Beat Anxiety with Attention Training (NA-CBT)

One of the problems with anxiety and psychopathology in general is lack of psychological flexibility which translates without exception into poor attention training skills. When self-critical, self-blame thoughts, worry or shameful thoughts, enter our awareness, our attention is literally hijacked by these thoughts and we start engaging with them.

For example, in the case of clinical perfectionism, when we are requested to produce an important business report we tend to worry about the language, typos, the format and so on, even after it has been completed. After we submit our work we might continue to worry about it or about the perceived negative feedback we could receive as a result of poor quality work. Of course, these are all false projections into the future or even catastrophical predictions (e.g. this is the end of me, I will lose my job this time 100%).

When these negative thoughts (predictions and so on) enter our mind our attention is 100% directed towards the content of such thoughts, which triggers our sense of threat. This means that our brain (and body) starts to believe that we are under threat and it responds by triggering the Autonomic Nervous System (the sympathetic response), which manifests through a range of physiological symptoms of anxiety (heart racing, sweating, etc.). And thus, the ‘perceived threats’ start to ‘feel’ real. Over time and with lots of practice such negative thoughts begin to govern our existence and become more and more believable. In other words we become very good at getting anxious.

autonomic-nervous-system

Selective and narrowed attention, directed towards the content of the thought (e.g. false predictions about the future) is clearly one of the principle precipitating (or triggering) factors and also an important perpetuating (or maintaining) factor in anxiety disorders.

So what can we do about it? Some of the methods involve learning to re-orient the attention towards something else, more positive or more constructive. But at times this exercise alone, would often fail. We have more recently discovered that, re-orienting the attention towards the breath and breathing, enables a shift towards the ANS parasympathetic response (the rest mode) which cancels symptoms of anxiety generated by the ANS sympathetic response (the threat mode) by encouraging a calm and relaxed state. When the action of breathing is coupled with a visualised self-instruction, the process is significantly faster and longer lasting.

For example, right this moment, direct your attention towards your breath, feel the air coming in and out for a few seconds, slow your breath down (shorter inhalations and longer exhalations) then.. with each outbreath, merge more and more into your favourite relaxation place (could be your garden, a yoga class, or your favourite holiday spot). Try it once again, right now…

ANS system

Awareness is key! Every time a negative thought enters your mind, you could train yourself to be aware by simply noticing without judgement that, this is happening. At this stage, you can start training your ‘attention muscles‘. Notice your thoughts, accept them as just thoughts and zoom out, bring your attention back to the present task (to whatever it is that you were doing a moment earlier) and then take your attention back to the thought – is it now just as captivating as it was earlier or did it move on? Accept if the thoughts are still there.. but also accept if they are not… just be an observer of your own mind… Be proud of your newly discovered ability and don’t attempt to master this. Allow for mistakes, just notice that sometimes you cannot get it right… remind yourself you are still in training. You are a student of your mind… indeed of your life… just allow this natural movement to happen.

Awareness (or self-awareness rather) is attention training !

Attention training is a major component in NeuroAffective-CBT and mindfulness based therapies which places this type of therapy under the third wave umbrella (see previous article on Third-Wave CBT). By paying attention to what happens right now (in the present moment), and doing it with an accepting attitude (towards whatever you notice), you become a safe and confident observer of your internal world and experience… your breath, body sensations, thoughts, feelings, sensory experiences, etc. Awareness and attention training involves practising how to notice when your attention is wandering away from the present, and then skilfully redirecting your attention back to the ‘here and now’. This is not an attempt to suppress, neutralise or control your thoughts in any way. But instead allowing these thoughts to be present and active, to do what they are meant to be doing. At the same time, develop efficacy and confidence by choosing to shift your attention back on to something purposeful.

For specialist courses in attention training follow the link below – the training is open to all !

https://www.ukhypnosis.com/evidence-based-approaches-to-ptsd-tf-cbt-emdr-with-daniel-mirea/

Is ‘perfectionism’ a deal maker or a deal breaker ?

Most people would consider having high standards a good thing but at times this is just part of the plot or in other words, part of a complex trap called ‘perfectionism‘. Striving for excellence might indicate that you have a solid work ethic, strength and ambition. But if and when achieving success (in any domain) is consistently associated with one’s value, self-worth and esteem, we risk falling into the trap of perfectionism.

High standards could indeed propel one towards the peak level of their potential. This is very common with professional athletes or musicians for example, who train long and hard to reach excellence in their respective sport or art. Clinical perfectionism could however develop when the individual believes that his/ her worth, value and appreciation by others, uniquely depends on achieving success all of the time and never failing a task. In parallel with that, standards are set so high that they often cannot be met, or are met with a great deal of difficulty. Perfectionists tend to believe that anything short of perfection cannot and should not be tolerated, and that even minor mistakes or imperfections will lead to one conclusion only: that they are not worthy or good enough individuals.

Generally speaking, we might believe that it is important to try to do the best that we can in one or more areas of life. However, most people also believe that making mistakes from time to time is reasonable and inevitable. Making a mistake does not mean they have failed entirely and this will ‘define’ them and ‘follow’ them forever. Perfectionism positions itself within this spectrum. Adults and even adolescents* with perfectionism tend to believe that they should never make mistakes and that making a mistake means they are a failure across the board, they are unworthy individuals, consistently disappointing others. Thinking like this makes perfectionists hypervigilant because of the prospect of making mistakes and as such, perfectionists experience constant states of hyperarousal, shame and defeat.

When exploring an individual’s early years it is easy to understand the origins of such attitudes to self and others. Perfectionism is encouraged in many families. Sometimes parents consciously or unconsciously set very high and very rigid standards. It can actually be very easy for any parent to fall in this trap given how much more competitive the world is. Demanding parents however would require top marks in school, medals in sports and flawless ballet recitals. Mistakes could be harshly punished. The punishment does not need to be physical; it is mostly emotional, it is severe and abusive. This may include neglect, public humiliation, downgrading accomplishments, name calling, yelling, shaming, the silent treatment, and/or indeed sometimes even physical aggression. The principle message conveyed to the child via words or behaviours is very clear: ‘failure is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated’. It is natural for children to have a strong need to impress adults and main caregivers in particular. This ‘need’ is a natural surviving instrument and therefore parents’ unhealthy expectations and demands are viewed as the norm which gives rise to fear of failure and perfectionist attitudes (within children). Reinforcing behaviours and assumptions about how to navigate through a competitive world would soon follow. Those will become embedded and programmed in one’s bio-psycho-social system and neuroaffective systems and as such, adolescents could struggle with symptoms of depression and low self-esteem and/or anxiety for years before treatment is sought and the correct diagnosis is identified.

