AI and Mental Health Therapy: A Look Into the Future

The following is, ironically, adapted from a dialogue with Open AI Chat GPT, an AI-powered Chatbot. 

The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in therapy services has the potential to improve the way mental health services are delivered and received. Here, we will explore the ways AI could impact mental health therapy services.

  1. Improved Accessibility: Similar to Telehealth counseling, AI-powered virtual therapy services have the potential to make mental health care more accessible to individuals who live in remote or underserved areas, have mobility issues, or face other barriers to accessing in-person therapy. 
  2. Increased Efficiency: AI-powered tools can streamline various aspects of therapy, such as intake assessments and data analysis, allowing therapists to spend more time providing personalized treatment and support to clients.
  3. Personalized Treatment: AI algorithms can analyze a client’s data, such as their medical history and symptoms, to develop a personalized treatment plan. This can help therapists tailor their approach to better meet the unique needs of each individual.
  4. More Consistent Care: AI-powered virtual therapists can provide 24/7 support and ensure that clients receive consistent care even when their regular therapist is unavailable.
  5. Cost-Effective: AI-powered therapy services can be more cost-effective compared to traditional in-person therapy, as virtual therapy eliminates the need for physical office space and reduces overhead costs. 

While AI has the potential to greatly improve mental health therapy services, it is important to note that a machine cannot replace the rapport and empathy that human therapists provide. Certainly, the appropriateness of AI-virtual therapy would need to be based on proper ethics and specific population needs, risks, and responsivity. 

In conclusion, the integration of AI in mental health therapy services has the potential to greatly improve accessibility, efficiency, and personalized treatment. However, it is crucial that AI be used as a tool to support and enhance human-led therapy, rather than replace it. As AI continues to evolve, hopefully, we can look forward to mental health services being even more effective and accessible to people in need.

Colors, Music, and the Importance of Emotions

  • Blue, yellow, and red. 3 colors, the primary ones that, when mixed, give birth to all other colors.
  • Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si. 7 musical notes that, when combined, give birth to all the sounds and music that bring beauty and meaning to our existence.
  • Fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise. The 6 basic emotions that give birth to the countless of feelings experienced by all human beings.

Simply put, from just 3 colors we get all colors; from just 7 notes, we get all the music; from just 6 emotions, we get all the different feelings. Isn’t interesting how a vast variety of things can result from the combinations of just a few elements? And how can this point us to the importance of working on our emotions?

As a therapist, sometimes with skepticism, I often get asked: “Why do you, or therapists in general, focus so much on emotions?” And I understand the question because, at first glance, it would seem like we all operate from reasonable and logical places. But do we really? How many times have you heard or thought to yourself things like: “it does not make sense, but…” or “in my head I know that, yet I feel…” I have come to think of emotions as the base, the foundations of our essence, that when paired with reason, give birth to the endless possibilities of human behavior. Allow me to use an illustration that explains better what I mean.

Where do builders begin the construction of a building? The foundations or the 20th floor? I think (and hope!) that any building gets built from the bottom up. There are similarities between the construction of a building and the development of our nervous systems. The earliest human beings did not think about complex philosophical questions or technological advancements, yet they already felt basic emotions such as fear, anger, or joy. This means that, evolutionarily speaking, it was the emotions that largely gave way to our ability to think and progressively get to where we are today. Thus, the evolution of brain structures and the construction of a building are similar. The most elementary and basic functions, our emotions, appeared in our species like the ground floor of a building. Only later we developed new brain structures that added more complex functions, or floors to the building.

Continuing with this metaphor, just like destroying the ground floor can demolish an entire building, emotional disturbances and inability to identify, connect, and respond well to our emotions can (and in my opinion will) destroy all rational efforts to achieve well-being.

So, bringing back the original question, namely why do I focus so much on emotions as a therapist? My answer is simply because it is not possible to be a healthy balanced adult without knowing how to interact healthily with our emotions. Does that mean that reason is unimportant? Absolutely not! If anything, I hope for growth, for taller buildings (using the illustration above), but without solid emotional foundations, it can all fall apart quickly, regardless of how intellectual and rational we strive to be.

How do you feel today? Do you feel calm, connected, curious, compassionate, clear, creative, confident, and courageous? How comfortable do you feel with sharing, sitting with, and talking about your emotions, such as your fears or joys? Do you know what angers you and what to do with it? How do you do intimacy? Do you act from a healthy balanced adult place or from a wounded part of yourself?

