss of sleep on their ability to function the next day. It is this worry cycle that actually can create insomnia.

So I suspect that even though the effects were durable but modest, that the overall treatment made a large difference in how people felt. There is a big difference between taking 45 minutes to fall sleep and 20 minutes to fall sleep. And I suspect that sleeping an extra 26 minutes a night actually does make a difference. I know that I feel much better on eight hours of sleep as opposed to 7.5 hours of sleep.

When I work with patients on CBT-I one of the things I work on is helping the patient lower their anxiety about the impact of sleep restriction. As crazy as it sounds, one of the interventions I typically use is to have the patient stay up all night and go to work the next day. Although they are typically very tired, they discover that they can focus and function, maybe not at 100% but at an adequate level, maybe 75% or so. This lowers a lot of the anxiety about insomnia, since even a bad night of insomnia typically leads to quite a bit more sleep than staying up all night.

Other than the time and energy that a patient must invest in learning CBT-I skills, there are no side effects of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. All sleeping medications have significant side effects the most troubling of which involve impaired cognition and coordination during the night and the following day. This impaired coordination and cognition leads to increased falling in the elderly, and probably also leads to an increase in automobile and other accidents. Because drug companies don’t want studies done on this issue, there are relatively few studies, but one study in Norway found that there was a doubling of traffic accidents among patients who took a variety of sleeping pills. Another study that compared 10,000 sleeping pill users to 23,000 nonusers found that the sleeping pill users were five times more likely to die young than nonusers.

So what does this mean to the person suffering insomnia? It means that you should avoid taking sleeping medications, and get cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. This kind of therapy typically does not take very many sessions. I teach the basic skills of CBT-I in about 4 to 6 sessions, and typically the entire course of CBT-I takes less than 10 sessions. There are also options for CBT- I online and even apps that run on your phone. One such app that runs on both android and iPhone is called CBT-I Coach. This app was developed with your tax dollars as part of a large Veterans Administration insomnia treatment program, and is excellent.

It’s getting late, so rather than have to experiment with any of these treatments, I’m off to bed…

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Treatment of Tinnitus using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Tinnitus is condition where the person hears a ringing in their ears or other sounds when none of these sounds are present. It is a very common problem, especially as people age. According to studies, up to 20% of people over the age of 55 report symptoms.

What causes tinnitus? There can be many causes. The most common cause is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include medication side effects, as well as withdrawal from benzodiazepines. In many cases no apparent cause can be found.

For many, tinnitus is a relatively minor problem that they tend to ignore. Almost everyone has momentary tinnitus symptoms. But for other people tinnitus creates a tremendous amount of psychological distress. This includes anxiety and depression. The person fears the loss of their hearing, and tends to focus intensely on their symptoms. They begin to avoid situations where their symptoms are more noticeable. This typically means avoiding quiet locations where there is no sound to mask the tinnitus sounds. Or it may involve avoiding situations where there are loud noises such as movie theaters due to the fear of further hearing loss.

Similar to some forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the person may begin to engage in frequent checking behavior. This means that they consciously check the presence and volume of the ringing in their ears. They may also frequently check their hearing.

The person also suffers from constant thinking about causes of the tinnitus. They often blame themselves for exposure to loud noises in earlier life. They think about the music concerts they attended where they didn’t wear earplugs, or even recreational listening to music. They have strong feelings of regret that can blend into depressive symptoms.

Unfortunately there are no terribly effective physical treatments for tinnitus. This leaves psychological treatment as the primary modality for successful reduction of distress.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) conceptualizes tinnitus much like it conceptualizes the experience of chronic pain. Chronic pain consists of two components. The first component is the physical sensations. The second component is the bother or suffering caused by these physical sensations.

Tinnitus can be conceptualized in the same way. The subjective experience of sounds in the ears is the physical sensation. The interpretations of these sensations lead to the emotional reactions; suffering and bother.

Although CBT cannot directly change the physical sensations of tinnitus, it can change the reactions to these sensations. And changing the reactions can actually lead to a subjective experience of diminishing symptoms.

What are the components of the CBT treatment for tinnitus?

