University of Montana Happiness Class Research Results Round 1 (again): The Structured Abstract

I’ve spent the morning learning. At this point in my life, learning requires simultaneous regulation of my snarky irreverence. Although I intellectually know I don’t know everything, when I discover, as I do ALL. THE. TIME., that I don’t know something, I have to humble myself unto the world.

Okay. I know I’m being a little dramatic.

After pushing “submit” on our latest effort to publish Round 1 of our happiness class data, less than an hour later I received a message from the very efficient editor that our manuscript had been “Unsubmitted.” Argh! The good news is that the editor was just letting us know that we needed to follow the manuscript submission guidelines and include a “Structured Abstract.” Who knew?

The best news is I wrote a structured abstract and discovered that I like structured abstracts way more than I like traditional abstracts. So, that’s cool.

And, here it is!

Abstract

Background: University counseling center services are inadequate to address current student mental health needs. Positive psychology courses may be scalable interventions that address student well-being and mental health.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of a multi-component positive psychology course on undergraduate student well-being, mental health, and physical health.

Method: We used a quantitative, quasi-experimental, pretest-posttest design. Participants in a multi-component positive psychology course (n = 38) were compared to a control condition (n = 41). All participants completed pre-post measures of well-being, physical health, and mental health.

Results: Positive psychology students reported significant improved well-being and physical health on eight of 18 outcome measures. Although results on the depression scale were not statistically significant, a post-hoc analysis of positive psychology students who were severely depressed at pretest reported substantial depression symptom reduction at posttest, whereas severely depressed control group students showed no improvement.

Conclusion: Positive psychology courses may produce important salutatory effects on student physical and mental health. Future research should include larger samples, random assignment, and greater diversity.

Teaching Implications: Psychology instructors should collaborate with student affairs to explore how positive psychology courses and interventions can facilitate student well-being, health, and mental health. 

What is a Clinical Interview?

Now that we’ve sent the 7th edition of our Clinical Interviewing textbook to the publisher, I’ve got more time on my hands. So, along with springtime mowing, gardening, weed-eating, NYT games, and hanging upside down in our basement, I did the natural thing that people do when they’ve got extra time: I Googled “What is Clinical Interviewing?”

Along with a few links to our books and videos, I also find lots of new (to me) and interesting information and resources. Cool.

Then I realized I should probably create a blogpost titled, “What is Clinical Interviewing?” because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who wants to know the answer to that scintillating question.

Because we’ve already written a ton on this topic, rather than re-invent the wheel, below, I’ve excerpted a couple pages from Chapter 1, where we discuss and define the clinical interview. Here we go . . .

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Chapter Orientation

Clinical interview is a common phrase used to identify an initial and sometimes ongoing contact between a mental health professional and client. Depending on many factors, this contact includes varying proportions of psychological assessment and biopsychosocial intervention. For many different mental health disciplines, clinical interviewing begins the treatment process. In this chapter we focus on the definition of clinical interviewing, foundational multicultural competencies, and a model for learning how to conduct clinical interviews.

Welcome to the Journey

When we blend our unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals. — Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents, 1997, p. 23

Imagine you’re face-to-face with your first client. You’ve carefully chosen your clothing. You intentionally arranged the seating, set up the camera, and completed introductory paperwork. In the opening moments of your session, you’re communicating warmth, acceptance, and compassion through your body posture and facial expressions. Now, imagine your client

  • Immediately offends you with language, gestures, or hateful beliefs
  • Refuses to talk
  • Talks so much you can’t get a word in
  • Asks to leave early
  • Starts crying
  • Says you can never understand or be helpful because of ethnic, religious, or sexual differences
  • Suddenly gets angry (or scared) and storms out

These are all possible client behaviors in a first interview. If one of these scenarios occurs, how will you respond? What will you say? What will you do? Will you be able to have kindness, honesty, and compassion guide your response?

Every client presents unique challenges. Your goals are to establish rapport, build a working alliance, gather information, instill hope, maintain a helpful yet nonjudgmental attitude, identify treatment goals, develop a case formulation, and, if appropriate, provide therapy interventions. You also want to gracefully end the interview on time. And sometimes, you’ll need to do all this with clients who don’t trust you or who don’t want to work with you.

These are no small tasks—which is why it’s important to be patient with yourself. Becoming a competent mental health professional takes time and practice. Being imperfect is natural. You’ll need persistence, an interest in developing your intellect, interpersonal skills, emotional awareness, therapeutic skills, compassion, authenticity, and courage. Due to the ever-evolving nature of this business, you’ll need to be a lifelong learner to stay current and skilled. Despite all these demands, most mental health professionals who practice self-care and stress management are satisfied with their career choice (Bellamy et al., 2019).

The clinical interview is the most fundamental component of mental health training in professional counseling, psychiatry, psychology, and social work (Allen & Becker, 2019; Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2020). The clinical interview is the basic unit of connection between the helper and the person seeking help; it is the beginning of a therapeutic relationship and the cornerstone of psychological assessment; it is also the focus of this book.

This text will help you acquire fundamental and advanced clinical interviewing skills. The chapters guide you through elementary listening skills onward to more advanced, complex professional activities, such as mental status examinations, suicide assessment, and diagnostic interviewing. We enthusiastically welcome you as new colleagues and fellow learners.

For many of you, this text accompanies your first taste of practical, hands-on mental health training experience. For those of you who already possess substantial clinical experience, this book may place your previous experiences in a new or different learning context. Whichever the case, we hope this text challenges you and helps you develop excellent skills for conducting professional clinical interviews.

What Is a Clinical Interview?

VIDEO 1.2**

Clinical interviewing is a flexible procedure that mental health professionals use to initiate treatment. In 1920, Jean Piaget first used the words “clinical” and “interview” together in a way similar to contemporary practitioners. He believed existing psychiatric interviewing procedures were inadequate for studying cognitive development in children, so he invented a “semi-clinical interview.”

Piaget’s approach was novel. His semi-clinical interview combined tightly standardized interview questions with unstandardized or spontaneous questioning to explore the richness of children’s thinking processes (Elkind, 1964; J. Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2015). Interestingly, the tension between these two different interviewing approaches (i.e., standardized vs. spontaneous) continues today. Psychiatrists and research psychologists primarily use structured, or semi-structured clinical interviewing approaches. Structured clinical interviews involve asking the same questions in the same order with every client. Structured interviews are designed to gather reliable and valid assessment data. Virtually all researchers agree that a structured clinical interview is the best approach for collecting reliable and valid assessment data.

In contrast, clinical practitioners, especially those who embrace post-modern and social justice perspectives, generally use less structure. Unstructured clinical interviews involve a subjective and spontaneous relational experience. These less structured relational experiences are typically used to collaboratively initiate an assessment or counseling process. Murphy and Dillon (2015) articulated the latter (less structured) end of the interviewing spectrum:

We believe that clinical interviewing is—or should be—a conversation that occurs in a relationship characterized by respect and mutuality, by immediacy and warm presence, and by emphasis on strengths and potential. Because clinical interviewing is essentially relational, it requires ongoing attention to how things are said and done, as well as to what is said and done. . . . we believe that clinicians need to work in collaboration with clients . . . (p. 4)

Research-oriented psychologists and psychiatrists who value structured clinical interviews for diagnostic purposes would likely view Murphy and Dillon’s description of this “conversation” as a bane to reliable assessment. In contrast, clinical practitioners often view highly structured diagnostic interviewing procedures as too sterile and impersonal. Perhaps what’s most interesting is that despite these substantial conceptual differences—differences that are sometimes punctuated with passion—structured and unstructured approaches represent legitimate methods for conducting clinical interviews. A clinical interview can be structured, unstructured, or a thoughtful combination of both. (See Chapter 11 for a discussion of clinical interviewing structure.)

Formal definitions of the clinical interview emphasize its two primary functions or goals (J. Sommers-Flanagan, 2016; J. Sommers-Flanagan et al., 2020):

  1. Assessment
  2. Helping (including referrals)

To achieve these goals, all clinical interviews involve the development of a therapeutic relationship or working alliance. Optimally, the therapeutic relationship provides leverage for obtaining valid and reliable assessment data and/or providing effective interventions.