This is in fact, exactly what makes perfectionism difficult to identify and treat. It has roots in an emotionally abusive and demanding environment and it crosses borders into the depression and trauma spectrum, chronic low self-esteem, OCD, eating disorders, even some personality disorders. Unfortunately a range of mental health pathologies rely on psychological rigidity and unrealistic self-imposed standards.

For the typical perfectionist adolescent or adult, trying to be perfect is a daily effort and it does not stop when leaving the school or the office. Martina is a well regarded and respected nurse manager who would consistently take additional responsibilities when on duty. She does not like to delegate, because ‘no one can deal with certain tasks as well as she does’. She is the ideal employee and therefore managers reward her by assigning more and more complex cases. This would lead to stress and burn out almost on a daily basis. When she gets tired, she would make mistakes which would not be tolerated since it confirms her worst fears that she is a failure, she is an embarrassment to her patients and colleagues.

Problems do not stop here. When she leaves work and arrives home, her equally high and rigid standards would continue to be applied and diligently enforced. With very clear daily instructions and (hour by hour) rules in place her expectations from her husband and their children to deliver everything on time and at a high standard (e.g. washing up, homework, etc.) are relentless and exhausting for all involved. This would lead to frequent arguments and further feelings of worthlessness, shame, embarrassment and failure.

If investigated carefully, subtle differences between the two case scenarios (i.e. the work situation vs. the home situation) may be observed. Although all behavioural responses and associated assumptions (i.e. beliefs)  have a perpetuating role (or a role of maintenance which is, to reinforce the not good enough, failure or shame schemas), such elaborated cognitive strategies may be better understood as justifications or facilitating beliefs about why having high standards is important to the individual.

The diagram further below explains the reinforcing mechanism. For example, at work it is all about keeping everyone happy (in order to be appreciated and valued) which involves (in the NA-CBT formulation) a series of Compensatory, Avoidant or Surrendering strategies (like not allowing ‘weaker’ workers to work on certain tasks). At home it is all about ensuring that her children are successful and parents are appreciated, respected and valued for their efforts. This is also backed up by a series of compensatory, avoidant or surrendering strategies (excessive organising and list making, not compromising on the timing, etc.).

The Pendulum-Effect Formulation

(NA-CBT by D Mirea)

Core Schema: NOT GOOD or PERFECT ENOUGH

PENDULUM

OVERCOMPENSATION – AVOIDANCE – SURRENDERING

Overcompensation:

The heart of the problem: “I am not ready yet, this is not good enough!”

Overcompensation reflects your inability to internally say to yourself: ‘this will actually do’ or ‘this is good enough as it is’. To stop constantly shifting the goalposts or to refrain from aiming higher and higher and at the same time believing that it is not just realistic but also very-very important – to reach such high standards.

The need to ‘control’ everything or ‘take control’ is yet another compensatory mechanism that facilitates perfectionism. Facilitating beliefs or justifications such as: ‘no one can do this as well as I can’ or ‘If I don’t do this, nobody else will..’ would inevitably lead to burn out, stress and eventually some type of failure – a sentiment that the perfectionist would like to avoid at all costs.

These attitudes or mindsets apply of course, to all areas of life whether personal, work or sports and therefore the language, behaviours and beliefs vary: having strong and rigid views or rules… being tough and correcting people or children when they make mistakescommenting when other people are not being appropriate and directing them to more appropriate behavioursarguing a point over and over again… not knowing when to stop, etc.

Avoidance:

Procrastinating: “I can work on this later, when I am ready and when I am better prepared!”

Since your worth, your value and even personal image depends on constantly reaching a specific standard, the process of completing a project becomes very important (i.e. an essay that you wrote for school or a project you have to complete at work); therefore preparation and feeling ready or ‘right’ to get started on it can be very important. Procrastination and putting plans off is almost always the answer.

Other types of avoidance include indecisiveness or avoiding tasks the perfectionist fears is outside their sphere of competence in spite of all the evidence (i.e. an over qualified psychotherapist still afraid to open up a practice).

Surrendering:

Giving up in shame or giving up too soon: “This is hopeless…”

This is not the same as avoidance, it is much more about giving up something already started and thus giving into the schema that suggests you are a failure and worthless. Surrendering could also involve ‘drinking to unwind’ – important to point out, this is not an effective relaxation exercise but part of the giving up process (a secondary problem such as binge drinking would develop in some cases); acting out of character, not being able to accept or assume a fault, frequent episodes of anger directed towards the self or (incapable) others, etc.

Most perfectionists feel exhausted after repeated and very long episodes of intensive worry and fears of failing and not reaching the (self-imposed) ‘required’ standard. Therefore at some point, one throws in the towel and retires into a depressive state, a state of shame and guilt. Examples would be quitting a project very recently started or even doing something very-very slowly, not to miss important details and then giving up.

Treating yourself with Neuroaffective-CBT (NA-CBT)

This method was developed by Daniel Mirea in response to a growing subclinical population of undiagnosed affective disorders that fall under the umbrella of shame and self-disgust. Since the treatment of such phenomenon crosses the boundaries of a clear diagnostic criteria, the therapeutic approach has to be both comprehensive and strategic. It is my view that self-help in general and especially self-help manuals can only go so far without the guidance and support of a kind, generous and well prepared CBT therapist.

NA-CBT relies on a clearly prescribed toolkit that aims to disrupt all mechanisms that predispose, perpetuate and precipitate the fears of failing, the shame and disappointment with the self, that are at the core of perfectionism.

There is a difference between the healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection (though at times there is a very fine line). Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge costs would point towards clinical perfectionism. An initial step is recognizing that there is a problem which needs to be addressed. Understanding the nature of the problem, the costs and benefits that perfectionism brings to one’s life and also understanding how one has firstly developed and then kept falling in the trap of perfectionism over years, is just the first part of the changing process.

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* adolescents – the upper age limit is considered to be 24 according to neuroaffective case studies.

