How to Engage Your Anxiety With Your Smart Phone

By Kathleen Smith

iphoneI often send clients away with the homework of observing their own reactivity or anxiety throughout the week.  “Be your own scientist or your own anthropologist,” I encourage them. “Observe yourself in the wild. You may not be able to do anything differently, but you can learn to hover above yourself and take notes as you engage in relationships and activities that influence anxiety.”

Yet as well-intentioned as this homework may be, people often struggle to know how to be a good observer, or how to take good notes on symptoms and reactivity. How can I expect my clients to be good scientists when I am thinking about theory and the emotional process every day and still am often perplexed?

So I set out recently to think about how technology can play a role in this science of observation. We use smart phones all the time to distance and distract ourselves from our reactivity, but  we can also use our gadgets to engage it and take responsibility for our distress. Our devices also enable us to be more truthful about our behaviors. A client looking back on his or her week in a therapist’s office is more likely to spin information and be influenced by his or her reactivity in the moment.

I checked out two popular apps for tracking symptoms and behaviors to see how they could be used and modified to track the kinds of observations I encourage my clients to perform.

The first, TracknShare (iPhone app store $4.99), allows a person to track daily factors such as mood, sleep, diet, exercise, and even items such as contact with friends, acts of kindness, and the weather. The user can then compare items across weeks and months and download the data. What I love about TracknShare is that categories can be added and edited. So as a family systems thinker, if I wanted to keep track of phone calls to family members or even theoretical concepts like engaging in an emotional triangle, I could easily add these as categories.

A simpler and free alternative app is Symple, where users can list the symptoms they want to track and the factors that influence the symptoms (positively or negatively). The information can easily be emailed to a doctor or other clinician. Symple is less graph-focused, but it easily allows for me to enter non-medical symptoms as criteria to track. For example, if you wanted to track how much you “over-functioned” in a marriage over the course of the week, you could reflect on how factors such as work stress, amount of sleep, etc. contributed to it.

With any method of tracking, paper and pencil or iPhone, developing the habit is no simple task. But since we’re always glancing at our phones in the free seconds of our lives, why not use them to engage our thinking about anxiety and relationships? It certainly beats Candy Crush.

 

 



Stop Tweeting About Your Therapy Clients

By Kathleen Smith

For the past month I have been doing some reporting on competence in the field of professional psychology, and I have enjoyed talking with educators and leaders in the field about how we teach students to hold each other accountable once they enter into the profession. Psychologists, counselors, and others in the field of mental health tend to rely on self-assessment for how we’re doing, and we’re never sure when and how to intervene when we see a colleague being slightly less or even significantly less than professional. tweet

I found myself in a similar conundrum when I saw a former colleague posting quotes from her clients or funny moments during a session on Facebook. In my opinion, even if the client’s name isn’t mentioned, and if even if the story is positive and more reflective on the therapist, it is unethical and not respectful of confidentiality. But was it my place to share my opinion with the colleague?

In the age of social media, we are all tempted to share if we have a great session or are feeling proud about the work we do. Or if we have a humbling moment that we think would be encouraging to others. But the internet is a public forum, and your comments are never as private as you think they might be.

To see how rampant this debriefing is, I conducted a simple search on twitter with the words “my therapy client.” And guess what I found? Everything from graduate students sharing their nerves about their very first session ever to seasoned professionals who were having an exhausting week and expressing their gratitude when their last client of the day cancelled. People leading groups complained about one person dominating the conversation, and others shared blunders like having their cell phone go off in session or having ink on their chin in a meeting.

Individually, these tweets share nothing personal about an individual client. But all it takes is a simple search on the part of your client to see you talking about them, and send them off wondering what else you share about your sessions and how little respect you have for the therapeutic relationship. 140 characters isn’t worth the cost of your career or the trust of people who have braved their anxieties to finally seek help and think differently about their lives.

So the next time you’re tempted to share a great moment or a bad one, ask yourself, “Would I want my client to see this? Would I want my supervisor to see this?” Chances are, your answer is no. As therapists, we must also be accountable for one another and respectively listen to the feedback we received on how we use technology for professional and personal endeavors.

Above all, tweeting about your clients makes the process about you. And when therapy becomes about you instead of the client, no one wins.

