Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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Seeing Anxiety as an Opportunity Instead of a Threat

By Lynne Gots, posted on August 22nd, 2017.

My newly rescued terrier Dewey is, in almost all ways, an excellent dog. He’s energetic, inquisitive, friendly, and affectionate. But when we’re out walking and he spies another dog, he turns into a whirling, barking Tasmanian Devil. Luckily he weighs only eighteen pounds—any bigger and he’d knock me off my feet. Still, the prospect of a surprise canine encounter made me dread our daily outings.

So I signed up for a Distracted Dog class. I already had been working on undoing some of the bad habits Dewey had acquired over the seven years of his life before coming to us. He’s learning how to wait for his food, lie down instead of jumping up and begging, and walk on a leash without pulling. The challenge now is to keep his attention on me in more stressful situations.

Before the first day of class, our instructor asked us to send her a hierarchy of our dog’s top five distractions, much like the hierarchy of anxiety triggers used in CBT for exposure and response prevention. At the top of Dewey’s list was “seeing another dog approach while on a walk.”

In treating anxiety, I help people stop avoiding and start approaching what they most fear. I needed to apply the same mindset to changing my dog’s (and my own) reactions to the stimuli that send him into a frenzied display of doggie frustration.

So, instead of anxiously scanning the environment for other dogs in order to do an about face before Dewey spots them, I’ve started looking for ways to practice building his self-control. As a result, I’ve observed a dramatic change in my own (if not yet Dewey’s) emotional reaction. I’m excited instead of tense when I see neighbors out walking their dogs. I now interpret a potential trigger not as a threat to steer clear of but as an opportunity to seek out.

If I were drawing only from my personal experience, my method wouldn’t carry much weight. But the results of several research studies support my anecdotal evidence. Saying, “I feel excited” instead of attributing physical arousal to anxiety—a technique called “anxious reappraisal”—can improve singing, test-taking, and public speaking performance by putting people in an “opportunity mindset” even though the physiological markers of anxiety such as increased heart rate and cortisol levels remain elevated.

In fact, you don’t even need to tell yourself you’re excited; just believing that anxiety can improve rather than impair performance helped test takers score higher on the GRE. It’s a trick actors often use to cope with stage fright. Those who are successful don’t necessarily feel less nervous. But they’re able to view the fluttering of their hearts and rumbling of their stomachs as feelings that give energy to their performance.

Confronting anxiety is hard. You can’t make progress unless you’re willing to face the situations you fear. But changing the way you think about arousal might make it a little easier to rise to the challenge.




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Posted in Anxiety, Dogs |

Five Common Myths about OCD

By Lynne Gots, posted on July 9th, 2017.

The people I treat for OCD hate it when someone says, “I’m so OCD!,” usually as a way of explaining pickiness or excessive neatness. I do, too. Not only does the comment minimize the severe suffering a person with actual OCD experiences; it also perpetuates a number of prevalent misconceptions about the disorder.

  1. OCD isn’t a personality quirk. It’s a  neuropsychiatric illness involving persistant, intrusive mental images or thoughts (obsessions) that create extreme emotional distress–typically anxiety, but sometimes disgust. Compulsions develop as a way of alleviating the intolerable feelings.
  2. OCD isn’t perfectionism. Perfectionism is one thinking style commonly, but not always, seen with OCD. Other cognitive patterns, such as an excessive sense of responsibility, a tendency to overestimate danger, and an intolerance of uncertainty also frequently accompany OCD.
  3. Not everyone with OCD is a neat freak. Neatness may be characteristic of people with OCD who have a compulsion to create order and symmetry to feel “just right.” Or the need to clean and wash may be a response to contamination obsessions. But other forms of OCD involve primarily mental images and rituals often invisible to the casual observer.
  4. OCD is easy to spot. Washing and checking compulsions may be obvious to family and friends. But many other obsessions and compulsions occur strictly in the sufferer’s mind, making them hard to detect even for mental health professionals. Given the shameful nature of these mental intrusions, such as thoughts of committing a violent act, people afflicted with this type of OCD may suffer in silence for years–seventeen, on average–before obtaining the proper diagnosis and treatment.
  5. OCD is hard to treat. Many traditional mental health practitioners hold this view. In fact, with the correct, evidence-based treatments (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and medication, if needed), people with OCD can feel relief within a few months.

These myths do a disservice to those in the grips of OCD. Let’s set the record straight.

 

 

 

 




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Posted in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder |

The Value of Sadness

By Lynne Gots, posted on April 25th, 2017.

My dog Baxter died last week. At fifteen years and nine months old, he had reached the end of his time. He was the canine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. But, still.

No matter how expected, the loss of a loved one always delivers a sucker punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you and leaves a cavernous hole. When I come home to the empty mat by the garage door where Baxter always waited for my return, I feel his absence. When I’m doling out food for one dog instead of two, I feel it. When I’m chopping cucumbers for a salad and, out of habit, drop the ends on the floor for Baxter (whose longevity quite possibly was related to his voracious consumption of vegetables), I feel it. And when I  see his unoccupied bed in the corner when I wake up in the morning, I feel it.

My nine-year-old Aussie Freddie also feels it. Herding dogs need jobs, and his was to shepherd Baxter around our property to make sure nothing untoward happened. Baxter once killed a bunny, and instead of partaking in the hasenpfeffer feast, Freddie circled the carnage barking while Baxter gleefully eviscerated his prey. Whenever I let them out, Freddie body blocked Baxter to control his access to the yard . Now he stands on the deck looking back, waiting.

I’ve heard some people say they would never have a pet because they couldn’t bear the pain of losing it. But protecting yourself from strong emotions, like sadness, only sets you up for more problems in the long run because experiential avoidance prevents you from learning you can withstand the inevitable pain and difficulty of living. And, by too carefully protecting yourself from feeling bad, you also risk limiting the full range of human emotional experiences–like joy and love–that makes life worthwhile.

So I’m embracing my sadness. I’ve made Baxter’s picture the lock screen 0n my phone so I can remember him when I text or send an email. The lump in my throat comes up every time. I welcome it.




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Posted in Dogs |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

Email >

If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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© 2008-2017 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.