May 15, 2012

Personality Disorders, Part 2

A personality disorder is a recurrent and pervasive pattern of maladaptive or inappropriate behaviour that causes significant distress or causes impairment in social, interpersonal, or professional functioning. People with personality disorders repeatedly think, feel, and react in ways that cause problems, and often elicit consistent reactions from the different people in their lives. Think of someone whose friends and colleagues all take advantage of him, someone whose romantic partners always leave her because she is so dependent, or someone who keeps getting fired because he refuses to work on projects that he considers to be beneath him. These are examples of enduring and problematic behaviour patterns.

How can you tell if someone has a personality disorder? A clinical supervisor once told me that when a client inspires an unusual or strong reaction during therapy, that's a big clue. After all, what happens in the psychotherapy office reflects what happens in the client's larger world; if I have a certain intense reaction during my limited contact with a client, changes are good that other people in his or her life do too. Example:

I have a new client who has a physical injury subsequent to a car accident. The injury is minor--something that doesn't usually disturb functioning for more than a month or two--but it has taken over the client's life. He remains significantly more disabled than what is expected at this stage, and family life revolves around his disability: The client's wife and children have put their regular weekend activities on hold to accompany the client to an outpatient rehabilitation centre an hour from home every weekend; the client's wife drastically cut her hours at work in order to care for him; and the client's children and extended family wait on him hand and foot. The client reports some tension as a result of his disability, but for the most part, his family members are extremely accommodating.

In a recent session with this client, I felt myself becoming intensely frustrated as he described his resistance to his doctor's proposal of a progressive return to work. However, despite my frustration, when the client wistfully expressed the wish for our sessions to be longer than the standard fifty minutes, I extended the session an extra fifteen minutes, keeping my next client waiting. When I looked at my schedule to book our appointment for next week and the client's preferred afternoon slot was unavailable, I accepted his proposal that I stay late at work and see him at suppertime.

After the client left, I felt unsettled: I don't usually spend more than an hour with any client, nor am I in the habit of extending my workday! I took a few minutes to explore what happened: Unusual client behaviour (asking for longer appointments; asking for an evening appointment)--check! Intense emotions (frustration) and unusual reactions (prolonging the session; rearranging my schedule) on my part--check! Probably replicating the client's family's behaviour of alternating between frustration and excessive accommodation--check!

It was fascinating to observe myself and the client replicating in therapy what I suspect is his dynamic wherever he goes. The client may or may not have a personality disorder, but my reaction to him tells me that it's something to explore. Clinically, it's not that important to establish whether or not the client has a personality disorder or which one he might have. What's essential is that we identify his maladaptive behaviour patterns so that I can help him by a) addressing the pattern in therapy, and b) making sure not to continue replicating/reinforcing the behaviour.

May 03, 2012

There's an App for That

Cognitive-behavioural psychologists encourage clients to not believe everything they think. One way to apply this suggestion is to imagine your mind as an email inbox and some of your thoughts as spam. In the same way that you don't take seriously every email informing you that you've just won £20,000,000, maybe you don't need to take seriously every thought that runs through your mind.

When you believe everything you think and react to your thoughts as though they were facts, you're experiencing what psychologists call cognitive fusion. Say I have a tough session with a client and I have the thought "I'm a bad therapist." If my heart sinks and a knot of shame forms in my belly, I'm fused with my thought--that is, I'm reacting as if the thought were a fact, rather than a mere string of words my mind created. What's problematic about fusion is that we can get so wrapped up in a fused thought that we fail to notice or incorporate any information that disconfirms it. For example, say a depressed client were fused with the thought "Life is hell." Cognitive fusion would maintain his grey-coloured glasses and prevent him from noticing anything pleasant about the world around him.

Cognitive defusion is used in psychotherapy to help clients unhook from painful and stressful thoughts. A lot of defusion techniques involve using mindfulness to see thoughts and emotions as transient external events, observing them in the same way you would observe a bus drive by or a pen fall to the floor. You might picture your thoughts like leaves on a stream, each one just floating into and then out of consciousness, or you might add the words I'm having the thought that to the beginning of your sentence, so that instead of saying to yourself "I'm an idiot," you would say "I'm having the thought that I'm an idiot." In so doing, you acknowledge that your thought is just a thought, not a fact.

Other defusion methods include saying the fused thought out loud over and over until it loses meaning, saying it in a silly voice, and singing it. I went to a conference a couple weeks ago where I attended a workshop on cognitive defusion techniques; the presenter showed us an iPhone application called Songify that he uses to help his clients defuse from thoughts. The app records you speaking, analyzes your speech, organizes it into a chorus and verses, and maps it to your choice of melody, adjusting your pitch and syncing your words with the beat. He played us a demo of a client saying "I'm a loser." It was impossible not to laugh at the electronic but melodic "I'm a loser" song and it really made the words seem like just words. Apparently the client felt the same way.

I tried Songify recently with colleague, testing some of the thoughts we sometimes find ourselves fused with. It worked! Not only did we have a good laugh, but hearing our thoughts sung out loud to a melody gave us some distance from them, letting us see them for exactly what they are--mind spam, rather than literal truths.