All posts by johnsommersflanagan

John Dreams About Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories

One morning, long ago, John woke up in the midst of a dream about having written a theories book. Over breakfast, John shared his dream with Rita. Rita said, “John go sit down, relax, and I’ll sit behind you as you free associate to the dream” (see Chapter 2, Psychoanalytic Approaches).

As John was free-associating, Rita tried to gently share her perspective using a two-person, relational psychotherapy model. She noted it had been her lived experience that, in fact, they had already written a theories text together and that he must have been dreaming of a 2nd edition. John jumped out of his seat and shouted, “You’re right! I AM dreaming about a 2nd edition.”

This profound insight led to further therapeutic exploration. Rita had John look at the purpose of his dream (see Chapter 3, Individual Psychology); then he acted out the dream, playing the role of each object and character (see Chapter 6; Gestalt therapy). When he acted out the role of Rita, he became exceedingly enthusiastic about the 2nd edition. She, of course, accused him of projection while he suggested that perhaps he had absorbed her thoughts in a psychic process related to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Rita noted that was a possibility, but then suggested we leave Jung and the collective unconscious online where it belongs (see the Jungian chapter in the big contemporary collective unconscious of the internet online at ** ).

For the next week, Rita listened to and resonated with John as he talked about the 2nd edition. She provided an environment characterized by congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding (see Chapter 5, Person-Centered approaches). John flourished in that environment, but sneakily decided to play a little behavioral trick on Rita. Every time she mentioned the word theories he would say “Yesss!,” pat her affectionately on the shoulder and offer her a piece of dark chocolate (see Chapter 7, Behavior therapy). Later he took a big risk and allowed a little cognition into the scenario, asking her: “Hey, what are you thinking?” (see Chapter 8, Cognitive-behavioral therapy).

Rita WAS still thinking it was too much work and not enough play. John responded by offering to update his feminist views and involvement if she would only reconsider (see Chapter 10, Feminist therapy); he also emphasized to Rita that writing a second edition would help them discover more meaning in life and perhaps they would experience the splendor of awe (see Chapter 4, Existential therapy). Rita still seemed ambivalent and so John asked himself the four questions of choice theory (see Chapter 9, Choice theory and reality therapy):

  1. What do you want?
  2. What are you doing?
  3. Is it working?
  4. Should you make a new plan?

It was time for a new plan, which led John to develop a new narrative (see Chapter 11, Narrative therapy).  He had a sparkling moment where he brought in and articulated many different minority voices whose discourse had been neglected (see Chapter 13; Multicultural therapy). He also got his daughters to support him and conducted a short family intervention (see Chapter 12, Family systems therapy).

Something in the mix seemed to work: Rita came to him and said . . . “I’ve got the solution, we need to do something different while we’re doing something the same and approach this whole thing with a new attitude of mindful acceptance” (see Chapter 11, Solution-focused therapy and Chapter 14, Integrational approaches). To this John responded with his own version of radical acceptance saying: “That’s a perfect idea and you know, I think it will get even better over a nice dinner.” It was at that nice dinner that they began to articulate their main goals for the second edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice.

Working on Multicultural Awareness

As I’m reviewing and editing the CI text, I’m running across topics and content that may be of more general interest and will post them here as a means of (a) distracting myself, (b) procrastinating and, if anyone is interested, (c) getting feedback. Below is an adaptation of a “Putting It In Practice” activity we cover in the text:

Talking About Skin Color

No one we know over the age of 12 is very comfortable talking about skin color. Nevertheless, because research shows that many individuals have unconscious skin color biases, we believe some discussion of this potentially emotionally charged topic should take place within the context of various educational settings, including graduate education in counseling or psychotherapy. This is why we recommend the following websites.

1.  Go to HTTPS://IMPLICIT.HARVARD.EDU/IMPLICIT/ and take some form of the Implicit Association Test. This test is designed to evaluate your underlying, possibly unconscious, attitudes toward people with various skin colors. We recommend that you take the test and then discuss your reactions to the test (and to your results) with friends, family, or colleagues.

2.  Teaching has a nice website on multicultural equality. One part of this website lists a video titled “Starting Small” that shows young children with divergent racial and ethnic backgrounds comparing their skin colors (thanks to Midge Elander for pointing this out to me; go to for the video). Watching the video and then engaging in the small group skin color activity is an appropriate way for adults to open a conversation about skin color.

