“Am I Possessed by a Demon?”

You may be wondering why a psychologist is writing about demonic possession. If so, you may be surprised to learn that, in my work as an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) specialist, it is not uncommon for me to be asked by patients (or potential patients) if they might possibly be possessed. Yes, it is true. Healthy and, by all appearances, rationale people ask me this question. And it doesn’t take me by surprise.

“Wait,” you wonder, “what does working with OCD have to do with demons? Isn’t OCD where people like stuff neat and orderly, or where they check the stove over and over again?”

I’ll explain

Explaining OCD

Let’s start with a quick overview of OCD. Contrary to popular belief, OCD is not about cleanliness, orderliness, or repeatedly checking. OCD is about a person having unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, and/or impulses that will not go away – usually despite their best efforts. Those thoughts, images, and impulses are called obsessions and they usually create quite a bit of distress or discomfort for the person experiencing them. Some possible obsessions might be thoughts of being contaminated, images of doing something harmful to oneself or others, impulses to say curse words, or fears of having left an appliance on or a door unlocked.

Now, when those obsessions create discomfort or distress, the person tries to find a way of making those yucky feelings go away. This is where compulsions come in. Compulsions are those “best efforts” I mentioned above; they are physical or mental actions a person takes to try to get relief. Possible compulsions might include avoiding potential sources of contamination, trying to think of something besides the disturbing content, repeatedly checking that one did not make a mistake, or mentally reviewing and reassuring oneself that one did not and will not act. Performing these actions often brings about relief – temporary relief, until the obsession woefully comes back again.

In summary, OCD has two parts – obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions bring anxiety and discomfort UP. Compulsions bring anxiety and discomfort temporarily DOWN.

Wait, What About the Possession?

Wasn’t this a post about demonic possession?  Why are you sharing about OCD?

Sometimes OCD obsessions take the form of intrusive thoughts, images, or urges of harming others, such as loved ones. Let’s take a look at a possible scenario:

Sandra is a thirty something devoted mother and wife. One day, while sitting with her family, she imagines herself strangling the child closest to her with the power cord that is nearby. This image, seemingly from out of nowhere, shocks and disturbs her. “Where did that thought come from?” she wonders. She tries to force it out of her head and that seems to work until it comes creeping back in moments later. Now, even more upset, because the image seems so real, she excuses herself from the room. “What is this all about?” she silently asks herself. “This is nothing like me. I love my children. Why on Earth would I be thinking this?” She calms herself down by reminding herself that she is a good, caring mother. She returns to her family and the image leaves her alone for the night. The next day, as she helps the children with their homework and prepares the evening meal, she has a fleeting glimpse of smashing one of the children with the cast iron skillet. Terrified, she calls for her husband to stay in the room and help the children while she tries to cook and to compose herself. On subsequent days, despite trying hard to keep them out of her head, the thoughts and images only come more frequently. To protect them, Sandra never allows herself to be in a room alone with her children.

What’s happening here? Well, in this example, Sandra is having obsessions about harming her children. They cause her to feel incredibly uneasy because they are counter to her valued role of loving parent. So what does Sandra do? She removes herself from the situation, she reminds herself she’s a good parent, she tries to force the thoughts away, and she brings others into the room so she can be sure her children will be protected. In short, she does a number of compulsionsDespite the compulsions bringing some temporary relief, they never really address the thoughts and images and her distress grows and grows.

Now, OCD is a nasty trickster. It generally targets the things a person holds dearest. In our example, Sandra cares deeply about her children and she values being a loving parent. When a person finds their deepest values targeted, they may begin to question what this means about them. They may even question how such horrific thoughts could come about…and therein enters the rationalization by the sufferer (or others) that it must be demons.