In a world where reason and logic can be the center of attention for many of us, let us remember that, as important as these are, they alone do not seem to put us in the path to well-being. Let’s continue to grow, to build ourselves up, not merely focusing on the intellectual intelligence (IQ), but the other intelligence that is at the base of how we function: our emotional intelligence (EQ). After all, look at how far we have come and how diverse we can be from just 6 basic emotions!

It’s OK to be Hurting

A few months back, I experienced one of my prouder moments as a therapist/mom when sitting in our living room, my then 6-month-old began to cry. My then 2 ½ year old immediately dropped what she was doing and went over to console him, or so I thought. As if the simple act of rushing to her brother’s aid wasn’t already sweet enough, she put her arms around him and said “it’s okay buddy…you can cry if you want.” My heart swelled.

As I thought about this experience later, what came up for me was a reminder as to what messages are truly important for us to be conveying to our children. As a parents, and people, most would attest to the idea that seeing your child or any child for that matter, cry is a difficult thing to witness. We feel helpless and responsible, sad and anxious, guilty and fearful all at once. Add in my therapist mindset, and I also often find myself wondering whether these moments are traumatic, harmful, helpful, or something entirely different that I have yet to identify. Given the answer may even be all of the above, the overwhelm we feel around supporting our children’s emotional health and safety can be weighty.

In these moments, I find myself stepping back and trying to remember the very thing I often share with those I work with. Hurt and pain is a natural part of life. Our job as a parent is not always to prevent these feelings, but to support our children through them in ways where they know they are loved, safe, cared for, and validated. After all, trauma is not necessarily the event itself, it’s what happens when a “bad thing” happens, and needs are not met. Knowing that, as the song goes, we “can cry if we want to” is a need; therefore, it is our responsibility as parents to make sure this message gets reinforced. Next time your child or someone close to you begins to cry, attempt to keep this in mind before jumping in to make their tears go away. Make clear to them that if they need, they can cry as long as they need, and you will be there with them through their process. Let them know their tears make sense and if the feeling comes up, don’t be afraid to cry with them, too. Ultimately, while we can and should take steps towards preventing the unnecessary shedding of tears, the overall goal is not to keep our children from crying all together, but to make sure they know that the choice to cry is theirs if they need it.

“Being There” for Others

There is currently much going on in my life, not more or less than others, but enough to preoccupy me and distract from this writing. This, along with friends who are struggling, led me to contemplate how I have shown up for and in turn how I have felt supported and nurtured by others. So, I am asking the question what are we really meaning when we say, “I support you, I will be thinking of you, I will be praying for you, I will send good energy your way,” etc.? I have said each of these things at some point to various people and heard them shared with me.

Mostly, when I hear these phrases I appreciate the sentiment, say thank you and we both move on. I must admit, however, there are other times, like now, when I have a longing for something more. As I reflect on what this “more” would include, I concluded: asking how I am doing when you have time to listen – asking if I would like a hug and holding on until the tension leaves and/or the tears come (this may take some time with my wife and male friends) – empathizing while challenging me to consider where growth is waiting for me – and the tangibles of “let’s take a walk,” “I would like to come over and bring dinner,” and at times “maybe we should do something different right now like play a game, go watch a movie,” etc.

My wife has always been good about putting her desire to support others into action. As I am writing this, she is writing notes to people in our lives. Even more profound are we willing to do this with those different from us whether the difference is reflected in homelessness, race, or non-normative sexuality or gender? This is my ongoing desire to work with what I would appreciate from others and take action to show up with the time to engage and ask what they need, with the intention of following through. How valued and inspired each of us would feel if we moved beyond loving intentions to loving actions. To all those who have taken time with me, thank you, I am a more fulfilled person for it.

The PCS Perspective Special Edition

A Look Inside the PCS Intensive Treatment Program and Why We Do What We Do

Welcome to PCS! This issue was born from the realization we perhaps had never provided an overall glimpse into the PCS Intensive Treatment Program (ITP).

The PCS Individual Intensive Program is an intensive, trauma-focused program that concentrates on the client’s individual needs providing 65 hours of engagement. Clients will participate in a rich mixture of individual and group processing from Saturday at noon to the following Saturday at noon.

