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5 Ways My Psychologist Helped Me Overcome Anxiety

5 Ways My Psychologist Helped Me Overcome Anxiety

When I think about my psychologists and the important role that they have played in my recovery and my life, I feel very fortunate to have had them. My first interaction with a psychologist was at the age of 14, when I was struggling with anorexia nervosa. I don’t remember much about the experience, but I do remember that it was good to share my thoughts and feelings with someone who seemed to understand me. At the time, my dad was in jail and my parents had gotten a divorce — so clearly I was someone who could benefit from seeing a professional. But the truth is, the circumstances don’t have to be that extreme or warning signs don’t have to be that blatant for someone to benefit from talking to a psychologist they trust.

Before going to my psychologist, I thought that I was to blame for all my problems and for the problems my family was having. Not sure how I got to this conclusion, but I was like a lot of children and it seemed natural to blame myself. The one thing that I remember understanding from my first psychologist was that my problems at home had contributed to my eating disorder. My psychologist also scared me into understanding just how damaging my eating disorder was to my overall health and how it could affect me down the line. While I maintained my eating disorder for many more years, I had taken a very small step into understanding how my problems, family history, and anxiety were all interconnected. If you’re thinking about seeing a psychologist, I highly recommend it. Here are five important ways a psychologist helped me overcome the anxiety that plagued my life.

#1 My psychologist helped me understand that I am not to blame for my problems.

One of the first things that I was able to understand while working with a psychologist was that my problems were not my fault and that they were multifactorial. I didn’t fully understand this at such a young age, but I did know that the fact that I grew up in such a dysfunctional home without financial means helped perpetuate my eating disorder. I remember thinking that my parents sending me away to live on a kibbutz with a foster family was the result of me being a burden on my family and that I was too demanding. In reality, I was the kind of girl that would do whatever it took to please my parents and everyone else around me so that I wouldn’t be thought of as a burden.

Talking to a professional — someone outside of my family — opened my eyes to my reality. While I continued restricting my food intake for a few more months and would go on to deal with my eating disorder for many more years, I began to recognize my eating habits as problematic and took the first small steps in understanding how and why I felt the need for that control. Unfortunately, as I gained weight, I thought that I no longer needed therapy and was recovered from my anorexia. I know now that it was a big mistake to leave my psychologist and not continue with the journey that I had started, but I am grateful that I found my way back to therapy eventually. My next interaction with a psychologist was almost 13 years later, when I was in graduate school.

How my psychologist helped me stand alone without fear.

# 2 My psychologist helped me gain insight into my past & taught me to feel compassion toward myself.

We all have a past and different experiences that have helped shape who we are today. Some of us are able to live with our past and maintain a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle, while others have a more challenging time. Being able to process your past in a safe environment with a professional is extremely important.

When I was 20, I had a nervous breakdown after years of binging and purging. I actually started writing what I thought would be the memoir that people would read after I died. The first sentence was, “As I am writing these pages, I am dying from the horrible disease that has taken over my life and is now killing me…” I ended up writing over 100 pages of my feelings, allowing my thoughts to go as wild and free as I wanted. It was a very liberating experience that scared me and everyone around me, and while I wasn’t getting the psychological help that I desperately needed at the time, I did purge my thoughts onto the paper, which allowed me to have a lot of material to process with my psychologist almost 10 years later.

Sharing these intimate details of my life with my new psychologist in New York was a pivotal turning point in my recovery. I remember being fully aware that what I went through was horrible, but I had yet to fully process each and every event in the presence of someone who could help me make sense of it all. Understanding the neglect and abuse that I experienced and how it affected me wasn’t an easy journey. With every realization, I initially found myself more and more depressed and more anxious about the future. Sharing these experiences and feelings with a professional who was compassionate and understanding gave me the non-judgmental space to get to a place where I didn’t just understand my past experiences, but I was also able to feel again — and through a lot of tears — be sad for what I went through. This might sound counterproductive, but in fact, it was the only way to move on.