*** Training in Clinical Perfectionsim in West London on 20th May 2019. Details below

https://www.ukhypnosis.com/the-cure-for-perfectionism-cbt-for-perfectionism-workshop-with-daniel-mirea-2/

The underlayers of NeuroAffective-CBT

Just a snapshot look at Google scholar would reveal that CBT therapies, including third-wave CBT (e.g. mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy, etc.) are by far the most researched and evidenced methods of psychological treatment. When it comes to trauma at least, EMDR does not stray too far either (Bisson et al., 2013). In a recent article, I discussed EMDR’s efficacy in spite of what it can only be described as a sketchy evidence-base (Davidson and Parker, 2001). Neuroaffective-CBT (NA-CBT) on the other hand is a much younger therapy falling far behind in research, nonetheless a reliable transdiagnostic model which shares all fundamentals and evidence-base with the family  of cognitive and behavioural therapies. The approach was developed by Daniel Mirea  in response to a growing subclinical population of undiagnosed affective disorders that fall under the umbrella of shame and self-disgust. Since the treatment of such phenomenon crosses the boundaries of clear diagnostic criteria, the therapeutic approach has to be both comprehensive and strategic. NA-CBT therefore, relies on a clearly prescribed modular toolkit that aims to disrupt all mechanisms that predispose, perpetuate and precipitate shame, guilt, self-disgust or indeed chronic low self-esteem.

Through exploring the underlayers of NA-CBT, this article aims to look at the overlapping mechanisms that underpin a range of cognitive and behavioural methods and review some of the evidence supporting the skills and interventions relied upon during treatment.

The assessment

In keeping with the cognitive-behavioural framework, the NA-CBT therapy process starts with a comprehensive history taking which leads to a case conceptualisation, uniquely termed as the ‘Pendulum-Effect’ case formulation. NA-CBT proposes that just like the pendulum of a traditional clock, people oscillate or swing between maladaptive coping mechanisms without always being aware of this and in doing so, they reinforce deeply rooted negative views about themselves and others – which are ultimately responsible for their shame and self-disgust, e.g. “I am unlovable and unattractive and nobody wants me”. Staying with the metaphor, this core schema  would very much be at the centre of the clock’s face, it represents in fact, the very central mechanism behind it. The centre mechanism would not turn the clock if it wasn’t for the oscillating movements – in other words the affect of  shame (and therefore chronic low self-esteem) is reinforced by both the compensatory mechanisms designed and rehearsed over years  (e.g. avoidance or surrendering or over-compensation) but also by the relationship that the such coping mechanisms have with each other through the swinging-effect action or the oscillating-effect.

                     Shame related beliefs

swing

Surrendering                                Avoidance 

 

 

Case study [1]

To illustrate how a victim of shame oscillates between two compensatory mechanisms – avoidance and surrendering, in order to reinforce their shame schema, please consider Sarah’s case. Sarah is a successful paralegal in the City who struggled with shameful feelings most of her life. Typically as Christmas was approaching and lots of parties invitations started to arrive on her desk, she would surrender into procrastination and self-criticism before the party is due, in order to avoid a situation she feels likely to fail, supported by an exaggerated set of predictions about social embarrassment or other social ‘disasters’. As such, the surrendering (or giving up) mechanism would involve fortune telling, images of social awkwardness and arguing with a colleague who offered to accompany her to the event. Avoidance inevitably leads to feelings of guilt, self-disgust, and more self-criticism which ultimately would reinforce her shame-related beliefs.

The pendulum is meant to act not only as a time keeper but also as a regulator. There are of course, several similar reinforcing mechanisms at play, clearly outlined by the pendulum-effect (formulation). When all these mechanisms are fully understood, they would be further examined, modified and/or finely tuned with the patient in a strategic but compassionate manner, throughout the therapy over five flexible and interchangeable treatment modules: (1) Psychoeducation and motivation, (2) Physical Strengthening, (3) The integrated-Self, (4) Coping Skills Training & Self-Regulation and (5) Skills Consolidation & Problems Prevention (figure 1).

 

Figure [1]:

  • Initial consultation : Clinical Assessment & The ‘Pendulum Effect’ Formulation
  • Module 1 : Psychoeducation & Motivational Enhancement: including building motivation, enhancing self-efficacy, problem solving skills training.
  • Module 2 : Physical Strengthening: TED’s your best friend
  • Module 3 : The development of an integrated-Self: cognitive reframing (appraisal-reappraisal). Traumatic memories processing (through bilateral stimulation, narrative exposure or reliving).
  • Module 4 : Coping Skills Training & Self-Regulation – including Mindfulness, Self-hypnosis and/or Relaxation Skills Training and also introducing EDRB’s (Emotion-Driven Reinforcing Behaviours)
  • Module 5 : Skills Consolidation and Relapse Prevention (future plans)

 

The underpinning fundamentals of the approach

Several essential mechanisms underpin NA-CBT and each treatment module attracts a particular set of skills, none more relevant that the skill of building a therapeutic alliance. I coined the term empathic mentalisation to highlight therapist’s skilful ability to connect with his client in a way that would allow the therapist to not just hear and understand at a pre-frontal level, patients’ vulnerabilities but instead to allow himself, to feel his client’s pain in a way which will help the client feel felt.

Whilst some psychoanalytically-based therapies would perhaps claim to engage the patient in a similar manner, this is where the similarity stops because in NA-CBT, the therapeutic relationship is no longer used as transference or countertransferential medium of communication. The therapist remains aware of client’s goals and he is in full control of the agenda. Thus the therapist guides the relationship and the (collaboratively agreed) agenda throughout the therapy process. The transference & countertransference processes are viewed as opportunities for open dialogue and learning. Challenging, restructuring and reframing irrational self-beliefs into adaptive beliefs, installing new coping skills and disrupting unhelpful strategies stays at the core of this therapy.

Psychological education is another NA-CBT fundamental. Clinical experience and trials indicate that psychoeducation does not only establish trust in therapist’s expertise but also in the therapy itself. Research has shown time and time again that psychological education, therapist’s clinical experience and knowledge of psychopathology, therapist’s confidence and style, as well as treatment integrity are all associated with improved treatment outcomes (Donker et.al.,2009 and Podell et al., 2013).

NA-CBT offers an excellent platform for the application of neuroscience and in particular neuroaffective research that has taken place over the last 30 years and remains largely ignored or segregated by different schools of thought [1].

Cognitive psychology studies (Padesky C.,1997), the Interacting Cognitive Subsystems model (ICS) by Barnard and Teasdale (1989, 2008) as well as the Adaptive Information Processing model (Shapiro, 1989, 2001, 2007, 2009) propose that memories are processed and assimilated not in a random way but in a highly organised fashion, using screening templates such as individuals’ past experience and understanding of themselves and the world they live in. However, if childhood experiences are traumatic, the information processing system stores the memory in the wrong parts of the brain and in a frozen or rigid format without adequate processing and integration. This suggests that traumatic memories fail to become integrated into the individual’s life experience and concept of the self which eventually creates psychological and emotional vulnerability. As such, unprocessed, unintegrated or upsetting memories (not only traumatically charged memories) may be at the core of shame and self-disgust or chronic low self-esteem (Schore A, 1998; Gilbert P, 2006; Siegel D, 2007; Gilbert P, 2011).