1. Psychoeducation. The first step is to educate the client about how tinnitus works. The model used is that the loss of certain frequencies in the hearing range leads the brain to fill in those frequencies with sounds. It is very much like phantom limb pain, where an amputee may experience pain in the removed extremity.

The nature of hearing loss is explained, and psychoeducation regarding tinnitus and the risk of further hearing loss is discussed. If needed, results of hearing tests can be discussed relative to the actual severity of hearing loss. Although in some cases of tinnitus hearing loss is quite significant and may actually impair functioning, in many cases the hearing loss is relatively minor and does not impair functioning in any way.

2. Cognitive therapy. Here the therapist helps the patient to identify the negative thoughts that are leading to anxiety and/or depression. Typical thoughts for anxiety are: “I can’t live my life anymore with this condition. I will lose my hearing entirely. The sounds will drive me crazy. I’m out of control. If I go into _____ situation I will be troubled by these sounds so I must avoid it. I need to constantly check my hearing to make sure it’s not diminishing. I need to constantly check the tinnitus sounds to make sure they are not getting worse. They are getting worse! They will get worse and worse until they drive me crazy.”

Typical thoughts for depression are: “Life has no meaning if I have these sounds in my ears. I can’t enjoy my life anymore. It’s hopeless. There’s nothing I can do about it. Doctors can’t help me. It will get worse and worse and slowly drive me crazy. I won’t be able to function.”

Once these thoughts are identified then the skills of challenging them and changing them are taught to the client. The client learns how to alter these thoughts to more healthy thoughts. This produces a large reduction in anxiety and depression.

3. Attentional strategies. Because much of the subjective perceived loudness of tinnitus is based on attention, with higher levels of attention leading to higher levels of perceived loudness, developing different attentional strategies will help very much. In this part of the treatment mindfulness training and attentional training is used to help the client learn how to shift their attention away from the tinnitus sounds onto other sounds or other sensations. Often a paradoxical strategy is first used, where the patient is asked to intensely focus only on their tinnitus sensations. This teaches them that attention to tinnitus symptoms increases the perceived severity, and helps motivate them to learn attentional strategies.

Another aspect of attentional retraining is to stop the constant checking of symptoms and hearing. Helpful techniques include thought stopping where the client may snap a rubber band against their wrist each time they notice themselves checking.

4. Behavioral strategies. Tinnitus sufferers typically develop an elaborate pattern of avoidance in their lives. They avoid situations where they perceive tinnitus sounds more loudly. This can include avoiding many quiet situations, including being in quiet natural places such as the woods, or even avoiding going to quiet classical music concerts. They also tend to avoid situations where they might be exposed to any loud noise. This includes movie theaters, concerts, and even noisy office situations.

The behavioral component of CBT encourages an exposure-based treatment whereby the client begins to deliberately go back into all of the avoided situations. In situations where there is actual loud noise exposure at a level potentially damaging to hearing, they are encouraged to use protective earplugs.

The purpose of the behavioral component is to help the person return to their normal life.

5. Emotional strategies. Sometimes it is necessary to help the client go through a short period of grieving for their normal hearing. This allows them to move forward and to accept the fact that they have hearing loss and tinnitus. Acceptance is a key factor in recovering psychologically. This often also includes forgiving themselves for any prior excessive loudness exposures.

Changing the thoughts about the tinnitus symptoms also produces emotional change and a reduction in anxiety and depression.

In summary, cognitive behavioral therapy of tinnitus seeks to reduce the psychological suffering caused by the sensations of tinnitus. Cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and attentional strategies are taught to the client to empower them to no longer suffer psychologically from their tinnitus symptoms. Successful treatment not only reduces the psychological suffering, but because it also changes the attentional focus and lowers the checking of symptoms, people who complete CBT for tinnitus often report that their perceived symptoms have reduced significantly.

Tips:

1. Traditional psychotherapy is typically NOT helpful for tinnitus.

2. Find a practitioner, typically a psychologist, with extensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If they have experience treating tinnitus that is even better.

3. Give treatment a little time. You will have to work hard to learn new ways of thinking and reacting, and this won’t happen overnight. You should be doing therapy homework between sessions.

4. Medication treatment such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication is typically not very helpful, and in the case of anti-anxiety medications can actually worsen tinnitus especially during withdrawal. First line treatment should be CBT.