The most challenging thing for me has always been to feel compassion for the little girl who experienced what I did. When I first met with my psychologist and shared all the horrible things that happened to me in my childhood and adolescence I couldn’t help but blame myself and feel sorry for what I put my family through. When I was able to feel love and compassion for myself, it taught me how to be a comfort to myself when I encountered anxiety with current situations in my life.

Spending time with my psychologist going over various events in my past helped me gain insight into why I struggled with eating disorders and why I developed unhealthy relationships. I was able to become more secure in who I was as a person without being attached to my family and history. Clearly my history helps define me, and my family will always be a part of me, but I realized that while it will always be a part of me, it doesn’t have to define me. I can define myself and decide who I want to be.

# 3 My psychologist helped me realize that I am in control of my thoughts.

Feeling out of control and allowing our thoughts to control us can lead to very destructive patterns of behavior. Until I had worked with a psychologist and become aware that my thoughts affect my feelings and actions, it was as though I lived on auto pilot and allowed for things to just happen to me. During my teens, I cried myself to sleep night after night thinking I was a poor neglected girl who was sent away to live with a foster family. I thought that I was the only child born to parents with mental health issues and I also thought that I was the only girl who hated her body and felt stupid and ugly. Sure, all these things might have been true to some degree, but I made them a lot worse in my head and didn’t stop thinking about how miserable and sad my life was.

All these thoughts drove me to do things that almost cost me my life. I starved myself for almost two years and ended up in the hospital thinking I was going to die. I then gained some weight and binged and purged for almost nine years after that. Even at the age of 24, when I stopped binging and purging and abusing myself and my body, I allowed my thoughts to continue controlling me. I was driven by negative thoughts that led me to feel anxious and depressed, and without even being aware, I was debilitated and paralyzed by what was going on in my head. It was as though I was a prisoner of my own mind, which is really scary if you think about it. It’s also very common in people today.

If you think about what anxiety really is, it’s about fear and dread for what is coming ahead. More specifically, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, like increased blood pressure.” Because my anxieties affected my functioning, my psychologist helped me become more aware of my thoughts, write them down, and understand how unrealistic some of my worries and anxieties were. I then learned that if I could redirect my thoughts to a healthy, more constructive place, I could reduce my anxiety and feel much better.

Of course, this was a long process and I was a very active participant in my recovery. I was dedicated to my therapy sessions and motivated to improve. I remember my psychologist telling me that it takes about 12-30 weeks to change a behavior, and I felt there was no way that was enough time to undo all the years of damaging thoughts. The truth is, though, change is possible and you are in control. It often takes a professional to help you see that, though. Do you feel that your thoughts are controlling you? Are you thinking negatively and would like to change that? These are common, but serious problems, and you don’t have to suffer with them alone.

man walking on a tightrope

# 4 My psychologist helped me realize that there are patterns in my behaviors and relationships.

One of the most important things that I learned while working with my psychologist was that I was constantly seeking relationships that reminded me in some way of relationships from my past. Specifically, I was seeking relationships that reminded me of my relationships with either my mother or my father.

The first and most obvious one was the relationship that I had with my first boyfriend, who was much older than me. We dated for several years, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized how many of his destructive behaviors were like those of my own father.  A psychologist was able to help me see that what I was attracted to was the familiar — even if it was harmful. Even with my friendships, I was always seeking friends who needed me and my help and support. With the help of my therapist, I learned that I was most familiar with the role of the caregiver, which led me to the career that I now love. However, I needed to learn that in relationships there is a give and take and if I wanted to be involved in relationships that were healthy and fulfilling, I had to learn to set clear boundaries and also ask for others’ support when I needed it. When I met my second psychologist and talked about my husband and his traits, she asked me who my husband reminded me of. I remember thinking about his traits and realizing that he reminded me of my mother.

Just because there is a pattern in your relationships doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but awareness is so helpful. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but a psychologist can help you make sense of that hindsight in a way that leads you to more productive relationship building in the future.

