What are Dialectics and Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?

What is Dialectics?

Dialectics is based on the idea that two opposing concepts can both be equally true. One truth does not trump or rule out another, which undercuts the dichotomy of a “I am right you are wrong” type of relationship. A common dialectic is that you are perfect as you are (acceptance), and that in order for things to turn out differently in your life, you need to do things differently (change). One is not more true than the other, and one truth does not rule out the other truth. Sometimes people need acceptance, and sometimes people need to be challenged. Both belonging and growth are an inherent part of being in relationship.

Dialectics challenges the idea that one person is always “right”, because when you take into account diversity of perspective, other truths often arise. Being “right” often fails to take into account effective communication and the value of the relationship. Experience and emotions get ignored. A set agenda of being “right” often gets people stuck in a very rigid, dichotomous, black and white, non-dialectical stance. Dialectics are important in that sometimes you can find the one thing you have in common with your enemy instead of focusing in ways you are different. Relationships exist in context of conflicting truths, yet relationships are the glue that carries us through life.

What are the four Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills?

DBT is a complex treatment that has confusing origins in terms of how it was developed and who it was for, and has been tailored to a wide range of populations and settings. The DBT skills are universally applicable materials that help people with extreme and painful emotions, intolerable life situations, and relationships. The four skills sets are as follows:

Core Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a skill that helps people focus attention, regulate arousal, calm the brain, quiet the mind, and settle in. Being mindful is a way to steady and anchor oneself in order to observe quietly and not “react” to what is going on. It is inherent in all of the other skills in that it requires a steady, quiet, secure stance in the face of demanding life situations. It takes spaciousness to know what is going in with your body, your self-experience, your wants and desires, and your life. If you don’t pause the moment and check in with yourself, it is easier to get “caught up” in the banging and thrashing of what life throws in your direction. Mindfulness can be a spiritual practice of quiet contemplation, a way to press the pause button, and way to regroup. Core mindfulness skills taught from the DBT material include skills of observing and describing without judgement. Other traditions, spiritual practices, health care services, and therapies teach mindfulness, so it is not “new” nor is it confined to just DBT skills; its roots are actually in Zen Buddhism. There are multiple ways of accessing mindfulness including mindfulness based programs, meditation groups, trainings, and apps. DBT groups are known for implementing a mindful practice or exercise in every group, and like many spiritual traditions are simply considered part of a daily practice.

Emotion Regulation: This is a set of skills that helps people to observe and describe what they feel (you can see the overlap with mindfulness) in order to help regulate arousal, understand what they feel, and know the reasons why they feel the way they feel. Skills cover ways to reduce emotional suffering through mindfulness and opposite action, and ways to reduce vulnerability to emotional suffering. Skills are quite complex and take practice, feedback, and validation. Since emotions can be tricky, elusive, (and just plain unbearable at times) the emotion regulation content is not something you could “quick learn” and be done with it. Sometimes people are not always aware of how or what they feel in general, and there is nothing pathological about this. It is a process! Knowing oneself and knowing one’s emotions is a lifelong task not subjected to any particular type of disorder, and does not end just because you have had a first exposure to all of the skill content. That is why working together on ways to regulate arousal given varying life circumstances can best be done over time in small group settings that promote cohesion and intimacy.

Distress Tolerance: In order to regulate emotional arousal, finding ways to endure the “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” of painful and extreme emotions is critical. Surviving painful life circumstances well means doing so in a way where people do not lose self-respect, forget their values, give up what is important to them, or react in such a way that makes things worse. Sitting in the fire and not reacting is often harder than picking a fight, poking the fire, making others suffer in order to prove a point, exacerbating pain to let others know how bad things are, undermining a person where it hurts, forcing the university to prove its point, perseverating on being “right”, asking “why me”, or engaging in self-defeating or relationship destroying behaviors. Being willing to tolerate the unknown, be zen with the universe, stop fighting reality, and do what works is skillful practice. We all want things to do our way or to turn out for the best. In reality, a lot of people are suffering a great deal and need everything they can to survive well. Distress tolerance skills encompass not only change strategies (if you can do one thing make it better, why wouldn’t you?), but acceptance and willingness skills. Anyone who has successfully undergone any type of exposure treatment for anxiety knows that the benefit to tolerating anxiety is a decrease in overall anxiety. There is an inherent truth that reality is easier to face once you stop fighting it, thus freeing you up to do what is needed to effectively solve problems.

Interpersonal effectiveness: True to the concept of the dialectical philosophy of DBT, it is better to be effective than it is to be right. The interpersonal skill content encourages readers to identify objectives in situations (what exactly it is you want or don’t want), how the relationship may be impacted, and if self-respect is at stake. Balancing the three helps people to look at natural barriers and consequences of interacting, and enables readers to problem solve the cost/ benefit of ignoring each. For instance, you can ask for what you want at the expense of the relationship, or you can give into a relationship but sacrifice self-respect. The balancing act of relationships is an ongoing challenge for everyone, and some give and take is part of how people stick together, find intimacy, and keep people close. Interpersonal skills also include ways to get out of or decrease contact with toxic or unwanted relationships, set limits, say no, and to identify barriers to doing so. Direct rehearsal in terms of “what to say and how to say it” benefits group members in that they can try out and receive feedback in both verbal and non-verbal forms.

