November 20, 2012

Anecdote: Parallel Therapy Universe

In September, I explained how psychologists are just like other professional that you might consult--with a specific set of skills, knowledge, and training. Today I had an experience that demonstrated the remarkable similarities between two very different types of therapy:

Before work this morning, I had an appointment with an athletic therapist. I told her my problem: "One of my knees hurts when I run." After asking some questions to understand the background and history of the problem, she maneuvered my legs around, testing muscles and ligaments to determine a diagnosis. Then she educated me: "Sometimes when you have surgery on one knee, that leg never fully regains equal strength; over time, the discrepancy between the two legs forces the muscles and ligaments to compensate--pulling in weird directions and resulting in pain." Next, she guided me through a few exercises that will strengthen the weaker leg. Once she was sure I understood how to do them, she prescribed a few for homework and made sure I wrote them down. She took notes during our session and put them in my file.

After my athletic therapy appointment, I went to work and met with my first patient of the day, a socially anxious man in his late twenties. He told me his problem: "I have to give a toast at a friend's wedding this weekend and I'm so anxious about it I can barely breathe." After asking some questions to fully understand the situation, I asked him to write down some of the thoughts and feelings that come up when he imagines giving the toast. His thoughts included "I'll go blank and won't be able to give the toast," "The other guests will laugh at me," and "If that happens, I'll be humiliated and devastated." Then I educated him: "Often people who are anxious both overestimate the likelihood of a feared event and underestimate their ability to cope with it."

Next, I guided him through an exercise that involved rating the probability of each thought: Given his ample preparation and the notes he planned to bring to the wedding, he rated the probability of forgetting his toast at only 15%. Given that most of the guests were friends of his, he rated the probability that they would laugh at him at only 10%. Given that he had experienced embarrassment during public speaking in the past--but allowing that humiliation and devastation were probably exaggerated predictions--he rated the probability of humiliation and devastation if he forgot his toast at 60%. Together we did the math (15% x 10% x 60% = .009% chance of his feared outcome occurring) and explored the impact of calculating the probabilities on his anxiety. Once I was sure that my patient understood how to apply this strategy, I assigned the use of probabilities in other anxiety-provoking situations as homework for next week. I took notes during our session and put them in his file. 

There you have it! Regardless of type, it seems that therapy involves explaining the problem, testing and diagnosis, education, introduction of a new skill or exercise, practicing the skill/exercise, and homework.

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