With all this background in mind, we define clinical interviewing as…

a complex, multidimensional, and culturally sensitive interpersonal process that occurs between a professional service provider and client. The primary goals are (a) assessment and (b) helping. To achieve these goals, clinicians may emphasize structured diagnostic questioning, spontaneous talking and listening, or both. Clinicians use information obtained in an initial clinical interview to develop a collaborative case formulation and treatment plan.

Given this definition, students often ask: “What’s the difference between a clinical interview and counseling or psychotherapy?” This is an excellent question that deserves a nuanced response.

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Sorry to leave you hanging with such an exciting question.

If you’re interested in learning more, there’s always our book, but you can also check out this very popular (and free) blog post called: Five Stages of a Clinical Interview, which you can find here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2019/06/27/five-stages-of-a-clinical-interview/

Concerns about Science

As many of you know, over the past year or so I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to publish a couple of journal articles. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this, but this morning we got another rejection (the third for this manuscript) that triggered me in a way that, as the feminists might say, raised my consciousness.

Three colleagues and I are trying to publish the outcomes from a short online “happiness workshop” I did a couple years ago for counseling students. Mostly the results were nonsignificant, except for the depression scale we used, which showed our workshop participants were less depressed than a non-random control group. Also, based on open-ended responses, participants seemed to find the workshop experience helpful and relevant to them in their lives.

Problems with the methodology in this study are obvious. In this most recent rejection, one reviewer noted the lack of “generalizability” of our data. I totally agree. The study has a relatively small n, nonrandom group assignment, yada, yada, yada. We acknowledge all this in the manuscript. Having a reviewer point out to us what we have readily acknowledged is annoying, but accurate. In fact, this rejection was accompanied by the most informed and reasonable reviews we’ve gotten yet.

Nevertheless, I immediately sent out a response email to the editor . . . which, because I’m partially all about entertainment, I’m sharing below. As you’ll see, for this rejection, my concerns are less with the reviews, and more about WHAT IS BEING PUBLISHED IN SO-CALLED SCIENTIFIC JOURNALS. Although I don’t think it’s necessary, I’ve anonymized my email so as to not incriminate anyone.

Dear Editor,

Thanks for your timely processing of our manuscript.

Overall, I believe your reviewers did a nice job of reading the manuscript, noting problems, and providing feedback. Being very familiar with the journal submission and feedback process, I want to compliment you and your reviewers on your evaluation of our manuscript. Compared to the quality of feedback I’ve obtained from other journals, you and your team did well.

Now I’d like to apologize in advance for the rest of this email because it’s a critique not only of your journal, but of counseling research more generally.

Despite your professional review, I have concerns about the decision, and rather than sit on them, I’m going to share them.

Although the reviews were accurate, and, as Reviewer 1 noted, there are generalizability concerns (but aren’t there always), I looked at the most recent online articles published in [your journal], to get a feel for the journal’s standards for generalizability, among other issues. What I found was disturbing.

In the seven published 2023 articles from your most recent issue, none have data that are even close to generalizable, and yet all of the articles offer recommendations, as if there were generalizable data. In the [first] article there’s an n of 8; [the second article] has an n of 6 and use a made-up questionnaire. I know these are qualitative studies, but, oh my, they don’t shy away from widely offering recommendations (is that not generalizing?), based on minimal data. Four of the articles in the most recent issue have no data; that’s okay, they’re interesting and may be useful. The only “empirical” study is a survey with n = 165, using a correlational analysis. But no information is provided on the % response to the survey, and so any justification for generalization is absent. Overall, some of these articles are interesting, and written by people I know and like. But none of them have anything close to what might be considered “generalizability.”

What’s most concerning to me is that none of the published articles employ an experimental design. My impression is that “Counselor Education and Preparation” (not just the journal, but the whole profession) mostly avoids experimental or quasi-experimental designs, and privileges qualitative research, or correlational designs that, of course, are really just open inquiries about the relationships among 2 or more variables.