During the third NA-CBT treatment module, developing an integrated-self, the patient may be asked to recall the worst aspect of an earlier shameful memory together with the accompanying and currently held shame-related beliefs and associated bodily sensations [2]. An increased attentional focus on the location of the physiological (psychosomatic) reaction is required at this stage. Simultaneously, the patient is not directed to move their eyes from side to side (like in EMDR), but instead the therapist would employ tapping  as another form of bilateral stimulation. Although the research has often been challenged, more recently the evidence  has been favourable to bilateral stimulation and this extends to hands tapping in particular. A number of neuropsychological, developmental and attachment studies (Kirsch et al., 2007) have pointed out the usefulness of (appropriate and therapeutic) physical touch and associations with the release of endorphins, serotonin  or dopamine as well as the formation of new neural pathways which ultimately leads to an improved self-regulation (Siegel D, 2007).

It may be important to remind that the area of traumatic memories processing, would be the only domain where NA-CBT crosses paths with EMDR but unlike this method, NA-CBT is rooted in evidence-based cognitive and behavioural practices proven to work over the last 50 to 60 years. This suggests that NA-CBT is primarily a behavioural approach relying on active and progressive changing through the adoption of new and more adaptive behavioural strategies (e.g. case study 2).

Case study [2]:

 John used to have flashbacks of being physically and emotionally abused every time his manager would raise her voice in the office. He started to experience less and gradually no flashbacks at all, after only 3 hours of desensitisation via bilateral sensory processing (e.g. tapping). In addition John also experienced significantly less hyperarousal. In order to decrease the possibility of a relapse and reinforce the newly installed competing memory, during the NA-CBT treatment, the therapist agreed with John that when at the office, the he must adopt a different attitude, a different mind-set,  be more aware of his body language and mental activity, make notes and improve body posture. He also agreed to have in place a number of responses to potentially challenging situations which would require a more assertive approach. He worked on clear strategies and detailed coping skills which would have been rehearsed (e.g. imagery rehearsal, role plays, etc.) inside and outside the therapy room and in-between sessions. 

NA-CBT views narrative exposure, re-living or exposure in-vivo more appropriate forms of treatment for some cases of trauma (for example if a male therapist is treating a female victim of rape) and therefore, the integration process does not always relay on bilateral sensory input but on detailed descriptions of the traumatic event and on building evidence against associated unhelpful beliefs through behavioural experiments and other types of homework.

During desensitisation, it remains important for the victim of shame to re-experience the related shameful memories whilst not feeling overwhelmed by it. Clinical experience shows that bilateral processing can at times achieve this more successfully than reliving or other types of exposure. Through the multi-tasking exercise of a focused but distributed attention [3] our brain seems to be able to access dysfunctionally stored experiences and stimulate the processing system, allowing it to transform and integrate the information much better. When fully integrated, the event and what has been learned about the event, can be verbalised however the inappropriate emotions and physical sensations (of hyper or hypo-arousal) would have been discarded and those can no longer be felt.

Yet another interesting phenomenon seems to take place. During bilateral sensory processing (e.g. tapping) the shamed patient is assisted with navigating through the various associations that would usually arise internally. This leads to an increase in the sense of self-efficacy and mastery and specifically an increase in patient’s ability to go back and forth between re-experiencing the event and the present moment (Oren and Solomon, 2012). This does not only diminishes dissociative symptoms but also improves attention-orientation skills (Goldin, 2009). A few trauma studies indicate that physical touch undermines dissociative tendencies and contributes to achieving a feeling of safety and being grounded in the here-and-now (e.g. feeling grounded in the present, being more aware of own physical presence and the voice or the touch of the therapist, etc.).

In regards to self-efficacy in particular, Oren and Solomon (2012) propose that the experience of mastery and self-efficacy would become encoded as adaptive information into memory networks. This may in fact be in line with other studies from established clinicians, for example Teasdale and Barnard  (1993), Donald Meichenbaum (2017) or even Albert Bandura’s (1989) self-efficacy theory. This would mean that although the event and what has been learned can be recalled, the inappropriate emotions and associated sensations of hyper/hypo-arousal would have been discarded and can no longer be felt with the same level of intensity.

One other mechanism at work in NA-CBT, relates to the training of attention through mindfulness. During the desensitisation or processing phase, patients are instructed to ‘let whatever happens, happen’ and to ‘just notice whatever thoughts come to mind’, which is also consistent with principles of mindfulness (Goldin et al., 2009; Siegel, 2007; De Jongh et al., 2013).

Imagery-based desensitisation and exposure exercises (routinely used in mindfulness and hypnosis) can also improve individuals’ ability to create a gap or a distancing effect according to the working memory theory. This process may be facilitated by the degradation of the working memory due to cognitive overload, which allows the individual to stand back from a shameful or an upsetting memory, observe it with less emotionality and re-evaluate their understanding of it. Even though the literature on the working memory hypothesis seems inconsistent, research on mindfulness, ICS, EMDR and clinical hypnosis offers more clarity in this direction. Maxfield and colleagues [4] propose that ‘links are forged between the associated material and the original memory, thus transforming the way that the traumatic memory is stored in memory networks’ (Maxfield et al., 2008).

Final thoughts

In a 2018 interview with Psychotherapy Expert Talks, Donald Meichenbaum pointed out that the field of neuroscience  (including gene expression and so on) is not only cutting edge but highly relevant with the potential to further tailor interventions for patients suffering from very specific psychopathology. Research coming out of this field certainly adds value to psychological therapies and stays at the basis of models such as NA-CBT. In it is my view that in the near future, schools of psychotherapy will adapt and learn to focus on the body as well as the mind, which would imply a deeper understanding  of bodily functions not only mind functions for all psychotherapists and psychologists. The fields of neuroscience, clinical hypnosis, psychosomatic medicine and biological treatments are only just starting to come together. NA-CBT is only one example of what could be achieved under the umbrella of Cognitive & Behavioural Therapies, an integrative school that remains best positioned, because of its empirical base, to oversee attempts to treat mental illness holistically.

 

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[1] For example, the Adaptive Information Processing model (Shapiro, 1989, 2001, 2007, 2009) is mostly seen as the property of EMDR whilst the Interacting Cognitive Subsystems model (ICS) by Barnard and Teasdale (1989, 2008) belongs to cognitive psychology and CBT.

