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The Power of Physical Presence in Therapy

The Power of Physical Presence in Therapy

Therapy is an indispensable tool to recovery, or in helping one gain deeper insights and achieve self-actualisation. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, traditional face-to-face therapy has been forced to take on various forms, including sessions conducted via telephone or through video-calling platforms. Of course, therapy serves the same purpose, regardless of whether it is conducted in person or otherwise. However, there is definitely something restorative about being able to connect with a therapist physically. Humans are innately social creatures after-all, and sometimes when things get tough, a little more human interaction and comfort can go a long way. 

 

Physical presence in therapy certainly provides a deeper sense of connection, in contrast with virtual therapy where one might feel more distant and detached. It may seem bearable at the very beginning, but as you progress through the sessions, having to interact with your therapist through a screen all the time can get frustrating. Similar to how students may have trouble coping with online school and home-based learning, virtual therapy has some form of hindrance when it comes to relationship-building with your therapist. For most psychotherapy methods, it is indeed possible to shift them online. However, for others such as psychodrama, it may not be entirely ideal. How expressive and comfortable can you get, when you’re struggling to follow your therapist’s directives through the small screen and having to deal with technological lags? 

 

Seeing your therapist in person also allows for him/her to detect any subtle body language and somatic movements. These are all non-verbal cues that may be lost through telecommunication. Non-verbal cues are just as important as verbal ones, and can provide your therapist with greater insights. Non-verbal signals can serve to convey your feelings along with what is being said, and can either reinforce or contradict verbal messages. Ignoring them would be very much a failure to be fully engaged in a conversation. Moreover, seeing you in person provides therapists with the ease to identify any form of dissociation. During the session, clients may not necessarily attune well, and may not be fully present in the moment. The client may be engaging with the therapist, but seemingly thinking about something else that is going on in their life at the same time. This does not mean that the session is unhelpful or “boring”. While this could simply be attributed to the lack of presence, it could also point towards other concerns regarding the client’s state of mind. Fragmentation can occur especially when one is recovering from a past trauma and can be brought to the forefront, causing incomprehensive emotional reactions when triggered. Fragments of self are usually suppressed, often attributed to the lack of a sense of safety when it comes to expressing their inner needs or desires. When these feelings start to show during therapy, therapists can identify them through common tell-tale signs such as a switch into dissociation, noticeable body movements (twitching, scrunching of fingers or toes etc.). Body language is not definitive, but can offer clues about one’s thoughts and feelings. With telecommunication, it is more often than not impossible to see the client below shoulder-level, thus making it difficult for therapists to assess any somatic movements that may be occurring. 

 

Another issue with telecommunication is the lack of control over the therapeutic environment.  In a traditional face-to-face session, the clinician has considerable control over the environment, and is able to ensure a private, safe and quiet space for the entire duration of the session. This limits the number of distractions and allows for both the therapist and the client to concentrate on psychotherapy. Moreover, in a clinical setting, furniture is often set up in particular ways to facilitate clinician-patient interactions. For instance, seats may be arranged such that the clinician would be facing the client at an angle of 45 to 90 degrees, and approximately 2 to 3 feet away. Facing the client directly can feel somewhat threatening for some, and this angle allows for the client to feel more at ease. Additionally, it allows for both parties to break eye contact naturally (intermittently) without seeming antisocial or distracted by having to do so actively. In contrast, having a session online or through telephone allows for less control over interactions and the client may be more exposed to external distractions or undesirable interruptions. This also leads us to our next point, where teleconsultations also increase the risks of privacy breaches. 

 

Due to the lack of environmental control, having a consultation via telecommunication methods can be a challenge especially for those who do not have access to their own private space. For individuals living with others, there could be situations that compromise client confidentiality, including potential eavesdropping or having others walk in on them. Not only does this make the session extremely disruptive, it can be a huge concern for many considering that mental health concerns are sensitive topics. Clients must make the extra effort to find a suitable place and time for them to speak with their therapists freely and with ease. As such, physical presence in a controlled clinical setting may have the upper hand.