# 5 My psychologist guided and supported me with finding my inner strength & helped me love and respect myself.

My journey to self love and respect was a long one. I always knew that I needed to be strong and giving up was never an option, but it took a professional’s help to actually make me see that I was capable. Understanding the root cause of my insecurities and my lack of self love and respect was one of the best gifts that I ever gave myself. Before I met my psychologist, I was too busy pleasing other people and doing whatever I could to help and support everyone else but myself. What I ended up doing was acting in ways and doing things that other people wanted me to do and not what I truly wanted to do. This hurt me in different ways because there was a gap between what I was doing and what I truly wanted to do. For instance, if someone asked me to help with a project that they were working on I would agree to help despite the fact that I had 10 projects that I was working on and didn’t have time for myself. I put others best interests before my own and the result was that I was unhappy and unsatisfied. With the help of my psychologist, I learned that I took on the role of the caretaker since I was a young child and I carried it to my adolescent and adulthood. Also, I thought that if I said no to people or disappointed people who I cared about they would not love me or want to be with me.

After years of being in therapy and working as a therapist I have a better understanding of why I acted in such ways. I am now aware that I needed to show myself the love and respect that I needed in order to live the life that I want to live and be happy. Learning how to love and respect myself helped with the reduction of my anxieties around not pleasing people as well as the fears/worries that people will not love me. I believe that if someone truly loves and cares about me, they will love me for who I truly am with all my flaws and imperfections.

I only included five ways in which psychologists have helped me become a better version of myself, but clearly there are many other ways that your psychologist can help you! If you would like to share how your psychologist helped you or how you would like your psychologist to help you, please feel free to email me with your comments.

If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

The Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Right Family Psychologist

The Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Right Family Psychologist

Finding the right family psychologist or marriage psychologist can be a very challenging task. In the following guide I will help and empower you with the tools and information that you will need in order to know how to find the best family/couple psychologist for your family.

Questions I’ll answer:

  • What is a Family Psychologist?
  • Do I need Family/Marriage Therapy?
  • Where do I start?
  • What should I look for?
  • What should I expect in therapy?
  • Treatment — what are the different approaches to family therapy?
  • What should I ask a potential family therapist?

What is a Family or Marriage Psychologist?

MFT stands for Marriage and Family Therapy, which is a specific form of psychotherapy that places emphasis on the emotions and actions of all members of the family. It looks at how certain behaviors affect relationships among members of the family, the individuals and the entire family unit. This type of therapy usually includes one-on-one time as well as sessions with all members. MFT can also be referred to as couples therapy, couples counseling, marriage counseling or family therapy.

Do I need Family/Marriage Therapy?

Have you ever wondered about the percentage of marriages that end up in divorce? For a while it was popular opinion that 50% of marriages end in divorce. You’ve probably heard people quote this stat, in fact. The truth is, there are mixed studies on the topic — and it’s definitely a topic that has been widely researched. Many studies today are actually estimating that the rate is dropping. (If you want to read up more on the argument, check out this article from Psychology Today.)

Despite what the actual rate is, the point remains the same: Marriages can be very difficult and many couples find themselves at a breaking point. But many aren’t sure what couples therapy could really do for them. So I talked to one of our LW Wellness consultants, Dr. Ella Lasky, who has her PhD in psychology and specializes in Couples’ Therapy.

Here’s what she had to say:

I love working with couples. About 80% of the couples who’ve consulted with me believe they have improved their relationships. In the process of couples’ therapy, people learn about the patterns they have created with one another and their own contribution to these patterns.

Research has found that if couples wait more than 6 years from the time they become aware of a problem in their relationship to get help, they have a reduced chance of repairing their relationship. It is more difficult for couples who have been in a strained relationship for a long time because the longer they wait the more rigidified their dysfunctional patterns become. The hurts, angers and resentments have time to grow and fester.

When couples wait until they are on the verge of separation, the odds of success are low.  One such couple contacted me recently. They each in fact had retained a divorce lawyer and had several settlement proposals on the table.  They had been unhappy for many years and had been unable to self-correct. I was able to help them to resolve some of their issues so that they could work together as a parenting team for the sake of their children.  They did divorce, but on more amicable terms than when they first began counseling.