[2] ICS theory and research, explains its account of emotion development and production. ICS emphasises the importance, as part of the total cognitive configuration producing emotion, of a schematic synthetic level of processing that integrates both propositional meaning and direct sensory contributions. Processing at this level corresponds, subjectively, to holistic sense or feeling rather than to thoughts or images explains the link between information processing.

 [3] The term distributed attention refers to the complex exercise that involves recalling the trauma and paying attention to traumatic episode, whilst keeping oneself grounded in the present and paying attention to the here-and-now, and all at the same time with further assistance from bilateral sensorial stimulation such as hands tapping.

[4] Maxfield, L., Melnyk, W. & Gordon Hayman, C. (2008). A working memory explanation for the effects of eye movements in EMDR. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2, 247–261.

 

References:

 

Bandura, A. (1989). Regulation of cognitive processes through perceived self-efficacy. Developmental Psychology, Vol 25(5), 729-735.

Bisson J, Roberts NP, Andrew M, Cooper R, Lewis C (2013). “Psychological therapies for chronic PTSD in adults”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 12: CD003388. PMID: 24338345

Brown, S. & Shapiro, F. (2006). EMDR in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Clinical Case Studies, 5, 403–420.

Davidson, P. & Parker, K. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 305–316.

De Jongh, A., Ernst, R., Marques, L. & Hornsveld, H. (2013). The impact of eye movements and tones on disturbing memories of patients with PTSD and other mental disorders. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 447–483.

Donker, D., Griffiths, K.G., Cuijpers, P., Christensen, H., (2009).  Psychoeducation for depression, anxiety and psychological distress: a meta-analysis. BMC Med. 2009; 7: 79. Published online 2009 Dec 16. doi:  10.1186/1741-7015-7-79

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Gilbert P., 2011. Shame in psychotherapy and the role of compassion focused therapy. In R. L. Dearing & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Shame in the therapy hour (pp. 325-354). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

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Herbert, J., Lilienfeld, S., Lohr, J. et al. (2000). Science and pseudoscience in the development of EMDR. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 945–971.

Hofmann, A. (2012). EMDR and chronic depression. Paper presented at the EMDR Association UK & Ireland National Workshop and AGM, London.

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Podell J.L., Philip C. Kendall, Elizabeth A. Gosch, Scott N. Compton, John S. March, Anne-Marie Albano, Moira A. Rynn, John T. Walkup, Joel T. Sherrill, Golda S. Ginsburg, Courtney P. Keeton, Boris Birmaher, and John C. Piacentini. Therapist Factors and Outcomes in CBT for Anxiety in Youth. Prof Psychol Res Pr. 2013 Apr; 44(2): 89–98. Published online 2013 Mar 18. doi:  10.1037/a0031700

Propper, R. & Christman, S. (2008). Interhemispheric interaction and saccadic horizontal eye movements. Implications for episodic memory, EMDR, and PTSD. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 4, 269–281.
Ray, A. & Zbik, A. (2001).

Rothbaum, B.O., Astin, M.C. & Marsteller, F. (2005). Prolonged exposure versus EMDR for PTSD rape victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(6), 607–616.

Shapiro, F. (1989). Eye movement desensitization. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 20, 211–217.

Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols and procedures (2nd edn). New York: Guilford Press.

Shapiro, F. (2007). EMDR, adaptive information processing, and case conceptualization. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 1, 68–87.

Shapiro, F. & Maxfield, L. (2002). In the blink of an eye. The Psychologist, 15, 120–124.

Shapiro, R. (2009). EMDR Solutions II. New York: Norton.

Schore,  A. (1998). Early shame experiences and infant brain development. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Series in affective science. Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 57-77). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Siegel, D.J. (2007). The mindful brain. New York: Norton.

Soberman, G., Greenwald, R. & Rule, D. (2002). A controlled study of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for boys with conduct problems. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 6, 217–236.

Stickgold, R. (2002). EMDR: A putative neurobiological mechanism of action. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 61–75.

Teasdale, J.D. and Barnard, P.J. (1993). Affect, Cognition and Change: Re-modelling Depressive Thought. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

van den Berg, D. & van der Gaag, M. (2011). Treating trauma in psychosis with EMDR: A pilot study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 43, 664–671.

van den Hout, M., Engelhard, I., Rijkeboer, M. et al. (2011). EMDR: Eye movements superior to beeps in taxing working memory and reducing vividness of recollections. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 92–98.

Watts BV, Schnurr PP, Mayo L, Young-Xu Y, Weeks WB, Friedman MJ (2013). Meta-analysis of the efficacy of treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 74 (6): e541–55

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why EMDR is more than just another therapy with a funny look and a strange name

When Mel B publicly announced this summer that she was going into treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an unusual kind of psychotherapy started to draw attention: EMDR formerly known as, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Talking about her diagnosis in particular, it appears that Mel B had been self-medicating with sex and alcohol, which is otherwise not uncommon with this diagnosis. In an interview during the summer of 2018, she pointed out that “[I am] still struggling but if I can shine a light on the issue of pain, PTSD and the things men and women do to mask it, I will do […]”.

More recently comedian Adam Cayton-Holland recounts in his book (Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir) the death of his sister, who took her own life. In an exclusive excerpt from his book, Cayton-Holland reveals that EMDR helped him recover from PTSD following his sister’s suicide.

So what exactly is EMDR, why is it getting the headlines, and does it in fact, help with traumatic experiences? If so, is this evidence-based treatment and, is there a connection with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) the golden standard in psychological treatments?

More questions than answers..?

For a therapy that is committed to resolving traumatic re-experiencing, PTSD [1] would have been an obvious starting place for the application of EMDR. Most of the earlier work and research into this therapy, discovered by complete accident [2] by Francine Shapiro, would naturally focus on traumatic memories processing. Shapiro`s earlier research (in the late 80’s and early 90’s) would successfully demonstrate EMDR’s efficacy (Shapiro, 1989). Subsequently, numerous research and clinical trials followed, which would have culminated with a meta-analysis of no less than 38 randomised controlled trials (RCTs). The conclusions were very clear: EMDR and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a trauma focus (TF-CBT) are the two most effective treatments for adults with this disorder (Bisson et al., 2007). A separate review of the efficacy of EMDR for traumatised children also showed that EMDR and TF-CBT are superior to all other treatments. EMDR however, was found to be slightly more effective when compared with CBT by Rodenburg et al. in 2009.