 

Nevertheless, this article in no way aims at undermining the efficacy of tele-health, nor to allude that tele-therapy is ineffective or pointless. Considering the need for physical distancing during the pandemic, telecommunication is undeniably crucial in limiting the spread of the virus. Putting that aside, traditional in-person therapy can have its barriers too, limiting people from attaining the mental health support they need. Individuals with disabilities may find accessibility to be a significant problem at hand, and find it difficult to travel for therapy without having others to rely on. Others include parents who are unable to find suitable childcare options, all while juggling work and mental health care. For those struggling with social anxiety and agoraphobia, it can also be extremely intimidating and overwhelming for them to step out. In fact, some research has shown that virtual and in-person therapy, depending on the treatment goal, can be equally effective. In adults, cognitive behavioural therapy was shown to be similarly effective both in vivo and virtually (Khatri et al., 2014). There is also evidence that youth with anxiety disorders respond positively via telehealth (Khan et al., 2020). Traditional face-to-face therapy and tele-therapy both have their perks, and we acknowledge that it also boils down to individual preferences. If you’re unsure as to which treatment option to opt for, do feel free to contact us.

 

References:

  1. Brenes, G. A., Ingram, C. W., & Danhauer, S. C. (2011). Benefits and Challenges of Conducting Psychotherapy by Telephone. Professional psychology, research and practice, 42(6), 543–549. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026135 (Accessed 06/09/2021)
  2. Khatri N., Marziali E., Tchernikov I., Shepherd N. Comparing telehealth-based and clinic-based group cognitive behavioral therapy for adults with depression and anxiety: A pilot study. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2014;9:765. (Accessed 09/09/2021)
  3. Khan, A. N., Bilek, E., Tomlinson, R. C., & Becker-Haimes, E. M. (2021). Treating Social Anxiety in an Era of Social Distancing: Adapting Exposure Therapy for Youth During COVID-19. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002 (Accessed 09/09/2021)
  4. https://www.nataliarachel.com/articles-practitioners/shifting-to-tele-therapy-attuning-without-physical-presence (Accessed 07/09/2021)
Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Fear resulting from psychological trauma can be extremely deep-seated. The distress, feelings of helplessness and constant flashback of traumatic events can turn one’s world upside down, causing major problems with daily activities and quality of life. It may be easy for someone to say, “Well, why can’t you just get over it?” But in reality, we need to recognise that it is much easier said than done. In order to help people move past their traumatic experiences, researchers and psychologists have worked tirelessly, creating various therapeutic methods and tweaking them to achieve the optimal recovery outcome. In regards to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be familiar with an approach known as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. In this article, we’ll be introducing you to an alternative psychotherapy technique, also known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, EMDR therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma and other negative life experiences. While it is also increasingly applied for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, researchers have not found EMDR to be as effective as with trauma-related conditions. As its name suggests, EMDR isn’t all about talk therapy or medications. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process. 

What is the Basis of EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is fundamentally based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model. A key tenet of this model is that the symptoms of PTSD are manifested due to memories that are dysfunctionally stored or not fully processed. Memories of disturbing experiences often string along negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs and even physical sensations that were associated with them at the time of occurrence. This can bring about a multitude of unpleasant symptoms that can be exceptionally detrimental to one’s mental health. 

When one is exposed to stress or trauma, the body’s automatic response would be to activate its Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). As an adaptive system, it controls our natural fight, flight or freeze instincts, which is critical in ensuring our survival. When the SNS is activated, the individual will undergo physical alterations such as increased heart and breathing rates, decreased blood flow to the digestive system and constricted blood vessels. In addition, hormone levels including those of adrenaline and cortisol will increase dramatically, causing hypervigilance. However, for someone who is under constant stress from traumatic flashbacks, the over-stimulation of the SNS will be greatly damaging to this person’s physical health. As such, EMDR therapy aims to process memories such that the experience is remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response is eased. 

At this juncture, you may be wondering how clinician-directed eye movements could possibly alleviate trauma-induced stress. EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. During the process, the client will be tasked to focus on trauma-related imagery and the relevant sensations. The clinician will then simultaneously move their finger across the client’s field of view, with each phase lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds. This will then be repeated a couple of times. At some point, other forms of rhythmic left-right stimulation (for example, listening to tones that go back and forth between the left and right sides of your head) will also be incorporated into the therapeutic process. As distressing as it sounds, the process in fact allows for the vividness and emotional triggers of the memory to be reduced over time. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, this makes the exposure to negative thoughts and memories less upsetting, hence limiting a strong psychological response. After attending several EMDR therapy sessions (depending on the individual), the impact of the traumatic event is believed to be significantly reduced. 