Couples’ therapy works best when both partners are motivated to repair the patterns in their relationship that do not work well. When a couple comes into therapy after they have been off track for a shorter period, it is easier to help them understand where and when they got stuck. I work to help the couple understand how they hurt one another and how to build on the patterns that work well in their relationship, to re-establish trust and the feeling that they can rely on one another.   

Warm regards

Ella Lasky, PhD

Adults, Couples,  Financial Psychology

If family or couples therapy is on your mind, I wouldn’t wait. Your well-being is inevitably tied to your closest relationships and a professional can help you work through problems before they become worse. But not any therapist will work, so keep reading for more on what to look for.

Where to start/ Overall Recommendations

As a married woman with three kids, I can attest to the fact that challenges inevitably arise when you have a family. Marriage alone is challenging and when you bring kids into the pictures there are new problems that you must confront together (along with lots of exciting things, of course).

Knowing how to pick the right family psychologist/couple therapist could mean the difference between staying happily married or even staying together at all. Here are a few things I think everyone should look out for when searching for a family psychologist.

Tip # 1

Make sure to do your homework before meeting with a family psychologist.

Deciding to work with a family psychologist is an important first step, but now what? Before you turn to Google or even friend recommendations, know the specific type of family psychologist or therapist that will best suit your needs. Educate yourself about basic family theories and strategies so that you are an informed consumer when shopping around for a good fit. If you know a little bit about different approaches (which you can read about further down), you will be better able to ask questions and make comparisons between potential options.

Tip # 2

Assume that most therapists are not specialized in family therapy.

While this is a big generalization, I have extensive experience working with therapists who claim that they are family therapists, but they have no training in working with families. You need to find a therapist who is best equipped and properly trained to help you and your family.

When seeking a family psychologist it is important to understand the different professionals that can provide you with the support you need. You can read a little more about licensing qualifications below, but a good place to start is with The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Additionally, if the issues that you are dealing with are specific, such as dealing with a child with an eating disorder or drug or alcohol abuse, you want to prioritize that within your search for a family psychologist.

Tip # 3

MAKE SURE that your therapist is a good team player

Working with a family psychologist for an hour or two a week is helpful, but it might also require other providers that will help support you. For example, this week we got a request from a family for a marriage psychologist who could help a couple who is on the verge of divorce. After speaking with the couple for five minutes, it was obvious that they are having challenges with their three boys, who, according to the dad, are out of control. The older son, who is 13, is acting out in school, the 7-year-old has a lot of behavioral issues, and the 5-year-old seems to be learning behaviors from his older brothers. The dad told me he is ready to give up because they had met with three couples therapists and none of their issues had gone away. The truth is, sometimes couples therapy is not enough. Sometimes it’s necessary for the entire family to attend sessions to better treat the family unit as a whole, or for certain members of the family to receive specialized behavioral therapy.

What should I look for in a family psychologist?

First and foremost, you want to look for a licensed therapist, which means he/she will hold a master’s or doctoral degree, have completed a minimum of two years or 30,000 clinical hours of supervised experience, and completed a state licensing exam. This person should be a provider who has a certificate in marriage and family therapy, or who has studied couple and family therapy from a two year program.

What to Expect from Your Marriage/Family Psychologist?

Marriage and Family therapy is typically more short-term focused, but the length of time will vary. On average, it tends to take about six months to one year, with sessions that are usually focused around finding a solution to a specific problem. If you are talking about marriage or couples counseling, most likely the therapist will begin by meeting with you together, followed by one-on-one time. The same goes in family therapy. The first session is designed so that all parties can get informed. This is when you will identify the specific problems/issues you wish to work through and it also gives the therapist time to observe the way in which you interact with your partner and/or members of your family. It’s also a good idea to establish how the sessions will run for the duration of the treatment. Things like who should attend and when, what are the basic guidelines for what can be discussed in/out of sessions and confidentiality between therapists and members of family/couples should all be outlined in the first meeting. Each session that follows should provide clear and active steps toward conflict resolution.