Ah, Now the Demons

Imagine you are being tormented by some of the worst thoughts and images that could ever be conjured up (some of you may not need to imagine; you may be experiencing them already, which is why you may be reading this). These thoughts and images seem like something that you, the you you know, could never dream up in a lifetime. Yet, here they are…and they are bombarding your every day. You are living a nightmare. Stressed and overwhelmed, you search for an answer. Or, perhaps, someone jokingly suggests the answer. Demonic possession. These aren’t your thoughts at all. You’ve been inhabited by an evil presence. Preposterous as you might have thought it in another time and place, it seems just possible.

Let’s take a look back at Sandra:

Tormented by her horrible thoughts, Sandra searches for an explanation and stumbles upon an article about demonic possession. “Demons?” she wonders. “Could it be?” Although it sounds somewhat absurd, a little fear plants itself. “Maybe I am possessed by a demon.” She puts the frightful thought out of her head. Yet, the next day, as she wrestles with images of harming her children, a voice in her mind wonders, “Could I be possessed?” That evening, tormented by both fears she will harm her children and the possibility of possession, she touches a crucifix to her forehead, just to see if it burns. It doesn’t. She feels a little silly, but also relieved…for now.

In Sandra’s case, she’s stumbled on demonic possession as as possible reason for the horrific images and thoughts she’s been having. She is definitely not alone. As people search to understand why they are tormented, no possibility may seem too far-fetched. Sandra now has two obsessions, though. One is fear she will harm her children. The new one is that she is possessed by a demon. And her compulsions have a new realm, as well. She begins to seek certainty that she is not possessed – and bringing the crucifix to her forehead is only the beginning. All of this because of OCD. No demons at all.

So It’s Not Demons. What Can Be Done?

OCD is not a demon (in the traditional sense) and is treatable. The treatments shown to be most beneficial are Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT – specifically a form of CBT known as Exposure and Response Prevention {ERP}), medication, or a combination of both. Here, I will explain just a little bit about therapy and how it might apply in Sandra’s case.

In ERP therapy, a person is educated about OCD and learns how the things they have been doing to try to cope with their fears are actually growing the problem. Then, together with their therapist, they learn to gradually stand up to their fears without doing their compulsions. Gradually, the sufferer learns to manage discomfort and not to let it direct their lives.

Here’s how it might look with Sandra. After educating her about OCD, Sandra’s therapist would help Sandra identify each of her obsessions and her compulsions. Together, they would create experiments in which Sandra would be in the presence of the thoughts that have been frightening her without doing her compulsions. For example, she might imagine being in the room with her children while thinking her harmful thoughts. At another point, she might practice actually being in the room with her children and the thoughts and not leaving while another adult is in the room. Later, she might practice being in the room alone with her children while purposely thinking the thoughts.

Now these practice sessions would address the intrusive thoughts about harming her children. The fear that she is possessed by a demon would also need to be addressed – often simultaneously. Sandra would practice allowing the thought that she is possessed by a demon to be in her head while eliminating the compulsions of wrestling the thoughts away or checking for signs that she may/may not be possessed.

While it may seem a little scary standing up to these fears, it is done at a pace that patient and therapist agree on together – one that allows for mastery on the sufferer’s own terms. I like to think of the process as one of learning to be brave – of getting comfortable being uncomfortable. In it, the person with OCD learns skills that allow them to stand up to the disorder no matter what it may dish out in the present or the future. As for OCD, while it may try to trick folks into believing in demonic possession, learning the facts and the skills is a far less frightening reality.

For more information on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

  • International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd

 

A Very Informative Interview About OCD

There are so many misconceptions about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In particular, people frequently think it is about being neat, tidy, and organized. They often think it doesn’t affect children. Very importantly, people do not realize that OCD requires specialized treatment by someone trained to do a particular kind of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) know as Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP). In this interview by Alison Dotson, Nathalie Maragoni (who both has OCD and is training to be a therapist) beautifully describes what OCD can look like in a child, ways to educate the school, and resources for adults with OCD and for parents.

Click here to read.

OCD Southern California Conference March 25th!