How is EMDR Structured? 

Generally speaking, EMDR takes on an eight-phase approach. 

Stage 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning

For a start, the clinician will work hand-in-hand with the client to identify the traumatic experiences which require attention. Should the client have a problematic childhood, the initial stage of EMDR may focus on resolving childhood traumas before moving on to resolve adult onset stressors. Identifying targets for EMDR treatment is also crucial – this means looking further into the client’s past memories, their current emotional triggers, as well as what they hope to achieve by the end of the treatment phase.

Stage 2: Preparation

In this phase, the clinician introduces the client to a few emotion-coping strategies to ensure that the client is well able to manage their emotional distress whenever a trigger is brought up. It is important that the client is able to deal with overwhelming emotions even between EMDR sessions in daily life. The clinician may also familiarise the client with the eye movements or bilateral stimulations. 

Stage 3: Assessment

The clinician will then identify and assess the specific traumatic memories that need to be tackled. This also involves analysing the associated emotions and sensations triggered by the memories. 

Stages 4 to 7: Treatment Process

These intermediate stages focus on the process of desensitisation, installation, a body scan, and seeking closure. The client is asked to concentrate on the trauma-related imagery and memory while engaged in the directed eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. After each set of stimulation, the client will be asked to clear their mind and report what they feel, think, and the sensations they experience. Depending on the individual, the clinician may have the client refocus on the same memory, or move on to another. This process is repeated until the client reports no distress. 

Installation is where the clinician works with the client to increase the strength of positive cognition. This means focusing on the preferred positive beliefs, rather than negative ones. For example, an individual dealing with trauma arising from childhood domestic abuse may start off with a negative belief of “I am weak and powerless”. Installation aims to change that belief into one of “I am now in control.” Of course, EMDR does not force one to believe in something that is inappropriate or unsuitable for the situation. In the example brought up, allowing the client to realise that positive belief could mean encouraging them to take on self-defence training, or other skills that can provide them with a greater sense of security and control. 

A body scan is used in order to check for any residual somatic response that is linked to event-related tension or stress. Should any undesirable bodily sensations be present, the clinician will then target them specifically in subsequent sets. 

Stage 8: Evaluation

The next EMDR session begins with this phase. This stage is mainly for the re-evaluation of the client’s plight. More importantly, this step is to ensure that the necessary progress is made and to review the client’s psychological state. Further review will be carried out, and the relevant changes will be made to provide the optimal treatment effect. 

Although EMDR may be a relatively new technique as compared to other forms of therapy, it is nonetheless an extensively researched method proven to alleviate the stress symptoms of trauma survivors and other individuals who have had distressing life experiences. If you think that EMDR therapy is right for you, do seek help from a mental health professional.


References:

  1. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  2. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/ (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  3. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/ (Accessed 19/03/2021)
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4467776/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  5. https://anxietyreleaseapp.com/what-is-bilateral-stimulation/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  6. https://hornsveldpsychologenpraktijk.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/full-8-phase-explanation.pdf (Accessed 20/03/2021)
What Does Journeying with a Psychologist for My Mental Health Issue Look Like?

What Does Journeying with a Psychologist for My Mental Health Issue Look Like?

So you are going to see a psychologist for the first time – now what should we expect? The thought of having to step into a psychologist’s room for the first time can be nerve-racking, and understandably so. Oftentimes, individuals may be apprehensive and would wonder if talking to a complete stranger is really going to help, or if opening up your innermost thoughts to a stranger was too much of a risk to take. However, rest be assured that these mental health professionals are well-versed in psychotherapy methods to help you manage your issues as best as possible, and will work closely with you at a comfortable pace. Just like in the treatment of physical illnesses by physicians, patient privacy and confidentiality are also primary obligations for psychologists. In this article, we hope to give you a clearer idea of what you can expect from your visit to a psychologist, especially if it is your first session.  