Approaches to Family Therapy

In order to best understand how to find the right family psychologist and educate yourself regarding family therapy, it is important to be aware of the two most popular approaches. First is Family System Therapy based on Murray Bowen, and the second is called Internal Family System (IFS).

There is so much to write about Bowen, but I’ll try to give you a brief overview that will at least give you a basic understanding and get you to start thinking about your options more critically. I find Bowen’s theory so valuable because it’s based on years of research on family patterns, meaning it’a all evidence-based. Bowen’s family system theory holds that individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships. Bowen believed that it was important for therapists to have an awareness of the challenges each member of the family experiences within the unit as a whole in order to normalize human behavior for their clients. While individual therapy addresses the individual and their own psyche, family therapy addresses the structure and how each member affects one other. Take a moment to think about your own family structure (either your current nuclear family or your family growing up). Think about how your experience within your family was different than that of your mother or father or a sibling. How did you family structure affect how you saw the world?

Bowen used something called a genogram, which is a basically an illustration that represents a family’s medical history and interpersonal relationships and can be used to showcase psychological influences, heredity and significant events that may impact a family member’s mental health and well-being. Bowen found it important to talk to each family member individually and construct a family history that extended back at least three generations. He then identified any recurring behavioral or mental health problems across generations. (For example, at first, he thought it took three generations for schizophrenia symptoms to present themselves within a family, but later, he changed his hypothesis to 10 years.)

In addition to the genogram, Bowen’s approach is based off of eight interlocking concepts. I won’t give you too much detail, but you can start to see how the family unit is complex and how it can affect the psyche of each of its members. These are things a family psychologist will address and help you understand even more clearly.

  1. Differentiation of self — this is central to Bowen’s theory and has to do with the individual’s ability to separate him/herself from the group in regards to feelings, responses to problems, etc, while still pursuing their own personal agenda. It’s essentially the ability to maintain an emotional connection to the group while keeping a separate identity.
  2. An emotional triangle — this refers to a three-person relationship, what Bown considered the smallest stable relationship system
  3. The family projection process — how parents impact their own emotional issues onto their kids
  4. The multigenerational transmission process — this has to do with how the levels of differentiation of self between parents and their children evolve over multiple generations
  5. An emotional cutoff — members of the family completely cutting off emotional contact
  6. Sibling position — this theory asserts that people who grow up in the same birth order position in the family (i.e. oldest child, middle child, youngest) will have similar characteristics
  7. The societal emotional process — this refers to how societal organizations (outside the family) are affected by the emotional processes within a family
  8. The nuclear family emotional process — Bowen believes four basic relationship patterns affect the problems that develop within a family: marital conflict, problems or concerns in one person, emotional distance, impairment of one or multiple children

Concept Two: Internal Family System

IFS refers to a concept known as the Internal Family System. It was developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. He came up with the idea of an undamaged “core self,” which is the essence of who you are, along with three sub-personalities that reside within each person alongside the core self. The sub-personalities are exiles (aka, the wounded and suppressed parts of the self), managers (the protective parts of the self that do the suppressing) and firefighters (which provide distraction when the pain is caused due to suppressed parts being released). Common firefighters are things like alcohol abuse or other forms of addiction, which might be hiding the suppressed pain of the exiles, which could be something like past abuse. The goal of IFS is to heal and better manage these parts so there is more harmony with the core self. IFS is used with individuals, couples and families. It has been proven to help treat symptoms like depression, anxiety and other phobias.

A List Of Questions To Ask A Potential Family Psychologist

  • Where did you get your training? Are you certified?
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • What is your general approach to working with families/couples?
  • What are your recommendations for how we can the most out of each session?
  • Do you work with other providers/have a network you can make referrals to for more specialized problems should they become evident?

Finding a family psychologist is a detailed process, but the more educated you are, the better success rate you will have. Admitting you need help is not something to be embarrassed about or put off to a future date. Our families are so important, and the investment in the well-being of these relationships should could first and foremost in our lives.

If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!