The hallmark of our program is ITP clients spend over half their time in individual sessions (i.e. 34 hours) typically with a team of 5 to 6 different therapist each bringing their unique personality, style, and skills to the process. This creates an incredible diversity of experiences in a client’s path toward their goals. Additional meetings with a Dietician, our Medical Director, and Psychiatrist create an enlightening and influential treatment system.

The groups are mixed-gender and incorporate individuals and couples presenting with varies issues. You can read a description of each group personally written by its facilitator. Please note we once again welcome non- intensive clients to these in person groups with a therapist referral.

We endeavor from the beginning to the completion of the program to fully engage with clients as they process through their most challenging issues. As always, we welcome questions and feedback as we continue to improve our program.

Pre-screening

We are not for everyone. There is a prescreening process to determine if a client may be right for our program. This includes collecting detailed information from the potential client and phone conversations with one of our therapists between the potential client and primary therapist. We work as a team at PCS and involvement of the primary therapist and sometimes psychiatrist is key to success. Intensive clients must be working with a therapist at home in order to attend.

A PCS Intensive works for those who are:

  • Highly motivated and want to jump-start their therapeutic process and utilize a program where sessions build off one another, creating a greater possibility of transformational change.
  • “Stuck” and desire a safe place to face their fear of what change will mean in their life, fear of the unknown.
  • Making some progress in weekly or bi-weekly therapy, but not the broader changes they are looking for.
  • Busy with work and home and find it difficult to keep consistent weekly or bi-weekly appointments and would prefer a shorter, but more intensive span of time to create movement.
  • Experiencing an intense current crisis and struggle to manage daily living, needing a space to stabilize and strengthen in grounding and coping skills.
  • Making some gains in recovery, but still experience relapses due to their need to process the deeper causal roots to their problematic or addictive behaviors.

A PCS Intensive does NOT work for those who are:

  • Signing up because someone else in their life is making them do it, and they otherwise would stay home.
  • Pointing the finger in defensiveness and blame, struggling to face what makes them difficult to those around them.
  • Using the intensive as a checklist, and uninterested in making genuine changes.
  • Resist transparency and are not ready to tell the truth.
  • Experiencing severe mental illness, including auditory hallucinations, extreme paranoia or delusional thoughts.
  • Actively suicidal or homicidal.
  • Continuing to act out or use substances.

Assessment

Intensive clients are provided with a battery of online assessments several weeks prior to beginning their program. Because the client is completing these on their own schedule and before they arrive, it offers more therapy time upon arrival. It is also more comfortable for the client to complete these at home.

We offer assessments specifically designed for each client’s program and treatment plan. All of this information is provided to the client’s primary therapist in a report sent after the client has returned home.

When the client arrives they will also meet with a dietitian to discuss a variety of nutritionally related topics. Physical health and well being is very important to mental health as well.

The sessions with our medical director and psychiatrist generally take place early in the program so that the information can be shared with his or her team. This information is also included in our final report to the referring therapist.

Workshop

The PCS Intensive is a weekly offering built around “The Murray Method,” developed by Marilyn Murray in the early 1980’s. Clients begin the process on a Saturday, with Marilyn’s workshop and explore “The Scindo (Latin for “split”) Syndrome,” looking at how adverse childhood events cause “survivor” parts to develop, who try to cope and manage their powerless and painful circumstances, the Circles of Intimacy, helping to organize a hierarchy of healthy intimate connections, and lastly, the Trauma Egg, a document the client creates that chronicles difficult traumatic life events, so the client can understand patterns in negative internalized messages and coping styles.

The concluding workshop provides an opportunity for each person to review and share insights and their commitment to personal health. Clients state these two “book-end” sessions offer a special opportunity for initiation and closure with their group.


Everything you ever wanted to know about PCS Group Therapy

Emotional Regulation

Emotional Regulation

When we experience trauma, addiction or attachment issues, we often struggle with emotional regulation, tolerance and resiliency. We are taught (and sometimes not) about emotion from our caregivers. How was emotion modeled in your family? Was it over the top? Was it dismissed? Was there room for you to have an emotional experience? Did someone else take up too much emotional space? We are social animals with nervous systems designed to co-regulate with those around us. What did your nervous system “learn” about trust and safety?

Psychodrama

Psychodrama

“Psychodrama —meaning “psyche in action”—is an experiential group that helps us explore our inner and outer worlds through action vs talking. Through enactment, participants explore issues and concerns in a safe environment with the help of the group. The goal of psychodrama helps participants discover their inner truth, express emotions freely and establish authentic interactions with others.” (paraphrased from Karen Carnabucci’s Practical Psychodrama).