 

First things first, it is important to understand that psychotherapy isn’t merely a one-off session. While the duration of treatment may vary from one person to another, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that “recent research indicates that on average 15 to 20 sessions are required for 50 percent of patients to recover as indicated by self-reported symptom measures.” The type and duration of treatment also heavily depend on the nature and severity of each client’s conditions, and it would simply be unfair to make an overgeneralised statement. Regardless, it would be beneficial to go in with an open mind, and to have an honest conversation with your psychologist. It really helps to trust that the process works, while acknowledging that it takes time. 

 

Meeting the psychologist

At the beginning, the first few sessions would aim to help one identify the most pertinent issue that needs to be dealt with. The psychologist will talk through with you gathering some information on your life history, your family’s mental health history, the problems you are dealing with, and analyse those details – no matter how insignificant they may seem at first – that could have possibly led to emotional distress or coping difficulties. For the psychologist, being able to get a good grasp of the situation and seeing the big picture is vital for formulating the treatment plan and treatment process, as it will help to determine the type of psychotherapy that is best suited for you. The psychologist is trained to listen and analyse your conditions in order to help you with your recovery. As such, it is equally important that you don’t hold yourself back from being fully honest with your psychologist. To a large extent, the patient’s participation in the therapy is an important determinant of the success of the outcome. 

 

Goal-setting

While we fully understand that it can be unnerving, these mental health professionals are trained to help you work through the challenges you face, and the therapy room is very much a safe, non-judgemental space. Goal-setting is one of the key aspects of psychotherapy, and it is exceptionally important to set goals from the start that you can use to track your progress. You may start by identifying personally meaningful broad motives, hopes and dreams – having a clear direction in mind will better steer future sessions towards alleviating symptoms of distress and tackling the root cause of one’s concerns. Don’t worry if you feel the need to change your goals or take a different approach halfway through the treatment process. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process after all, and increased self-discovery along the way can certainly give you a better sense of what needs to be changed.

 

Different approaches to psychotherapy

There are several approaches to psychotherapy that can be implemented in the following sessions. Not strictly limited to one or the other, psychologists may make use of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal, and other types of talk therapy. They can help you focus on changing problematic behaviours, feelings, and thoughts to build on healthy habits, or teach you emotion-coping strategies to cope with your symptoms. Forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioural therapy also aim to help individuals recognise negative thought and behaviour patterns, thereby working towards a positive change. Each session is essentially a problem-solving session. By allowing yourself to talk to your psychologist about your most difficult moments, your feelings and the change you want to observe, the psychologist is then able to make use of his/her expertise to assist you.  Many mental health professionals don’t limit their treatment to any one approach. Instead, they blend elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each patient’s needs.

 

‘Homework’

To make the most of the treatment process, “homework” may sometimes be assigned as between-session tasks to clients as part of your treatment. A variety of homework assignments exist – sometimes in the form of practising new skills, habits, and other coping mechanisms, or someone who is dealing with complicated emotions could be asked to record your negative thoughts in nightly journal entries. When you return for your next session, the psychologist would then check in on your progress, and address any issues that may have arisen while you were completing your tasks. For some clients the benefits of therapy can be achieved in a few sessions, while for other clients they might need more to improve. Empirical evidence supports the benefits of homework in promoting positive symptom change and increasing patient functioning, that is, the quality of a client’s participation in therapy through active application of what they learn will lead to improvements in their conditions.  

 

Was the psychologist right for you?

Often during the conversation with the psychotherapist, or after the session, you may feel a sense of relief, elation, or anxiety and exhaustion. However you feel, it is important to take note of those feelings. Did the psychologist put you at ease? Did he/she listen to you carefully and demonstrate compassion? Did he/she develop a plan to guide you with your goals and show expertise and confidence in working with issues that you have? For the treatment to be effective, you need to be able to ‘click’ with the psychologist, that is you are able to  build trust and a strong connection with your psychologist.

 

To end off, the first session with a psychologist is understandably a bit intimidating and overwhelming, but the first step in the journey to recovery is a critical step to regain your mental wellbeing.

 


 

References:

  1. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/length-treatment (Accessed 24/04/2021)
  2. https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/understanding Accessed 25/04/2021)
  3. https://www.self.com/story/how-to-tell-if-therapy-is-working (Accessed 25/04/2021)
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281642213_Homework_in_Psychotherapy

(Accessed 26/04/2021)