Two further meta-analyses in 2013 found that EMDR is better than no treatment, it is similar in efficacy to TF-CBT and also that ‘the eye movements do have an additional value in EMDR treatments’ (Bisson et al., 2013 and Watts et al., 2013). However, due to high drop outs, poor quality of evidence, and significant rates of researcher bias, authors warned against inconclusive analyses and inaccurate interpretations of the results.

In spite of a work in progress understanding of all the mechanisms involved in EMDR, a few strong hypotheses have been proposed over recent years. Those theories coupled with demonstrated efficacy, have been sufficient for EMDR to secure a place alongside CBT, within the treatments recognised by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as the psychotherapeutic treatments of choice for post-traumatic stress disorder.

EMDR mechanisms explained

So how does it actually work? And what are the mechanisms and approaches involved in the treatment process? Simply put, the patient is asked by therapist to recall distressing images while generating a type of bilateral sensory input, on short bilateral processing or bilateral stimulation (the preferred terms for this article). This basically refers to side-to-side eye movements or hands tapping (though tapping is less common in EMDR). The effect is to desensitise the client to the distressing memory but, more importantly, to process the memory so that the associated cognitions and affects become more adaptive.

The EMDR toolkit is clearly prescribed but to the untrained eye, it can appear almost mechanistically applied, which makes this approach an easy target for many critics from other schools of psychotherapy, usually positioned outside the spectrum of CBT therapies.

A standardised template consisting of an eight-stage protocol is routinely employed with every traumatised patient. The treatment typically starts with comprehensive history taking and case formulation, a process that is very similar to CBT. This is followed by a preparation phase in which the client is provided with the all necessary (internal) resources to safely manage the processing of their distressing memories (e.g. stop signals, etc.).

The assessment phase involves identifying the patient’s target memory, the associated negative cognition, the desired positive cognition (this would become a therapeutic goal), bodily sensations and various ratings for the level of distress and the level of belief in the positive cognition (other immediate therapy goals would be to improve these ratings).

The assessment is followed by the desensitisation phase or the actual memory processing [3] through bilateral stimulation. The final phase would involve installing the desired positive cognition (this process is normally referred to as installation) and a final body scanning for any residual physiological symptoms before the final debrief. This work is not usually backed up by real life exposure or other behavioural exercises in-between sessions, which would usually be the case with cognitive-behavioural therapies.

The adaptive information processing model (Shapiro, 2007) suggests that new experiences are integrated into already existing memory networks. Memories are processed and integrated via sophisticated cognitive screening mechanisms based on individuals’ past experience and understanding of themselves and the world they live in (also known as schemas and/or schema processes in CBT). However, if the experience is traumatic, the information processing system stores the memory incorrectly, often in the wrong parts of the brain and in a still (rigid or frozen) format without adequately processing it to an adaptive format. Thus traumatic memories fail to become integrated into the individual’s life experience and concept of the self. For example, an individual who becomes traumatised as a result of a car accident would experience a much more global sense of vulnerability. In other words, the trauma victim would feel weak and vulnerable across a range of situations not only when he comes in contact with the traumatic stimulus (e.g. the vehicle responsible for the trauma). In PTSD, individuals continue to relive the trauma as if the event is happening all over again, in the present moment. Patients therefore become avoidant of anything that would be connected to the trauma and tend to become hyperaroused and hypervigilant.

The above formulation which simply explains some of the perpetuating and precipitant mechanisms involved in PTSD is strikingly similar to the CBT approach for trauma. In fact, not just the conceptualization of trauma, but also a range of empirically based cognitive-behavioural interventions [4] such as exposure, desensitization, meta-awareness, attention-orientation training, are all at the very core of EMDR also. Professor Paul Salkovskis a renowned UK based CBT researcher and author, pointed out in a 2002 article, that the eye movement in EMDR is completely irrelevant, and that EMDR effectiveness is solely due to having similar properties to CBT, such as desensitization and exposure (Salkovskis, 2002).

It would be fair to describe the side-to-side eye movements or hands tapping as somewhat unorthodox exercises for the traditional psychotherapist, and therefore it should be no surprise that bilateral stimulation has been the target of many debates and studies. To make matters worse, the evidence hasn’t always been favourable. Some studies compared using EMDR with and without the use of bilateral stimulation and even a meta-analysis of 13 studies (Davidson & Parker, 2001) concluded that eye movements made no difference to its effectiveness. But on the other hand, Stickgold (2002) proposes that eye movements in EMDR produce a brain state similar to the one during REM sleep. It has been shown that REM sleep serves a number of adaptive functions, including memory consolidation. Observing the parallels between REM sleep and EMDR, Stickgold proposes that EMDR reduces trauma-related symptoms by altering emotionally charged autobiographical memories into a more generalised semantic form (Stickgold, 2002). Interestingly, when investigating the neurobiological processes involved in attention training in third-wave CBT (mindfulness), Philippe Goldin (2009) also observed a shift from a rigid narrative sense-of-self to a more fluid or experiential sense-of-self aided by attention training exercises and focused breathing. Propper and Christman (2008) draw upon research suggesting that retrieval of episodic memories is enhanced by increased interhemispheric communication. Gunter and Bodner (2009) found that although vertical eye movements do not enhance hemispheric communication, they did decrease memory emotionality as effectively as horizontal movements.

Final thoughts…

It is my opinion that, to the traumatised patient often in distress, such clinical debates and views very little matter. Improved neuroplasticity and cognitive-behavioural changes could be achieved in a variety of different ways as shown by Golden (2009) and numerous other CBT studies. A number of additional covert factors that facilitate change are equally important. For instance, if patients’ motivation remains high and expectations from a specific therapeutic intervention are equally high, treatment outcomes would be positively influenced. This further implies that the therapeutic alliance and trust in the clinical skills of the therapist are also essential. As such, these important resources have to be given priority throughout the therapy process.

Who can get training in EMDR

In UK the more advanced cognitive-behavioural training programmes also include training or at least an overview of EMDR in the context of evidence-based treatments for trauma. However EMDR has its own accredited training organisations (via EMDR UK & Ireland) and therefore it does not placed itself under the umbrella of CBT therapies (or BABCP). Training in this method is not usually offered outside the psychological or psychotherapeutic community, which means that one would have to have a core mental health profession or to be CBT accredited before specialising in EMDR. There are three levels of EMDR competences that can be achieved and the highest level would indicate the most skilled level of EMDR application.