The 2nd annual OCD Southern California  conference is in Irvine on Saturday, March 25th.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet leading clinicians and researchers, get great information, and have the opportunity to interact with others who deal with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

This year’s keynote speakers are Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D., of the Grayson L.A. Treatment Center for Anxiety & OCD, and Ethan Smith, National Spokesperson for the International OCD Foundation.  For more information and to register, go to:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ocd-southern-california-conference-tickets-32242924455

 

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Achieving Your Goal

Image courtesy of duron123 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of duron123 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The music is pumping, the class is full, and the energy is palpable in the room. Fitness trainer and indoor cycling instructor Wendell Mitchell moves through the rows of students.

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable!” he calls over the music, and the students respond, each giving a little more than they thought they could a moment ago.

The anxiety therapist in me delights in what is happening here. He directs students to do what’s difficult – what’s outside their comfort zone – and they do it. Each knows on some level that the only way to get to where they want to be (weight loss, endurance, energized, etc.) means having to push themselves through some level of discomfort.  They know that it won’t be given; it has to be earned.  “No pain, no gain” is the familiar gym mantra.

“This is just like anxiety treatment,” I think to myself.

In anxiety treatment, the therapist instructs and encourages the patient to act outside of

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

their comfort zone, to do something different than they might already be choosing to do. By taking these steps forward, anxiety is something that one can learn to manage and to thrive with. Yet many people fear what treatment for anxiety will be like. Just the mention of standing up to your fears is enough to keep many away from the treatment that could open the door to a much better life.

What Does He Know?

I’m intrigued by how Wendell is able to get so much out of his students, and I wonder what it is that he knows that benefits his fitness students, and applies so well to anxiety sufferers. I sit down with him to talk one sunny day. It’s clear from the start that, in the nearly twenty years he has been in the fitness industry, he has developed a passion for changing lives.  I wonder with him how he is able to inspire motivation in his students – and what nuggets I might take from this into my treatment of anxiety sufferers.

He is quick to point out that the motivation must come from each individual themselves, and not from any goal he might have for them.

“They need to find what their motivation is for being here,” he says, noting that he encourages students to think about why they are in class.

I quickly draw a parallel to anxiety treatment. A person seeking treatment must know their “Why?” Why are they in treatment? It is the job of therapist to instruct the patient in successful techniques and to nurture that inner motivation – that “Why?” – and keep it in sight throughout treatment. Without a “why,” there is no compelling reason to get better. In fitness, the motivation might be to live a healthier life.  With anxiety, the motivation might be to be able to do things a person has been wanting to do, but has felt too afraid to try.

“It’s Empowerment”

Wendell also explains to me that something happens when a person decides to push themselves, even just a little. There’s a recognition that they did something that they previously thought they could not – and that tends to trigger even more motivation.

“It’s empowerment,” he says. “Most people walk away feeling unstoppable.”

Again, I draw a parallel to anxiety treatment. When a patient does something that they previously thought they couldn’t, there is an incredible feeling of empowerment. And this empowerment tends to help propel a person forward. The  memory of that success can be a great motivator.

Baby Steps

With anxiety treatment, just as with fitness training, finding your “baby steps” is key. Rarely does a fitness student or anxiety patient start with the most difficult task.  If you’ve never taken a 45 minute indoor cycling class before, you probably wouldn’t expect to be a top performer in class on your first day. And if you’ve never stood up to a particular fear before, you most likely wouldn’t expect to stand up to the scariest thing right off the bat.

“You need to figure out where their baby steps are,” says Wendell, when discussing taking the trip up the fitness ladder. Then you can “celebrate the little small victories.”

When it comes to anxiety treatment, the same is true. A person chooses the steps that feel manageable to them as they work their way toward conquering a fear. Each step is a cause for celebration.

Be Willing

Most people begin a fitness routine knowing it will be tough work. As Wendell likes to say, “this is a workout, not a cookout, folks.” Any patient I ask about getting fit or getting good at something that involves fitness (from cycling to hiking) can tell me that it is more than just showing up and going through the motions. It takes hard work, and if one does the work, they will see improvement, and what seemed difficult at first gets easier. The same is true for anxiety treatment. It takes hard work facing your fears, learning new ways of coping, and pushing through challenging exposures. Yet the payoff is seeing what seemed insurmountable before become more manageable – maybe even easy. And just like in fitness, you get to do it at your own pace. Pushing yourself harder means more progress; going a little slower means more measured progress.