Equine-assisted therapy

Equine-Assisted Therapy

Our Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) group meets offsite for 2 hours. In our fast paced world it can be difficult to slow down and be present. Due to their size, the horses will organically help you to slow down, be mindful, and present. The activities will engage you intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically. The horses become a canvas onto which you project your reality. By becoming aware of both your non-interpretive observation and the story that follows, you become better informed about yourself and how you move through your world. Through this organic process you will begin, or deepen, your journey of self-discovery and awareness. You will be invited to consider new ways of being in, and engaging with, the world.

Communications illustration

Communications

Communication is at the core of our daily living, and the higher the stakes in terms of relationship, the greater the chance we can inadvertently dance into the “Demon Dialogues”. Whether we are talking about a significant other, close family member or close friend, the tendency can be to either go into a fight response (“Attack-Attack/Find the Bad Guy”), a fight/flight response (“The Protest Polka”) or a freeze response (“Freeze/Flee”). We end up “amygdala-hijacked”, deep into our “reptilian brain”, and find it difficult to get grounded and engage in a “Wise-Minded” exchange.

Using the Awareness Wheel and Listening Cycle, this group assists in helping clients get out the “Demon Dialogue Dance” through the encouragement of vulnerability, assertiveness, curiosity, validation and empathy.

Offence Cycle

Offense Cycle

This group focuses on the offense cycle (also called an intimacy-blocking cycle) and the clarification process. We all engage in some form of maladaptive behavior that contributes to a lack of intimacy with self and others. This group is designed to help identify our offensive behaviors in order to break the cycle and set the stage for healthy intervention. Participants will be encouraged to recognize what is under the surface and how their behaviors impact others.

Border and Boundaries

Borders and Boundaries

This group is designed to educate, encourage, and empower you to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. It will support you in exploring the ways you treat yourself, they ways you treat others, and the ways you allow others to treat you. Setting boundaries is an important part of establishing our identity, engaging in healthy relationships, and is a crucial aspect of mental health and well being. In setting boundaries, we are prioritizing ourselves and what we need.

Mindfulness illustration of a person meditating

Mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation are vital components within recovery and healing. We are not only our thinking, we are the awareness behind the thinking and experience of our life. Deepening one’s relationship with this awareness and self is vastly improved when engaging in daily mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness group will address how and why meditation and mindfulness are necessary aspects integrating one’s healing experience.

Compulsivity

Compulsivity

Each of us experiences some form of out-of-control behavior, even if it is reflected in our over-control. In this mixed gender group space is created to share your story of addictive, compulsive, and/or out of control behavior. Each participant is encouraged to openly discuss those things hidden from others. The process of directly confronting our secrets often provides opportunity for reducing shame.

Spirituality

Spirituality

This group gives us the opportunity to share diverse experiences of faith and unfaith in an experiential or discussion format that maximizes the integration of spirituality and therapy. It allows everyone to share lifestyle choices, inspirations and values in a welcoming setting to provide strength or renewed strength to all.

Courageous Living

Courageous Living

Courageous living is dedicated to increasing your ability to live your life as a healthy adult. This group works on reducing shame and finding the courage it takes to be accepting and loving of ourselves. In so doing, we will also be able to accept and love the important people in our lives and build emotionally intimate relationships.

Anger and Forgiveness

Anger & Forgiveness

The Anger/Forgiveness group focuses on three inter-related topics; anger, apology and forgiveness. Through videos, discussion, experiential exercises/interactions and group handouts, participants learn more about the important role that anger plays in our lives (protection) and how to manage this powerful emotion.

codependency

Codependency

A mixed gender group focusing less on claiming the label of codependency, but more on recognizing our learned behavior of ignoring or minimizing our own needs to focus on others. Emphasis is placed on affirming self and identifying self-care. The group provides each member an opportunity to check in and provide feedback to one another in an open forum.

Healthy balance

Healthy Balance

In this group, we explore more in-depth Marilyn Murray’s model for how we respond to challenging events in our lives, as well as how we can design our lives as a Healthy Balanced Person. As children, we develop different “parts” of ourselves as we learn to adapt to our world. By noticing and nurturing these “parts,” we can help ourselves meet our needs today in healthy ways as mature adults. We also explore unhealthy strategies and ways of coping with our unmet needs that are often destructive, both to others and ourselves. Lastly, this group reviews homework assignments that are due for the Concluding Workshop at the end of the intensive therapy program.