This is the third rejection of this manuscript from counseling journals that, to be frank, essentially have no scientific impact factor. Maybe the manuscript is unpublishable. I would be open to that possibility if I didn’t read any of the published articles from [your journal and other journals]. My best guess (hypothesis) is that counseling journals have double standards; they allow generalizing statements from qualitative studies, but they hold experimental designs to inappropriately high standards. I say inappropriate here because all experimental designs are flawed in one way or another, and finding those flaws is easier than understanding them.

I know I’m biased, but my last problem with the rejection of this manuscript has to do with relevance. We tried to offer counseling students a short workshop intervention to help them cope with their COVID-related distress and distress in general–something that I think more counseling programs should do, and something that I think is innately relevant and potentially very meaningful to counseling students and practitioners.

Sorry again, for this email and it’s length, but I hope some of what I’ve shared is food for thought for you in your role as journal editor.

Thanks again for the timely review and feedback. I do appreciate the professionalism.

Sincerely,

John SF

If you’re still reading and following my incessant complaining, for your continued pleasure, now I’m pasting my email response to my coauthors, one of whom wrote us all this morning beginning with the word “Bummer.”

Hi There,

Yes! Another bummer.

For entertainment purposes, I kept you all on my email to the editor.

Although I’m clearly triggered, because I just read some articles in the [Journal], I now know, more about self-care, because in their [most recent lead published article], the authors wrote:

“Most participants also offered some recommendations for self-care practices to process crisis counseling. One participant (R2) indicated, “I keep a journal with prayers, thoughts and feelings, complaints and poetry.”

Now that I’ve done my complaining, I need to take time off to pray and write a poem or two, but then, yes . . .  I will continue to send this out into the world in hopes of eventual validation.

Happy Friday to you all,

John

I hope you all caught my clever utilization of recommendations from the offending journal to cope with this latest rejection. The good news is, like most rejections, this one was clarifying and inspired me with even more snark energy than I usually have.

Have a great weekend.

The End of the Beginning: A Peek at The Closing Video for Clinical Interviewing (7th edition)

In our Clinical Interviewing text, we open each chapter with a quotation. One of my favorite of all time is from Ursula K. LeGuin (the Left Hand of Darkness). She wrote: “

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” (p. 109)

Last week, we finished our year-long journey of revising Clinical Interviewing into the 7th edition. The last publication date was 2017, so this is, IMHO, a significant and important revision. With the help of the Amazing Dylan Wright, we recently uploaded the supplementary videos (there are over 100 clips that align with all of the textbook learning objectives). In the video recording process, we had much help, partly because this edition weaves in greater representation from professionals with diverse identities. Over the next several months, I will be posting additional sneak-peeks, including identity-diverse case examples and video clips. Stay tuned.

For today, I’m posting a rough copy of the final (of the 100+) Clinical Interviewing videos. In this one, I’m lamenting—while Rita consoles me—that our imperfect video recording project is ending. This video was recorded and produced by the multi-talented and aforementioned Dylan Wright, who took the liberty (as he often does in one way or another) of inserting laugh-tracks to help viewers “get” our silly efforts to be funny.  

You may wonder why Rita and I are on our cell phones during this clip. It’s because the last chapter is about clinical interviewing and technology. That’s just one example of how hilarious we are.

Here’s the link to our 2 minute, 8 second closing video. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-6WTrhMf1k

Anger Management — Revisited

What’s new about anger? Everything and nothing. You will feel angry over and over in your life. Each time it will be your familiar anger, which may come to feel old, tired, and boring. But each time it also will be new and compelling—as if you’ve been charged with energy to change the world.

Here’s one big truth about anger; it will come around again.

Here’s another: when doing anger management, it’s helpful to develop awareness of your usual triggers because if you see it coming, you may have a better chance to handle your anger in ways that are less embarrassing or destructive.

Here’s a third. This one I like to tell my clients and students: One good thing about having anger problems is that—and you can count on this—you will get many opportunities to work on your anger in the future, because it won’t be long until your anger visits you again (and again).

To summarize: Anger is repetitive; it’s good to develop self-awareness of your personal triggers; you will be presented with many opportunities to deal with your anger differently.