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The key is “being willing,” says Wendell when he talks of progress in fitness. A person has to be willing to push themselves toward a goal. If they do, they may find themselves somewhere unexpected.

“I didn’t think I could do it, but here I am. I’m not gonna like it, but I’m gonna do it again.”

With anxiety as it is with fitness, if you push yourself, practice, and repeat – willingly – you may find yourself soaring to places you never imagined. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

 

The 21st Annual OCD Conference is Almost Here!

Image Courtesy Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net
Image Courtesy Pixomar at freedigitalphotos.net

The 21st annual OCD Conference, presented by the International OCD Foundation, begins this Friday in Los Angeles. This extremely valuable conference is an excellent resource for individuals with OCD, their family, friends, therapists, researchers, and anyone who has any interest in OCD at all. What makes this conference so special is that professionals, people with OCD, and others from the general public all intermingle and share information and perspectives. A person who has experienced OCD has as much to offer as a professional who is doing research and treatment. People who attend the conference generally take note of the inviting atmosphere and the ease of interacting with individuals from all different backgrounds.

This year, I will have the honor of participating in two presentations at the conference, and co-leading a support group.  If you are in, or near, the Los Angeles area, this is one conference worth checking into. For more information. look at the IOCDF’s conference website: http://www.ocd2014.org/

Parents as Part of the Treatment Team

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @freedigitalphotos.net

I am preparing to head to the annual conference of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).  I look forward to conferences like this one because they provide inspiration for the work I do and the opportunity to interact with the latest information and the great minds that are working on treatments for anxiety and depression.  This year, I am fortunate to be able to present at the conference on a topic that is of great interest to me, since I work with a good number of children and teens:  Engaging Parents in Children’s Anxiety Treatment.  Because I think this is such an important subject, I’d like to share some of what I will share with the professionals at the conference here.

Through my practice, I’ve come to believe that parents are a very important ingredient when it comes to treating children who are struggling with anxiety disorders.  Why?  Well, first, it is generally parents who spend the greatest amount of time with their children and who are the “experts” on the child.  As a clinician, I know that I have a great resource to tap into in the form of the parent.  Who better to help me understand how this person spends their time, how they react to things,  what they are sensitive to, etc.?  Certainly I can often obtain a good deal of information from talking to the child or teen him or herself, but the outside perspective a parent provides is beyond valuable.

Next, working with anxiety requires a good deal of understanding on the part of the person with anxiety and their immediate support system.  A big part of overcoming anxiety disorders is education.  I spend a lot of time helping the people I work with to really understand how anxiety works and how to challenge it.  The better educated someone is, the better they are able to make good choices for dealing with their anxiety.  If a child or teen goes home to a parent who is well-educated in the ways of anxiety, that child stands a much better chance of finding success and support in defeating their anxiety.

Third, dealing with anxiety requires a lot of active work outside of session.  Learning to defeat an anxiety disorder means a child or teen has to go home and practice, practice, practice.  For that practice to be effective it has to be done regularly, with a good understanding of the purpose, and with a sound rationale.  If I send a young person home to do practice that makes sense to no one but him or her, then the task is much more difficult.  Without that support, a the chances the practice will happen decrease greatly, and treatment is going to progress much more slowly.  If a parent who understands the work to be done is there to provide support and direction, then the work is much more likely to be done, and treatment is much more likely to move along.

Finally, once treatment ends, if a parent has participated in treatment, the child or teen is not alone in his or her knowledge and understanding of anxiety and its ways.  Anxiety is a natural part of life and when it pops up a good plan is necessary to deal with any of the more difficult challenges it may present.  When a parent has participated in treatment with a child, that child has an ally in identifying anxiety when it tries to disguise itself in the future.  The parent might even recognize the signs and tricks of anxiety before the child or teen does.  Parent and child can form a team to use the tools learned in treatment and put anxiety back in its place.  They may even potentially prevent the need to return for treatment.

These are some of the reasons that I believe parents are an important part of the treatment team.  Because of this, I try to let both parent and child know how important a player each is in the treatment process.  In a future post, I will talk about some of the challenges parents face when they have a child who struggles with anxiety.

About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This week (October 14-20, 2013) is International OCD Awareness Week.  Since promoting OCD awareness is a particular passion of mine, of course I’d like to seize on the opportunity to do a little educating.  Just what is OCD?  How does it present?  Is it treatable?

Let’s start with a little background about how many people have OCD.  It is generally thought that 1 in 100 adults has OCD and 1 in 200 children.  That’s 4-5 children in the average elementary school, and about 20 in a medium-sized high school.  Sadly, though, OCD is often under-recognized.   The International OCD Foundation notes that it often takes between 14 and 17 years from the first onset of symptoms until a person gets access to effective treatment.  Awareness of what OCD is can help to change that.

Simply put, OCD involves obsessions and compulsions.  Obsessions are intrusive, recurring thoughts that are unwanted by the individual.  They are associated with uncomfortable feelings and they interfere with important, valued activities.  Compulsions are behaviors or mental actions a person engages in to try to feel better or to make the obsessions go away.  Avoidance of things or situations that trigger obsessions can also be a compulsion.  Compulsions only provide temporary relief.  Common obsessions include fear of being contaminated, fear of causing harm to others, fear of losing control and fear of committing a moral offense.  Common compulsions include excessive washing and cleaning, constant checking that nothing was done to harm others or that no mistake was made, mentally reviewing events, repeating movements or activities until they are “just right,” seeking reassurance and confessing.

OCD can be extremely agonizing for those suffering from it – and for those who care about them.  It can result in lost productivity, lost opportunities and general misery.  There are, however, effective treatments that exist.  According to the International OCD Foundation, the key elements of treatment for most people with OCD are “one or more of the following:  a properly trained therapist, Cognitive Behavior Therapy and medicine.”  The Cognitive Behavior Therapy that has demonstrated the most effectiveness for OCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention.  It basically involves confronting the thoughts, situations, etc. that make the person anxious and then making a choice not to engage in compulsions.  While this may sound a little unnerving, the end effect is that the person learns to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and learns that they naturally lessen on their own.

There is no need for people to suffer with OCD symptoms in silence.  Education and treatment can provide the way to a more fulfilling and more productive life.  For more information about OCD, its symptoms and its treatment, visit the website for the International OCD Foundation or for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

“Why Can’t You Just Stop Thinking About It?”

Think About it

A little while ago, I took a walk in a park that was along the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The day was clear and the view was beautiful.  Except one thing kept popping up that disrupted my serenity.  It was a sign that read, “DANGEROUS CONDITION.  DO NOT CLIMB ON OR OVER RAILING.  DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”

Gee, thanks,” I thought to myself.  I looked to my companion.  “You know, I wasn’t even thinking about climbing over the railing and now I can’t get it out of my head.”

Indeed, my companion was having images of climbing on or over the railing, as well.  As if one warning weren’t enough, this same message was repeated on signs all along the cliff’s edge.  They were far enough apart so that, just as the image began to fade, we were admonished once again to “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”

“That sign is an OCD sufferer’s nightmare,” I commented.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is intrusive thoughts and images.  They are unwanted by the person, they cause distress and they won’t go away.  What’s more, they play themselves over and over in the person’s head.  It is these thoughts that make up the “Obsessive” part of OCD.

“Why Can’t You Just Stop Thinking About It?”