 



A National Day of Unplugging

By Kathleen Smith

ipadTonight at sundown begins a National Day of Unplugging, where technology users are encouraged to unwind and unplug. With a winter of polar vortices slowing down, people are encouraged to get outside or get anywhere mentally that doesn’t involve your iPad or your phone screen.

There are plenty of articles floating across the internet today encouraging you how to embark on a digital detox. But before you start panicking and text your friends to let them know you haven’t died if they can’t reach you for the next 24 hours, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about not how you pull the plug on technology for 24 hours, but how you can pull the plug on the anxiety that accompanies technology.

Going on a technology fast can be a great way to take a step back and reconsider what is important to you, but the success of most of our jobs and relationships is pretty well rooted in our ability to communicate with others via our devices. So if you don’t think a digital detox is helpful for you, consider going on an anxiety-binding detox for 24 hours.

I’ve joked to friends and colleagues over the past week that I’m giving up anxiety for Lent, and while this is in no way possible as a human, I have been thinking about decreasing the use of technology as a binder for anxiety. Our laptops and iPads and smart phones are excellent tools for distraction but they are also bridges in our relationships, for better or worse.

So this weekend if you’re standing on a street corner or sitting at a stoplight, and you feel the creep of worry or sadness in your bones, just try sitting with it for a minute. Don’t reach for the phone to distract yourself. We shouldn’t feel guilty about using technology to create or connect with others, but we can do good thinking about how it prevents us from sitting with our own emotions and learning to examine them and what they communicate to us.

This examination doesn’t require a 24 hour period. It takes the ten seconds you would have spent checking your email for the 347th time when you could reflect on a conversation you just had, and potentially how you could have handled yourself better in relationship to other people. This isn’t permission to beat yourself up, or let the critical voices swing around on the vines in your head. Psychologist Sherry Turkle believes this inner monologue starts by reaching out to others face to face rather than screen to screen.  “We use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves,” she explains.

I commend your efforts this weekend if you tuck the computer on a shelf or turn your phone off. But don’t forget that the work happens not when you unplug a cord, but when you check out what your body and your mind tell you about who you are and how you’re doing. There’s no off switch for your reactions to life, so you might as well see what you can learn from them.



3 Questions to Ask Before You Text

By Kathleen Smith

 

texting

Some days as a counselor and as a friend I feel caught between the generations when it comes to cell phones. Between older adults who frown on texting, and the young adults who stare back blankly at me whenever I use the phrase “call them” as a piece of advice. Is it unrealistic for a young person to have the expectation of receiving a phone call when a friend wishes them a happy birthday or when they are asked out on a date? I honestly can’t say anymore.

As a systems-trained clinician, I dedicate my thinking and research to exploring how texting is a relational tool and part of the emotional process, for better or for worse. As a friend and colleague to others, I try to ask myself three questions when I send a text. If I answer yes to any of them, then the situation merits a phone call or a face to face conversation. Or it requires me to take responsibility for my own distress and potentially not reach out to anyone at all.

1. Am I avoiding a conversation? 

Did you know that texting can be a form of emotional distancing? Think of how many friends you only keep in touch with via texting or social media. Being in true contact with another person is not just about sharing content. We may share news with friends or family members, but emotionally, we are cutoff. It’s an efficient strategy for binding anxiety in the short-term, but overall it makes actual contact scarier and potentially more reactive.

Good relationships are open, equal, and honest, and that openness means being able to have difficult conversations without automatically absorbing another person’s emotions. If people never learn how to do that, particularly as teenagers and young adults, it takes a much lower amount of stress to trigger anxiety. Which brings us to the next question.

2. Am I transferring my anxiety? 

As humans, we love to deal with our anxiety by passing it on to the most available person rather than facing it head on. Technology has only made this more convenient in the last few years. When you text a friend your frustration with another friend, a family member, or a colleague, it’s like shooting a virus through the atmosphere. If you’re texting a person directly regarding your anger or disappointment, they have to sit with that emotion for as long as it takes until they see you face to face, and so do you. Sending your emotions hurtling through a cell phone is not a way to be responsible for yourself, and it’s not a way to be responsible to others in relationships. The outlet might feel good in the short term, but that anxiety will zip back at you faster than a boomerang.

