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At The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, our psychologists have years of experience. Unlike many other providers, our clinicians truly specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety and related problems. Our mission is to apply only the most effective short-term psychological treatments supported by extensive scientific research. We are located in Rancho Bernardo, Carlsbad, and Mission Valley.

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Filtering by Tag: cbt

My Horcrux Diary

Jill Stoddard

guest blog post by Dr. Nic Hooper

Have you read the quote below by T.E. Lawrence?

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”  

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I’m a dreamer. Always have been. Ever since I could remember, I wanted to do remarkable things that would make the world a better place. Over the years, I’ve had lots of ideas for how to do this but often I would ‘wake up in the day to find it was vanity’. In other words, the ideas remained just that; ideas. On a recent project, I became a ‘dreamer of the day’.

I research an approach to human suffering named Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The pitch of ACT goes something like this: if we can be willing to experience all of our thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, whilst continuing to move in valued directions, then we will do a decent job at this game of life. One night, after delivering an ACT intervention to teachers, I had this thought: “It is really easy to forget our values; I need to create something that will remind people of what is important to them.” In the following weeks I came up with the idea of an annual diary. For the most part, this diary would be like any other diary i.e. it would have days and dates and spaces to record meetings. However, it would also provide an opportunity for the user to record what is important to them at the beginning of each week.

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Ok, so there was the idea. Now I had to do something with it. The first step was easy; I loaded Microsoft Word and spent hours and hours and hours (with my co-author Dr. Freddy Jackson Brown) shaping the words and lines that would make up the inside of the diary. The second step was more difficult. I had to figure out how to take that file and turn it into a product. First question: a publisher or a printing house? No publisher was interested so we went with a printing house. Then, more questions. What sort of spine to go for? How thick should the paper be? How many copies should we buy? How should we sell it? What are the best postage and packaging options? How should we advertise it? How should we accept payment for it? How do we pay tax? Who is going to post them? How should we grow the product over time?

During the first and second steps I faced a fair bit of discomfort (i.e. seemingly powerful negative thoughts often crossed my mind: “this is a waste of time”, “nobody will like it” or “you should be spending this time with Max”). However, the third step of making my idea a reality brought the most discomfort: once I had the completed product, I sent it out there into the scary world. And given that success or failure has implications for how I feel about myself, my diary is a bit like a Horcrux in the Harry Potter story. In that story, the bad guy (Voldemort) poured his soul into a number of items and placed them out there in the world. Those items were called ‘Horcruxes’. His thinking was that this strategy would make him more difficult to kill.

Like Voldemort, I poured my soul into this Horcrux. And like Voldemort, any attack on the Horcrux feels like it kills a part of my soul (‘attack’ is an extreme word that is possibly misplaced here. By ‘attack’, what I mean is any evidence I see that the diary is not worthy, whether it be a lack of sales, little interest on social media or negative feedback). My Horcrux diary is now out there in the world fending not just for itself but, in some ways, for me also. A bit of my soul is unprotected; it can be scrutinized, criticized or ignored. It can fail. And if it fails then it will hurt like hell.

The feeling of vulnerability that comes with trying to do something remarkable is tiring, and it often makes me question whether it would have been better to stay a ‘dreamer of the night’. If my Horcrux is inside my mind then nobody can see it; nobody can hurt me. However, every time I think about this I come to the same conclusion. Although being a ‘dreamer of the night’ comes with built-in safety, if I didn’t do something with my dreams then I’d be living a life out of step with my value of making the world a better place, and consequently, I’d feel empty.

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Why am I telling you all this? For two reasons. Firstly, I want you to see how ACT is in my blood. Just in this blog you will spot how I used important ACT processes (willingness, defusion, self-as-context, values). Secondly, and more importantly, I want you to see that having ACT in my blood helped me to chase my dreams, and that it can help you to do the same. Chasing dreams will bring vulnerability but if you know what to do with vulnerability then you will be free.

Interested in checking out Dr. Hooper’s Annual Diary for Valued Action? Check it out here.

CSAM IS HERE TO HELP

If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety, stress, PTSD, insomnia, or chronic illness, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at info@csamsandiego.com

Anxiety Tools: An Expert's Advice

Jill Stoddard

reposted from Healthline.com

originally written by Healthline Editorial Team featuring an interview with CSAM Director Dr. Jill Stoddard

Anxiety disorders affect over 18 percent of U.S. adults each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This includes generalized anxiety disorderobsessive compulsive disorderpost-traumatic stress disorder, and more.

Anxiety can work its way into many aspects of a person’s life, which is why it’s so important to find the resources, support, and advice you need — whether it comes from people’s stories, helpful phone apps, or expert advice.

Dr. Jill Stoddard is the founding director of The Center for Stress & Anxiety Management, an outpatient clinic in San Diego specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for anxiety and related issues. She’s also an associate professor of psychology at Alliant International University, and the co-author of “The Big Book of ACT Metaphors.”

We caught up with her to learn about some of the ways she recommends for managing anxiety disorders.

Dr. Jill Stoddard’s advice for anxiety

1. Use your senses

Anxiety narrows your focus onto perceived threats (i.e., whatever you’re feeling afraid of or worried about in the moment) which can impact your focus and memory. Practice mindfully broadening your view by using your senses — what do you see, hear, smell, etc. — to improve attention and experience.

2. Have gratitude

Practice gratitude as another way to broaden your focus. There are the things that you worry about, and there are also the things you’re grateful for.

3. Be accepting

Difficulty with uncertainty and a lack of perceived control amplify anxiety. To “fix” this, we often attempt to get more certainty and more control — for example, by doing internet searches about health symptoms. This actually increases anxiety in the long run.

The antidote is acceptance of uncertainty and control. You can read a book or watch a sporting event without knowing the ending. In fact, it’s the anticipation that makes it exciting! So try bringing this attitude of openness to not knowing, and letting go of control. See what happens.

4. Face your fears

Avoidance is anything you do, or don’t do, to feel less anxious and prevent a feared outcome from occurring. For example, avoiding a social situation, using drugs or alcohol, or procrastination are all examples of avoidance.

When you avoid what you’re afraid of, you get short-term relief. However, this relief never lasts, and before you know it, that anxiety has returned, often with feelings of sadness or shame for having avoided it. And often, the exact avoidance strategies you’re using to feel better and prevent a feared outcome (e.g. reading off your notes during a speech or avoiding eye contact) actually create the outcome you’re trying to avoid (namely, appearing anxious or incompetent).

Consider taking small steps to start facing your fears. What’s one thing you might do that takes you out of your comfort zone? You will build mastery and confidence, and your anxiety might even diminish in the process.

5. Define your values

Do some soul searching about what really matters to you. Who do you want to be? What do you want to stand for? What qualities do you wish to embody as you engage in work or school, or interact with people you care about? If friendship matters, how can you create space in your life for that? When you do so, what qualities do you wish to embody as you spend time with friends? Do you wish to be authentic? Compassionate? Assertive?

These are all values, and making choices in line with values — rather than in the service of avoidance — may or may not impact your anxiety, but will definitely add richness, vitality, and meaning to your life.

Healthline’s tips

To help you keep your anxiety in check, Healthline also recommends trying out the following products in your day to day:

Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Cognitive Distortions

Jill Stoddard

by Annabelle Parr

Whether you recognize the term or not, at some point you have dealt with a cognitive distortion. These are thoughts that feel like the truth, but they describe an emotional reality rather than an objective one. For those struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, often chronic and significant cognitive distortions play a big role in the struggle.

Dr. David Burns (1980) outlined 12 of the most common cognitive distortions in his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Dr. Burns’ list is adapted below with examples. As you read through the list, see if you recognize examples of any of these distortions in your life.

1. All-Or-Nothing (Black and White) Thinking: You see things in black and white terms, refusing to see any gray area.
Distortion: If I’m not nice to everyone all the time, I’m a jerk.
Reframe: I’m allowed to be assertive and set boundaries. I don’t have to be nice to someone who is being disrespectful to me. Standing up for myself doesn’t make me a jerk.

2. Overgeneralization: You see one or several negative events as a sign of an endless pattern of defeat.
Distortion: I got a bad grade on this math test, so I will never get a good grade on a math test.
Reframe: I got a bad grade on this math test. Maybe I didn’t understand the material or studied wrong. I will talk to my teacher to better understand my mistakes, and hopefully I will do better next time.

3. Mental Filter: You exclusively notice the negative aspects of a situation and magnify them out of proportion. At the same time, you filter out/fail to notice the positive aspects.
Distortion: My presentation went terribly. I lost my train of thought because I got nervous, and I forgot a key point I wanted to make.
Reframe: I stumbled over my words a little bit, but no one besides me seemed to notice. I also forgot a key point I wanted to make. But I got good feedback and everyone seemed engaged during my presentation. Next time I will practice a little bit more, but overall it went pretty well.

4. Minimizing/Disqualifying/Overlooking the Positive: You turn positive experiences or comments into negative ones by deciding that they don’t count for some reason. You overlook positive things about yourself or your environment. You don’t just filter out positive things; you actually turn them into negatives.
Distortion: He only invited me to come to his party because he feels sorry for me and knows I’m a loner.
Reframe: He invited me to come to his party because he wants me to come.

5. Mind Reading: You assume that someone is thinking or reacting negatively to you even though you do not know what they’re thinking.
Distortion: She didn’t wave at me because she doesn’t like me.
Reframe: She didn’t wave at me. She probably didn’t see me, or maybe she had something on her mind.

6. Fortune Telling: You think that something bad is going to happen even though you do not yet know what the outcome will be. This causes you to worry, overreact, or give up too soon.
Distortion: Even though things are going well now, I think he will eventually break up with me and I am afraid I will get hurt. Maybe I should just break up with him now to avoid getting hurt.
Reframe: Things are going well now. I’m not sure what will happen in the future. But for now I will try to be present and enjoy what is.

7. Magnifying/Catastrophizing: You exaggerate the importance of something, or you imagine that something that might happen would be terrible or earth shattering, when it would not actually be as bad as you imagine or you could cope despite it being difficult.
Distortion: I can’t accept the promotion because then I will have to give presentations. I’m terrified of public speaking, and I will get too scared and embarrass myself in front of everyone and then probably lose the job anyway.
Reframe: If I accept the promotion, I will have to give presentations. Lots of people are scared of public speaking. I might make a mistake and I might feel embarrassed or scared, but that’s part of being human. It won’t be the end of the world.

8. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your feelings reflect the truth, even though your feelings are based on erroneous thinking.
Distortion: I feel like a failure, which means I am a failure.
Reframe: I may feel like a failure right now because I am still looking for a job, but job hunting takes time. I am not a failure.

9. Should Statements: You have a list of rules set in stone about how you or others “should” behave, but these rules are arbitrary or unrealistic. You feel guilty or inadequate when you “break” a rule, or get angry or frustrated when others do so.
Distortion: I should have enough time and energy after work to play with the kids. I feel guilty if I let them watch TV while I finish up some work instead, and I feel frustrated with my spouse when he/she does the same. 
Reframe: I want to have enough time and energy after work to play with the kids. But sometimes I will be too busy or tired. I will do my best to spend quality time with them, even if sometimes that means cuddling on the couch watching TV while I finish up some emails. On those nights when I really can’t find the time, I will give myself (and my spouse) grace.

10. Labeling: When someone makes a mistake, you don’t objectively evaluate the mistake. Instead you label the person – “I’m a failure” or “They’re an idiot.”
Distortion: He forgot to lift the toilet seat again! He is so inconsiderate. Or I forgot my kids had a half day today. I’m a terrible parent!
Reframe: He forgot to lift the toilet seat again. He must have had something else on his mind. Or I forgot my kids had a half day today. Today was really busy and I had too much on my mind. Maybe I need to write down half days on my calendar from now on.

11. Personalization: You think that things that others do or things that happen to you are personalized reactions to you, even if this is not the case.
Distortion: My friend didn’t return my text because she thinks I’m annoying.
Reframe: My friend didn’t return my text. Maybe she is really busy or has something going on in her life I don’t know about. Sometimes I forget to return texts too.

12. Probability Overestimation: You overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening.
Distortion: If I drive, I will get in a car accident, so I am not going to get my driver’s license.
Reframe: Accidents can happen anytime, but the odds are not high. Most people drive every day and nothing bad happens.

Cognitive distortions are not constructive, but experiencing a distortion every now and again is simply part of being human. However, when you are not able to reframe your distortions, or when cognitive distortions begin driving your behavior, they can become a problem.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works to help clients notice, address, and alter these destructive thoughts. When you believe your own destructive thoughts, you may also tend to avoid certain situations on the basis of a false belief. CBT also works to help clients slowly learn to approach rather than avoid such situations. Having a warm, empathic therapist come alongside you throughout this process is healing. She can model compassion for you, helping you learn to have compassion for yourself, while still challenging you to see things in a new and healthier way.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by cognitive distortions, stress, anxiety, and/or depression, you do not have to struggle alone.

CSAM IS HERE TO HELP

If you or someone you love might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at csamsandiego@gmail.com.

Misophonia: A “Rarely Known” Conditioned Aversive Reflex Disorder

Jill Stoddard

by Annabelle Parr

Most of us can probably agree that it’s very unpleasant to hear nails scraping a chalkboard. Other sounds that tend to make us cringe include a woman’s scream, a disc grinder (think construction site), and a baby crying. This is because we are genetically wired to respond to a baby’s cry, so any other sound similar in frequency tends to be upsetting (Dozier, 2015).

There are sounds that are almost universally annoying, and then there are those sounds that get to each of us individually. But for some of us, a specific sound can be more than simply annoying or unpleasant; it can be intolerable. Do you find yourself experiencing a particularly extreme or adverse reaction to a sound or stimulus that seems strange or out of proportion? If so, you may be encountering a misophonic reaction.

What is misophonia?

Misophonia is a condition characterized by an extreme, immediate, involuntary emotional response accompanied by a reflexive physiological reaction to a specific, commonly occurring sound or visual stimulus (Dozier, 2015).

Tom Dozier, director of the Misophonia Institute, describes misophonia as a Conditioned Aversive Reflex Disorder. Though misophonia is most commonly identified by the emotional response – typically anger, rage, disgust and even hatred - there is almost always a physiological response that occurs as well. Tom’s research suggests that it is actually the physical response that lies at the heart of misophonia. When a person hears (or sees) their trigger, the autonomic nervous system elicits a reflexive physical reaction. It could be contracting of a particular muscle group or it could be an internal reaction, varying from nausea to a numbing sensation to constriction of the esophagus. Because the intense emotional reaction follows so quickly, the physical response often goes unnoticed. But it appears that the emotional reaction is directly related to the physical reaction. In individuals with misophonia, the connection between the autonomic nervous system and the limbic system (emotional center) becomes hypersensitized (Bernstein, Angell, & Dehle, 2013), such that the trigger stimulus elicits the physical reflex which then elicits the extreme emotions and fight or flight response.

What misophonia is NOT.

Misophonia is not a sensitivity to the volume of the sound; it is not a fear of a sound; it is not becoming upset by a continuous, loud, intrusive, irritating sound; and it is not a logical response to the meaning behind a sound (for example, responding to a baby’s cry is a natural response to address the infant’s distress). It IS the emotional and physiological response to a single occurrence of the trigger, regardless of how loud or noticeable the trigger is.

What are some common triggers?

There is an enormous range regarding potential trigger stimuli. However, some common examples include the eating or chewing sound, breathing sounds, coughing, swallowing, pen clicking, whistling, typing, and a dog barking. A trigger can be any repeating sound or sight. Triggers tend to be most strongly associated with one particular person, but they do have the ability to generalize. For example, the original trigger might be the sound of a sibling chewing. This will likely remain the strongest trigger, but it could also generalize to the sound of any person chewing.

How common is misophonia?

Not very many people know about misophonia, doctors and therapists included. Many people with misophonia struggle with feelings of guilt for their reaction, as they are aware that it is both out of proportion and irrational. They may also feel isolated in their experience. But if you struggle with a misophonic reaction, you are far from alone. It is not a rare disorder, but rather a “rarely known” disorder. Based on several studies and surveys, it is estimated that misophonia affects about 15% of the population (Dozier, 2015), compared with Major Depressive Disorder which, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2016), affects about 6.7% of the population above the age of 18 in a given year.

How does misophonia affect people?

Misophonia can range from manageable to debilitating. If a person’s trigger is fairly uncommon, it may hardly affect him or her at all. However, if a trigger is very common and the reaction is severe, it can lead to avoidance of situations and serious strains on relationships.

Can I get help for misophonia?

If you think that you may be struggling with misophonia, you don’t have to continue to try to handle it alone, particularly if it is something that has begun to impair your day-to-day functioning or affect your relationships. Misophonia can continue to increase in severity if it is left unaddressed, so it is important to know that help is available.  However, because there is not a widespread awareness of misophonia, it can often be misdiagnosed as anything from oppositional defiant disorder to ADHD to anxiety or OCD. So if you are struggling with what sounds like misophonia, it is important to find a professional who understands what you are experiencing and knows how to help.

For more information about misophonia, how it is treated, and related resources, please visit http://misophoniainstitute.org. If you think you or someone you love may be struggling with misophonia, CSAM’s Dr. Michelle Lopez offers specialized treatment at our Rancho Bernardo office. If you would like more information…

CSAM IS HERE TO HELP

Please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at csamsandiego@gmail.com if you or someone you love might benefit from treatment for misophonia. We also offer acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, and would be happy to provide more information about our therapy services.

References:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2016). Facts & statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Bernstein, R. E., Angell, K. L., & Dehle, C. M. (2013). A brief course of cognitive behavioural therapy for the treatment of misophonia: A case example. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 6(10), 1-13. doi:10.1017/S1754470X13000172

Dozier, T. H. (2015). Understanding and overcoming misophonia: A conditioned aversive reflex disorder. Livermore, CA: Misophonia Treatment Institute.

How Anxiety Affects Couples

Jill Stoddard

by Jan E. Estrellado, Ph.D.

Most of CSAM’s blogs focus on the experience of having a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  This blog is a little different because it focuses on the impact of a mental health condition, anxiety, on couples.  What is it like to care for, live with, and support someone with anxiety?  What kind of strain might this cause in a relationship and what can couples do to sustain each other and their relationship?

Loving Someone with Anxiety

Partners or spouses of individuals with anxiety might experience feelings of helplessness.  When anxious loved ones feel intense fear (i.e., scared of having a panic attack or becoming severely preoccupied with worried thoughts) or avoid certain situations (i.e., not wanting to drive on the freeway or refusing to leave the home), partners may not feel there is much they can do to help reassure or calm them down.  When a partner does attempt to help ease his or her loved one’s suffering, those attempts (i.e., reassuring, problem-solving) may be rejected by the anxious individual.  This can be extremely hurtful and can lead to other intense feelings described below.  In addition, partners may try to help by offering to drive for the anxious partner, agreeing to skip a social event, or allowing the anxious partner to engage in compulsions so that he or she gets relief.  While these efforts are meant to be helpful, the avoidance partners are enabling actually contributes to and maintains the anxiety-related problems.   

The emotions that partners of anxious individuals can experience range and vary greatly.  They may feel anger and frustration that the anxiety inhibits their lives, and because their partner’s anxiety is outside of their control.  It is difficult to accept that a loved one may continue to feel anxious, regardless of the actions of the partner.  If a partner’s anger remains unresolved over a long period of time, this can turn into resentment, minimization, or blame.  Partners may feel overlooked or overshadowed by their loved one’s anxiety, perhaps feeling like their needs can’t be met when calming their partner down feels the most urgent.

Being the Anxious Partner in the Relationship

The partner who experiences extreme worry can easily feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment at their lack of ability to manage anxious feelings.  They may also feel misunderstood and alone.  These negative feelings, if not addressed or acknowledged effectively, might actually contribute to further anxiety.  If an anxious person feels his or her partner is getting frustrated, that person might shut down, withdraw from the relationship, or engage in unhelpful coping behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes or shopping excessively. When worry and stress take up a lot of space in a relationship, the anxious individual often feels responsible for his or her partner’s feelings of frustration, hurt, or helplessness.  These feelings of guilt or embarrassment compound the individual’s pre-existing feelings of worry, increasing the suffering of that person. 

It may be difficult for the anxious partner to know what he or she needs.  Perhaps he or she is too ashamed to ask for support when so much help has already been requested of the partner.  When a person experiences intense fear in the moment, it can be challenging to know what is helpful and perhaps even more challenging to communicate those needs effectively.  Intense fear, by nature, prevents a person from thinking logically or rationally and it can be tough to know how to reign one’s self in during those moments.

Sustaining the Relationship

What can a partner of an anxious individual do to help make the relationship work?  One crucial element is for the partner to make sure that he or she is able to maintain his or her own health and wellness.  A partner can feel guilty for taking care of himself or herself, especially knowing that his or her loved one may be suffering.  However, if both partners are suffering, especially over a long period of time, the relationship is no longer sustainable.  A partner might need to seek this support outside of the relationship.  Examples of support outside the relationship include trusted friends, family members, health providers, faith leaders, co-workers, and therapists.

In addition, a person may want to communicate his or her needs to the anxious partner, even if it is difficult.  If only one person’s needs are being met or paid attention to consistently, the relationship feels one-sided—another predictor of an unsustainable situation.  Asking for one’s needs to be met can also include discussing feelings and reactions to the partner’s anxiety.   While communicating feelings in an authentic, yet caring way, can be challenging, both partners might experience some relief and a greater connection, and the likelihood of resentment decreases.

An anxious individual may not want to wait until he or she experiences intense fear to know what help the partner can provide.  Rather, identify wants and needs during more calm or grounded moments.  When an anxious person knows what works, it is easier to engage his or her partner in a collaborative manner.  Having a “game plan” can ease some of the intensity of fear in the moment. 

Finally, as we say in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, anxiety can have a place in the relationship, but it shouldn’t be “driving the bus.”  When anxiety appears to be controlling the direction of the relationship despite the couple’s best efforts, it’s time for one or both individuals in the relationship to seek outside support.

CSAM is here to help

If you or someone you love might benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at csamsandiego@gmail.com.

Trauma and the Brain

Jill Stoddard

by Jan E. Estrellado, Ph.D.

Responses to trauma can be found in both the mind and the body.  In the mind, people can experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts that remind them of the traumatic event.  They may feel misunderstood, isolated, and irritated with others around them.  Their beliefs about the world might change from a sense of safety and stability to one of unpredictability and danger.

In the body, people can feel “on edge,” like something bad is about to happen.  They may feel more anxious than usual, with symptoms of an increased heart rate, sweatiness, hyperventilating, difficulty focusing, or even a panic attack.  This is more likely to be true when they are exposed to an internal or external cue reminding them of the traumatic event, but for others, it can feel like it comes out of nowhere.

Trauma Response in the Brain

For an individual with PTSD, much of the response to trauma can be found by understanding what is happening in the brain. 

When something might be dangerous or threatening, it first goes to the thalamus, which is responsible for receiving sensory input (what you see, smell, taste, touch, and hear).  From the thalamus, it can go in one of two directions.  In the first direction, the “more sensible” direction, the sensory cortex accurately appraises the event as non-threatening and the hippocampus (responsible for memories), confirms or modifies this response.  This direction, while slower than the second direction, is often more capable of accurately assessing true threat.

In the second, “less sensible” direction, the thalamus sends signals to the amygdala (the emotion and fear center of the brain), which then goes to the hypothalamus, where action is taken to get relief.  This direction is often seen as tapping into the “fight or flight” response to fear.  While this direction is quicker and engages our survival mechanisms, it can also get us into trouble if our response is bigger than the situation calls for.

For individuals with PTSD, their brains often go in the second direction.  Their amygdala is on “over-drive” and cannot help them evaluate what is a true threat and what is not. 

Re-Training Your Brain

If your brain is trained to fire its amygdala at will, what can you do about it?  Enter the pre-frontal cortex.  This part of the brain is responsible for planning, strategizing, executing, reasoning, and decision-making.  At CSAM, we often encourage our patients with PTSD to engage their pre-frontal cortex in various ways: deep breathing, mindfulness practice, even coloring!  Any grounding activity that helps you stay in the present moment will help you engage your pre-frontal cortex.  These are effective short-term strategies for helping to manage an individual’s immediate PTSD-related anxiety.

Longer-term strategies include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  These interventions have strong support in the scientific literature showing their effectiveness to manage PTSD.  In CPT and PE, patients “re-train their brains” to reduce their reactivity to distressing cues, often related to the traumatic event.  They continually re-write or re-tell the story of their traumatic event until they make new meaning of the trauma, learn that the trauma memories are not dangerous and discover that they can handle the upsetting responses that come with remembering the traumatic event.  In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, patients practice mindfulness in order to understand what distressing thoughts they have when they recall the traumatic event.  They develop a willingness to engage with the memories and feelings of the traumatic event, so that they are “freed up” to live a life based on their values and what’s important to them.

CSAM is here to help

If you or someone you love might benefit from CPT, PE, or ACT following a traumatic experience, or if you would like more information about our other therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at csamsandiego@gmail.com.

References:

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (2015).  How common is PTSD?.  Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp