On Thursday, April 16, 2020, I was interviewed for a podcast entitled Learn how to Manage your Stress and Anxiety during the COVID-19 Pandemic by entrepreneur and investor Justin Brown. You can watch/listen to the podcast for free here.
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A few weeks ago I began writing about the different forms of counseling. The more people understand about the different types of talk therapy the better psychotherapy is likely to progress.
Most recently I wrote about psychodynamic or psychoanalytic talk therapy, which was first proposed by Sigmund Freud. Freud created the psychoanalytic / psychodynamic paradigm and argued that mental illnesses arose from unconscious conflicts within an individual. Though Freudian thought remains influential, psychoanalytic methods have developed considerably since Freud.
Carl Jung was one of the most influential early proponents of Buddhism in the west and he was the leading mental health theorist who openly championed the systematic psychological value of this ancient religion. Jung famously broke with his mentor Sigmund Freud for many reasons, but one of the differences was in their varying interest in eastern philosophies and religion in general, and Buddhism in particular. For Jung, Buddhism was perhaps the foundation of his work, while Freud regarded it with far less zeal. Commenting on this marked difference of interest Freud observed: “In you the tempest rages; it comes to me as distant thunder” (McGuire, 2003, p. 434).
Jung’s interest in Buddhism was not only academic; on a deeply personal level he sought to integrate the teachings of Buddhism into his life. For example, while serving in the military during World War I, every morning when he woke up he would draw a mandala (Buddhist meditation device) as a form of personal devotion. Jung cited the Tibetan Book of the Dead as one of his strongest and most enduring influences and inspirations. As he noted, “For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights” (1935, p. xxxvi).
Jung wrote several influential works commenting on Asian religion and philosophy including his forwards to The Secret of the Golden Flower and the I-Ching and Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. But it was in his forwards to The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1935; Tibetan Bardo Thodol) and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1964) where he most directly sought to ground his views of psychology in Buddhist thought. These famous texts are singularly important for inquiries into Jung’s views on Asian thought because it is in these latter two works where Jung most directly declares his reverence to and reliance on Buddhism.
Jung viewed The Tibetan Book of the Dead as being foundational in his own system of psychology, and in his Introduction to the Tibetan text Jung finds many parallels between ancient Buddhist philosophy and his own method of psychology, likening the concept of Buddhist enlightenment to his psychological belief that “the creative ground of all metaphysical assertion is consciousness” (p. xxxix). And he equates the Buddhist notion of karma with his conception of the collective unconscious (p. xliii).
Though he felt Buddhism surpassed most western intellectual disciplines, he still felt it demonstrated resonance with western conceptions of mental health. Jung argued that The Tibetan Book of the Dead conceptualized mental illnesses in the same way as contemporary psychology. He believed, for example, that the mythological Tantric depictions of violence in the Tibetan text skillfully depicted the experience of schizophrenia.
In his foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism Jung approvingly defines Zen as a “mysterium ineffable” and he characterizes Zen as having the “flowerlike nature of the spirit of the Far East” and as being “one of the most wonderful blossoms of the Chinese spirit” (p.11, 12). Similar to his interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung characterizes satori, a Zen experience of enlightenment, as a psychological phenomenon.
Like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung finds kinship and grounding for his own practice of psychology in Zen. He argues that the enigmatic nature of koan meditation results in the practitioner transcending his or her day-to-day consciousness and typical intellectual means of understanding. The ensuing result of Zen koans, Jung believes, is a direct revelation of the unconscious. Thus, through the Zen practice of koans Jung believed he found a means to bring to fruition the goals of his psychology. Jung writes: "This displacement ensues as a rule in Zen through the fact of the energy of the conscious being withdrawn from the contents and transferred either to the conception of emptiness or to the koan….This increases the readiness of the unconscious contents to break through to the conscious….The connection is in substance a compensatory relationship: the contents of the unconscious bring to the surface everything necessary in the broadest sense for the completion, i.e. the completeness, of conscious orientation….and therefore abolishes fruitless conflict between the conscious and the unconscious personality (p. 22-23)."
As in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung finds profound resonance for his theories in his understanding of Zen Buddhism. And echoing his commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung employs his foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s Zen text to critique Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Jung viewed his form of psychology to be highly congruent to Buddhism, and he frequently observed how much Buddhism shaped his personal and professional thought. In my next entry I’ll offer some reflections of how Jung and psychodynamic psychologists have utilized Buddhist philosophy.
Jung, C. (1935). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Psychological commentary. In W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Ed.). The Tibetan Book of the Dead. London: Oxford University Press.
Jung, C. (1964). Foreword. In Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. An introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press.
McGuire, W. (2003). Jung, Evans-Wentz and various other gurus. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 48, 433-445.
What is Psychodynamic Therapy?
Clients who are interested in doing psychotherapy often wonder what psychotherapy is like. Sometimes people have a good experience with one psychologist but a bad experience with another one and wonder why their experiences in counseling are so different. Many people don’t realize that talk therapy can be radically different from one psychologist to another, especially as there are over 400 different schools of psychotherapy.
Mental health clinicians and researchers often debate which is the best type of therapy, but the research suggests that in general most of the main forms of psychotherapy can be equally effective. Some of the common factors for success in talk therapy (obtaining the outcome the client is looking for) has to do with things like the psychologist being competent in the type of psychotherapy that the client needs and the quality of the therapeutic relationship (e.g. is the psychologist supportive and empathic).
One of the most important predictors of success is that clients understand the therapeutic process. As Aaron Beck famously observed, psychotherapy can be done in a barn, meaning it doesn’t have to be a mysterious process shrouded in mystery. The more clients understand the process of therapy, the more likely they are to benefit from it. So for these reasons I thought I’d write a few blog posts on the main schools of psychotherapy.
Sigmund Freud is often credited as creating the “talking cure,” now known as psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy. Freud believed that mental illnesses arose from unconscious conflicts within an individual. Though Freudian thought remains influential (about 25% of therapists are psychodynamic), psychodynamic methods have developed considerably since Freud.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and early disciple of Freud’s, developed analytical psychology which was influenced by more humanistic forms of thought. Unlike Freud, Jung had less emphasis on raw biological drives and more emphasis on forms of self-actualization and the collective unconscious. Jung had an interest in religion, especially eastern religions and focused on people’s future aspirations as well as their past. Like Jung, Alfred Adler originally followed and then broke from Freud as he focused less on instincts and instead emphasized the importance of seeking goals and other humanistic ideals. Adler focused on a person’s individual experience, seeking to change their illogical ideas and assumptions. This approach of Adler in some ways presaged cognitive behavioral therapy (which is very popular today).
Psychodynamic techniques continue to evolve. For example, Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (EDP) tends to focus on client’s current emotional experience and bodily sensations, among other factors, through the guidance of an actively involved therapist.
While psychodynamic therapies can vary widely, psychodynamic therapies often work on the assumption that emotions that we are unaware of impact our relationships. Thus, a psychodynamic therapist will often seek to illuminate and interpret defense mechanisms to provide insight into a client’s behaviors and life. Therapy, in this school of thought, will often involve working through things like transference (process of misplacing feelings regarding one person onto another) and resistance (avoidance of important issues) to help people feel better and achieve their goals.
Though many serious criticisms have been leveled against Freud’s theories, some of his ideas remain influential and continue to inform contemporary clinicians across schools of mental health. For example, early childhood experiences can help shape adult personalities. And while not always agreeing on the model of the id, ego and superego, there is considerable cognitive research supporting the notion that much of human behavior operates via unconscious processes. Also, there is wide support within psychology for the idea of defense mechanisms.
I’m not a psychodynamic psychologist, but this school of thought is enjoying more research support, and I do know several good psychologists who use this model of therapy. The key is finding the right psychologist and style of therapy for you.