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[1] Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe form of anxiety caused by exposure to very stressful, frightening or even distressing events. PTSD victims often relive the traumatic event through flashbacks (memories of the trauma) and they experience states of hyperarousal (intense fear), isolation, shame and guilt in different degrees. Years of clinical research have noted a range of trauma-related psychological problems that were not captured in the DSM framework of post-traumatic stress disorder until recently. PTSD, dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation represent a spectrum of adaptations to the traumatic experience. They often occur together, but traumatized individuals may suffer from various combinations of symptoms over time. When treating PTSD patients, it is critical to attend to self-regulation and cognitive integration of traumatic experience and to provide systematic treatment that addresses both intrusive recollections and, all the other symptoms associated with the trauma (van der Kolk et al., 1996).

 

[2] In 1987, Dr Francine Shapiro (Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California) was walking in the park when she realized that eye movements appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories. She assumed that eye movements had a desensitizing effect, and when she experimented with this she found that others also had the same response to eye movements. It became apparent however that eye movements by themselves did not create comprehensive therapeutic effects and so Shapiro added other treatment elements, including a cognitive component, and developed a standard procedure that she called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD).

[3] The working memory hypothesis proposes that eye movements and visual imagery both draw on a limited capacity of the visual and central executive working memory resources. The demand and competition created by two or more tasks will impair imagery, so much so that images become less emotional and less vivid. It has been established that horizontal eye movements tend to tax working memory (Van den Hout et al., 2011). In support of the working memory hypothesis, studies have found that other taxing tasks during recall also reduce vividness and/or emotionality of negative memories (De Jongh et al., 2013).

[4] The cognitive model for PTSD by A Ehlers and D Clark, the Interacting Cognitive Subsystems (ICS) model by Barnard and Teasdale, the typical Socratic dialogue used, the psychopathological understanding of trauma and various aspects of the therapeutic alliance are common to both CBT and EMDR approaches. Another common mechanism with both approaches would be mindfulness. During the desensitisation phase of EMDR, clients are instructed to ‘let whatever happens, happen’ and to ‘just notice what is coming up’ (Shapiro, 2001) which is consistent with mindfulness methods (Siegel, 2007).

References:

Bisson, J., Ehlers, A., Matthews, R. et al. (2007). Psychological treatments for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190, 97–104.

Bisson J, Roberts NP, Andrew M, Cooper R, Lewis C (2013). “Psychological therapies for chronic PTSD in adults”. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 12: CD003388. PMID: 24338345

Brown, S. & Shapiro, F. (2006). EMDR in the treatment of borderline personality disorder. Clinical Case Studies, 5, 403–420.

Callcott, P., Standart, S. & Turkington, D. (2004). Trauma within psychosis. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 32, 239–244.

Cromer, K., Schmidt, N. & Murphy, D. (2006). An investigation of traumatic life events and obsessive-compulsive disorder Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2581–2592.

Davidson, P. & Parker, K. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 305–316.

De Bont, P., Van den Berg, D., Van der Vleugel, B. et al. (2013). A multi-site single blind clinical study to compare the effects of prolonged exposure, EMDR and waiting list on patients with a current diagnosis of psychosis and co morbid PTSD. Treating Trauma in Psychosis, 14, 151.

De Jongh, A., Ernst, R., Marques, L. & Hornsveld, H. (2013). The impact of eye movements and tones on disturbing memories of patients with PTSD and other mental disorders. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 447–483.

Grey, E. (2011). A pilot study of concentrated EMDR. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 5, 14–24.

Greyber, L., Dulmus, C. & Cristalli, M. (2012). EMDR, PTSD, and trauma. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 29, 409–425.

Goldin P, Ramel W, Gross, J (2009). Mindfulness Meditation Training and Self-Referential Processing in Social Anxiety Disorder: Behavioral and Neural Effects. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 23(3): 242-257

Gunter, R. & Bodner, G. (2009). EMDR works… but how? Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 3, 161–168.

Herbert, J., Lilienfeld, S., Lohr, J. et al. (2000). Science and pseudoscience in the development of EMDR. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 945–971.

Hofmann, A. (2012). EMDR and chronic depression. Paper presented at the EMDR Association UK & Ireland National Workshop and AGM, London.

Jaberghaderi, N., Greenwald, R., Rubin, A. et al (2004). A comparison of CBT and EMDR for sexually abused Iranian girls. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 358–368.

Joseph, S. (2002). Emperor’s new clothes? The Psychologist, 15, 242–243.

Kowal, J.A. (2005). QEEG analysis of treating PTSD and bulimia nervosausing EMDR. Journal of Neurotherapy, 9, 114–115.

Lee, C.W. & Cuijpers, P. (2013). A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 231–239.

Logie, R. & De Jongh, A. (2014). The ‘Flashforward procedure’: Confronting the catastrophe. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 8, 25–32.

Marr, J. (2012). EMDR treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder: Preliminary research. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 6, 2–15.

Maxfield, L., Melnyk, W. & Gordon Hayman, C. (2008). A working memory explanation for the effects of eye movements in EMDR. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2, 247–261.

Meyer, V. (1966). Modification of expectations in cases with obsessional rituals. Behavior Research and Therapy, 4, 273–280.
Nanni, V., Uher, R. & Danese, A. (2012). Childhood maltreatment predicts unfavorable course of illness and treatment outcome in depression: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169, 141–151.

Nazari, H., Momeni, N., Jariani, M. & Tarrahi, M. (2011). Comparison of EMDR with citalopram in treatment of OCD. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 15, 270–274.

Oren, E. & Solomon, R. (2012). EMDR therapy. Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée, 62, 197–203.

Propper, R. & Christman, S. (2008). Interhemispheric interaction and saccadic horizontal eye movements. Implications for episodic memory, EMDR, and PTSD. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 4, 269–281.
Ray, A. & Zbik, A. (2001).

Cognitive behavioral therapies and beyond. In C. Tollison, J. Satterhwaite & J. Tollison (Eds.) Practical pain management (3rd edn) (pp.189–208). Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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Rodenburg, R., Benjamin, A., de Roos, et al. (2009). Efficacy of EMDR in children: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 599–606.

Rothbaum, B.O., Astin, M.C. & Marsteller, F. (2005). Prolonged exposure versus EMDR for PTSD rape victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(6), 607–616.

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Shapiro, R. (2009). EMDR Solutions II. New York: Norton.

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van den Berg, D. & van der Gaag, M. (2011). Treating trauma in psychosis with EMDR: A pilot study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 43, 664–671.

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Wood, E. & Ricketts, T. (2013). Is EMDR an evidenced-based treatment for depression? Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 7, 225–235.