3. Am I asking someone to do something I could do myself? 

As much as cell phones give us the power to accomplish all sorts of tasks, they also allow us to impose on others just as easily. Perhaps you’re running late to a meeting and want a colleague to save you a seat or grab you some lunch. What is initially harmless can become a habit, and we find ourselves depending on others to do things for which we would have taken responsibility five years ago. You also might find that the more you ask others to do for you, the more they feel they can ask of you. Being able to send a text does not make lowering your functioning acceptable, nor should it make you responsible for others.

These questions are simple, and they get to the root of how texting impacts our functioning in relationships and ways of coping with stress and anxiety. The more responsibility you can assume with this handy technology, the more you’ll be able to enjoy using it. You won’t hold your breath when you reach for your phone, or regret what your fingers spell out to others.

 



Stranger than Science Fiction: Psychotherapy in 2050

By Kathleen Smith

CNN ran a story this week on the ethically questionable research that uses DNA from 3 different parents to prevent diseases in embryos. There was an article in the New York Times on the increasing capability of bringing extsigninct animals like the woolly mammoth back to life. I also caught Michio Kaku on the Daily Show, explaining how someday our minds will be upload-able, so that our great-great-grandchildren can pull us up on their computers to have a chat.

As a lover of all things science fiction, I was surprised to find myself feeling a little overwhelmed by how science and technology seemed to be sprinting ahead of us this week. As a clinician it made me a little dizzy, and I wondered what sort of problems my clients will bring to me in 2050, should I still be practicing at the age of 65.

Will psychotherapy even exist in 2050? Will therapists be more extinct than the woolly mammoth? As humans, will we be able to upload coping skills for depression like we could potentially upload the ability to do calculus? Will therapy offices be a pit stop for the mind, where clients can conveniently get unpleasant memories wiped and replaced with happier ones? Will science be so skilled at manipulating neurochemistry that the talking cure will cease to be necessary?

This might sound like science fiction to you, but just last year scientists at MIT were able to plant false memories into the brains of mice. On the Daily Show, Kaku explained how patients with Alzheimer’s could potentially have their memories saved so that they could be restored once decline begins. This is certainly a more pleasant example of the benefits of neuroscience, but what, if anything, will a therapist be able to accomplish in 2050 that a scientist could not?

To start, I can’t imagine that there won’t be psychological implications to our own adjusting to this brave new world of the brain. Family therapy would certainly prove unusual. Perhaps a set of parents (or possibly 3 now!) will be consulting on whether to use genetic enhancement on a future child. Or instead of speculating on the emotional process of previous generations, we can just summon grandma on the computer rather than guessing.

If technology teaches us anything however, it is that we crave human contact and empathy more than ever. So in 2050, maybe I won’t be sitting across from someone in a physical room and helping them do their best thinking. But I do have faith that the therapeutic relationship isn’t downloadable. It takes two to tango, and I believe that what makes us human in 2014 will still hold true whether our cars are driving themselves or not.

And at the very least, someone has to walk people through the trauma of having dinosaurs running around again, right? As Samuel L. Jackson would say, hold on to your butts.



The Netflix Paradox: How We Talk About TV in Therapy

By Kathleen Smith

Did you know that if you watch so many hours of television on Netflix, that the site sends you an alert to make sure that you want to keep watching?  “Yes, I’m still alive,” you probably insist as you continue marathoning your next TV show, for better or for worse.

ipad

At certain times of the day, approximately half of Internet traffic consists of streaming television or movies.  We arrive home, we deflate, and we stream. It’s how we bind the anxieties of the day in a tidy little package to be opened later.

But if you’re a therapist, chances are you can’t name a single television program that one of your clients watches. Aside from the occasional married couple squabbling over a husband’s video game addiction, can you give a summary of how and when your clients use technology? Who’s in an emotional triangle with their girlfriend and her iPad? Who can’t fall asleep without checking his email six extra times? Who can’t find a job because they spend all day on online discussion boards talking about Game of Thrones?

We should talk about technology and media in therapy when it plays such a central role in the lives of our clients, particularly younger generations. The subject isn’t a question of what is healthy or unhealthy, or right or wrong. It’s a matter of paying attention to the emotional forces thrusting us in the direction of the computer screen or the smart phone.

