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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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Read our award-winning blogs for useful information and tips about anxiety, stress, and related disorders.

 

Filtering by Tag: post-traumatic stress disorder

Trauma, Panic, and EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Jill Stoddard

by Annabelle Parr

When you search Google Images for “therapy,” the first thing that comes up is a client laying on a couch talking, while the therapist listens and takes notes. Therapy typically does involve a fair amount of talking and listening, but rarely is it that simple. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk-based form of therapy that involves an active approach where therapist and client work together to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that affect the client’s mood.

Though most psychotherapy is talk-based, there are a few exceptions. One form of therapy that is particularly unique and relies on little talking is known as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a form of psychotherapy often used to treat trauma, where the therapist asks the client to imagine the distressing event while simultaneously engaging the client in some sort of bilateral stimulation. Typically, this involves therapist directed eye movements from one side to another, but it can also involve taps or tones.

How and why does EMDR work? 

It can be difficult to imagine how therapy might work without relying on much talking. But sometimes we cannot access all of the information that our brain has stored. If we can’t access it, we can’t talk about it. And sometimes, we can rationally understand something, but still feel stuck in painful emotions.

Trauma can be particularly difficult to process because the frontal lobe (the part of the brain involved in higher level processes, like thinking and language) is not always able to fully access the traumatic memory. So we can try to wrestle and reason with it, but find ourselves frustrated by a lack of progress as far as our emotional response goes. EMDR purports to help us approach trauma from a different angle, so that the brain actually reprocesses the way the trauma is stored.

EMDR changes the client’s relationship to the trauma.

Clients tend to find that their thoughts and feelings around the traumatic memory change fairly quickly with EMDR (EMDR Institute, Inc., 2016). There is often a deeper sense of being able to cope with trauma on an emotional level.

EMDR is now offered at CSAM.

CSAM is excited to announce that Dr. Terra Fuhr is now certified in EMDR. Dr. Fuhr explained that she decided to pursue certification because she saw several colleagues find great success using EMDR. Then she began to occasionally refer clients for simultaneous EMDR treatment, and saw firsthand the remarkable healing that it facilitated. She found that EMDR helped clients break through in places where they got stuck using only CBT. This effect was so powerful that she felt inclined to add EMDR to her mental health tool belt as a modality to help her clients, so that now she can offer EMDR in conjunction with CBT and ACT.

What can EMDR be used to treat? 

EMDR was originally used to treat trauma and PTSD, but today is applied to numerous other issues. Dr. Fuhr describes how helpful it can be in treating panic disorder. One reason for this is that clients’ most severe panic attack is stored as a trauma. Using EMDR to heal the trauma of panic can be enormously helpful in helping the client break out of the panic cycle. It can also be applied to “small traumas,” like an embarrassing moment, negative thinking patterns or feelings such as low self-esteem (EMDR Institute, Inc., 2016).

While there is some debate in the scientific community regarding the how and why EMDR helps, studies have offered support for its efficacy, and over the 25 years that it has been in existence, millions of people have been successfully treated using EMDR (EMDR Institute, Inc., 2016). EMDR can be offered on its own, or in conjunction with CBT or ACT. For some clients, it can be a helpful adjunct to their healing process.

CSAM IS HERE TO HELP

If you or someone you love might benefit from eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), 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.

For more information about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, visit The EMDR Institute.

References:

EMDR Institute, Inc. (2016). What is EMDR? Retrieved from: http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

Most Americans Are Stressed About the Future of Our Nation

Jill Stoddard

by Annabelle Parr

Have you found yourself feeling especially anxious or stressed out in the current political climate? You’re not alone. This particular election and transition of power is unique for many reasons, not least of which is the widespread stress it is creating in Americans across the political spectrum.

According to the American Psychological Association’s most recent Stress in America survey, two-thirds of Americans report feeling stress regarding the future of our nation.

This stress is bipartisan.

Prior to the election, stress may have been divided more along party lines. Back in August, Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans (72 percent vs 26 percent) to feel stress regarding the outcome of the presidential election. However, according to the most recent study conducted in January, 59 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats reported that the future of the nation was a significant source of stress.

Overall stress levels have increased since the election.

In the ten years since the inception of the Stress in America survey, Americans’ stress levels had been gradually decreasing. However, between August 2016 and January 2017, Americans’ average reported stress level increased from 4.8 to 5.1, on a scale where 1 represents no stress and 10 represents enormous stress. This was the first statistically significant increase in stress since the survey began 10 years ago.

We are not the first cohort to feel stressed about the future of our country.

It is important to remember that this APA survey has only been conducted for the last decade, and to keep in perspective that our country has been through numerous tumultuous and stressful times. We are not the first group of citizens to be very stressed and concerned for America’s future. History shows us that we have inevitably and cyclically encountered dark times as a nation, and that hopefully, after each struggle, we emerge stronger and maybe a little bit wiser and more just.

However, currently we are very much in the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty. We are deeply stressed, and we are not alone in that experience. There is comfort to be found in the “me too,” but it is also important that together we learn to find balance during this time.

How do we manage our stress?

Engaging in democracy.

One of the beautiful things about our country is that we are part of a democracy, where we are empowered to use our voices to speak up regarding those things that do concern us. In order to properly voice our concerns, it is important that we use our access to information to stay informed about what is going on. (However, we must also recognize when we need to disconnect. More on the importance of limiting our information intake below).

One way to try to assuage the stress we feel is to use it as fuel for action. We can spend a few minutes calling our local representatives and communicating our concerns. We can get involved volunteering for or donating to an organization whose efforts are in line with our values. We can participate in protests or marches to literally stand up for the things that are important to us. There is something very empowering about engaging in community and collective action with other Americans who share our views.

Regardless of our political views and beliefs, our stress seems to be collective. The details of our concerns may differ, but we all have the opportunity to use our voices and engage in the future of the nation.

Finding a balance between staying engaged and allowing ourselves to disconnect.

However, as much as it is important to stay engaged, we must also recognize the limits as to what we can do to help foster change. When we come together, we are strong. But individually, we cannot carry the weight of the nation on our shoulders. And as we work to remain informed, it is also important that we allow ourselves the time and space away from news.

Limiting technology and news consumption.

Between all of our technological devices, 24-hour news cycles, and politically saturated Facebook news feeds, we could allow our eyes and minds to be occupied all day long by the constant, stress-inducing updates. We need to limit our news consumption in order to allow our minds and bodies to rest. Allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the news will leave us feeling powerless.

Practicing self-care.

Maybe the most important thing that we can do at this time of great national stress is to take care of ourselves. Self-care is vital to our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. And if you have felt that your nation (or perhaps its commander in chief) has failed to care for you, or sent you the message that you are unworthy of care, maybe your greatest act of protest and defiance will be to choose to take care of yourself in spite of this.

Self-care will not fix the national situation, of course. However, wouldn’t it be powerful to have a nation filled with citizens who know how to care for their own well-being, and as a result they have the energy to stay engaged in their democracy?

How can we practice self-care?

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Good self-care is unique to each individual. What is relaxing and healing for one person may not be as helpful to another. It’s important to pay attention to those things, those rituals, that calm and center us. That signal to our psyche a time of rest or peace. Here are some ideas to help inspire you:

  1. Set aside some time to walk each day and focus on breathing the fresh air in your lungs and feeling the ground under your feet with each step.
  2. Practice yoga.
  3. Find a mindfulness meditation to practice every day. This doesn’t have to take more than five minutes. Check out this link for some suggestions: http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations
  4. Not a fan of meditation? Try focusing on your breathing. Take a minute to practice some mindful breaths. Check out our blog post on breathing for some tips: http://www.anxietytherapysandiego.com/blog/2016/6/8/the-power-of-breathing
  5. Turn off your devices. Allow yourself to unplug entirely. Maybe consider deactivating your automatic news updates, or deleting the Facebook app from your phone. Set limits on your news consumption by mapping out a given time to check the news each day.
  6. Find time for humor. Is there a show that makes you smile or laugh? Laughter is healing and helps relieve stress.
  7. Spend time with loved ones. Share your experiences and your feelings, but also make sure to find time to talk about things unrelated to the current political situation. It’s healing to talk with others who feel the same way that we do and to know that we are not alone. But it is also important to have fun and to remember that we can still enjoy the sweet things in life even when there are reasons to be concerned.

In conclusion,

In order to manage the stress that so many of us are feeling, seek balance. This means finding ways to be proactive about the things that you can change or that you have control over, but also accepting the things that are beyond your control. And in the midst of it all, remember to take care of yourself in the ways that work best for you.

Source URL: https://fundingforgood.org/fundraising-and-the-serenity-prayer/

Source URL: https://fundingforgood.org/fundraising-and-the-serenity-prayer/

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the stress or anxiety that you feel, and you need some extra help, a therapist can help you to process your feelings. They can give you a space to feel heard, which in itself can be healing and empowering. They can help give you tools to manage your stress so that it doesn’t leak into other areas of your life or prevent you from leading a healthy day-to-day. Sometimes the best form of self-care is knowing when we need to reach out for external 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.

References:

(2017, Feb. 15). Many Americans stress about future of our nation, new APA Stress in American survey reveals. Retreived from: http://apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/02/stressed-nation.aspx

The Importance of Boundaries

Jill Stoddard

by Annabelle Parr

Do you ever feel like you can’t say no?  Do you believe that you are responsible for the emotions of others?  Do you take others’ opinions and needs into account before your own?  Do you find yourself unsure of what you want or need (Eddins, 2015)?  If so, you are certainly not alone.  However, your feelings, thoughts, and needs matter.  By setting some boundaries in your life, you can begin to treat your needs as important.

Boundaries and Anxiety

Image source: https://blogs.goarch.org/blog/-/blogs/boundaries-healthy-limits-or-barriers-to-relationships-

Image source: https://blogs.goarch.org/blog/-/blogs/boundaries-healthy-limits-or-barriers-to-relationships-

For people who struggle with anxiety, learning how to create healthy boundaries can be a helpful tool.  Though sometimes people cope with anxiety by creating unnecessary boundaries or avoiding situations that serve as triggers, other times anxiety is experienced as a result of unclear lines between self and other.  When you don’t protect your sense of self, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and take on responsibility for everything and everyone (Eddins, 2015).  This can lead to feelings of guilt and anxiety.  It is not hard for a vicious cycle to ensue, where a lack of boundaries leads to anxiety, and where anxiety leads to a feeling that you cannot set clear and effective limits.

What Are Boundaries

So what exactly are boundaries?  Boundaries help us to define who we are.  They orient us in our relationships, and signify to us and to others where “I end and you begin” (Eddins, 2015).  Boundaries can apply to any area of our lives, and can range from material boundaries to physical, mental, or emotional boundaries to sexual or spiritual boundaries (Lancer, 2015).  Boundaries are very personal, and there is not a right or wrong answer regarding to how to set ones that work for you.  They are based on your beliefs, values, opinions, and needs (“12 Signs,” 2015).

Boundaries as an Act of Love

A common misconception for people who struggle in this area is that setting boundaries is selfish.  However, self-care is not selfish.  Have you ever flown on an airplane, and heard the stewardess tell the passengers in case of an emergency to put their own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs?  This “oxygen-mask” rule is a profound metaphor for the idea that we cannot take care of others if we have neglected to take care of ourselves first. 

Image source:  http://www.thedynamicturnaround.com/healthyboundaries.htm

Image source:  http://www.thedynamicturnaround.com/healthyboundaries.htm

Setting boundaries for ourselves and giving ourselves permission to articulate our needs is an act of self-love (Strgar, 2010).  And in the wise words of Brené Brown, “we can only love others as much as we love ourselves” (2010).  Furthermore, when we set clear limits in our lives, we are better able to be compassionate towards others.  Brown (2010) states that “the heart of compassion is really acceptance,” and when we lack boundaries, we are not accepting our own needs and we may have a difficult time accepting others if we feel they are taking advantage of us. 

So contrary to this idea that boundaries are selfish, they actually help us love ourselves and others better.

How Therapy Can Help

You are the only one who has the ability to set boundaries in your life.  However, therapy can be helpful in navigating this challenging task.  Therapy offers a place where you can explore your values, your feelings, and your relationships.  Your therapist can help support you in the process of determining where you need to establish stronger boundaries or areas in which you might benefit from more flexibility.

Therapy can also be a good place to experience a relationship with very clear boundaries.  Dr. Irvin D. Yalom (2002) describes “therapy as a dress rehearsal for life,” meaning that it is a safe place to encounter challenging aspects of life and relationships before you face them outside of the therapy room.  An important goal of therapy is to take what you have learned and apply it to the rest of your life, but it can be helpful to practice new skills in a safe space first.

Don’t Forget to Be Kind To Yourself

One final thing to note is that boundaries are learned (Lancer, 2015).  If you are not used to setting clear limits in your life, know that it is a skill that takes practice.  The best way to start learning this skill is to cultivate self-awareness and practice asserting yourself (Lancer, 2015).  Remember, it is important to give yourself grace and to seek support throughout this process.  If you feel like you could benefit from some professional support in developing boundaries in your life…

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.