Positivity and the power of play

Power of Positivity and Play

The “P3” (the power of positivity and play) group is based on principles of positive psychology including the importance of recognizing and integrating core gifts/strengths and values in to one’s day to day life and relationships. The importance of positivity and play as sources of fulfillment, well-being and overall balance in life are emphasized. Group members engage in interactions in which they share and celebrate “their awesomeness” (successes, traits, talents/skills, etc.).

Relationship Enhancement

Relationship Enhancement

Relationship Enhancement Group is a psychoeducational group aiming to provide an introduction to attachment theory, the basis for Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). With this information, group members should be able to identify their attachment styles and give thought to ways in which their attachment styles work together with their partner’s to create their negative cycle of interaction.

multiple colorful face profiles overlapping

Wrap Up Group

This group offers an experiential activity for Intensive Program participants to express gratitude to their fellow group members and reflect on their own progress. This group also includes a review of financial packets and program information, follow-up sessions, and other pertinent matters. Clients are provided an opportunity to share in depth feedback about their intensive experience.


Follow Up

Each intensive client has a follow up video session scheduled with their case manager (and often their referring therapist) to discuss the client’s continued progress. This session also allows the client to let his therapy team know about any issues since arriving home.


Special Young Adult and Family Programs

Have you ever wondered about the best path to help a young adult through therapy? Our young adult program is offered twice a year and is specifically designed for single persons age 18-25. Our next young adult week is December 18-23, 2022. This program fills quickly and often has a wait list.

We also offer family intensive programs. Families of 6 or more may attend our intensive program together. The week will be reserved for you and your family members offering individual, couples and group therapy as needed by each family member.

The Young Adult Orphan Club

The hope is that we, as children, outlive our parents. That our parents live a long and rewarding life before they die. But what happens when this isn’t the case? What happens when our parents die young? What happens when we lose both of our parents and we aren’t quite ready to be the adultest adult in the room yet? This blog addresses things I wish I would have known being in the Young Adult Orphan Club along with some things that I have found to be helpful.

Both of my parents passed away in their early-mid 60s. Wham, I was suddenly very alone by the age of 40. I entered a special club that I had no idea existed nor did I want the honor of joining. My parents still had places they wanted to visit, grandchildren they wanted to watch grow up, traditions they wanted to pass on, relationships they wanted to enjoy, work that needed to be done, and quilts that needed to be created. There was a sense of being robbed, the “no fair” siren was screaming, and I was lost.

Grief. What a term, right? That thing that we all go through, multiple times in life, yet each time is unique and different in its own right. The waves carry us into a numbed daze, knock us over, and even provide a salve to our aching heart. Sometimes it was hard to breathe and in other moments, time lapsed without any sort of awareness. Each “task” that needed to be completed was painful and carried a sense of finality. It was raw and I couldn’t help wishing that I had been more prepared. Because when we know what to expect, it hurts less… right?

Here are some things that I wish I would have known…

  • Holidays, birthdays, and anniversary’s = yep they suck. There is a sense of not wanting to participate or forget the day is supposed to be “special.” However, there is also a pull to ensure that family traditions and my folks legacy remains. The memories come flooding back, the pain that they aren’t here is heavy, and it’s also a time to honor what they have given me. One word comes to mind, torn. What helped me = I took a break from holidays and traditions. I started to add in somethings that felt “safe” and was able to go at my own pace. I allowed myself time to cry and take breaks from the day as needed. .
  • Despising certain words and phrases. We never know what to say in times of grief, so sometimes what we think might help actually backfires. I experienced so much anger towards people who were trying to provide comfort but I felt they just didn’t get it. Hearing “with time, things will get better”, “I can’t even imagine,” “they are in your heart, keep their memory alive,” and even the Bob Marley quote that I adored “You never know how strong you are until being strong is all you have left” became massive triggers for me. I didn’t know how to respond so I isolated. What helped me = I started telling myself the things that I was needing to hear. I found phrases that worked for me. I told my support system my phrases.
  • Others are grieving too, in their own way. I wasn’t prepared for being a reminder to my mom’s siblings and friends that she’s gone. People that I was hoping to find comfort with, weren’t able to give me that support. Partly because they were grieving, partly because I was grieving, and partly because it just hurts all the way around. It was easy to isolate and turn off the world. What helped me = I turned to others within this club to provide support and understanding. I tried to not take things personal. I got really good at deep breathing exercises
  • Life milestones and highlights aren’t the same. The dreams of having a parent walk you down the aisle, see you walk across that graduation stage, watch your children grow up, and taking those family trips to faraway lands will not happen as we had hoped. Going to weddings, funerals, birthday parties, retirement parties, etc. can cause a windfall of emotions. Taking a trip to the restroom when the father daughter dance happens and even minimizing your accomplishments can occur. Some may see this as running away from the pain, I see it as a protective factor to help us be present when we can. It’s okay to not be okay. What helped me = I talked to my parents and envisioned them watching my accomplishments. I purchased gifts for myself in their memory. I sent cards for events when I wasn’t ready to attend yet. I told my support system and they walked beside me.
  • “I wish I would have taken the time” moments will happen on a regular basis. Wishing to have conversations that we can’t have now, gain a better understanding of family history, learn how to quilt/wood work, master the family recipes, learn the adulting tricks, and take those trips we always said we would. The missed opportunities can be haunting and yet there are times I’m able to channel my folks and fix the garbage disposal or remind myself “the trick to cooking is to just let it sit.” What helped me = Every time I found myself in the ‘I wish’ loop, I would remind myself of something I had learned/experienced. Sometimes I even completed the task for added measure. I started paying more attention when family members would reminisce. I asked people to tell me about my folks as a kid. I made family dishes and started to experiment with making them my own.

There are so many more bullet points I could add to this topic and in all honestly, even in this club, we all grieve differently. I’m a firm believer that our grief doesn’t shrink over time, it’s more about how we grow around our grief. Yes, some days are much easier than others. Yes, I am thankful for the time and memories I have with my parents. Yes, my love for them has not changed. AND yes, it still hurts. Anne Lamott wrote it best, “It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly that still hurts when it’s cold, but you learn to dance with a limp.”

Starting Anew

I have worked at a children’s hospital in their inpatient psychiatric unit for over four years now. To this day, one of the most visceral images I have from my time there is of spaghetti with spoons.

I mean it makes no sense. You give a kid that has a very small window of tolerance a plate of noodles and two spoons. The thought of navigating that as an adult makes me angry. And yet, somehow, they all find a way to manage.

Some will painstakingly cut the noodles up until they have a makeshift soup to spoon from their plates. Others use a two-spoon approach, similar to chopsticks. And then of course there are the ones that use their hands—dangling the long noodles high in the air and catching them like a fish would take bait. It’s incredible, really, to watch them make do. Against all odds, they manage to find a way to fuel their bodies and fill their stomachs. To survive.

I think many of us have been given a plate of spaghetti with two spoons. And like the kids I work with, we’ve found ways to get by.

We find ways to cope. We avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable and small. We become dependent on our loved ones or shut them out completely. To be fair, these strategies often work. They may even work for years or decades.

The thing is, it’s very easy to get stuck using these strategies. Why change it if it works? Why try something new and risk failure?

How could someone suggest that we’re eating the spaghetti wrong?

Therapy is a lot like trying to eat spaghetti with a fork for the first time. It’s new. It’s unfamiliar. It challenges so many of the things that we have known to be true.

Learning to use the fork—or beginning a therapeutic relationship—takes courage. It takes humility. It is by no means an easy thing to do. However, learning a better way to navigate our lives is a worthwhile endeavor. There may be giant plate of spaghetti in front of you, but you don’t have to suffer through it.
In fact, the best way to eat spaghetti is by taking a spoon and a fork, together, and using them in tandem.

“I Want What I Want & I Want It Now”

How Instant Gratification Influences the Brain & Deteriorates Recovery

The saying, “good things come to those who wait” has become harder to employ.

Patience was long considered a virtue, but it seems more like an anachronism today.

In today’s world we have access to fast everything—information, food, technology, entertainment, comfort, prescriptions, sex, etc.

Don’t know the spelling of a word? Use Siri or Google it. Feeling hungry but are too tired to cook dinner? Postmates it. Feeling lonely? Launch Tinder and start swiping right. Forgot it is your friend’s birthday tomorrow? Get a gift delivered that day with Amazon.

Instant gratification refers to the experience of satisfaction or receipt of reward as soon as a response is made. Simply stated, instant gratification is the act of receiving a reward and/or pleasure without having to wait.

At the heart of instant gratification is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. Having our desires quickly met is not necessarily a bad thing.