5. Get help. Although the actual symptoms of tinnitus have no easy fix, the suffering can be treated and alleviated. Especially if you are experiencing depression symptoms, is is important to seek therapy with a CBT expert.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Want to Sleep Better? Get Brief CBT-I Therapy for Sleep Instead of Sleeping Pills

“To sleep–perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub”

The New York Times reported on a terrific study at the University of Pittsburgh, looking at ultra short treatment of insomnia in the elderly. According to the article roughly 1/4 of older adults suffer from insomnia. The researchers streamlined an approach called CBT-I, which stands for cognitive behavioral therapy of insomnia.

There were only two sessions of treatment, totaling about 90 minutes. There were also two brief follow-up phone calls, over the first month. They tested this brief treatment and 79 seniors with chronic insomnia.

So what were the results of this study? They couldn’t have been very powerful, right?

Wrong. Two thirds of the CBT-I group reported a clear improvement in sleep, compared with only 25% of the people in the control group. Even better, 55% were cured of their insomnia. And six months later the results were even better.

So what was this magic treatment and the magic rules for curing insomnia? There were only four rules.

  • Spend only seven or eight hours in bed.
  • Set your alarm and get up at the same time everyday.
  • Never go to bed until you actually feel sleepy.
  • If you are tossing and turning and can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you get sleepy again. Then go back to bed.

These are standard cognitive behavioral sleep hygiene rules. And they are very powerful. Although not mentioned in the study, a few other rules are also helpful.

  • Regular exercise performed no later than midday is also helpful.
  • Reducing caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol all are helpful.
  • Avoid all naps.
  • Only use your bedroom for sleep and sex. Don’t watch TV or read in bed.

So why isn’t this treatment widely available? Could it be because there isn’t a powerful drug lobby for sleeping pills pushing this very effective therapy?

What is really tragic is that most seniors end up being prescribed sleeping pills for insomnia. And this is in spite of very clear data from research that shows that modern sleeping pills such as Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata, have very minimal effects. On average they reduced the average time to fall asleep by 12.8 minutes compared to placebo, and increased the total sleeping time by only 11.4 minutes.

Patients who took older sleeping medications like Halcion and Restoril fell asleep 10 minutes faster, and slept 32 minutes longer.

How can this be? Why is it that patients believe that sleeping pills are much more effective? The answer is very simple. All of these drugs produce a condition called anterograde amnesia. This means that you cannot form memories under the influence of these drugs. So you don’t remember tossing and turning.  If you can’t remember tossing and turning even though you may have, then you perceive your sleep has been better. The drugs also tend to reduce anxiety, so people worry less about having insomnia, and thus feel better.

The hazards of sleeping pills in older adults include cognitive impairment, poor balance, and an increased risk of falling. One study in the Journal of the American geriatrics Society found that even after being awake for two hours in the morning, elder adults who took Ambien the night before failed a simple balance test at the rate of 57% compared to 0% in the group who took placebo. This is pretty serious impairment. Interestingly enough, in the same study, even young adults who took Ambien showed impaired balance in the morning.

So what are the key messages here?

1. Even though sleeping pills give people a sense of perceived improvement in sleep, the actual improvement tends to be almost insignificant, especially with the newer and very expensive sleeping medications. The older medications increased sleep time a little better, but have more issues with addiction and tolerance. Side effects of these medications are potentially very worrisome, since they can cause cognitive impairment and increased falling which leads to injuries, especially in the elderly. Why risk these side effects for such small improvements in sleep quality?

2. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia works better than sleeping pills, has no side effects, is cheaper in the long run, and has a lasting impact on sleep improvement.

3. Most people who suffer insomnia will see their physician, who will prescribe sleeping pills. This is partly because of the lack of availability of cognitive behavioral treatment for insomnia. There are relatively few cognitive behavioral practitioners, and even fewer who regularly do CBT-I. We need to improve the availability of these treatments, and should follow in the footsteps of the University of Pittsburgh researchers in learning how to streamline these treatments. Most people don’t have the patience to spend 6 to 8 weeks in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. Instead we need treatments that can be administered in a single week or two with some brief follow-up.