These are the words that many OCD sufferers hear from their well-meaning friends and loved ones – that is, if they are courageous enough to actually share that they are having unwanted, intrusive thoughts.  In fact, most people with OCD will tell you that they already have tried to stop thinking about it.  They may have put great effort into trying to make the offending thoughts and images go away.  So often, though, it seems that the harder they try, the stronger the thoughts.  How can this be?

Well, the sign I spoke of above is a good illustration of why it is difficult (if not impossible) to just stop thinking about something.  Imagine it is you walking along the railing and the sign warns you, “DANGEROUS CONDITION.  DO NOT CLIMB ON OR OVER RAILING.  DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”  Now, try it.  Don’t even think about climbing over the railing.  Whatever you do, do not think about climbing on or over the railing.  You’re not thinking about it, right? Do not think about climbing over or on the railing!

If you had images in your head of climbing on or over a railing, you are not alone.  Our mind works so that when we struggle to try NOT to think about something, we tend to only think about it more.  I will sometimes challenge people in my practice not to think about a white rabbit.  Usually, they immediately begin to smile.  That’s because they get it.  That white rabbit popped into their head as soon as I said anything about it – and they realize the futility of trying to not think about it.

So, why can’t the person with OCD just stop thinking about an unwanted thought or image?  Because our minds just do not work that way.  It seems that we may do better if we simply do not try to fight away those unwanted thoughts, and instead go with them.  We may just find that, when we do not fight with those thoughts, they begin to fade away on their own.

If someone in your life is strugging with OCD, remember that they cannot simply stop thinking about their intrusive thoughts and make them go away.  There is, however, real help for managing these thoughts.  Your support and understanding about how very difficult it is to get unwanted thoughts out of their head may be that person’s first step toward getting help and moving in a positive direction.

Those Pesky “Little” Fears

Fears – we all know someone who has them.  Maybe we have them ourselves.  Perhaps it’s a fear of spiders or snakes.  Maybe it’s a fear of swimming or flying.  We hear of fears like this so commonly that many of us don’t think twice when we hear about them.  We may even accept them as a part of life that is just here to stay.  But is that the case or can these fears be overcome and put to rest? If they can be overcome, how is that done?

Image courtesy of ahmet guler at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of ahmet guler at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many people embrace their fears as a core part of themselves that is just never going to change – and they are vocal and public about their fears.  Not long ago, as I was perusing Facebook, I noticed a friend had posted her  fearful reaction to having found a spider at home.   A long list of comments followed by folks agreeing with her fear or teasing her about it.  Her responses made it apparent that the fear was here to stay  – at least for now, and she had plenty of folks supporting her in keeping it that way.

Other folks live with their fears, but question if it always has to be this way.  These people imagine life without their fear but are not sure if they could ever actually overcome it.  An example of this is a mother who has a fear of swimming.  It stems from a time as a child that she was pushed into a pool and panicked.  She has never gone in a body of water again (well, except to shower, that is).  She watches her two children play in the water at the beach and wishes she could join them in their fun.  She also worries that she cannot help them if they get into trouble, so she always makes sure a lifeguard is around.

Image courtesy of John Kasawa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of John Kasawa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Of course there are other ways people think about their fears, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just focus on these here.  So what about these two examples?  Are they always stuck with their fears?  Can they be overcome?  Should they be overcome?  Here’s my take on it.  Unless something is a problem, it’s not a problem.

Have I confused you?  What could I possibly mean by this?  What I mean is that a fear is probably not a problem unless a person perceives it as causing a problem in their life.  In the spider example, the woman is not really bothered by her fear.  She can generally avoid spiders with little consequence to how she lives her life.  When she does encounter the occasional arachnid, she has friends and family who are not afraid of them and who can take care of the problem.  No big deal.  Unless she has a big desire to challenge herself and get over the fear, she probably will choose, happily, to continue in this way.

The woman with the fear of swimming is a different situation.  Her fear of getting into the water is keeping her from doing something she would really like to do – swim with her children and join in the fun.  She also feels bad that she cannot help if her children get into a bad situation in the water and so she must wait for another swimming adult to be present before she can allow them to swim.  She could go on and continue in this way.  However, unlike the woman with the fear of spiders, she does perceive her fear of swimming to be a problem.  She just doesn’t know what to do about it.  She occasionally reaches out to others to ask how she can get over this.  She might change it if she did know what to do.