What follows is a slight revision of a post from seven years ago.

The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused. All is well.

In my rear-view mirror, I notice a car slowly creeping up on me from behind. He gets a little to close to my rear bumper, and then slowly drifts into the left lane past me, lingering beside me and edging ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and drifts in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.

An emotion rises into awareness. It’s anger, from a distance. I see it coming slowly, as if it’s in the rear-view mirror of my brain. At this distance, it’s only annoyance. I feel it and see it coming and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: My annoyance could sit there and remain unpleasant, until I tire of it. If I provide it with oxygen, could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger. Or, I can send it away, leaving room for other—more pleasant—thoughts and actions.

That’s not to say annoyance and anger is wholly unpleasant. Part of me likes it; part of me feels so damn aggrieved and indignant and justified.

All this self-awareness is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

Without moving or speaking, “Hello anger,” I say, to myself, in my brain.

In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with unfolding possibilities. I love this place. I love the strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph.  It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message. Isn’t that what anger, in its behavioral manifestation, aggression, is all about—sending a message?

“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should give you some space.”

The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.

Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him move on ahead. Revenge is only briefly sweet. Those who seek revenge should dig two graves.”

I smile remembering an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame, regret, or embarrassment.”

One participant said, “Lust. Lust is like anger. One second you want something more than anything, but the next second you might wish you hadn’t.”

“Maybe so,” I said.

There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication; I can’t make it constructive.

The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.

But here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I make the plan. I drive the car.

The other driver is now far ahead. I recognize that I could resurrect my anger. I choose to let it go instead.

I haven’t always let go of my anger. In my teen years I developed a temper. I had many sport-related fits of embarrassing anger. I went to psychotherapy. My therapist listened, and helped me grow my better judgment. He said, “I don’t believe in the bowel movement theory of anger control.” That was a little indirect, and interesting. We don’t have to expel it. We can sit with it. We can reflect on it. We can watch it go away. We can put it in the rear-view mirror, or let it pass us by. Using our functional frontal lobes, we can experience the joy of the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

My anger is like an old, greedy, needy, and fickle friend. It has an all-or-nothing mentality. My anger wants attention and power, because it values power over long-term happiness.

Anger is also a source of energy; it can fuel us to be assertive, to fight injustice, to be clear on our values. Anger has its place, and is sometimes a useful partner: a partner whom we should keep in the passenger seat, never letting it get behind the wheel and drive—even on a wide-open Montana highway.

A Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide Prevention with Marginalized Communities

This morning I’m doing a one-hour webinar for Division 17 of the American Counseling Association. The focus is on how we can do suicide assessment, treatment, and prevention with people from historically and currently marginalized or oppressed communities. To deal with this immense issue, it would help if we had some superpowers.

Here are the ppts for this morning:

We know, from decades of sociological and psychological research that many different factors contribute to global and regional changes in suicide rates. We also know that, in general, suicide is at least in part driven by individual experiences and perceptions of high personal distress (Shneidman’s “psychache”). Researchers have also identified how poverty, racism, and factors like neighborhood safety/climate can contribute to suicidality. In our suicide book, we call these factors–factors that are typically outside of the self, but that can be internalized–as “contextual.” What follows is an excerpt on contextual factors from Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach.

Externalizing the External          

At age 82, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times (Stein, 1986), B. F. Skinner said: “I have to tell people that they are not responsible for their behavior. They’re not creating it; they’re not initiating anything. It’s all found somewhere else.”

We find Skinner’s words reassuring. All humans are influenced—to some extent—by factors outside themselves. This is not to say people are helpless victims of their environments; there are methods for coping with external stressors. But the first step, even though the stressor is obviously external, is to re-externalize it, because all too often, it’s all too easy, to internalize the external.

Coping Strategies for Toxic or Malignant Stressors

When clients are exposed to larger sociological and uncontrollable stressors, they can experience frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness. As a counselor, mostly you’re unable to change the unchangeable for your clients. Within the counseling relationship, you can express both empathy for your client’s situation, and indignation that society can be so painful and difficult to change. Depending on the counseling goals, you can provide empathy, commiseration, assistance in discerning achievable goals, learning opportunities, and advocacy or support for activism.