4. CBT-I availability will always suffer from the fact that there is no powerful corporate interest backing it. There are no CBT-I sales reps going to doctors offices offering free samples of CBT-I for doctors to pass out to their patients. I don’t have a solution for this problem, but would be interested in hearing from my readers as to how we might more effectively promote effective and safe treatments such as CBT-I.

Okay, now that I’ve written this, it’s time to trundle off to bed. As Hamlet said, “To sleep — perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!”

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Handle Mistakes–CBT Techniques for Gracefully Coping With Mistakes and Setbacks

Sometimes clients really integrate the learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and share it with family members. I was very moved when a client recently shared with me an email she wrote to her two teenage children. She gave me permission to publish it here, with a few identifying details deleted. Here it is:

To my dear children, please read this email because it will help you live life more peacefully.

I have lived my whole life worrying and I’m sick of it so I’ve spent the past months studying how to combat it. Here are some tips I’ve learned that should help you too.

As Dr. Gottlieb shared with me, here are key questions to ask yourself after making a mistake or facing something you think is devastating, in order to put the mistake into perspective

  • Did anyone die or get hurt? Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • Will I remember it in 1 or 5 years?
  • Did I lose a lot of money? (Defined as an amount that would truly change your way of life. ($100, $1000, or $10,000)
  • Is the mistake easily fixable with time or money or words?
  • What can I learn?
  • Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

OK, so the last point is the hardest.  Of course it always seems to totally matter and be catastrophic.  However, this brings me to the next step of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Sit with your thoughts. Then ask yourself what are your negative thoughts causing you to feel this way.  For instance, “I’m going to get into a horrible college, have a lousy job, be poor, get fired, be miserable, etc.”

THEN recognize these thoughts.  Are they all-or-nothing thinking?  Am I mind reading, assuming that others feel this way?  Am I being catastrophic, blowing this out of proportion?

Once you determine that this is really a distorted thought, then examine the thought in a healthier way.  You can step back and ask yourself on a scale of 0-100, how bad is this current event really?  Think of something tragic that would be a 100 (ie: parent dying, you getting cancer, etc.). Ugh.  Then compare the current event with the true 100 catastrophic event.

To help you determine the true number, ask yourself a series of “what if” statements for healthier thinking.  For instance:  “What if I don’t get an A…. I won’t get into a good college… if this is true then what if you don’t get into a good college…. I won’t get a good job…. if this is true what if you don’t get a good job…. I’ll be unemployed forever, be poor and miserable”…. Is this really true?  No.  You can think of people who didn’t attend college and are successful. You can even think of the opposite of people who DID attend a prestigious school and never worked outside of the home. You can think that there are ALL types of jobs that require all types of skills.

Then re-number your worry.  It’s probably much lower.  If not, review Dr. Gottlieb’s key points above and go through this exercise again. Most of the time the worry/event isn’t as bad as we think.

Finally, turn unproductive worry into product worry.  Unproductive worry is just thinking OMG, OMG, OMG!  That doesn’t help.  However, productive worry is problem solving.  You switch the energy into something productive and try to solve the problem.

And one last thing, remember that if you’re mind reading (believing that others will think negatively of you), no one really cares.  True, your parents and close ones do care about the important stuff, but truly no one looks at you.  Everyone is a self-centered, too busy focused on them to be concerned about you.  And if you assume that people are thinking something negatively about you, do the above steps, asking yourself to replace this with a more realistic/healthier thought and the what if exercise.  Remember, just because you may have judgmental thoughts, doesn’t mean everyone else is.  The first step is to stop judging others and be more compassionate.  Once you stop being so judgmental of others, you’ll start treating yourself nicer and have better self esteem.

I hope that you read and implement these tips so you can lead happier, more peaceful lives.  And just think, I’ve saved you hours and hours of reading, studying and discussing this stuff…  You get the Spark Notes version.  🙂

I love you both dearly.

Mom

Thanks Mom for sharing this with me, and with all of my readers….

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Why do Most Psychologists Ignore Science Based Therapy? Evidence Based Psychotherapy and the Failure of Practicioners

A new article in Newsweek magazine titled Ignoring the Evidence documents how most psychologists ignore scientific evidence about treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy which have been proven to be effective.