If you are wondering at this point what creates a fear, simply put, fears can be created in all sorts of ways.  They can develop if we experience a frightening event that involves the feared item or situation (e.g., falling into a swimming pool, not knowing how to swim and panicking).  They can also develop if the feared item or situation is present at a traumatizing event (e.g., if we witness an accident while traveling on a freeway, we may develop a fear of freeways).  It is also possible to develop a fear because someone we care about has the same fear (e.g., a mother is afraid of dogs and, through her own behavior, encourages the development of such a fear in her children).

But what does a person do about a fear?  I’ve been asked this question many times.  More important than understanding what created the fear, we must understand what maintains a fear.  Generally speaking, fears are maintained by avoidance.

Image courtesy of jiggoja at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of jiggoja at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine that a boy is scared by a dog one morning on his way to school.  His heart races, his pulse pounds, and he breaks into a sweat as he runs away.  Now, let’s say that afternoon, he has to pass by that dog again to get back home.  Is he likely to walk confidently right by that house, or is it possible he might walk on the other side of the street, or on a different street altogether?  If he chooses a path that keeps him away from the dog, he is likely to experience relief – dangerous situation averted.  Whew!  Now if he chooses each subsequent day to avoid the dog, his behavior is reinforced by the relief he experiences – and by the absence of the fear reaction.  If he ever decides to walk by that dog again, it will probably be with great amounts of anxiety.

Now, let’s compound the situation and say that our young man sees a dog on another day that looks just like the original dog that frightened him.  He starts to feel his heart pound and he can’t catch his breath.  He doesn’t wait to find out if this is the same dog; instead, he bolts in the other direction.  Once he perceives that he is “safe” he finds relief.  Now, he starts to avoid the place he just encountered this dog and avoids any dog that looks like this one (or perhaps he avoids all dogs of this size, or any dogs at all).

The point is, all this avoiding the situation helps to reinforce his fear.  If he avoids the situation, then he can avoid feeling any fear.  Perhaps to him it is a small price to pay.  But he is missing out on the opportunity to be able to move about the world more freely.  What he has not had to chance to learn is that if he had never avoided the original situation in the first place, his body would have naturally adjusted and his fear would have reduced greatly (if not completely).

Our bodies are amazingly adaptive.  They have the ability to adjust to a myriad of situations.  Just think about the first time you tried a new exercise.  The next day you were aching and could barely move that body part.  The next time you did the exercise you didn’t ache as much and there quickly came a time that you didn’t ache at all.  You wondered if you were still doing the exercise right.  Or consider a cold swimming pool.  When you first get in, it feels like a shock to your system.  You wonder what you are doing in there.  If you stay in for a little while an amazing thing happens.  You adjust and the water feels fine.  In both of these examples the situation did not change.  The exercise is not any different and the water temperature did not change.  Your body adjusted because you gave it the time to do what it does naturally – adapt.

The same is true with a fear.  If we continually avoid a feared situation, we maintain the fear; we never give our body time to adjust.  If we face the fear, at first we will feel anxious, scared – maybe terrified.  If we stick with it, an amazing thing begins to happen.  The frightening thing or situation begins to feel less scary.  If we keep facing that fear over and over again, it loses its power over us.

Am I saying that someone with a fear of spiders should immerse themselves in a pit of the creatures, or that someone with a fear of swimming should jump into a swimming pool?  No, I’m not.  There is some skill to beginning to chip away at a longstanding fear and what works for any person is as individual as they are.  Some people know intuitively what they can tolerate and their instincts will guide them about what to choose.  Others will find guidance in a book that addresses the issue, while still others find that the support of a professional is best for them.