A book of all the DBT skills is available for purchase via this link: https://tinyurl.com/y2qad6sk

Can You Get Someone To Change Their Behavior Without Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Giving useful, helpful, and adequate feedback is something that is hard for a lot of people. I constantly witness parents, spouses, friends, family members, and even mental health professionals try to change the person they care about by blame, shame, and humiliation. While negative feelings have important functions and can motivate people to change their behavior, lack of useful feedback can have the opposite effect. For sensitive people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors, internalized shame, self-consciousness, and obsessive self-defeating thoughts, the consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of what not to do, and some food for thought about what to do instead: 

Tell them it is their fault: Getting someone to take responsibly for their actions makes sense. However, telling someone they are at fault is generally not followed up on by some plan of action, support, or help to prevent problematic behavior happening in the future. Generally, telling someone they are at fault does nothing more than make them feel bad. It makes more sense to be able to describe what specific behavior they did and the consequences it had in a non-judgmental manner. Is the goal the help prevent them from doing it in the future? If so, what is your role in this interaction? What are your intentions in blaming someone? Often, saying a person is at fault is simply a way to express anger, and expressing anger too intensely can sometimes destroy relationships. 

Tell them they are mentally ill: If you are trying to write someone off for behavior that you don’t understand well, this is an easy way out. Telling someone they are “mentally ill” can sometimes get people off the hook for providing more specific feedback or expressing anxiety more directly. What specific behavior are you talking about? Is there something in particular you want them to change? Do you have trouble describing their behavior? If people are treated with respect, they generally respond proactively. Mental illness can sometimes be a nebulous term for behavior that is not fitting or appropriate to the situation, and can also be a way to say “I am not comfortable with what you are doing.” However, being ganged up on, being misunderstood, and being shamed only ostracizes the recipient. Is calling someone mentally ill a way to express fear of what you can’t understand? Consider what it is about their behavior specifically that makes you uncomfortable, and see if you can use words to describe it without judgment. 

Tell them that they do things for attention: An attentive, listening audience can be a powerful thing. Just ask anyone who has benefitted from a caring partner, a best friend, or a loving family member! I love it when I receive the type of attention I want, and the type of attention I need. It makes me feel closer, more connected, and warmer towards the people I care about. There is no need to pathologize what is completely normal, and to make people feel bad for social inclusion, affection, and control. If there is a behavior that they actually do that burns you out, overwhelms you, or angers you; it may be time to own your frustration and know and communicate your limits. It may also be an opportunity to provide some feedback on what isn’t working in your relationship, or to clarify what it is you actually need for them to do or change. 

Tell them they have a personality disorder: Describing a disorder doesn’t change a behavior. People often think that if they could only describe something, somehow it will change! Telling someone the reason they behavior x way is because they have personality disorder generally just make them feel bad, and in some cases hopeless to do anything about it. If you want to hold someone accountable, you will have to develop better ways of giving feedback. A more thoughtful approach to changing behavior includes a compassionate and realistic plan to address it. 

Tell them they are a bad (parent, teacher, spouse, child, etc.): In essence, bad is a judgment. Trying replacing “bad” with descriptions of impact, consequences, and feelings about what happens when they behave the way they do. What is it about their behavior is “bad”, and why is it so important to bring to their attention? Are you avoiding expressing your own difficult feelings by judging others? 

In general, people are more willing to do what we want them to do when we have a strong relationship with them, when the feedback we provide comes from a place of caring, and when we validate and encourage others. A person is more likely to take feedback into consideration when they feel valued and cared about. Are there ways you can encourage or enhance the relationship? Focusing on behaviors that you want to increase (such as connection, openness, courage, self-awareness) will probably go a lot further than punitive responses coming out of frustration or anger. While constructive feedback is sometimes called for, aversive consequences manage to prevent problem behavior, and limits around what a person can tolerate is reasonable; punitive responses can also damage relationships.  

What Is Mindfulness, What Does It Have To Do With You, And Why Is It So Necessary?

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to 1) expand awareness or 2) focus attention. Below is some brief information on these two applications of mindfulness as it relates to your life and to the practice of psychotherapy.

AWARENESS

What are the benefits of awareness?

  • Increasing awareness increases options (less experiences of feeling or getting “stuck”)
  • Increasing options for how to react to stressors increases a sense of confidence and self control when confronted with life circumstances
  • Increasing awareness helps people understand why they behave the way they do and what controls their behavior
  • Increasing awareness helps people to identify patterns of responding, or repeating themes that may show up again and again, and can be better understood with curiosity and analysis
  • Increasing awareness helps to clarify, understand, and organize behavior in a more meaningful way
  • Increasing awareness (ie, awareness of anger) helps people to be assertive/ proactive, solve problems, and organize action

What problems accompany limited awareness?

  • Repeating patterns of getting stuck
  • Minimizes flexible and adaptive coping
  • Can be likened to zoning out, dissociating, not paying attention, missing out, or failing to show up for one’s life
  • Can increase vulnerability to do, say, or behave in ways that are acquiescent/ compliant; no self-awareness leads to responding/ reacting to environment (reduced autonomy, reduced control, reduced capacity for interpersonal influence/ power)
  • Limited awareness is associated with not knowing oneself, what one likes/ doesn’t like, wants/ doesn’t want
  • If you can’t know yourself (trust experience) how you can you know how to pursue a life that would be fulfilling and rewarding to you

Ways Awareness can bring pain

  • Losses associated with missing out on ones life
  • Grieving times/ time in life when things could have been better (had a person been more aware)
  • Awareness of hope and possibility can feel risky or unfamiliar
  • Familiarity and predictability help people feel consistency/ stability, thus awareness of alternatives can be uncomfortable/ unfamiliar
  • If a past history of problematic responses evoked a particular set of behaviors (escalated conflict results in nurturing/ attentiveness from partner), awareness of alternative ways of behaving may be initially aversive / won’t get immediate desired response

Things to be aware of:

  • Emotions, actions, urges, desires, hurts, want
  • Physical sensations, sensitivities, breath, body awareness, gut feelings, instincts, intuitions
  • Your behavior; how you behave/ change behavior, react in certain situations, which people, in different contexts
  • Your history of behavior; how behavior started, what it means/ meant, how it served a purpose/ had a function or role for you
  • How your behavior impacts others
  • How others’ behavior impacts you

FOCUSED ATTENTION

 Why is obtaining skill to focus one’s attention important?

  • Thoughts, emotions, pain, sensation, restlessness, boredom, etc. can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to live their life in a valued direction.
  • Thoughts and emotions can create problems, be distracting, and get us derailed
  • Obsessive thoughts, unwanted thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, self-hating thoughts, anxiety thoughts, and non-useful thoughts can threaten to take over attention, control action, and inhibit needed action
  • Staying focused can help a person be less prone to intense, unwanted, or problematic thoughts or beliefs
  • Action urges, emotional reactivity, and other behaviors often happen “automatically”, thus practicing focused attention increases your options for limiting your reactivity (For instance, if you are a person that “flies off the handle” staying focused can help you stay grounded)

Does focusing attention get rid of pain?

No, focusing attention helps a person not get consumed by other things that threaten one’s focus (ie, obsessing, ruminating). Pain is considered a normal part of the human existence; focusing mindfulness activities are not done with the purpose to destroy, get rid of, or inhibit pain.

Focusing on sound exercise. For the next 3 minutes (set a timer if you’d like), try to focus all of your attention on sounds you can hear. Pay all of your attention to the sound, and see if it is possible to do this for 3 minutes. You will likely have multiple other thoughts, sensations, experiences, or distractions that don’t keep you 100% attentive to “just sound.” Likely if you had a painful thought, the thought took you out of the exercise. So, instead of heeding that thought your attention (buying into the thought, thinking the thought, rehashing, problem solving, etc.) you simply be aware of that thought (“oh that thought is showing up again”) and gently return to focusing on sound.

Remember:

  • No one is denying you are in pain
  • You are not denying you are in pain
  • You are not refusing to think about that situation, you are simply redirecting your attention for the time you try mindfulness
  • You are increasing your control of what you pay attention to and when
  • You may need to come back to your pain at some point and solve some problems, but for the three minutes this is not your task
  • Urges, cravings, desires, urges to take action/ do something, urges to eat something, etc. may all come and go
  • You are learning over time to increase control of all of this

Often, if your life is disrupted by intense, extreme, demanding emotions your actions often follow. You may feel as if you are controlled by your emotions and your actions. Focusing attention helps people to be more “aware” of urges, emotions, disruptions, or urgency around fixing or doing something NOW. Learning to control what you pay attention to will help you control yourself; your emotions may DEMAND your attention. Focusing attention exercises can help calm you down, settle you in, and even relax you a bit.

What You Should Know If You Have Been Diagnosed With Borderline Personality Disorder

Here is the truth: BPD, or Borderline Personality Disorder, has a historically bad rap with mental health professionals. I’m going to give you some truths to what you should know to not only think about this clearly, but to consider your options in terms of the person you want to be and the person you want to become.

BPD was historically known for “bordering” on the lines of neurotic vs. psychotic. In the olden days, clinicians who didn’t know if a person was living in the confines of “reality” could put them in a category that didn’t really fit either one. Historically neurosis has to do with issues related to anxiety, mood, and depression. Neurosis can also be related to trauma, vigilance, and paranoia about bad things re-occurring. Psychosis is related to problems hearing and seeing things that others do not see or hear, and is often associated with schizophrenia. “Borderline” has often been referred to as a category that doesn’t really fit any category, and in some cases has been the in- between of no-place.

BPD is also historically written about from an extremely pejorative and hopeless point of view. Words like “manipulative, gamey, cagey” are often used, and mental health professionals often refer to this diagnosis when talking about people that bug them, that they do not like, that get them enraged, and people that can tie up crisis hotlines and emergency rooms. In many cases, labeling someone with BPD has become a substitute for observing and describing behavior, providing useful feedback, and encouraging people to behave in ways that make them competent and more effective.

Here are some truths that you should keep in mind if a mental health professional has “informed” you that you have BPD:

Mental health diagnoses are not valid nor reliable. This means that (in terms of validity), if the same professional assessed a person over time (such as an assessment 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago), the likelihood that that professional would give the same person the same diagnosis is unlikely. It also means that if many different mental health professionals assessed the same person it is highly unlikely the all of them would come to the same conclusion about diagnosis. This is assuming that the only measure of giving a diagnoses is a working familiarity with the DSM-TRV, or the “psychiatric Bible” of diagnostic criteria (which is highly controversial. Be aware that homosexuality was once considered a psychiatric disorder, and now it is not). Mental health diagnosis may be more reliable and valid if the diagnosis is given based on a range of valid and reliable assessment batteries; thus if you have had some comprehensive personality assessment and testing this may be less of the case for your situation. Bear in mind that most people in the counseling profession are doing nothing more than giving you their clinical opinion; hence my point about reliability and validity. Also, there are some counseling programs that don’t cover concepts such as instruments of mental health measurement.

For some mental health professionals, telling someone they have BPD can sometimes be a communication of frustration. In a helpful world, telling someone what diagnoses they have can be useful and even helpful- it can validate if a person really is depressed or help figure out specific treatments. In the case with BPD, the “right treatment” is more complicated and may not be readily available. If your mental health professional is telling you have BPD, you might want to consider: So what? How it is it helpful or useful? Does it help people have the resources or tools for solving painful problems? Is it specific enough to describe what behavior shows up- and how behavior can be changed? Does it provide access to literature that is actually helpful? For some people, being diagnosed with BPD can only serve to increase shame and self-loathing. Literature is not always helpful and mental health professionals don’t always shore up resources for how to move forward to obtain resources and supports. Is the expectation to hide in a corner the rest of your life and not tell people who you “really” are? And do you seriously want to live this way?

There is a lot of confusion for most people around diagnosis being a cause. Diagnoses are actually descriptions of behavior, and mainly identify patterns of responding or behaviors that are typical for a person. Many people, including some mental health professionals, actually believe that they are describing reasons or causes of behaviors when giving someone a diagnoses. For instance, if the way that you behave is because you have a disorder, then someone people think they have adequately not only explained the reasons you behave the way you do, but they think they know why you behave the way you do. In terms of diagnosis, this really is not the case. The failure of the mental health system is that people think they are being helpful (“You have problems because you have a disorder”) rather than addressing causes and potential solutions for behavior change. In this case, many problems of pain are not being solved as the focus of attention is on the “correct” diagnosis, which, in my opinion, is a rather useless pursuit. It can be akin to a parent who has several children; one of them is determined to be “bad.” Instead of figuring out how to prevent problem behavior, solve problems, and tend to the child’s needs; the parent simply attributes all problem behavior to the child being “bad.”

What you can do if you have, or think you have, or someone else thinks you have BPD:

Don’t think you are permanently impaired, hopeless, or beyond help. Fear and shame keeps may people paralyzed from acting with self-respect, doing things that are meaningful, and putting oneself out there in the universe. Universally, fear and shame can prevent anyone from living a decent life. You are not an exception.

Learn to talk about yourself and your behaviors in a descriptive, non-judgmental, and matter-of-fact ways. This will make you competent, understandable, and respectable. This also means that if you go around and tell everyone you are disordered, people may treat you as fragile, incompetent, incapable, or helpless. Create and practice ways to talk about yourself outside of the realm of “mental illness.”

Pay attention to providers, mental health professionals, or family members who attribute your behavior to being “mentally ill” or “bad” or “personality disordered.” Realize that everyone has vulnerabilities and that many, many people struggle with giving accurate, helpful, and specific feedback. Consider how giving and receiving feedback is either helpful or not helpful, and don’t seek out relationships where blame seems to be an acceptable solution for reducing pain or resolving differences. Finding “fault” only works if the consequence is taking responsibility and making changes; not amplifying shame and paralysis of action.

Be aware that if you do delve into literature on BPD, you may encounter a wide range of confusing terminology that attempts to define you; which may not only be disconcerting but also downright confusing. You might encounter terms like object relations, transference, countertransference, self-objects, self-soothing self-objects, object mirroring, intrapsychic processes, or projections. Don’t get bogged down by mental health-ese. Bear in mind that some mental health professionals have a lot of trouble observing and describing behavior and giving useful feedback and sometimes hide behind their own jargon.

Find other things that provide you a sense of identity, that define you, that make you the person you are, and that you value. Consider roles you take on in society; engage in them and be proud of them. What is important to you? Why would you let a diagnoses get in your way with pursuing what is important to you? In what ways do you not “show up” because you have shame around a diagnosis? Life is bigger than the world of “mental health.”

Bear in mind that many mental health professionals are obsessed with political leaders that they believe to be personality disordered. In truth, political leaders are still political leaders, and political leaders have made great gains, influenced many, changed laws, and maintained power. Being diagnosed with something “bad” hasn’t deterred people from being politically active, advocating, having power, or being influential. There is no good reason why you have to be shamed from participating in the universe just like everyone else- people with a lot of problems still manage to be successful and competent in a myriad of different ways.

Finally, feel free to visit the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder, a nonprofit that may be more helpful than the general google search. Their website (www.borderlinepersonaltydisorder.com) has some useful non-pejorative literature, trainings, and free services for friends and family members.

What if your depression and anxiety was not something you actually “have”?

Depression and anxiety are often considered something that a person “has”. Once they “have” depression and anxiety, there seems to be a mentality both in the general public and among mental health professionals that it is very hard to not have. Or that the obvious solution is to get rid of it- and in most mainstream ways of thinking, that solution is often medication.

Part of being a successful professional means that I need to help people think about the treatment of their think depression and anxiety differently- and figure out what to do about it. If depression and anxiety were a thing a person had, it would be a permanent condition: not subject to change. There would be no point in getting help. When people think of depression as a thing a person has, it becomes a noun. It is a reified, concretized, objectified, thing. People might think of it as actually existing or residing within them, somewhere in their brain or their heart. It feels bad and they will do anything to avoid or get rid of it if possible.

Depression is not only seen as a “thing” a person “has”, but it is also often cited as a cause. In other words, the reason you may be depressed is because don’t get out of bed. Yet the reason you don’t get out of bed is because you are depressed. The reasoning is not only rhetorical; it doesn’t solve any problems. Telling people that the reason they have problems is because they have anxiety or depression isn’t usually helpful- and doesn’t provide any solutions. If only people were interested in what actually causes depression or anxiety!

I think of depression and anxiety as verbs: aspects of experience and subject to change. Emotions, depression, and anxiety is caused; it is not a cause. It is something that can increase or decrease based on a wide range of factors. Those factors are worthy of exploration and can help a person feel more in control. If a person believed that depression and anxiety was caused, and those causes could be better understood and addressed; a person might have better options for not being depressed. Knowing when and how depression might show up also might make a person more able to predict and control its occurrence; and have less experience of depression and anxiety as an unknown “thing” that creeps up “out of the blue” and remains a static “thing” a person “has.” It’s mysterious, stigmatized entity prevents us from understanding or treating it.

Part of working with people is helping them gain an awareness on causes, reasons, triggers, and stimuli that evoke high anxiety and severe moods. Much of the time people don’t always realize the extent to which they are bothered by losses or threats; and the lack of paying attention can sometimes cost them in very painful ways.

Boston Area Depressed/ Anxious Adolescents: Why Should My Teenager Be In Group?

Teens face many developmental challenges throughout high school. Some of them are normative and stressful, and some of them become bigger than life overnight. Peer relationships can be life or death in terms of social isolation. Teens want to rely less on adults as they become more independent, but sometimes they get in over their heads.

Teens can be fine one moment and in crisis the next. Getting rejected on social media or having a shift in the friendship circle can imminently impact one’s desire and willingness to go to school and focus on schoolwork. Sometimes teens are fine.

And then, suddenly, they are not.

Ongoing group therapy presents a kind of “soft contact” where there are multiple prompts to talk about what is hard to talk about, rehearse ways of dealing with anxiety, and address “the thing” before it becomes a bigger “thing.” Some kids have a way of holding stress within, putting on a mask, and pretending things don’t bother them. Sometimes it is easier to dismiss how isolated one feels than to make a “big deal” out of something that shouldn’t be “all that bad.” One can spend a lot of energy trying to convince oneself that they are “okay” when really, they are not.

Ongoing group provides consistently, familiarity, and a stable peer cohort. If conflicts arise within their school, they can take it outside of school and gather advice about how to address it. Teens that tend to take on everyone else’s problems can be encouraged to consider their own needs, set limits, identify what they can and can not do, figure out their feelings, and communicate more clearly. They can learn to tolerate emotional discomfort more readily, be more prepared when conflicts come up, and stay in conversations that may bring up a lot of emotion. Being socially connected means hanging in there when things are hard- and sometimes being willing to give and receive feedback.

Being in an ongoing peer group creates opportunities for intimacy, growth, open sharing, and a way to hang in there together with people who are really struggling. It means learning how to address the awkward pause after an embarrassing moment, a tearful outburst, a shameful incident, or an expression of pain. It also means having some help for when someone just simply doesn’t know what to say or do.

In general, people tend to share more personal information with people who are familiar, available, and near- and whom they see regularly. When teens are having “a thing” that may “not be a thing” or “may become a thing”, and there is no consistent person to open up to, the “thing” that was “not a thing” can suddenly become a crisis. Teens are on the brink of engaging in risky behavior, relying more on peers and less on parents, and wanting to be independent. Telling mom or dad may seem childish and immature; yet teens need to do things that keep them safe.

Group is different than individual therapy because there are multiple perspectives in the room, peers can “get it” in ways that adults don’t always pay attention to, and there are lots of resources for help, feedback, and validation. Sometimes kids who are shy, self-conscious, and sensitive are missing out on real life connections- and this can keep kids isolated, ashamed, and lonely. While talking to an adult one one may be a source of comfort and relief, ongoing group therapy offers an entirely different context for problem solving and addressing anxiety.

For more information on teen groups, click here.

What’s The Fuss About? A Super Brief History Of Behaviorism, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, And What Is Really Meant By Third Wave Behavior Therapies.

Behavior therapies have been around for a long time in helping people address problems of depression and anxiety. Here is a short article about old ways of thinking about behaviorism and what newer “third wave” therapies have to offer.

Old behavior theories are often criticized for this idea that there is no “person” on the “inside”, rather everything was a matter of stimulus and response. For instance, the presence of a stop sign (stimulus) would prompt the behavior or stopping (response), and behavior could be controlled by stimulus in the environment. Criticisms of this way of thinking included the lack of free will or choice. Behaviorism in the current way of thinking would take into account learning history, which would explain how different persons have different responses to the same situations. It also takes into consideration how the context of the situation may influence the outcome, such as snowy weather conditions or the fact that a person was busily distracted with their cell phone when coming to the intersection.

Old paradigms of thinking about behaviorism include methodological behaviorism; the gist of it being that if behavior was not observed, it did not exist and was not worthy of study. Clearly this created problems for people who want to understand emotions. Current ways of thinking of behaviorism (radical as opposed to methodological) refutes the idea that behavior has to be publicly observed in order to exist. All the “stuff” that occurs within the skin (emotions!) are alive, real, in existence, and worthy of study. The more global way of understanding behavior is that any behavior is worthy of analysis and understanding. Thus, an emotion or a highly conflictual altercation (the stuff that comes up in therapy) is clearly worthy of study.

Cognitive Behavior Therapies (CBT) often emphasized the thought process that ensues when a person reacts to a situation. People have a tendency (especially when panicked or a in a bad mood) to think the worst will happen, jump to conclusions, and make assumptions about situations and people that are not accurate. Cognitive Behavior Therapies have often emphasized the thought process/ thinking/ cognition; and often challenged persons’s perceptions of reality. This can get tricky when dealing with paranoia, post-traumatic stress, or psychotic thought processes; and can create even more problems when people are told their perceptions of reality are not, indeed, real. Focusing solely on cognitive ways to solving problems can result in trying to think one’s way out of pain and discomfort, which sort of backfires when people have problems with rumination, over-analyzing, or overthinking. That being said, CBT has been helpful to numerous people and has had a key role in reducing suffering, depression, and anxiety.

Exposure therapies are often considered under the umbrella of cognitive behavior therapies and include specific treatment for anxiety disorders. This is where a person comes into contact with a feared stimulus and behaves differently from the typical response. The goal is to increase one’s tolerance to anxiety, increase the repertoire of responding adaptively, and not let feared stimuli control one’s life. Here are some typical examples of treating anxiety through exposures: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (people that are disgusted by dirty things are encouraged to touch dirty things such that they become less bothered by dirty things over time: watch the move Dirty Filthy Love), Social Anxiety (people are encouraged to join a small group and share more openly than they otherwise would and feel less isolated and have better social abilities), and Borderline Personality Disorder (exposures help people tolerate emotions better such as practicing breathing when angry instead of ranting angrily or picking a fight).

Behavioral Activation is a treatment for depression that includes engaging people in life situations that increase natural reinforcers. In a nutshell, the behavior of depression is often one of detachment, withdrawal, inhibition of activity, loss, flatness, tearfulness, loss of focus, and sometimes aggravation. Activating behavior may include increasing pleasurable activity, engaging in meaningful behavior, doing things to build mastery and challenge oneself, managing stress and time management, and decreasing commitments that result in being overwhelmed. These are ways of managing mood that don’t include medication. (A really great book on this is Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time, which can be found under “books I recommend.”)

The newer behavior therapies or “Third Wave” therapies are often considered an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Technically, behavior is given an emphasis over cognition. This is because behaviorists consider the thought process to be only one aspect of behavior and is not given any kind of special treatment. For political purposes (and for the general lay population) this distinction can be confusing and for some, probably not necessary. However, all behavior is open to analysis and one’s thought process is not the only focus of treatment. The idea of Third Wave therapies is a return to radical behaviorism (hence the analysis of behavior), an acknowledgement of the ways behaviorism has been both hurtful/ helpful/ misunderstood, and an expansion of how behavioral ways of thinking have been making phenomenal comebacks (and changes) on intimate, psychotherapeutic relationships.

Third Wave behavior therapies are different in that they are interested in two things: 1) Context and 2) Function. Behavior (which can include anything you want to analyze for the focus of your therapy session, such as an emotion) can happen anywhere in time and space. Current conditions (ie., the context under which behavior occurs) will influence behavior. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum and is not situationally isolated. It is fluid and subject to change. Consider how “repressed” memories “show up”, and if you more or less likely to remember repressed memories if you have a warm, caring therapist who is expressing curiosity about your past. How you remember, what you remember, and what you are willing to tell this person are all influenced by the current context. If, in your learning history, people are not to be trusted; a warm caring person asking you this personal information may result in you changing the subject or talking excessively. Learning history clearly plays a part in how a person will respond to a therapist, and again shows how the overly simplistic stimulus-response models of early behaviorism fall short.

The function of behavior has to do with the purpose it serves. The same behavior of two people can have very different purposes, show up in different settings or circumstances, and have different outcomes or consequences. The behavior of vomiting after eating (such as the case of bulimia) can serve to communicate, validate, express anger, maintain privacy, prove a point, assert independence, or prevent the discomfort of feeling full. The fact that the same behavior does different things for different people and has different consequences makes it such that two people with the same diagnosis can need very different treatments. This is partly why there is so much confusion and controversy over mental health diagnoses and their varying treatments, and why any one “template” approach doesn’t work the same way for any two people.

Third Wave Behavior therapies are also coming to terms with spirituality. While past therapies focused on making unwanted emotions/ thoughts etc. dissipate, new wave therapies are getting people to look at what they want more of, what they value, and what is important to them. Instead of saying “What do you want to avoid or get rid of in your life?” they are saying “What do you want more of in your life?” or “How are you missing out on what is important because anxiety/ depression gets in the way?” There is a renewed focus on mindfulness and acceptance and a recognition that painful thoughts and emotions are part of human existence.

We’ve worked really hard to eradicate pain and that hasn’t worked, so what can be done instead? Making peace with our discomfort by not letting anxiety and our depression control our life is done through some applied principles from Bhuddism, mindfulness, and the concept of being “zen.” Spirituality clearly has helped many people cope, come up with their “why”, and rely on powers outside of their control to help them survive emotional pain. (Ie., “Let go and let God”). The shift in Third Wave Therapies is to look towards a more expansive way of thinking and also addresses a more existential concern. You don’t have be clinically depressed to benefit from examining values, enhancing your quality of life, and growing as a person. And at least one of these treatments, ACT, is being used in non-psychotherapy settings such as organizational and business consulting. (The Association for Contextual and Behavioral Sciences is the umbrella organization of the growing interest in Third Wave Behavior therapies, and offer an annual international conference to interested parties. Click here to visit their website.)

Third Wave Behavior Therapies are generally considered to be Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), and various mindfulness and compassion based therapies. DBT was somewhat of an early forerunner in bringing acceptance based practices to psychotherapy, the “dialectic” being that of acceptance vs. change. This was somewhat in response to the fact that Cognitive Behavior Therapy, despite the multitude of people that it helped, was a therapy based solely in principles of what needed to be changed. DBT skills include prayer, radical acceptance, finding meaning, and value-based goal setting. DBT’s founder, Marsha Linehan, grew up Catholic and developed the treatment based on her exposure to Eastern thinking and Bhuddism; she has written multiple articles on spirituality.

ACT is complex and a bit tricky to explain, but here are two principles that ACT encompasses: 1) Flexibility, or a flexible repertoire of responses to life’s challenges. A metaphor I heard recently was like a car hitting a pot hole- a car with no “bounce” or “give” is like a person who has difficulty adapting to life’s bumps. The more shock absorption that a car has, the more likely the car can navigate the pot holes and not get “tied up” or “stuck”. 2) Impermanence, or “self-as-context”. This means that the self that is “you” will change over time but still be the same “you”, and this “you” can change perspective in time and space. This matters in the sense that people who are really and truly “stuck” sometimes experiences their situations and self-criticism as permanent. The self-as-context concept often entails compassion focused exercises that allow you to see yourself differently; with compassion, and as an observer who can take a step back form being “fused” with emotional pain and rigid thought patterns. Compassion based practices have capitalized on the approach and address concerns related to extreme self-hatred, shame, and the ubiquity of human suffering. (Compassion Based Therapy is also considered it’s own independent treatment).

FAP at its heart has based its tenets on the principles of Awareness, Courage, and Love. (Known as the ACL model). Clients are encouraged to consider how their relational problems outside of session also show up inside of session, and to bring these similarities under direct observation as they show up in the relationship with the therapist. Immediacy (ie., What are you feeling right now as you are telling me this?) can evoke the discomfort clients often feel when in intimate situations, and encourage clients to develop more meaningful and fulfilling relationships via the interaction with their therapist. FAP is highly evocative, and clients grow in the courage to address things in therapy they tend to avoid. Because lack of intimacy is associated with mortality, intimacy and connection is a value that shows up consistently across FAP. If you think about this treatment from a behavioral standpoint, the environmental context (how a therapist responds) can have a profound influence on generating change. If the relationship with the therapist had no influence on the client, there would be no such thing as psychotherapy. Thus the focus on the environment (ie, the behavior of the therapist) is consistent with a behavioral approach to treatment.

The best way that I think of behaviorism is that there is no permanent, fixed, or reification of private experience such as thoughts, emotions, or sensations. The fluidity and impermanence of how we experience “self” changes across time, contexts, and situations. Problems often ensue when our thoughts are treated as structures, things, or objects. Problems crop up when we think we “have”, possess, or own the experiences within our skin. In order to “not have” depression, something would have change. Consider the difference between “having” depression vs. “experiencing” oneself as depressed. Which do you think is more hopeful, temporary, and subject to change? Third Wave Behaviorism, or “radical” behaviorism is making its comeback.

 

 

 

Why Isn’t My Teenager Honest With Me?

One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.

Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.

Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.

Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.

If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:

What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?

Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?

Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?

What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?

If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?

What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?

Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.

How To Get Yourself To Class: Boston College Students Quick Reference Guide To Not Falling Apart The First Semester

Going to college is a big change that generally involves a brand new environment in an unfamiliar city. In general, making a big move involves figuring out living accommodations, new roommates, scheduling demands, and independence. For some the transition is overwhelming and can result in avoidance, missing classes, staying in one’s dorm, an increase in alcohol use, panic attacks, an inconsistent sleep schedule, and erratic eating habits.

Here are a few tips to help college students make the transition.

  • Make sure you are familiar with the campus. Try to find out the location of everything before you go to your first class. Find your classrooms, know how long it takes to get to different buildings, and if you can, spend a little bit of time in the buildings before your first classes. Unfamiliar situations cause more stress than familiar situations, and getting lost in new crowds in unfamiliar territory can be cause for anxiety. Don’t assume that you will just figure it all out when you get there.
  •  If you are a student who has struggled with depression or anxiety in the past, try to find the college counseling centering and see if you can set up a “check-in” session a week or two after school starts. Not having any plans to ask or get help can make everything worse. Identify your stressors and know what situations will make you likely get into a crisis. If you know any of the college counseling staff, it will be easier to reach out to them when you need them. Counseling centers can help with stress, overwhelm, demanding schedules, irritating roommates, and organization. They usually have an agenda to service as many students as they can accommodate in a given school year.
  • Try to initiate social connections as much as possible. The more people you know personally, the less stressful it will be to go to class. Try finding people who are by themselves or alone. Consider starting conversations that invite people to talk about their stress: “Are you as overwhelmed by this as I am? Are you feeling a bit lost? Because this whole college transition is a lot to take in.” Sometimes it feels good just to be able to acknowledge stress with someone else, even if you think the stress seems small or insignificant. Try to find things that you relate to and that are similar to you. Ask other students how they found and chose this college, if they’ve thought about a major, if it was hard for them to leave home, how they are finding their way around campus, what would make their college experience a positive experience, and what they are doing to help them deal with the transition. They may have some good ideas for you.
  • If you are overwhelmed by your classes and have the urge not to go, consider all the steps that it takes to get to class. If the first step is getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, do the first step. Getting out of bed and brushing your teeth is not a commitment to attend class. After you brush your teeth see if you can make another small commitment, such as getting your books together or getting dressed. Each small commitment can bring you closer to class. If you actually get all the way to the building and end up skipping class, you will at least have gone through the motions of getting yourself around campus. Moving around on campus dressed for class is better than spending the day in bed avoiding everything. Consider the short and long term cost of what you’d have to tolerate to make it through one class, and assess what you would be willing to do. Going to one class doesn’t mean going to all of them. Go to classes you enjoy and see if you can talk to an advisor about cutting back on classes that are too much. Don’t wait until you are failing. Remember that once you start avoiding one class, it will get easier and easier not to go. Don’t let yourself get into that pattern. Avoiding this problem can increase the stress, whereas admitting it is too much and dropping the class is a more proactive way to accept what is too much for you at this time. It doesn’t mean you are a failure and doesn’t mean you can’t take it another time.
  • Plan down time that is not related to school. Because school can be overwhelming, it is important to press the “pause” button by taking “time outs.” This may include a nature walk, a spiritual activity, meditation, exercise, yoga, prayer, a nap. It might also be helpful to plan a time to talk on the phone with parents, friends, or family that know you. Periodic and planned check-ins can provide a sense of stability and relief. College students sometimes underestimate their needs for leisure time and overestimate how much they can accomplish. This inevitably causes stress. Being an adult also means being able to take care of your time and your body.
  • Take care of the basics: Are you finding yourself consuming more sugar, alcohol, marijuana, or caffeine? Sometimes college is a time where you test the limits of your body as you no longer have a family time schedule to stay on track. Insufficient sleep, erratic eating, over-dependence on substances, and having too many commitments often contribute to stress. Panic attacks alone might be reduced by attending to your biological limits (eating more consistently, getting more sleep).
  • Don’t let panic attacks go untreated, because they are treatable. Panic attacks don’t go away by suppressing emotions, drowning them in alcohol, and ignoring what they may be trying to tell you. Panic attacks are often very intense experiences that include hyperventilating, shaking, racing heart, a feeling that you might pass out or die, and feeling like you can’t breathe. They can be extremely debilitating and scary if you’ve never had one. Often they are a red flag to pay attention to something that is causing you distress- more often than not, something that is easier to ignore. Panic attacks can be hard to explain or understand; don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find out what services are available at the college help center your school and use them.

 

Should I Get Back On The Horse? Two Ways To Approach Your Fear That Won’t Work.

If you get thrown off a horse, should you get back on? Some people will suggest that you need to get back on the horse immediately so that you will gain mastery over your fears. If you don’t get back on the horse, then your fear will haunt you the rest of your life.

Is this really true? Here are some ways of approaching fear that isn’t very effective. The first is to fight your fears or treat the situation like a battle zone. It means taking the reins, having control of the situation, bucking up, grinning and bearing it, tightening your muscles, and powering through. It can be coercive and forceful. In some cases it means blinding yourself, dissociating or disconnecting from the fear, or minimizing or reducing the value of what your fear might be trying to tell you. Generally it is doing the thing that you are afraid of as a way to prove yourself or prove your point.

The reason this doesn’t work is because it often means engaging in life as if it is a battle. Staying in the battle field often means getting hurt, risking relationships with others, being coercive, or putting the other on the defensive. Getting back on a high strung or agitated horse to gain mastery over fears is not an effective way to manage fear.

The other ineffective way of handling fear is to completely avoid anything associated with the fear. This means that any mention of the feared object or situation is avoided. Conversations stop, people stop making eye contact, the air becomes stilted and stale, people avoid people, and people avoid a wide range of stimuli that becomes associated with the feared situation. The person may be humiliated that they gone thrown off a horse, so they go out of their way to hide it. While people lead perfectly fulfilled lives without riding horses, the person who can’t drive past a barn, watch a television show with a horse on it, have a conversation about what happened when they were thrown off a horse, or set foot on a farm may find themselves restricted in ways that have nothing to do with riding the horse itself.

Handling fear effectively means being able to approach the situation with a flexible style that involves both challenging oneself, listening to the validity of the fear, being kind to oneself, backing off when things are too overwhelming, identifying smaller steps to approach the fear, and figuring out why the situation/ issue/ activity is important to you.

Fear is a useful emotion in that it provides information about oneself and one’s situation. Fear protects us from danger, gets us out of threatening situations, and helps us cope adaptively. Fear can also be so extreme that it takes over our lives, restricts our ability to do the things that are important to us, or prevents us from having a life- the life we want.

Here are a few questions to help you figure out your fear:

  • What about the situation, event, activity, or relationship is important to you? You may decide not to ride horses ever again, but does this fear bleed over into other areas of life that prevent you from doing what matters? If riding horses is not important to you, and it doesn’t get in the way of your life otherwise, it may not be an issue.
  • What does your experience- and your fear- tell you? Your fear may be telling you that getting back on an agitated horse is indeed a bad idea. So don’t go out and get hurt if it isn’t necessary. If horses aren’t your thing, let it go and move on. Don’t let your humiliation keep you attacking something that isn’t going to service you.
  • If you want to approach your fears, what would be the smallest step? Watching a TV show about horses, visiting a barn, feeding a horse, brushing a horse, walking a horse, and hanging out with horses are all behaviors that don’t include absolute avoidance but don’t force you into a situation that is potentially unsafe. You could also ride a smaller, more mellow horse with the help of a trainer.
  • If you are going to do the smaller steps, don’t white knuckle it. Relax your facial muscles, soften your jaw, breath slowly/ deeply/ evenly, maintain an open body posture, and take in the situation fully. If this feels threatening, do a smaller step- or limit the time you spend doing the activity. For instance, you could watch a TV show about horses for one minute, five minutes, or fifteen minutes. If this doesn’t challenge you, up the ante by going out to a barn. Find your middle ground, back off when you are overwhelmed, give yourself credit for your efforts, treat yourself kindly, and challenge yourself at some point in the future when you are in a better place.