A two-year study which is going to be published in November in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found that most psychologists “give more weight to their personal experiences then to science.”

The Newsweek article has a wonderful quote,

“Thanks to clinical trials as rigorous as those for, say, cardiology, we now know that cognitive and cognitive-behavior therapy (teaching patients to think about their thoughts in new, healthier ways and to act on those new ways of thinking) are effective against depression, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and -posttraumatic-stress disorder, with multiple trials showing that these treatments-the tools of psychology-bring more durable benefits with lower relapse rates than drugs, which non-M.D. psychologists cannot prescribe. Studies have also shown that behavioral couples therapy helps alcoholics stay on the wagon, and that family therapy can help schizophrenics function. “


The article documents how most psychologists fail to provide empirically proven treatment approaches and instead use methods which are often ineffective. The truth is there is very little evidence for most of the types of therapy commonly performed in private practices by psychologists and by Masters level therapists. If you are shopping for the most effective types of therapy you need to find a practitioner who is skilled at cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is one of the few psychotherapy approaches that has been proven to work on a variety of problems.

Another interesting article in Newsweek about evidence-based treatment discussed bulimia. Here’s the summary:

“On bulimia (which affects about 1 percent of women) and binge eating disorders (2 to 5 percent), the verdict is more optimistic: psychological treatment can help a lot, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective talk therapy. That’s based on 48 studies with 3,054 participants. CBT (typically, 15 to 20 sessions over five months) helps patients understand their patterns of binge eating and purging, recognize and anticipate the triggers for it, and summon the strength to resist them; it stops bingeing in just over one third of patients. Interpersonal therapy produced comparable results, but took months longer; other therapies helped no more than 22 percent of patients. If you or someone you love seeks treatment for bulimia, and is offered something other than CBT first, it’s not unreasonable to ask why. Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, summarized it this way: “Bulimia nervosa is treatable; some treatment is better than no treatment; CBT is associated with the best outcome.”

So the bottom line is this:

1. Most psychologists who don’t practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are just winging it, using treatments that haven’t been shown to work by scientific studies. It’s as if you went to a regular physician and got treatment with leaches!

2. Many psychologists claim to use CBT but haven’t really trained in the use of CBT, or have taken a weekend workshop. Unless they prescribe weekly homework that involves writing down thoughts, and learning skills to analyze and change your thoughts, then they aren’t really doing CBT, and I recommend you find someone else.

3. If you have an anxiety disorder, depression, bulimia, or obsessive compulsive disorder, and haven’t been offered CBT, then you are not receiving state of the art treatment.

Copyright © 2009 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness

I’m often asked about social anxiety and shyness, and how to overcome them. I was lucky enough to be quoted in a Forbes Magazine article about that very topic. And here’s a link to a pdf of the article, which is easier to navigate. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2009 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Sadder but Not Necessarily Wiser (and not quite as sad as expected)

Here is some more evidence that we poorly predict happiness and unhappiness.

A recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology again shows how poor we are at predicting our future states of happiness or unhappiness. As I wrote about in previous posts on happiness, we seem to be quite poor at predicting how we will feel in the future.

Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick at Northwestern University studied young lovers to see if their predictions of unhappiness after a breakup matched their actual suffering when the breakup occurred.

They looked at college students who had been dating for at least two months and had them fill out multiple questionnaires. Twenty six of the students broke up during the first six months of the study and these students predictions of distress were examined. The students at rated how painful a breakup would be on average two weeks before the breakup.

On average people overestimated the pain of a breakup. There was some correlation between how much people were in love and how much pain they suffered after the breakup, but everyone recovered more quickly than they had predicted. Looking at the actual study it appears that people were able to predict somewhat accurately their suffering in the first two weeks after the breakup. The correlation between their prediction and the actual distress was about 0.60 which means that they were able to predict about 36% of their suffering. But between weeks six and 10, the correlations dropped to about 0.30, which means that they were only able to predict about 10% of the variation in their suffering.

This is interesting in terms of the habituation process that I wrote about earlier. We habituate to both good and bad events. And we underestimate our ability to adapt to both types of events.