Although it’s important to potentially be able to discuss skin color and other racial, ethnic, and cultural issues directly with clients, family, and friends, we recommend that doing so with caution and sensitivity. Skin color isn’t typically a topic that should be brought up by white people—because white people should work out their own skin color issues rather than dragging people of color into the issues with them. Instead, skin color, culture, and race are issues to discuss openly within safe and secure individual or group settings or when people of color show an interest in such discussions. The point is to get more comfortable at communicating directly if needed and in the appropriate time and place. The other point is to move past unconscious negative or positive stereotyping biases like those identified in the implicit association test.

Revising Clinical Interviewing — Who Wants to Help?

It’s time to put our Clinical Interviewing text into its 5th edition and so I’m just starting on my main and very exciting summer project (there’s some, but not complete sarcasm here). In the next four weeks I’ll be editing, updating, and transforming the 15 chapters with the latest thinking and research in the Clinical Interviewing domain.

That brings me to the purpose of today’s blog.

If any of you are familiar with this text and have thoughts about what needs to change and what needs to stay the same, I’d love to hear from you.

If any of you are aware of cutting edge research on clinical interviewing, I’d love it if you’d pass the information on to me.

And if any of you have special qualifications and might want to write a 1,000-1,500 word professional essay on a specific topic in one of the chapters . . . let me know and I’m open to hearing your ideas.

In the meantime, I’m hunkered down in a small cabin on the Stillwater River just West of Absarokee and will be diving into this project (and not the river) as I fend off the staggering winds (wishing for a wind turbine . . . darn it) and take breaks to weed the garden and catch skunks. I’ll try not to have too much fun and will be blogging more than usual in an effort to avoid real work:).

Insomnia 2.0

Not infrequently in my work at Trapper Creek Job Corps I have students come to me and tell me of their dreams and ghost sightings. One of the more common scenarios involves a description something like this:

“I wake up in the night and I’m sure there’s some kind of ghost or creepy guy standing at the end of my bed. It totally freaks me out. And I feel frozen . . .  it’s like I can’t even move. Sometimes I pray to myself and eventually when I can move again the ghost or the person is gone.”

Recently I had a student ask me if I’d heard about the ghosts in the dorms. I said, “Yes, but tell me about what you’re experiencing.” He described the usual scene with a creepy “ghost” at the end of the bed. He asked if I believed in ghosts and I said my typical, “I’m open to the possibility, but I don’t exactly believe in ghosts” and then asked if he was interested in hearing about an alternative explanation. He said “Sure” and so I pulled out the DSM and read and discussed with him a few parts from the section on Narcolepsy where it describes the sleep paralysis phenomenon pretty well. He was interested, but I didn’t push it (I tend to avoid trying to talk people out of their supernatural beliefs). He left more relaxed at having an alternative explanation for his experience.

One reason I like to share the science side of these experiences with students is because I recall having similar experiences back in college. Maybe it was related to sleep deprivation (like Kramer on Seinfeld, I had become enamored with the idea that I could survive on 20 minute cat naps). The problem was I became a little pseudo-narcoleptic and began having sleep paralysis experiences fairly often. What seems to happen in these situations is that consciousness returns while the body is still in the remnants of REM sleep. Of course, I interpreted my experiences as signs that I had become especially psychically attuned or that I was having spiritual visitations. It wasn’t until a few decades later (while reading the DSM) that I disappointingly discovered my amazing psychic and spiritual visitations were a product of sleep deprivation.

I haven’t had any sleep paralysis experiences for a very long time. The funny thing is I sort of miss them. I’m not exactly sure how I twisted an experience of feeling paralyzed with a creepy presence in the room into a positive experience . . . but then I am sort of a radical optimist.

The Efficacy of Solution-Focused Therapy

The Efficacy of Solution-Focused Therapy

For years I’ve wondered about what the research says about the efficacy of solution-focused therapy. While revising our theories text, I reviewed some of the literature. If you’re interested, I published a short blog about it on Check it out.


There are three basic forms of insomnia: (a) initial insomnia (difficulty falling asleep); (b) intermittent insomnia (choppy sleep); and (c) terminal insomnia (early morning awakening).

It’s typical for people to say it’s normal to sleep 8 hours through the night. It’s also typical for people to say things like, “We only use 10% of our brains.”

Since I’m awake and it’s the middle of the night, I’m inclined to wonder if I’m experiencing insomnia. I think the answer to that is “Yes and No.” Insomnia is also characterized by distress or impairment and I’m completely against being distressed about this and will be fine and (relatively) unimpaired tomorrow (but then, who am I to judge my own impairment?). Mostly, I’m against pathologizing the normal experience of occasional sleep disruption or, it might be even more accurate to say I’m against the pathologizing of just about everything. This sort of makes me against the DSM, but that’s not quite right either, as I find it a very interesting resource.

And now, having spent 2.5 hours grading papers and contemplating the internet, I must have overloaded my brain by using its 11th percent . . . and so it’s time to return to the world of sleep . . . a place where Carl Jung claimed to hear the voice of God . . . or something like that.

And . . . thanks to tonight’s insomnia experience and the homeostatic reality of life, I suspect I’ll sleep quite well tomorrow.

Imaginal or In Vivo Exposure and Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a form of exposure treatment. Exposure treatments are based on the principle that clients are best treated by exposure to the very thing they want to avoid: the stimulus that evokes intense fear, anxiety, or other painful emotions. Mowrer (1947) used a two-factor theory of learning, based on animal studies, to explain how avoidance conditioning works. First, he explained that animals originally learn to fear a particular stimulus through classical conditioning. For example, a dog may learn to fear its owner’s voice when the owner yells due to the discovery of an unwelcome pile on the living room carpet. Then, if the dog remains in the room with its owner, fear continues to escalate.

Second, Mowrer explained that avoidance behavior is reinforced via operant conditioning. Specifically, if the dog manages to hide under the bed or dash out the front door of the house, it’s likely to experience decreased fear and anxiety. Consequently, the avoidance behavior—running away and hiding—is negatively reinforced because it relieves fear, anxiety, and discomfort. Negative reinforcement is defined as the strengthening of a behavioral response by reducing or eliminating an aversive stimulus (like fear and anxiety).

Note that exposure via systematic desensitization and the other procedures detailed hereafter are distinctively behavioral. However, the concept that psychological health is enhanced when clients face and embrace their fears is consistent with existential and Jungian theory (van Deurzen, 2010; see online Jungian chapter: Link to be set up**).

There are three ways to expose clients to their fears during systematic desensitization. First, exposure to fears can be accomplished through mental imagery. This approach can be more convenient and allows clients to complete treatment without ever leaving their therapist’s office. Second, in vivo (direct exposure to the feared stimulus) is also possible. This option can be more complex (e.g., going to a dental office to provide exposure for a client with a dental phobia), but appears to produce outcomes superior to imaginal exposure (Emmelkamp, 1994). Third, computer simulation (virtual reality) has been successfully used as a means of exposing clients to feared stimuli (Emmelkamp et al., 2001; Emmelkamp, Bruynzeel, Drost, & van der Mast, 2001).

Psychoeducation is critical to effective exposure treatment. D. Dobson and K. S. Dobson (2009) state:

A crucial element of effective exposure is the provision of a solid rationale to encourage your client to take the risks involved in this strategy. A good therapeutic alliance is absolutely essential for exposure to occur. (p. 104)

Further, D. Dobson and K. S. Dobson (2009) provide a sample client handout that helps inform clients of the exposure rationale and procedure.

Exposure treatment means gradually and systematically exposing yourself to situations that create some anxiety. You can then prove to yourself that you can handle these feared situations, as your body learns to become more comfortable. Exposure treatment is extremely important in your recovery and involves taking controlled risks. For exposure treatment to work, you should experience some anxiety—too little won’t be enough to put you in your discomfort zone so you can prove your fears wrong. Too much anxiety means that you may not pay attention to what is going on in the situation. If you are too uncomfortable, it may be hard to try the same thing again. Generally, effective exposure involves experiencing anxiety that is around 70 out of 100 on your Subjective Units of Distress Scale. Expect to feel some anxiety. As you become more comfortable with the situation, you can then move on to the next step. Exposure should be structured, planned, and predictable. It must be within your control, not anyone else’s. (p. 104)

Massed (Intensive) or Spaced (Graduated) Exposure Sessions

Behavior therapists continue to optimize methods for extinguishing fear responses. One question being examined empirically is this: Is desensitization more effective when clients are directly exposed to feared stimuli during a single prolonged session (e.g., one 3-hour session; aka massed exposure) or when they’re slowly and incrementally exposed to feared stimuli during a series of shorter sessions (such as five 1-hour sessions; aka spaced exposure)? Initially, it was thought that massed exposure might result in higher dropout rates, greater likelihood of fear relapse, and a higher client stress. However, research suggests that massed and spaced exposure desensitization strategies yield minimal differences in efficacy differences (Ost, Alm, Brandberg, & Breitholz, 2001).

Virtual Reality Exposure

Technological advancements have led to potential modifications in systematic desensitization procedures. Specifically, virtual reality exposure, a procedure wherein clients are immersed in a real-time computer-generated virtual environment, has been empirically evaluated as an alternative to imaginal or in-vivo exposure in cases of acrophobia (fear of heights), flight phobia, spider phobia, and other anxiety disorders (Krijn et al., 2007; Ruwaard, Broeksteeg, Schrieken, Emmelkamp, & Lange, 2010).

