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.

Depression Often Misdiagnosed, and Untreated

The New York Times had an interesting article about how depression is often misdiagnosed in the US, and how most people who actually have depression don’t get treatment.  They reference a research study just published in the JAMA Internal Medicine.

This research study performed by Mark Olfson, Carlos Blanco, and Steven C. Marcus, looked at responses from 46,417 people on the Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) which is a brief screening tool for depression. A score of over 3 indicates depression on this scale.

What did they find? They found that approximately 8.4% of all adults studied had depression, but only 28.7% had received any depression treatment in the previous year! That means 71.3% of the people who suffer depression got no treatment for this depression.

Of those who were being treated for depression, about 30% actually had depression based on the screening, and another 22% had serious psychological distress. That means that of the people in the study who were being treated for depression roughly 48% neither suffered depression nor did they suffer serious psychological distress, indicating inaccurate diagnoses by the treating professionals.

There were some interesting correlates of depression. About eighteen percent of those in the lowest income group suffered depression, while only 3.7% of those in the highest income group suffered depression. It pays to be rich!

Depression was more common in those who were separated, divorced, widowed, or who had less than a high school education. None of this is terribly surprising.

How did depression break down by age?

In the 18 to 34-year-old group 6.6% suffered depression. In the 35 to 49-year-old group 8.8% suffered depression. Ten percent of the 50 to 64-year-old group suffered depression. Of those over 65, only 8.3% suffered depression. So at least in this sample the 50 to 64-year-old group was slightly more likely to suffer depression, and contrary to what many people think, the youngest adults were somewhat less likely to suffer depression.

Of those who were married only 6.3% suffered depression. Of those who were separated, divorced, or widowed, 13.3% suffered depression. Divorce is bad for mental health, with almost a doubling of rates of depression.

Most of the patients who were treated for depression were treated by general practitioners (73%), with roughly 24% receiving treatment by psychiatrists and 13% receiving treatment by other mental health specialists. (There was some overlap, that’s why the numbers add up to more than 100%.)  This may explain the rather poor diagnosis and treatment of depression because general practitioners although competent and intelligent, are very busy and typically only have a few minutes to spend with each patient, not enough to do a good job diagnosing and treating depression.

CONCLUSIONS

What can we conclude from this research?

  1. Almost 10% of the adult population suffers from depression. Of those people who have depression less than 30% of them will get any treatment for depression.
  1. You are more likely to suffer depression if you are in the lowest income group, divorced, separated or widowed, or have no high school education. If you are married you have half the probability of being depressed.
  1. Many adults receive depression treatment even though they don’t really meet the criteria for depression. In this study, almost half of the people receiving treatment for depression were neither depressed nor were they even particularly distressed.
  1. Rates of depression by age groups were relatively equal, with the youngest age group having the least depression and the middle-aged group (50 to 64) suffering somewhat more depression. Married people are suffer half as much depression as divorced, separated, or widowed people.
  1. Most people received depression treatment from their general practitioner or internal medicine doctor, with a smaller number receiving treatment from a psychiatrist, and even a smaller number receiving treatment from psychologists. This also meant that most people who receive depression treatment were treated using medication, and very few people received psychotherapy, even though most studies comparing medication to cognitive behavioral therapy for depression have shown that therapy performs at least as well as medication and probably better over the long term, with less relapse.

Reading between the lines of this study, it suggests that many people who feel depressed would benefit from receiving an accurate diagnosis from a clinical psychologist, and might very well also benefit from receiving cognitive behavioral therapy for depression rather than medication. Even if medication is indicated, a psychologist could recommend it to the patient’s general practitioner, and then monitor more closely the results.

The study also suggests that many people receive antidepressant medication who actually are not depressed, which needlessly exposes them to side effects and also fails to provide the correct treatment for what troubles them.

And finally, since only about 30% of those who suffer depression received any treatment for it, if you feel depressed, be sure to pursue treatment for depression.. Get an accurate diagnosis and then get treatment, ideally with a psychologist or therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy.

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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.

Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

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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.

How to Forgive: A Cognitive Behavioral Model for Forgiveness and Letting Go of Anger and Frustration

What is forgiveness?