Empathic Commiseration

News events pertaining to racism, climate change, global pandemics, and other topics activate and agitate some clients (and counselors). When this happens, empathic commiseration is a good first step. Empathy from you can universalize client emotional reactions and help clients feel more normal. Simple statements like, “I agree. It’s so hard to watch the news” can facilitate recognition that excessive media exposure heightens feelings of helplessness and depression.

Other scenarios where clients are exposed to environmental toxicity, but unable to extricate themselves from the situation, can be especially demoralizing. In such cases, brainstorming about how to mobilize community resources, how to gain access to safe spaces, and how to engage in self-advocacy can be important and empowering. As with goal-setting in other dimensions, helping clients evaluate their own behaviors and the factors over which they have control, may mitigate frustration. Having you to resonate with their frustration and show compassion is crucial.

Discernment and Goal-Setting

People associated with Alcoholics Anonymous are familiar with Richard Neibauer’s (1932) serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Similar guidance comes from Shantideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist Scholar, who put it this way: If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum? (Shantideva, The way of the Bodhisattva, p. 130). Clients who are religious or spiritually oriented may find particular comfort and insight in the words of Neibauer or Shantideva.

Yet another version of the Serenity Prayer comes from 20th century Philosopher W. W. Bartley. Bartley took a break from writing about philosophical rationalism, to put the message of the Serenity Prayer into a Mother Goose nursery rhyme format:

For every ailment under the sun

There is a remedy, or there is none;

If there be one, try to find it;

If there be none, never mind it.

When it comes to helping clients deal with complex contextual difficulties, these prayers or philosophies can be a good place to start, both for professionals, and for clients. Recognizing and accepting that some problems in life are unchangeable can bring solace. Trying to change that which is unchangeable generally fuels unhappiness.

The developers of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2013) put their own brain-based 21st century spin on the Serenity Prayer. To summarize, they say the brain has two basic modes of functioning. The first mode is problem-solving. The brain is quite good at problem-solving. But some problems are unsolvable. When faced with insoluble problems, rather than letting go of the problem-solving process, the brain naturally persists, relentlessly continuing to problem-solve, ruminate, and chew on old ideas and failures. Anxiety and fear escalates. If the brain gets hooked on unsolvable problems, it can take clients down into bottomless rabbit-holes and exacerbate emotional discomfort.

What about that second basic brain modality? Mindfulness practitioners say that engaging the second mode can unhitch our brains from the out-of-control problem-solving train. The second brain modality operates on a less natural principle: The principle of acceptance. MBCT practitioners emphasize shifting into noticing, or nonjudgmental acceptance. Although the brain is capable of intermittent nonjudgmental acceptance, shifting into that modality is tough. Most clients can’t make that switch in the moment. That’s okay. Accepting failure to switch into nonjudgmental mindfulness is part of mindful acceptance. Coaching clients to make efforts at mindfulness and then to accept their failings and inadequacies might facilitate client self-acceptance and grow mindful parts of the brain, like the insula (Haase et al., 2016). Nonjudgmental acceptance requires regular practice. No one ever gets it right all the time.

Opportunity Ameliorates

James Garbarino (2001) wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates” (p. 361). Within the trauma literature, it’s clear that toxic stress increases illness (Shern et al., 2016); it’s also clear that providing traumatized youth and adults with physical, social, and academic opportunities mitigates trauma and increases health. In part, your role with clients who have experienced trauma and who are chronically reactivated by socio-political events, is to assist them in finding and participating in local resources and opportunities.

Clients who are suicidal and in the midst of toxic and uncontrollable contextual factors, may feel they don’t have the time or energy for new opportunities. Like Katie from chapter 5, they may need support, assistance, and resources to step outside of their survival mode. Practical problems like childcare, transportation, and inaccessible community organizations can loom large. In such situations, you may need to engage in advocacy or activism to help your clients get connected to the resources and opportunities they need.