In a meta-analysis of 18 outcome studies, Powers and Emmelkamp (2008) reported a large effect size (d = 1.11) as compared to no treatment and a small effect size (d = .35) when compared to in vivo control conditions. These results suggest that virtual reality exposure may be as efficacious or even more so than in vivo exposure.

Interoceptive Exposure

Typical panic-prone individuals are highly sensitive to internal physical cues (e.g., increased heart rate, increased respiration, and dizziness). They become especially reactive when those cues are associated with environmental situations viewed as potentially causing anxiety (Story & Craske, 2008). Physical cues or sensations are then interpreted as signs of physical illness, impending death, or imminent loss of consciousness (and associated humiliation). Although specific cognitive techniques have been developed to treat clients’ tendencies to catastrophically overinterpret bodily sensations, a more behavioral technique, interoceptive exposure, has been developed to help clients learn, through exposure and practice, to deal more effectively with physical aspects of intense anxiety or panic (Lee et al., 2006; Stewart & Watt, 2008).

Interoceptive exposure is identical to other exposure techniques except that the target exposure stimuli are internal physical cues. There are at least six interoceptive exposure tasks that reliably trigger anxiety (Lee et al., 2006). They include:

  • Hyperventilation
  • Holding breath
  • Breathing through a straw
  • Spinning in circles
  • Shaking head
  • Chest breathing

Of course, before interoceptive exposure is initiated, clients receive education about body sensations, learn relaxation skills (e.g., breathing training), and learn cognitive restructuring skills. Through repeated successful exposure, clients become desensitized to previously feared physical cues (Forsyth, Fusé, & Acheson, 2009).

Response and Ritual Prevention

Mowrer’s two-factor theory suggests that, when a client avoids or escapes a feared or distressing situation or stimulus, the maladaptive avoidance behavior is negatively reinforced (i.e., when the client feels relief from the negative anxiety, fear, or distress, the avoidance or escape behavior is reinforced or strengthened; Spiegler & Guevremont, 2010). Many examples of this negative reinforcement cycle are present across the spectrum of mental disorders. For example, clients with Bulimia Nervosa who purge after eating specific “forbidden” foods are relieving themselves from the anxiety and discomfort they experience upon ingesting the foods (Agras, Schneider, Arnow, Raeburn, & Telch, 1989). Therefore, purging behavior is negatively reinforced. Similarly, when a phobic client escapes from a phobic object or situation, or when a client with obsessive-compulsive symptoms engages in a repeated washing or checking behavior, negative reinforcement of maladaptive behavior occurs (Franklin & Foa, 1998; Franklin, Ledley, & Foa, 2009; March, Franklin, Nelson, & Foa, 2001).

It follows that, to be effective, exposure-based desensitization treatment must include response prevention. With the therapist’s assistance, the client with bulimia is prevented from vomiting after ingesting a forbidden cookie, the agoraphobic client is prevented from fleeing a public place when anxiety begins to mount, and the client with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is prevented from washing his or her hands following exposure to a “contaminated” object. Without response or ritual prevention, the treatment may exacerbate the condition it was designed to treat. Research indicates that exposure plus response prevention can produce significant brain changes in as few as three psychotherapy sessions (Schwartz, Gulliford, Stier, & Thienemann, 2005; Schwartz, Stoessel, Baxter, Martin, & Phelps, 1996).


Reflections on Another Counselng and Psychotherapy Video Shoot

Yesterday I got to demonstrate skills associated with four different therapy approaches: Reality therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and Adlerian therapy.

Overall the video shoot went well, but I was surprised that of these four approaches, in many ways I felt most comfortable with reality therapy. I hadn’t expected that. Many people don’t “get” reality therapy and think it’s either a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy or a highly confrontational approach wherein therapists sternly confront their clients with cold, cruel, reality.

But reality therapy isn’t a form of CBT and it’s not confrontational. What I found myself doing in the reality therapy demo was following the sage guidance of Robert Wubbolding who formulated four BIG questions that stand at the heart of reality therapy. The questions would be good for everyone to memorize and can, when applied gently and persistently, help get people back onto a positive track. The questions are:

1. What do you want?

2. What are you doing?

3. Is it working?

4. Should you make a new plan?

Wubbolding has written several books on reality therapy and is taking up the torch for William Glasser, who was the original developer of this approach. In particular, I recommend Wubbolding’s books because they will help guide you in how to ask questions to help clients explore these four very important questions. I can even use them right now:

What do I want? — A good night’s sleep.

What am I doing? — Typing up this blog

Is it working? — Nope!

Should I make a new plan? — Good night!