So what’s so bad about instant gratification?

For starters, having an over-reliance on certain instant gratification-fueled impulsive behaviors can create changes in our brains. The repeated exposure to instant gratification disrupts the balance of benefits versus risks in delay of receiving an available reward.

A study at Harvard observed two groups of participants consuming chocolate. Group A indulged in the chocolate while Group B had no access to the chocolate. After the study, both groups were given chocolate and Group B reported higher happiness, savored the taste more, and was in a better mood afterwards. This study shows what people think will make them happy isn’t always what will and that you can have too much of a good thing.

If we experience more pleasure and happiness through delayed gratification, why is it so difficult to choose delayed over instant?

Our brains are constantly changing in response to our actions and behaviors. For instance, if the desire is to lose weight we may impulsively purchase the newest trending diet pill that advertises “Lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks!” rather than going for a walk every morning. Each time this compulsion for instant gratification is acted on, our brain pathways for those actions are reinforced and strengthened, making it easier to fall into the same patterns the next time around and harder to break the cycle.

The start of the cycle may look like having a drink one night after a long day at work to then finding any minor inconvenience the next day in order to justify drinking again the next night.

Getting caught up in the instant gratification cycle can make you susceptible to addictions, jealousy, anger, and impulsive behavior. It also often leads to increased stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.

As it pertains to instant gratification harming our recovery, research has found that individuals with mental health issues are less likely to wait for things they find pleasurable. For example, if symptoms of depression are present, there is an impact on how the brain processes things – particularly our prefrontal cortex which deals with decision making, problem solving, and memory.

As the struggling person goes straight to self-soothing behaviors to give themselves a quick boost, they may neglect their basic needs as a result, harming their recovery.

Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see how vital meeting our physiological needs (like food, sleep, and shelter) is. These needs sit at the bottom of the pyramid, and if the physiological isn’t addressed first, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization fall by the wayside.

In addition, researchers have found that the ability to delay gratification is not just an important part of goal achievement, it might also have a major impact on long-term life success and overall well-being.

So, next time you notice yourself falling into the compulsion cycle for instant gratification, pause and assess your needs rather than act. Rather than rushing to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for ADHD medication, ask yourself: “Am I getting enough sleep?” Instead of going straight to the fridge to pop open wine after work, ask yourself: “Would going for a walk or taking some deep breaths help me destress?”

References:

Alsop, R. (2019). Instant Gratification & Its Dark Side. Bucknell University. Retrieved from https://www.bucknell.edu/news/instant-gratification-its-dark-side 

American Psychological Association. (2022). Instant Gratification. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/immediate-gratification

Cherry, K. (2020). Delayed gratification and Impulse Control. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/delayed-gratification-why-wait-for-what-you-want-2795429

Drury, I. (2020). The problem with instant gratification & how it affects our society. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@isabelle.s.drury/the-problem-with-instant-gratification-how-it-affects-our-society-f093c65818ab

Gao, Z., Wang, H., Lu, C., Lu, T., Froudist-Walsh, S., Chen, M., Wang, X.-J., Hu, J., Sun, W. (2021). The neural basis of delayed gratification. Science Advances, 7(49). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abg6611 

Koopman, D.(2022). Why instant gratification holds you back from achieving what you want. Lifehack. Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/353923/instant-gratification-short-lived-you-should-aim-for-long-term-goals

Lindsay, J. (2021). How instant gratification is harming your mental health. Metro. Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2021/10/31/how-instant-gratification-is-harming-your-mental-health-15509720/  Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI. Delay of gratification in children.

Science. 1989;244(4907):933-938. doi: 10.1126/science.2658056 Perlmutter, A. (2019). The real issue with instant gratification. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-modern-brain/201909/the-real-issue-instant-gratification

Samuel, A. (2017). What’s so bad about instant gratification? JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/whats-bad-instant-gratification/ 

Sicinski, A.(2021). Do you struggle with instant gratification? you must try these 5 steps. IQ Matrix Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.iqmatrix.com/instant-gratification

How COVID-19 Continues to Impact Our Children

Over the past few years COVID-19 has had global impact. While many aspects of daily living have returned to their “new normal”, COVID continues to leave plenty of challenges outside of the actual virus. Working with children, adolescents and young adults has given me unique insight into the ongoing struggles of these populations. Here are a few of the most common challenges I see presenting in the therapy room and some ways parents and caregivers can help.