Evidence-Based Relationship Factors in Supervision and Practice

Today I’ll be online providing a 2-hour workshop titled “Evidence-Based Relationship Factors in Supervision and Practice” on behalf of the Cognitive Behavioral Institute and Geneva College. This workshop content is related to the excellent work of John Norcross, Michael Lambert, and other prominent professionals who have advocated (and researched!) the scientific truth that RELATIONSHIPS are powerful influencers of positive treatment outcomes in counseling and psychotherapy. This topic is also the focus of a forthcoming book authored by a former doc student of mine, Kimberly Parrow (more on her excellent work in a future blog).

For now, I’m posting the ppts for today’s online workshop here:

And here’s the workshop description: Counselors and psychotherapists have a long and storied history of arguing with one another over what makes therapy effective. Some say: We should teach and supervise our students to use empirically-supported treatments (i.e., procedures, as in medicine). Others say: We should teach and supervise our students to establish therapeutic relationships. Although it’s clear that specific treatments and therapeutic relationships both contribute to outcomes, when supervisors and practitioners think of empirically-supported approaches, they tend to think of manualized treatments or procedures. However, in recent years, specific relationship factors have been identified and linked to positive counseling and psychotherapy outcomes (Norcross & Lambert, 2018). These factors include: cultural humility, congruence, unconditional positive regard, empathic understanding, emotional bonds, mutual goal-setting, and more. In this workshop, participants will learn to identify, describe, and apply evidence-based relationship factors in supervision and practice. Video-clips, live demonstrations, and reflective opportunities will be used to facilitate learning.

I hope you have an excellent day and weekend wherein you are enacting as many evidence-based relationship factors as you can fit into your life!

Best,

John S-F

Bad Sleep . . . Bad Judgment

No one has excellent judgment when sleep deprived and so no one should expect to have excellent judgment when sleep deprived. I’m making this bold claim based on my recent personal experience of writing and posting last week’s blog titled, “Sleep Well.” Sometimes I write late at night. That’s great for the muse and creativity; it’s less great for me remembering what the heck I was planning to write. I start writing. . . I finish writing. . . and sometimes I stay with my focus, while other times, well, I forget the whole point.Last week, my main reason for writing a blog on sleep was to link readers to a specific sleep podcast. However, because I was doing my late-night writing thing, by the time I finished it, I completely forgot to mention the podcast or include the link. Has this sort of thing ever happened to you? My guess is that, if it does, it happens more often when you’re sleep deprived, than when you’re sleep restored. Now, after a nice weekend of restorative sleep, here’s info and the link to the podcast.The podcast is called “All things Vagus.” I confessed to the host (Kathy Mangan, who is great) that I was scientifically opposed to “polyvagal theory” but she still let me on the show. That’s an example of how great she is. Here’s the description for the April 3, 2023 episode, titled: Sleep Well, Be Well: Why talk about sleep? It is important to our health, so we need to get clear on the types of insomnia and how we can cope with distress and anxiety that might be disrupting our rest.The link: https://allthingsvagus.fireside.fm/10P.S.: This is a 42-minute podcast episode, which makes it a nice length to go along with the workout you should be doing every day to optimize your sleep. And if you optimize your sleep, you’re more likely to remember what you’re writing about.

Sleep Well

When it comes to literally everything, knowledge is power. The more we know and the more we understand, the better we’re able to cope with—as Alfred Adler used to say—the tasks of life. One very important task of life is to sleep well.

In September, 1975, I went to college for one reason: to play college football and baseball. Going to class and learning anything was required for me to be able to do what I wanted to do. So, I went to class and I played sports.

Being away from the structure of home and family, I didn’t sleep well. Then, several months into my college career, I started having what I considered “Very weird experiences.” I didn’t tell anyone about those experiences, because they were weird and I was a young male and unaccustomed to being open with others about any of my private experiences. The very weird experiences just kept on happening.

The experiences happened as I tried to nap (on the floor, or a couch, a bed, or wherever I was). While dropping off to sleep, or waking up, I would start to hear what sounded like loud static. The static was bad and weird on its own, but then I discovered I couldn’t move, which was especially disturbing because I began seeing the shape of an ominous figure standing at the end of my bed, or couch, or in the doorway. I had to just lay there in panic because, of course, I was paralyzed.