Third-Wave CBT or three waves of CBT ?

Both are correct! As already explained in my previous article (CBT what’s all the fuss about, 2018) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an umbrella term for a range of therapeutic models that successfully combine behaviourism with Buddhist philosophy, social learning theories, cognitive psychology and more recently neuroscience/ neuroaffective research (Mirea and Hickes, 2012)1. A number of different CBT approaches have gradually evolved over the last 70 years, in three distinct waves (Mirea, 2012)2.

In spite of some apparent differences, all of these methods have much in common. They are formulation-based 3 and rooted in empirical research, behaviourism and the bio-psychosocial model4. They have a common framework, the working models are simple enough and easy to learn, with clear therapeutic goals, which are agreed collaboratively with patients by employing a SMART 5 approach (Mirea, 2016) 6. Therapy goals would usually involve carefully planned strategies aimed at disrupting factors that predispose and trigger individuals’ mental health symptoms and maintains the crisis through rather complex mechanisms usually designed at an earlier stage in life.

Here is an example (published in 2012 article by Mirea and Hickes)1. An excessively jealous and anxious boyfriend came to his assessment and revealed that during his childhood, he experienced significant emotional neglect and an unpredictable and explosive parental relationship including regular fights, arguments, cheating and jealousy. He internalised all these emotional childhood experiences in a particularly disintegrated manner and developed a core-belief (a powerful felt-sense) that he is unlovable (and if found out he would be rejected). This is not usually dialectically expressed with peers or significant others, but it is more of a sense-of-self, a gut-feeling or an identity that the individual has created for himself, based on his early years (emotional) experiences. Over time, the patient would ensure that he is well defended against all of the possibilities that he will be rejected and covers up for his perceived flaw by developing a number of strategies meant to ensure his survival and happiness. Some behavioural strategies will therefore be based on the assumption that “I have to always be on my toes in a relationshipthe moment I let my guard down, she would cheat on me”, therefore… “It is justified to be jealous; I will stalk her, check on all her movements all of the time, I’ll go through her mobile phone records and pockets (and so on…), in order to be better prepared”, etc.

Any future therapeutic work, should help the client identify where these complex set of beliefs, associated behaviours and emotions are exaggerated or misguided. During the assessment, the therapist designs a case formulation containing vicious circles (or traps) that help educate the client about the relationship between his early childhood experiences, core beliefs, assumptions, strategies and current critical situations. This formulation or case conceptualisation (which is diagrammatically explained) would act as the basis for a treatment plan.

This article highlights the common ground that all cognitive-behavioural approaches share, the empirical base, the constant focus on change, problem solving and skills development. I have also discussed early treatment processes – the clinical assessment which leads to a case formulation which further leads to strategic treatment planning.

The differences between approaches however, are much more difficult to explain. Fundamentally such differences lie perhaps in the specific design of each method or the original intention. For example, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is a treatment protocol created by Marsha Linehan for Borderline Personality Disorders. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a relapse prevention tool for depression and so on. Of course subsequent research and clinical trials have allowed these methods to be applied successfully with other disorders and this is probably why it may be difficult to figure CBT out at times (especially if one is operating outside of this field).

A historical overview does offer some insights and it shows how dynamic and rapidly this therapy develops. In the very first wave, we have pure behaviourism, highlighted by the reputable and well researched theories of Ivan Pavlov on learning and conditioning, Joseph Wolpe on systematic desensitization, Edmund Jacobson on Progressive Relaxation. The second wave would represent the main body of CBT started off by Aaron Tim Beck’s original cognitive-behavioural therapy and Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory. The model is a simple but effective treatment protocol for depression at this stage (1960’s) supported by a range of researched behavioural, learning and cognitive theories. Beck and Ellis had never stood idle but other clinicians such as Donald Meichenbaum (Cognitive Behavioural Modification), Jeffrey Young (Schema Therapy), Adrian Wells (Metacognitive Therapy) or David Clark, to name but a few, have really expanded and pushed the boundaries of CBT in the following 40 years or so. CBT can now be used with a range of disorders, in the short-term or in the long-term. Disorder focused approaches, case formulation approaches, transdiagnostic approaches, have all taken shape during this stage.

Third-Wave, the latest addition, is characterised by the introduction of a new concept which is ultimately going to become very familiar and popular, mindfulness or formally known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. This was introduced to the psychotherapeutic community by Williams, Teasdale and Kabat-Zinn (2007) 7 initially as a relapse prevention method for depression.

In spite of a number of significant developments over recent years, most researchers, authors, and practitioners still draw on the second wave when they describe, challenge or investigate CBT as an approach. This may no longer be sufficient. Studies will have to be more specific about what intervention (e.g. exposure) or method (e.g. MBCT) is being investigated rather than describing CBT in generic terms. I am afraid, this is no longer good enough.

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1 Mirea D and Hickes M (2012). CBT and EPT: rival paradigms or fertile ground for therapeutic synthesis. Existential Analysis 23.1, 2012 (p15-31)

2 Mirea D (2012). Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, friend or foe to the existential coach. In Existential perspectives to coaching, edited by Van Deurzen and Hanaway, 2012. Palgrave Macmillan.

3 Formulation or case formulation or (case) conceptualisation can be understood as an alternative to the psychiatric diagnosis, a behavioural analysis firstly introduced in 1965 by Kanfer and Saslow in a seminal paper. Case formulating is part of the assessment process and it is central to providing a coherent and comprehensive treatment plan.

3 The biopsychosocial model (bio-psychosocial or bio-psycho-social) is a broad view that attributes disease outcome to the intricate, variable interaction of biological factors (genetic, biochemical, etc), psychological factors (mood, personality, behavior, etc.), and social factors (cultural, familial, socioeconomic, medical, etc.). The biopsychosocial model counters the biomedical model, which attributes disease to roughly only biological factors, such as viruses, genes, or somatic abnormalities. The biopsychosocial model applies to disciplines ranging from medicine to psychology to sociology.

4 SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. A 2014 clinical trial by Waller et al. pointed out that there are clear advantages of the ‘GOALS approach’; it is brief and that the frontline mental health workers who are in regular contact with patients in mental health care settings can be readily trained in its delivery. There is therefore scope for developing an effective intervention, which can be made widely available at low cost, improving access to psychological therapies for this client group. See Waller et al. Trials 2014, 15:255

6 Mirea, D (2016). Assessment and case formulation in CBT. Revised 1999 article and re-published in April 2016 in the Family Wellbeing Research and Therapy Journal. Vol.3. 1-24

7 Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. The Guildford Press.