When I ask a client to observe his or her emotional reactivity or anxiety throughout the week, I point out that technology and media are a great yardstick.  “When do you use it to distract you from making changes,” I ask, “and when does it motivate you to define yourself to others?” Maybe there’s a TV character with qualities that the client finds inspirational as he seeks to define himself to the world. Why should that be more embarrassing to admit than talking about a relative he admires?  Fiction is an unspoken embarrassment in the field simply because we see it as a distracting force and nothing more.

Talking about media consumption as a coping mechanisms has its place as well, but there are moments when an individual ought to be encouraged to experience a little bit of anxiety head on and learn from it.  As a doctoral student, I’m sometimes discouraged when counseling students are taught to help clients bind anxiety with the most efficient and available tools, and that simply coping is the Plan A for treatment. That at the first sign of shortness of breath, a client should pop in a DVD or marathon a show.

As clinicians, we shouldn’t be shoving our clients toward technology, nor should we be shaming them from using it.  Instead, we should be encouraging them to ask good questions about what their habits  say about their role in relationships with others and what motivates them as humans.

For certain clients, maybe Netflix could be as good a marker for anxiety as heart rate. But could it be as good a motivator as a self-help book? You never know unless you ask. There is no shame in what captures the imagination, as long as we turn it towards making our own reality a story worthy of our attention.

 

 



Is My Cell Phone My Therapist?

By Kathleen Smith

tableMy cell phone is the most constant relationship in my life.  It pays for my coffee and orders pizzas, and it is my travel agent when I need to catch the next train.  My cell phone is my personal assistant when I make appointments with clients,  and my personal trainer when I don’t feel like exercising.  It’s my recorder when I report the news, and my food critic when I’m not sure where to eat.

I listen to what my phone tells me. Ignoring it would be like denying the existence of my right arm.  It is the last thing I see before I fall asleep, and the first thing for which I reach blindly in the morning.  My entertainment in a boring meeting, the confidante when I have a thought worth saving, and the gatekeeper to every relationship in my life plagued by geographic or emotional distance.

But when anxiety creeps in before an important meeting, and my thumb flits effortlessly across the screen to find the mindfulness app I’ve found helpful, I have to stop and ask myself a question I’m not quite prepared to answer. Is my cell phone my therapist?

Or perhaps the scarier question is whether the cell phone is someone else’s therapist. The someone else who would otherwise dedicate an hour of his or her week or month to sitting in a room and not reaching for the constant companion. Am I being outsourced because I can’t fit in people’s coat pockets?

As a clinician, I think a lot about what motivates people and what distracts people from making real change. Fortunately for job security, there are no easy answers. Technology tells us there are efficient answers. Flashy answers and even free answers. Psychology and technology are the best of friends, or they are uneasy bedfellows, depending on who you ask.

I’d like to think that the freedom of sitting across the room from someone, armed with only our words and best thinking, is a sacred place. A way of interacting that is all but lost in any other environment. But I also like to think that it’s okay for me to sit down, take a deep breath, and listen to what my cell phone has to say about anxiety every once in a while.

This blog will be my own personal quest to ask good questions about the fretful marriage between psychology and technology in the 21st century. I’ll share news about research, stories about psychotherapy, and talk about what is new and interesting and potentially frightening in the marketplace.

And I hope you’ll read along, perhaps with the help of your own constant companion.

Smart phone image available from Shutterstock.



Welcome to Psychology & Technology

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

virtualHow do therapists talk about technology with their clients? How do we think about our gadgets as tools that both help and harm the emotional process in relationships?

Drawing from research and the latest trends in the tech industry, this blog will explore how technology influences everyday actions and emotions as well as how it could be employed for problem-solving and personal motivation.

Kathleen Smith is a doctoral student in counseling and family systems therapist. She also works as a freelance reporter for publications including Monitor on Psychology, Psychotherapy Networker, Thought Catalog, and Counseling Today. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.

Please give her a warm Psych Central welcome!

Virtual screen image available from Shutterstock.



 
 

Subscribe to this Blog:
Feed


Or Get a Single, Daily Email (enter email address):

via FeedBurner



Recent Comments
  • va: I was intrigued by your twitter search and tried it myself…the vast majority of what I found seemed...
  • jkrantz: I have a psychiatrist who talks about other clients in session. It is unidentified, but too much. It gives...
  • Chato B. Stewart: I love this idea…I won’t be able to go 24 hours, but i will unplug for a while out of...
Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

Find a Therapist
Enter ZIP or postal code



Users Online: 12240
Join Us Now!