Now we shouldn’t make too much of this study. Remember this is a study of college students who had been dating for at least two months. This isn’t exactly a study of deep connection and commitment. It would be interesting, but much more difficult, to look at the same data for married couples who later break up.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge ™ /TPL Productions , All Rights Reserved

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Shyness Plus Rejection Plus Anger = School Shooters? News from APA Conference

Ah the joy of summer conferences! American Psychological Association had their annual conference in my lovely city of San Francisco this weekend, and one of the more interesting studies discussed was a study of kids who shoot other kids in school in mass murder attacks. They looked at eight teen shooters and rated them on what they call “cynical shyness.” Cynical shyness is a subset of normal shyness that involves anger and hostility towards others, especially when they are rejected.

Bernardo Carducci, lead author of the study and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany explained:

“In addition to feelings of anxiety about social situations, cynically shy people, who are a small subclass of shy people, also have feelings of anger and hostility toward others and that comes from this sense of disconnect. Shyness has more in common with extroversion than with introversion. Shy people truly want to be with others, so they make the effort, but when they are rejected or ostracized, they disconnect. Once you disconnect, it’s very easy to start being angry and hate other people. It’s you against them, and they become what I call a cult of one. Once you start thinking ‘it’s me versus them,’ then it becomes easy to start hurting these people.”

Rating the eight teen shooters, they found that four of them had scores of 10 (on a 10 point scale) of cynical shyness, three had scores of 8, and one had a score of 6. Both of the Columbine shooters had scores of 10.

Now it should be pointed out that shyness per se is not dangerous. It is only this angry, cynical form of shyness, mainly found in teenage boys, that may be associated with dangerousness. And one weakness of the study is that they only looked at shooters. There may be many teens who score high on cynical shyness that do not escalate into violence. In fact this would be a good study, to identify what allows other cynically shy students NOT to become dangerous.

But shyness in pre-teens and adolescents is a serious disorder, as it can create intense misery in young people. Shy people desperately want to connect, they just don’t know how. Classes and workshops and group therapy approaches may be helpful in helping teens overcome this serious disorder.

Copyright 2007  The Psychology Lounge ™, All rights reserved

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

On Perfectionism and How to Overcome It

Today I am writing about perfectionism, that deadly trait that infects so many people, causing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and procrastination. Perfectionism is really about having unreasonable standards for your own or others’ performance. When you are a perfectionist, it means you never can live up to your internal standards. This causes unhappiness and depression. It may also cause anxiety.

Closely linked to perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. Although the real world is an analog world, we often think of it in binary terms. Our job is “good” or it is “bad.” A vacation is “wonderful” or “horrible.” People are “interesting” or “boring.” What makes all-or-nothing thinking part of perfectionism is that it makes your standards rigid and inflexible. There’s no grading on a curve with binary thinking. Your performance is an “A” or an “F.”

So what’s wrong with perfectionism anyway? Doesn’t it make one perform better?

The answer is no. Perfectionism actually leads to lower performance. When you have unreasonably high standards you are more likely to get disappointed when you fail to meet that standard. And disappointment makes people try less hard. It saps the will and depresses the spirit.

So you might be wondering how do I change my perfectionism? (And how do I do it instantly!) 🙂 The key to altering perfectionist tendencies is to do several things:

1. Set reasonable and flexible standards for your performance and others.

2. Reserve higher standards only for those tasks that truly require them.

3. Test out your standards. See if it’s necessary to actually be so perfect. Try doing things less well, and see if the sky falls.

4. Remember life is not just about performance. It is also about enjoyment, fun, and relaxation.

5. Think in terms of a continuum or grey scale. Instead of using all-or-nothing terms like “good” or “bad” instead use a 10 point rating scale. The dinner was a “6.” The movie was a “2.” This gets you thinking along a continuum, which is healthier and less stressful.

6. Always ask yourself before you decide on standards whether the task is actually worth doing at all. If something is not worth doing, then it is not worth doing perfectly. So for instance, when you purchase some small item that doesn’t work out, perhaps it makes sense to toss it out, or give it away, rather than gathering up the packing materials, driving 30 minutes, and returning it. Not perfect, but perhaps a better choice.

7.

The End (Notice the slight imperfection.)

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.