References:

12 Signs you lack healthy boundaries (and why you need them). (2015).  Harley Therapy Counselling Blog. Retrieved from http://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/healthy-boundaries.htm

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.  Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Eddins, R. (2015). Keeping Good Boundaries & Getting Your Needs Met. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/keeping-good-boundaries-getting-your-needs-met/

Lancer, D. (2015). What are personal boundaries? How do I get some?. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-are-personal-boundaries-how-do-i-get-some/

Stgar, W. (2010). The importance of boundaries. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-strgar/working-boundaries_b_717339.html

Yalom, I. D. (2002).  The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Hoarding

Jill Stoddard

by Jan E. Estrellado, Ph.D.

Most of us know someone who has difficulty throwing things away or cannot seem to stop him or herself from buying things at bargain prices, even when he or she doesn’t need them.  Extreme versions of these behaviors (i.e. “clinical hoarding”) affect up to 5% of the U.S. population (Samuels et al., 2008). What might cause an individual to let these situations get out of hand?  And what can that person or a loved one do to help that person change?

What is Hoarding Behavior?

According to the International OCD Foundation (https://iocdf.org/), hoarding consists of three related issues: (1) collecting too many items; (2) difficulty getting rid of items; (3) problems with organization.  Hoarding behavior can result in significantly limited living or work space, strained relationships with others, and in extreme cases, unsanitary or hazardous living conditions.

A person with hoarding behavior may experience severe distress when attempting to get rid of items.  That person may feel he or she need these things or that he or she will eventually use them.  Even if the person’s belongings are of little material value or use, the person feels unable or unwilling to get rid of the items. 

Hoarding behavior negatively impacts relationships.  If one person in a household hoards, others living in the home may resent and/or blame that person for the status of their living conditions.  While it may seem like an “easy solution,” (i.e., “Just throw those things away!”) this is a much more complex process for the person who has difficulty letting go of material things. 

Why Do People Hoard?

A person’s beliefs about his or her posessions, as well as the meaning he or she attributes to them, are core parts of why a person hoards (Steketee et al., 2003).  A person may be extremely sentimental about his or her items and feel as if losing the item is “like losing a friend.”  The individual may feel exceptionally protective over his or her belongings and become very defensive or territorial when another person suggests he or she get rid of them.  

Source URL: http://www.dcputnamconsulting.com/hoarding-keepdonatedump/

Source URL: http://www.dcputnamconsulting.com/hoarding-keepdonatedump/

Wheaton et al. (2010) discuss the difficulty some individuals have with tolerating distressing emotions related to hoarding.  The actions a person takes or does not take in order to minimize upsetting feelings is called avoidance.  For example, a person who feels upset when trying to give or throw something away might avoid those feelings by saving the item.  By keeping the item, the person can also avoid feelings of loss that might result from not having the item.  An individual who hoards might also feel a “high” when acquiring new items, so he or she continues to obtain new items, even if the item is not needed.

Getting Help for Hoarding

Seeking mental health treatment for hoarding behavior might be particularly difficult.  By the time the individual shows up at his or her therapist’s door, it is possible he or she has been hoarding for years.  Treatment might not have been the person’s first choice, but was perhaps at the strong encouragement of a concerned family member or friend.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the treatment of choice to address hoarding behavior.  In a recent review of the scientific literature on hoarding treatment, Tolin and colleagues (2015) found that those who received CBT for hoarding had significant reductions in symptoms, especially with regards to a core feature of hoarding behavior, difficulty discarding.  A hoarding-specific version of CBT combines a number of different elements, including resolving the person’s ambivalence towards his or her hoarding behavior, and using exposure therapy to help the person directly confront his or her discomfort regarding discarding items (Tolin, Frost, Steketee, & Murdoff, 2015).

Another significant finding from the same study (Tolin et al., 2015) is that greater improvements with discarding symptoms were associated with greater number of therapy sessions conducted in the person’s home.  In-home sessions are more effective than office sessions because the therapist can be there with the client to help build new discarding and acquiring skills.

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 hoarding, 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.

 

References:

International OCD Foundation.  https://hoarding.iocdf.org/

Samuels, J. F., Bienvenu, O. J., Grados, M. A., Cullen, B., Riddle, M. A., & Liang, K. Y. (2008). Prevalence and correlates of hoarding behavior in a community-based sample. Behaviour and Research Therapy, 46, 836 – 844.

Steketee, G., Frost, R. O., & Kyrios, M. (2003). Cognitive aspects of compulsive hoarding. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 27, 463–479.

Tolin, D. F., Frost, R. O., Steketee, G., & Muroff, J. (2015). Cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarding disorder: A meta‐analysis. Depression And Anxiety, 32(3), 158-166. doi:10.1002/da.22327

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