McCullough, L., Kuhn, N., Andrews, S., Kaplan, A., Wolf, J., & Hurley, C. (2003). Treating affect phobia: A manual for short-term dynamic psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Vaillant, L. (1997). Changing character: Short-term anxiety-regulating psychotherapy for restructuring defenses, affects, and attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Wachtel, P. (2008). Relational theory and the practice of psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Wampold, B. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Wampold, B. (2010). The Basics of psychotherapy: An introduction to theory and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
A powerful article that just came out on leading existential psychotherapist Irv Yalom. Yalom is a leading theorist and clinician who has transformed the way we view psychotherapy. He suggests that much of human suffering comes from people’s unacknowledged and unresolveddeath related anxiety. He’s turning 86 and facing declining health and talks candidly about facing his own death. Interestingly this article accurately contrasts Yalom’s thought with that of Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Tuesdays with Morrie. Tuesdays with Morrie contains a powerful explication of the Buddhist idea of detachment; Morrie was himself a steady mindfulness meditation practitioner. Morrie Schwartz and Irv Yalom face death very differently, yet they both have much to offer. Check out this article on Yalom and let me know what you think.
Here is the passage by Morrie Schwartz on detachment, a fruit of mindfulness meditation: "You know what the Buddhists say? Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent…. But detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you are able to leave it…. If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.’ I know you think this is just about dying, but it’s like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live (Tuesdays with Morrie, page 104)."
How Stress Affects Health
There’s a wide body of research suggesting Americans are experiencing more and more stress. For the average American worker commute times are increasing while wages are decreasing. We’re sleeping less as a society, and there is an abundance of disconcerting news headlines from around the world.
Some stress can be good as it can motivate us to change and accomplish our goals. Without some pressure we might not pursue our dreams. But too much stress can be debilitating. When we are too stressed we produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is referred to as “public enemy number one” by many psychologists. Some physiological stress reactions can include a racing heart, shallow breathing, decreased oxygen, muscle tension, perspiration, and impaired cognitive functioning.
Numerous studies have shown that emotional stressors can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even sudden death. Chronic stress can cause memory impairment, impaired immune system functioning, increased risk of coronary disease, and increased cardiovascular risk.
Sometimes we can make changes in our lives to reduce stress. A Zen Buddhist priest I respect once said, “Whenever I have a chance to lower my stress I walk on through that door!” That’s good advice. Sometimes we can’t change certain circumstances in our lives, or we have to endure something for a higher purpose. Even if we can’t change our external circumstances, often we can change how we think and react.
One of my favorite ways to deal with stress, both in my personal and professional life, is through meditation. There are many different kinds of meditation, and the meditation that is best is the one that works for you in the moment. Just as an athlete trains their body for sports, a meditator can train their mind to deal with life differently.
There are many ways to deal with stress. For more information on both the impacts of stress and how to deal with stress check out this article by the American Psychological Association.
Got self-doubt? You are not alone. The great existential thinker Irvin Yalom writes movingly of the ubiquitous of shame and self-doubt. Sometimes even the most successful can live lives of quiet desperation and secret shame. It’s thought by many that great accomplishments translate to happiness. But unfortunately sometimes even profound accomplishments and accolades can bounce off us like a suit of armor if we don’t have an authentic inner core of healthy, grounded self-esteem. Just as some stress can be good as it moves us out of complacency, too much stress can be debilitating; a little self-doubt can push us beyond our seeming limits but too much self-doubt can be crippling.
Shame and self-doubt can arise from many sources, including unhealthy societal messages, trauma, negative thought patterns, or even an existential malaise. Sometimes just taking good care of the basic human organism can facilitate self-confidence. Eating better and getting enough sleep can markedly improve our mood and thought processes. As powerful as exercise is biologically, I think it’s even better psychologically. Often we can discover our true selves through the arts.
Similarly, recent exciting research suggests that we may be able to increase our self-confidence by training our brains. Scientists have identified brain activity patterns that can predict the confidence level of an individual. Additional research has shown that we can hone our neural activity to internally enhance our self-confidence. You can read more here.
The findings of a recent study conducted in Malaysia, with over 1,300 research participants, suggest that over 80% of cancer survivors struggled with depression and anxiety a year after they were diagnosed. Similarly, this study also found that patient’s sense of physical and mental wellbeing was often low, and that the more advanced the type of cancer, the lower the patient’s quality of life was.
The lead researcher of the study, Shridevi Subramaniam, stated, “We urgently need new ways of supporting cancer survivors and addressing wider aspects of wellbeing…Instead of just focusing on clinical outcome, doctors must focus equally on quality of life for cancer patients especially psychologically, financially and socially…The key message is to focus more on supporting patients throughout their whole cancer ‘journey’ especially in their lives after treatment.”
I appreciate the findings of this study. Cancer can impact every dimension of a person’s life. When we only focus on biological outcomes we often alienate patients and their families—sometimes even when we ‘succeed’ we fail. There are many complimentary paths of healing; for example mindfulness meditation can help lower biological pain.
As I often observe: everything biological is psychological and everything psychological is biological. When we care for the whole person, including the patient’s family, we provide better overall care and obtain better results. We also have better results for the medical caregivers. Most medical professionals go into healthcare because they want to help people. Sometimes though the system beats the medical staff down. Developing holistic approaches to care is not just good for patients and families, it’s better for professional caregivers as well. An article discussing this study can be found here.
Feeling forgetful? Do you find yourself feeing more nervous or down? Perhaps you should try some yoga. The results of a recent study suggest that yoga can improve both memory and mood. In this study, 25 adult research participants who had mild cognitive impairments were assigned to either three-month yoga and meditation classes or to do memory-training exercises. At the end of the study, both groups saw similar improvement in verbal memory. But the people who did yoga had higher improvement in visual-spatial memory. Further, the yoga practitioners saw better reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression. You can find a free article about the study here.
Political discussions among people with opposing views can be hard for many reasons, including neurologically, how your brain functions when you process political ideas. An article from the University of Southern California explains that when a person’s political beliefs are called into question, their brains become activated in areas that govern personal identity and emotional responses to threats. Here are some important observations from neuropsychologists studying the intersections of strongly held political beliefs and neurology:
“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong… To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself… The study found that people who were most resistant to changing their beliefs had more activity in the amygdalae (a pair of almond-shaped areas near the center of the brain) and the insular cortex, compared with people who were more willing to change their minds… The activity in these areas, which are important for emotion and decision-making, may relate to how we feel when we encounter evidence against our beliefs…. The amygdala in particular is known to be especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety... The insular cortex processes feelings from the body, and it is important for detecting the emotional salience of stimuli. That is consistent with the idea that when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds.”
“We should acknowledge that emotion plays a role in cognition and in how we decide what is true and what is not true. We should not expect to be dispassionate computers. We are biological organisms. Understanding when and why people are likely to change their minds is an urgent objective. Knowing how and which statements may persuade people to change their political beliefs could be key for society’s progress.”
Significantly, these researchers suggest that neurologically, people were similarly resistant to change their beliefs when it came to fake news and religion. It’s helpful to understand how our brain functions when our deeply held beliefs are being discussed and debated. And, other things influence who we are in addition to neurological functioning. A key question raised by these neurological findings is: can we discuss different, important beliefs in a way where all parties can feel calm, respected, and safe? The article quoted above can be found here.
Rush hour traffic. You’re rushing to get the kids to school and yourself to work. You have a million things to do on your “to-do” list. Wait, where did you put your car keys? We live in stressful times. A little stress can be good in that it can motivate us. But too much stress can negatively impact us both physically and mentally. Stress can also really take a toll on our memory. Our memory functions by encoding and consolidating information and retrieving that information when it’s needed. When we’re under too much stress our encoding process can be disrupted and we can forget vital information. Here’s an article on effective retrieval strategies so we can remember the information we need, even when we’re under a lot of stress. Good luck!
Dr. Zuniga is a psychologist, author, and consultant in Austin, Texas.