Social Struggles

From quarantines, to stay at home orders to social distancing, most young people experienced increased separation from their peers during key social development stages. This can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and difficulties establishing new relationships.

How it shows up in the therapy room

Reports of…

  • feeling lonely
  • not having friends
  • uncertainty of how to make friends

What parents and care givers can do to help

  • Spend meaningful time with your child
  • Consider opportunities to expose your child to other kids (sports, clubs, community events)
  • Talk to your child about how to make new friends, consider role playing or using toys to act out an interaction
  • Set up play dates
  • Check with your child’s school for resources they use to support social and emotional learning

Academic or Learning Difficulties

The COVID-19 pandemic brought significant challenges to schools and educators leaving them to figure out how to continue providing education to students who were no longer in a physical classroom. Many schools utilized remote learning and hybrid methods with little preparation. Educators did their best AND many students struggled with the inconsistent methods of teaching during these years.

How it shows up in the therapy room

Reports of…

  • feeling behind academically
  • difficulty adjusting to new routines
  • increased low mood
  • difficulty concentrating

What parents and care givers can do to help

  • Talk to your child’s school and teachers to get an idea of how your child is doing in the classroom
  • Help kids to create routines around schoolwork
  • Express interested and engage with the topics your kid is learning
  • Listen, validate, and express empathy when children report difficult feelings

Mood Difficulties

The pandemic brough about unprecedented times across the globe. Children often look to their surrounding environment (parents, caregivers, peers, school, etc.) for reassurance when big feelings arise. With the uncertainty that COVID-19 brought, many of the typical reassurances were not available. Fear of the unknown was a common experience of both adults and children alike.

How it shows up in the therapy room

Reports of…

  • feeling stress and overwhelm
  • difficulty dealing in uncertainty or ambiguity
  • anxiety or fears (ranging from social fears, health-related anxiety, fear of loss, and general unease)
  • sadness, low mood, depressed feeling

What parents and care givers can do to help

  • Listen to your child and validate their difficult feelings
  • Share your own feelings (in age-appropriate ways)
  • Practice naming emotions as a family
  • Identify ways to cope with big emotions and practice them with your child
  • Seek additional support (counseling, therapy) if needed

Missed social or life milestones

COVID-19 caused so many cancellations – weddings, graduations, prom, trick or treating, birthdays, first days of kindergarten, first days of college, etc. There is no doubt your child missed out of some sort of milestone due to the pandemic. Grief over missed experiences was a regular occurrence in the past few years and can be difficult to navigate for those in their formative years,

How it shows up in the therapy room

Reports of…

  • sadness or grief around lost opportunities
  • difficulties “launching” or moving to the next stage of life
  • regression into younger age or stage related behaviors

What parents and care givers can do to help

  • Ask your child if there is anything they feel they missed
  • Get creative with how to commemorate special milestones in a new way
  • Talk about what it means to transition from one stage to the next and find ways your child can practice their transition

I doubt we have seen the last impacts of COVID-19 and it is important to remember how this pandemic has uniquely impacted our children and their development. As a mother myself, I know how stressful it has been to navigate parenting throughout the pandemic. You are not alone. If you have concerns about your child or their development talk to your pediatrician, your child’s school, or counselor.

The Beauty in Slowing Down

Emotions can be interesting… Fleeting yet intense, confusing yet our best teachers. When we are in tune with them they can be helpful, and when we are not we might miss something important or feel out of control. If you know me, I could get an award for compartmentalizing and avoiding emotions and, quite frankly, I’ve prided myself on this. I historically have a habit of treating feelings like something on my to-do list. My thought process is often, “I don’t have time right now to feel that” and I often do not come back to it. I have been challenging myself on this recently and that is partly why I write this to hold myself more accountable. What I have found as the antidote to my compartmentalization and avoidance is the simple concept of slowing down.  It’s so important yet our daily lives seem to move so fast around us that it is easy to get caught up and run from what our emotions are trying to tell us. As we slow down and give ourselves the chance to sit with and truly be with our emotions, we can, with time learn to not fear and run from them. Once I slowed down enough recently to recognize it, I learned my anxiety has been begging me to slow down and I have even gotten some relief now that I have listened. Funny how that works, right? While I know this is easier said than done and all our stories are complex and dynamic, I invite you to join me in slowing down today. Maybe we can slow down enough together that we will not miss what our best teachers are trying to tell us.

© Psychological Counseling Services