Eventually, I would completely wake up, be able to move, and discover no one was in my room. And eventually, maybe because I adjusted to college or started sleeping better, the very weird experiences stopped. But, while they were happening, I searched my mind for explanations.

Because there was no Internet and no Google back then, I relied on what was in my brain. But basically, I had nearly nothing in my brain. Remember, I was interested in sports, not knowledge. . . and I was a bit averse to doing anything rational, like going to the library or consulting a professional. Consequently, being a meaning-making creature, I created two hypotheses, basically out of thin air.

Hypothesis #1: I was about to be possessed by a demon.

Hypothesis #2: I might be developing psychic powers.

There was no hypothesis #3. My mind bounced from hypothesis 1 to hypothesis 2, and back again.

Funny thing. In the early 2000s, I happened to be reading the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and found a section that described a phenomenon called, “Sleep paralysis.” I was, as they say, gobsmacked. The description was EXACTLY my experience, including the frightening and shadowy figure at the end of the bed.

My point is that it’s good to know stuff in general, and good to know specific stuff about our own experiences around mental health and. . . including that thing we call insomnia. I’ve posted before about insomnia (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/05/23/insomnia/). I will also post more soon, but for now, I’m just sharing the “sleep hygiene” slide from my happiness and sleep lectures.

Sleep hygiene is a thing. I’ve got lots of funny and snarky things to say about sleep hygiene. Maybe the most important is that sleep is an elusive little bugger. What I mean by that is that sleep comes somewhat easier when we stop trying too hard, and often runs away when we’re feeling especially desperate to get some good sleep. The other piece of important information is that having sleep disruptions and not sleeping the magical 8 hours is pretty darn normal. Many or most people have regular sleep disruptions. And, fun fact, expecting that you should get 8 hours of sleep every night can get in your head and interfere with you getting 8 hours of sleep a night.

For now, here’s the famous sleep hygiene powerpoint slide (below). More to come (later) on tricks and techniques for sleeping well. Thanks for reading.

Three Leftover American Counseling Association Conference Videos

During a couple of my presentations at the ACA conference in Toronto (pictured above) I wasn’t able to fit in some short demonstration videos. To address my time management problems, I’m posting links to them here, along with a short description. Note: All of the videos for suicide demonstrations are non-scripted simulations.

Video 1: An example of an opening of a session with Kennedy, a 15-year-old cisgender white female with a history of suicidal ideation. Key things to watch for include how I immediately mention suicide, focus on sources of distress in Kennedy’s life, and acknowledge things I know and things I don’t know. If we think about emotional distress (aka Shneidman’s psychache) as contributing to suicidality, contemplate what you think is the driver of Kennedy’s feelings of suicidality. The link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gR7YU0VrHqw&t=5s

Video 2: An example of me closing the session with Kennedy using Stanley & Brown’s (2013) Safety Planning Intervention. As always, I’m not perfect in the video, but it shows a process during which I’m trying to cover the safety planning categories in an interpersonally engaging and pleasant manner. The link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd7PM9HFDO4&t=10s

Video 3: I’m working with Chase, a 35-year-old Gay cisgender male. In this video, I try to get Chase to see a potential pattern of him being suicidal in response to bullying in the past and being interpersonally invalidated in the present. Chase dismisses my “light interpretation” with something like, “That’s the hand I was dealt.” Again, although I’m imperfect in this video, I do take the hint and shift from an abstract interpretation to a concrete assessment process I call the “Social Universe.” During that process, it becomes clear that Chase is spending too much time with “toxic” people in his life and not much time with people who accept him. Additionally, he presents as quite depressed and unable to come up with anyone “validating” and so I shift to a process called, “Building hope from the bottom up” by asking him, “Who’s the least validating or most toxic?” Chase responds pretty well to a process that starts at the bottom or most negative place.”  The link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNBR3bKyE4I&t=7s

Thanks to everyone who attended the ACA conference, for being the kind of professionals who are pursuing awareness, knowledge, and skills in order to be more effective in helping others life meaningful lives. I was humbled by your engagement with the learning process.

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