Here’s what it is not. It is not for anyone else, only for you. It doesn’t imply reconciliation with the person who hurt you nor does it imply that you approve of their actions. It does not mean forgetting what happened.

What is forgiveness?

It is only for you, in order to help you feel better. As one well-known researcher said, “failing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Forgiveness means understanding what is causing your current distress. It is not what offended you or hurt you years ago or even a few minutes ago. The primary cause of your suffering is from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in response to your thoughts about the event.

This is a subtle concept. Most of us believe the reason we are angry is because someone has done us wrong. And it’s true, that if we could erase the event, we would stop being angry. But none of us own a time machine so we can not erase the events.

What makes us suffer is each moment that we think about the offending person or event. And how we think about these events. It is as if you own a DVD collection of movies of different events in your life. If you were to choose to only watch the upsetting movies, your overall level of happiness would greatly diminish. Choosing to forgive is choosing the DVDs of your life that are positive and full of joy.

There is another component of how people think about grudges. We often have a magical belief that our anger at someone else causes them to suffer. We imagine them feeling guilty about their behavior and suffering even when we are not present. We think of ways to hurt them in return – the silent treatment, constant criticism, reminding them of their offenses. But the reality is that most people are very good at blocking out guilt and punishment. Whenever they’re not around us they tend to think about other things. And they develop good ways of avoiding our punishment. So really the one who suffers is the person who’s angry and who fails to forgive, not the offender. And if the person we take out our anger on is someone we are still in relationship with, it damages the relationship and makes it even less likely we will get what we want.

Another trigger for resentment and anger is holding onto what the anger and forgiveness researchers call “unenforceable rules”. These are what most cognitive behavioral therapists call “Shoulds”. They are the demands we make on the world and on people around us. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t choose to do, and you can’t require people to give you things they choose not to.

For instance, you might want fidelity in your romantic partner. You certainly have every right to want that. But you can’t demand or enforce fidelity. If your partner chooses to go outside the relationship, you can’t really change it. The only options you have are how to react to this. You have choices to make about the relationship and about your future relationships.

The research on forgiveness is very interesting. It reduces blood pressure, stress, anger, depression and hurt while increasing optimism and hope. The primary researcher on forgiveness, Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, has even done forgiveness research with women in Northern Ireland whose husbands were murdered. Even with these extreme cases people have found the forgiveness model very helpful at easing the pain.

I’ve written about how to conquer anger using the S A P model. In this model you change your shoulds into preferences rather than demands, you place into perspective the events that have caused your anger, and you shift out of the blame model and depersonalize most events.

Forgiveness is about being happy. Living your life to its fullest is the best revenge you can take on someone who has offended you. Instead of focusing on the hurt or betrayal, focus your energy on getting what you want in your life in a different way other than through the person who has hurt or betrayed you. Take responsibility for your own happiness rather than placing it onto other people and then being disappointed when they don’t provide happiness.

Change your story. Too often we have what is called a grievance story. We tend to tell this story to many people. It always ends with us feeling stuck and angry. Change your story. Change the ending so that it ends with a powerful and strong choice to forgive.

 
So to summarize, here’s how to forgive:

1. Let yourself first feel the pain. Share the experience with a few close and trusted friends.

2. Recognize that your anger is a result of your choices about what thoughts to experience about an event. Decide to forgive so that you can move forward and feel better.

3. Recognize that you probably won’t be able to get rid of your hurt and anger by punishing the other person. All you will accomplish is to damage the relationship or make the other person suffer while you continue to suffer.

4. Recognize the role that your “unenforceable rules” or Shoulds plays in your continued hurt and anger. Change or eliminate these rules.

5. Figure out what you want in your life and how to succeed in achieving those goals even if the other person doesn’t provide the answers. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

6. Use the S A P model to change your shoulds, eliminate exaggerated awfulizing thinking, and take away blame.

7. Rewrite your script. Tell the new story where you were hurt but recovered and forgave and moved forward. You are a hero!

 

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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.

New Hope for Procrastination: Procrastinators are Trying to Repair Their Negative Moods by Avoiding Work According to the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has an intriguing article To Stop Procrastinating, Look to Science of Mood Repair. In the article, they discuss new research that suggests that many of the avoidant behaviors procrastinators use are actually attempts to repair low moods. Procrastinators often feel anxious or worried about the task they are attempting to accomplish, so that go to Facebook, the refrigerator, or to sleep to avoid those feelings. Learning new ways of dealing with negative feelings, and using some acceptance methods so that they can better tolerate the negative emotions are both helpful strategies for overcoming procrastination.

Highly recommended article, check it out! I’d write more, but I’m trying to get to work and stop avoiding by writing about avoidance!

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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.

Changing Thoughts May Be Better Than Changing Behavior in the Early Stage of Psychotherapy for Severe Depression

A recent study took a close look at what predicts improvement in depression in the first five sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. They looked at the degree to which the therapists used either cognitive therapy methods, practiced structuring the sessions clearly, and how much they used behavioral methods/homework. They also examined whether the patients cooperated with these parts of cognitive behavioral therapy. They also measured the strength of the therapeutic alliance.

Sixty patients with major depression participated in the study. Their sessions were videotaped and trained raters rated how much the therapists used cognitive versus behavioral methods.

What they found was only two aspects of therapist behavior predicted improvement between sessions. Depression was measured after every session, and these measurements showed that patients felt better when therapists used cognitive techniques, but didn’t improve when the therapists focused on behavioral techniques.

Patients also showed greater improvement when they adhered to suggestions made by the therapist, which is not surprising.

The behavioral methods used were techniques such as having patients schedule their activities to become more active, and tracking how they actually spent their time. This is called behavioral activation, and previous studies have suggested it is an effective approach to treating depression. The behavioral activation model is that depressed patients tend to do very little, and this leads to further depression. Patients are encouraged to schedule activities that are fun, or activities that provide a sense of mastery or success. This leads to a lessening of depressive feelings.

The cognitive methods were techniques such as writing down what your thoughts are, and using cognitive therapy to challenge or modify distorted thinking.

So how to interpret the results of this study?

It’s only one small study and I would be cautious about taking too much from it. It does suggest that at least in the early sessions of therapy, cognitive methods may be superior to behavioral methods. This makes sense to me because early in therapy depressed patients feel a lot of pain and lethargy, and getting them to suddenly increase their activity can be very challenging and perhaps too difficult. This may lead to a sense of failure which increases depression rather than reducing it. On the other hand, using cognitive methods may lead to more immediate sense of control and relief, which would tend to reduce depression levels.

My sense is that later in therapy behavioral activation techniques are very useful. But typically in order to get patients to cooperate with these techniques there needs to be a strong alliance with the therapist. This takes some time to build.

It would have been interesting if they had continued the study beyond the first five sessions, and looked at whether over time the relative importance of the cognitive versus behavioral techniques would have shifted.

The study shows that therapist behavior in sessions does matter. This is one of my pet peeves. Many psychotherapists claim to use cognitive behavioral therapy, yet fail to actually use any cognitive behavioral techniques on a regular basis in sessions. This study shows that therapist adherence to structuring sessions and using cognitive techniques matters.

So from a consumer point of view there are a few take-home lessons.

1. If you are seeking cognitive behavioral therapy, make sure your therapist actually does cognitive behavioral therapy during sessions. This means they should structure the sessions clearly, as opposed to simply letting you talk about whatever is on your mind. It also means they should be asking you to track your self talk in written form, during sessions go over those thoughts, helping you learn to identify and correct distortions in the thoughts. If they don’t do these behaviors, and therapy feels free-form, then you’re probably not getting cognitive behavioral therapy, and you might want to look elsewhere. If you don’t regularly get homework to do between tasks, you aren’t receiving cognitive behavioral therapy.

2. At least in the early part of therapy pure cognitive therapy techniques may be more effective than behavioral techniques. You may want to focus your own homework more on identifying and changing your inner thoughts, rather than trying to increase positive behaviors. This probably will yield more relief of depression.

3. The study also confirmed that when clients cooperate and are more involved using cognitive therapy techniques, they improve faster. So even if you’re feeling skeptical, try to fully participate during sessions and in between sessions, as that provides you the best chance of more rapid relief.

Your off to analyze his thoughts psychologist,

Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2010 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.