Some people will live happily without ever confronting a fear because that fear barely impacts on their lives or happiness.  For those whose fears are impacting them in some way that creates dissatisfaction or unhappiness, there is hope to get past them.  The point for these people is to begin to challenge the avoidance that keeps them stuck in their fear -to feel empowered rather than powerless.  In this way, those pesky “little” fears can be put where they belong – to rest at last.

No, That’s Not a Normal Part of Child Development

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Sometimes, I wish my head could keep up with my conversations – that I had the right response at the right moment.   A little while ago someone who rarely asks me about my work asked how my practice was going.  I responded by mentioning how many young boys and girls with some very big fears had recently been brought by their parents for treatment.  Some, I noted, were having full blown panic attacks.

Now I was fairly certain my conversation partner would say something like, “Wow.  What do you do in situations like that?” or perhaps, “It’s good that they are getting help now.”  Instead, what I got was, “Parents can be so over-reactive.  They take a normal part of child development and turn it into a problem.  If they would just leave it alone, it would pass.”

This is where my spinning head could not keep up.  In part, my professional ego was a little bruised (“Don’t you think I can tell the difference between a child who’s going through a normal phase and one who is truly suffering?” ).  At the same time I was feeling a little defensive about the parents who had the courage and the sensitivity to bring their child for a consultation.  Frankly, I think it takes a lot of guts to admit that something is going on with your child and to reach out for help.

Yes, sometimes parents do overreact about something that is a childhood phase.  They love their kids.  They want to see them happy and healthy.  It’s part of what they do.  At the same time, too often children’s and teens’ emotional issues are overlooked or not attended to.  According to the Child Mind Institute[i], more than 15 million children in the U.S. have diagnosable mental health or learning disorders, yet less than half of them will actually get help.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)[ii] notes that the results of a large national survey indicate that approximately 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder.  Their symptoms appeared around age 6.  However, less than one-fifth of these teens ever received mental health care.

What’s sad and concerning about this is the loss of potential and the unnecessary suffering – for both parents and kids.  There are effective treatments available that can help get these kids back on track and the whole family functioning better.  But how does a parent know when something is normal childhood development and when it is time to seek help?

Anxiety is a normal part of life for us all.  For a child, there are certain worries and fears we can expect at different ages.  For example, very young children may be afraid of strangers, the dark, imaginary monsters, costumes, being separated from parents and getting hurt.  Older children may worry about school performance or making friends.  If we provide reassurance and are supportive as children learn to deal with these things, in most cases they will eventually resolve.  When a fear or worry persists, creates great distress for the child and interferes with the child’s functioning at home, school or with friends it has crossed over to becoming a problem.  This is when it is time to seek help.

But when you seek help aren’t you just pandering to the child’s fears and making them an unnecessary focus?  Well, the truth is that when adult anxiety sufferers are asked about the history of their symptoms, a high percentage of them actually have symptoms dating back to childhood.  Their symptoms did not go away .   So treating children for anxiety may not only help the child from spending needless time suffering, but may help prevent anxiety disorders in adults as well.

Getting back to my conversation, if my head had been working at the proper speed, I would have said something along these lines:

“At times, you are correct, we as parents do overreact, but we also frequently under-react. Actually what’s going on with these kids isn’t part of normal child development and these parents aren’t over-reactive at all.  I admire them.  They recognized that their children were suffering and that this was not going to go away on its own.  They were forward thinking enough to reach out and get help.  Hopefully we will be able to prevent a lot of suffering now and in the future.”

I can’t make time stand still and give a well-composed answer.  For now, at least I am on the record.  Children with anxiety disorders deserve their suffering to be recognized and they deserve the opportunity to get better.  Bravo to the parents who have the courage to reach out.

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[i] “Why Speak Up.”  Speak Up for Kids: Child Mind Institute.  Child Mind Institute. Web. 16 July, 2013.  <http://speakup.childmind.org/why_speak_up/&gt;.
[ii] “Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Fact Sheet).”  National Institute of Mental Health.  National Institute of Mental Health.  Web. 16 July, 2013. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml.