Connectedness

Connectedness-3-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-life-improvement-series

Connectedness

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Connecting with others and others in a meaningful way is a requirement for happiness and success in life. Many mental health issues are the result of disconnectedness. Connectedness requires engaging with oneself and the world and being open to meaningful messages from others. In this sense, connectedness serves as a foundation in the creation of meaning. Since meaning has the potential to induce change, connectedness not only helps realising one’s needs, values and aspirations but also to adapt better to the world, which increases the level of well-being and happiness.

Keywords: connectedness, communication, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Table of Contents

Introduction. 4

The Illusion. 5

Beyond the Illusion. 6

The Happiness of Connectedness. 7

Connectedness to Find What Makes Happy. 8

Disconnectedness and Fear. 9

Needs, Values and Aspirations. 10

The Call of Happiness. 11

The Ego. 12

The Fear of Disconnect. 12

Curiosity and Wonder. 13

Peace. 13

A Disconnected World. 14

Intimacy. 14

Example: The Romantic Date. 16

Avoiding Rejection. 16

Communication Structures. 17

Clarity and Openness. 18

Transition. 18

Communication about Communication. 19

Relational Uncertainty and Communication. 20

Digital Communication. 21

Communication Styles. 21

Transition and Uncertainty. 23

Not Communicating. 23

Connectedness is also a Feeling. 24

The Stability of the Self and One’s Values. 25

Alignment. 26

Knowledge and Focus. 26

Connecting Across Time. 27

Connecting the Inside and the Outside. 27

References. 29

Introduction

Connectedness with other people allows us to change our world. It broadens horizons and understanding, and generates positive feelings. Returning the smile of a stranger makes the world a better place and conveys understanding, while empathically understanding a loved one can be a special moment for oneself and the other. Connectedness is when we exchange meaningful information with another person over time. Any feelings or thoughts associated with it are the consequences of information flows.

When looking at another person we feel something special in that person and in ourselves at the same time. All this is due to our ability to translate meaning into messages, encode, transmit and decode information and translate the messages back into meaning. Resonance, how information within oneself is brought to interact with the new information, plays an important role in the awareness and identification of meaning.

Connectedness with others expands how we feel about ourselves. Exploring the other is similar to exploring ourselves. There is a feedback between the outside and inside worlds.  Connecting to another means opening up to flows of information in both directions. Feeling is an aggregate of all the information that we are exchanging with the other person. With a wink or another small gesture, a massive amount of information can be shared with another person, all at once. This may also cause fears  to surface that one is becoming more vulnerable because of the insight another person might gain, and insight into an area we may not want to make visible.

Why do we need to connect? It is not only about the connection itself, but also the feelings and the peace that can come with it. In a connected world where information can flow freely between people, negative feelings are reduced. The goal of life is greater connectdness and more fluid information flows across the world. Connectedness is thus an expression also of hour humanity and our connection with life on this planet overall. Information scuttling back and forth only stops when life stops. Conenctedness is thus life sustaining. There ia tremendous power in connectedness, which many people unfortunately cannot explore to the fullest. Fears can stand in the way of connecting with others. Maybe we have learned from our past experiences not to fully trust ourselves or others, not t fully trust either. This can make it more difficult to connect. However, once we can see how we are connected with the world and with others, the fear decreases. It may take a leap at first, but experiencing this connectedness makes it easier to be connected.

The feeling of connectedness can also have an effect on the other person, which can make any interaction with them easier. Radiating contentment and happiness tells a love interest or a business partner that we feel confident in ourselves and trust them, which makes these encounters more rewarding for everyone involved. It also helps form bonds and relationships with other people. A first important step is the openness to experience the contentment and happiness one could feel within oneself. This may sometimes not so easy, because of the things we feel we have to do to attain these feelings. But once we realize that these feelings actually serve the connection with another person, they become easier.

The better we can communicate with ourselves, the better we can communicate with other people. Openness and empathy help to understand others, but also show that one is at ease with oneself. Happiness is an important prerequisite to be able to engage in fulfilling interactions, and this requires connecting with the own happiness on the inside. With the right information we can activate centers of the brain that allow us to feel more happiness. The information from connectedness lets us do this as well.

The Illusion

Everything outside connectedness is really an illusion. When we connect with ourselves and with others, real and meaningful information can flow. This is the information that maintains life and our connectedness into life. Where no meaningful information flows, it is our mind that projects meaning into it, where there is non, however. This meaning is then coming form ourselves rather than the person or object outside. However, when we connect, and there is a meaningful exchange of information, we begin to see beyond the illusion. If we see, for example, a rock on our way and certain thoughts and feelings come up in us, that is really because we are connecting with ourselves, while having the sensory information about the rock, rather than us connecting directly with the rock.

The illusion can also apply to oneself. If we feel we may appear in a certain way to someone else or to ourselves, these thoughts really come from connecting with ourselves. The only way we can really know what someone else things about us can only come from connecting with the other person, by, for example, asking them. Thus communication helps us experience reality more deeply rather than the illusion of what may seem real. We often go through life making assumptions about other people, including whether they like us or not or if we cause another person distress, without knowing whether this is just our projection of self-criticism into the other person or if it is true. Since you cannot mind read, the best option is often to ask and talk about it. One does not even have to ask about it specifically, but can put a question or s statement out there, whose acceptance or rejection by the other shows if the feared assumption is true or not.

Experiencing connectedness itself means getting in touch with something very fundamental to life in general, which can be described as the all-persvasive devine. When we go beyond connecting with a pecific person, but feel a general connectedness with everything, feelings of separatedness, loneliness, helplessness, and anxiety usually wither away. This in turn can make it easier to connect with a specific person as the anxiety to do so decreases.The uncertainty leading to anxiety and fears is reduced when there is more and better information about oneself and the other person. Meaningful communication with oneself and others through greater connecteness provides this information and thereby reduces anxiety, fears, doubts, helplessness, and powerlessness.

Beyond the Illusion

When you feel connected with everyone and everything you have moved beyond the illusion of a concrete thought concept, and many everyday fears begin to fall away. How should I feel connected with an angry neighbor? Important is that you do not just connect with the present form and attributes of the neighbor, their personality, emotional state, and so forth, but with what underlies both of you. You are both human beings and you are both alive. From there one can then go beyond form and sense that fine existence that suffuces everything. Feeling grounded in this common existence can be helpful in regulating fears, anger, and other emotions that can stand in the way on one’s path.

What did I mean by the ‘fine existence’? It is one of the many things that religion and physics can agree on. In physics, even empty space is by no means ‘empty’. In quantum field theory, for example, a quantum vacuum is the state with the lowest possible energy and generally contains no physical particles. However, according to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of the quantum field. So, even the seemingly informationless contains information in the form of these transient events. We are never alone, even, and maybe particularly, in the seemingly ‘empty’. Maybe it is apparent absolute emptiness that provides a clearer view on the true essence of things. In true connectedness one is plugging into this essence that underlies all, which is the ultimate reality and no illusion.

Whether you are on a date or in a high stakes situation in work, you will notice that the more you plug into the deepest layers of understanding and connectedness, communication with the other will also be much more meaningful because you are going behind external appearances and forms that would just slow you down. Communicating about them without seeing them as the ultimate goals and reasons for the interaction with the other, will free you of fears and make it less likely that you are getting side trick by the irrelevant. It also makes it easier for the other person to understand you, as you understand the other person better.

The Happiness of Connectedness

Happiness is an emotion we often feel when we are engaged in something that is meaningful and valuable to us. When we are engaged in something that is meaningful, that contains the promise of something novel that can change us, we feel happiness. Whether solving a science problem, observing another person, having sex or talking to someone else, we are engaged in processes that produce new meaning, new information, and often a sense of happiness. Communication with oneself and others, the exchange of meaningful information, is ultimately what leads to more meaning and greater happiness.

To create meaning with another person, however, also means that one has to contribute something meaningful. In a situation where people are on a date, for example, there needs to be an actual exchange of information to create more meaning, and, as a consequence, more connectedness. Happiness is often a result of this.

Connectedness can come in many shapes and forms, but it appears that the more meaning can also be generated about the relationship through meaningful communication, the more satisfying the relationship is. For example, in ‘friends with benefits’ who lack the deeper romantic relationship, one would expect that there is less satisfactions and less communication in some areas. And this was also shown in a study using an online survey (Lehmiller et al., 2014). In this study, friends with benefits, who were also found to be less sexually exclusive,

  • had a lower frequency of sexual interaction and were less sexually satisfied,
  • generally communicated less about sex than romantic partners did, and
  • communicated more often about extradyadic sexual experiences.

In other words, happiness has a lot to do with meaning, and communication is how we feel more meaning. Memories of laughter with friends can make us smile because the information has meaning to us. It resonates with other information that we have on the inside. The emotions are triggered because this memory links to our needs, values and aspirations. The brain also associates it with other information, which can trigger positive emotions.

Unfortunately, there is much unhappiness is our world because of disconnectedness, internal and external. Wars, social injustice, and many other phenomena that plague our societies have psychological roots that can be traced back to how people connect with themselves and others. Unfortunately, we do not learn in school how we better get in touch with ourselves and others. We learn to operate on information, but usually in a very narrow, external, and technical way. We spend much more time on how to do research at a library than identifying our own needs, values, and aspirations, only to haunt us after decades in personally unfulfilling work. Learning how to better communicate with oneself and others should be considered an important toolset for survival and happiness.

Connectedness to Find What Makes Happy

Connectedness with oneself and others is closely related. Through connection with ourselves and others we can gain insight into the things and activities that can increase our happiness, satisfaction and contentment. However, the connection with oneself, also on a feeling level, is fundamental to this discovery process. Without this internal connectedness, it is impossible to find insight into one’s own basic parameters of needs, values and aspirations (Haverkampf, 2017b, 2018f). Many people feel the pressure from what they think the world expects of them. Simply internalizing external expectations will not bring happiness. My thoughts and actions have to make sense in relation to how I see myself and what I value.

The right information can increase happiness. Throughout life we learn what works and what does not work. All this is valuable information. This does not mean one needs to make a lot of mistakes, but that one should be where there is high quality information. Connecting with oneself and others makes it more likely that one acquires the right information. The more information I have about options in the world and what I truly value, the easier will it be to find greater happiness in the world. Meaningful information, which can be anything from a fact to an emotional signal when engaging in a task, coupled with reflection about it leads to better decision making, greater success in all areas of life, and a greater sense of happiness, contentment and satisfaction. Connectedness is a very important aspect.

Disconnectedness and Fear

Disconnectedness causes fear, but at the same time fear can lead to a greater disconnect. People are often afraid to approach on another. This may have to do with how they see themselves. If one is self-critical or has learned not to show too much of oneself, whether emoions or otherwise, the apprehensiveness in making contact or deepening contact is often greater. Thus an internal disconnect in feeling one’s strengths and resources can then lead to an external disconnect.

Many types of fear and anxiety become less intense or vanish when we feel connected with others around us (Haverkampf, 2017b). This is something that can be observed in the fear of flying, for example. If I am talking to others on the airplane as it takes off, and even if the topic is my fear of flying, the anxiety will be lower. Even if the anxiety is a shared anxiety, it usually helps to reduce the anxiety. Sharing it is helpful, but if I also feel that the other understands what I experience, the effect on the anxiety will be even more powerful.

An important objective in therapy is to help patients in building the skills to experience better connectedness, which is one of the main components of Communication-Focused Therapy® (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a) Greater connectedness helps to build greater self-confidence and sense of self-efficacy and offers significant protection from anxiety, low mood, and other mental health issues. Clinically, there are also indications how patients with OCD can benefit from greater connectedness. Even psychosis can be more manageable for the patient if they experience a more solid connectedness with themselves and others. Since all the conditions mentioned come with feelings of instability and overlap with fear to some extent, greater connectedness can reduce fear also indirectly.

Needs, Values and Aspirations

One’s values and basic interests determine what is valuable to oneself. Happiness requires that one engages in an activity that is meaningful and of value to oneself. Engaging in these activities and situations brings more positive emotions, happiness, and a greater sense of fulfilment in life. Wants and Needs that create greater happiness correlate with one’s values.

The basic values (Haverkampf, 2018f), the needs, values and aspirations are an important foundation in connectedness because they determine whether the connection will be maintained and intensified. The benefit from a communication is greater when needs, values and aspirations are shared. Since information about them is exchanged in everything one does, it would be difficult to hide them. Maybe sometimes people feel misled by a connection with another person, but it is often that they are ignoring signs which are there to be detected.

At the same time, conectdness should further what one truly needs, values and aspires to. Some of those things are material to keep us alive, but many are beyond the material. Many entreprenerus who built successful businesses and large companies did so because they enjoyed working on something and the challenge as well as changing the world. Money is a poor end in itself. What drives people is to do what is meaningful and relevant to do them, and one’s true needs, values and aspirations.

On the other hand, internal connectedness is needed to better identify the own needs, values and aspirations. Memory can be an important tool. I can remember what I enjoye in the past, which helps me identify what I may also enjoy in the present and in the future. Our needs and value stay relatively constant over time, as long as they are authentic in the sense that they represent what you want and not what you think you need to fulfill another deeper need or meet a deeper value. Unfortunately, much of what people believe that they want or need is just something that appears to contain a promise of fulfilling a deeper need. You may think of someone who is pursuing ‘a career’ in order to be respected and loved. There is nothing wrong witch achievement, but many feel they need to have a career without being able to say where the journey should go and how it satisfies their authentic needs and values, the ones that align with who they are. A general problem in most modern societies is that there is little emphasis on the question of self-awareness and self-knowledge that goes beyond the impaatives of the ego.

The Call of Happiness

Almost everyone strives for happiness in life, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the US constitution and many other important documents, but many people feel it is beyond their reach. Some may suffer from a mental health condition like depression, which reduces the amplitude of one’s felt emotions overall, including happiness, and may require treatment. A larger problem is possibly missing direction in life and decision-making, which often is a result of being disconnected from oneself. If one feels what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, this leads to actions and thoughts that generate greater happiness.

Disconnectedness is widespread in our society. People often try to connect with others before they connected with themselves, which makes it impossible to connect with another on a deeper level. The magic word here is resonance. When we have information about ourselves in the right form, when we have awareness and insight into ourselves, we can recognize it in other people. This also allows to see the uniqueness of the other person. Experincing the uniqueness of the other person and the common thread behind it can lead to more positive feelings and make us happier.

However, the connectedness with others is also a reflection of the connectedness we have with ourselves. Connecting with oneself means perceiving a whole universe within oneself. Unfortunately, to many people who do not fully connect with themselves see an inner desert rather than rich, open and wide spaces that contain many magnificent objects. As our external world is built on information, so is this internal world. While information is already built into our brains biologically, they are constantly suffused in oceans of information that they are exposed to from all directions. It is not just or even primarily the information from the outside world that shapes our thoughts and feelings, but how we process this information. And this is the beauty of the nervous system’s reality, that information changes information by altering how it is processed. If I am told the ending of a book, I will read it differently, have different thoughts and feelings while reading it, and even remember it differently in the future, which can have a real impact on my future thoughts and behaviors and literary buying choices. And the cycle continues.

The Ego

The ego is in much literature see as something that needs to be destroyed, or at least seriously truncated, in order to find happiness. Our ego is what clings to things and causes much suffering. At the same time, it is important to remember that people with ‘huge egos’, classic narcissits, to whom it is never enough, actually need to compensate for the perception of a weak and somewhat fragile ego. As the ego is where much of the action in the wrold, good and bad, comes from, whould we really get rid of it? One answer to this question that we cannot, because it does not really exist. It is merely a figment of our imagination, something that makes sense to us within the marvelous information processing dynamics of our brain. But to realise that it does not really exist, helps to focus on the real issue. What we perceive as ‘ego issues’ are really an experienced disconnectedness from ourselves, and as a result from the world. With greater connectedness, these pathologies of the ego disappear, because connectedness replaces them with a healthy experience of oneself.

The Fear of Disconnect

One reasons for the ego may be to prevent us from disconnecting, yet at the price of making a disconnect even more painful. The ultimate disconnect an organism faces is, of course, death, at least in most modern Western societies. It is easily forgotten that not long ago, just a mere couple of centuries, in Europe and elsewhere people saw themselves more as a part of a whole, as integrated to a larger degree into the rhythms and cycles of nature. The birth of the separate individual as autonomous actor as we know her or him today is a fairly recent invention. And it may be the greater focus on the individual and individual histories, memories, and accomplishments that provides us witha greater pressure to achieve and the sense to ‘make the most’ of one’s life, but at the same time increases the visibility and sense of being an island disconnected from others. All of these consequences of a certain brand of individuality, without the psychology and spirituality to complement it, contribute to anxiety, depression and burnout in many. As I have explored in greater depth in my book The Lonely Society (Haverkampf, 2010e), it is not the technological advances in communication or greater flexibilities in communicating which are causing the problems, but the lack of communication in society about communication. It is not taught in school, and everyone is too busy in having a socially acceptable career to pause and reflect on how to use the tremendous powers of communication to effect real change within and without.

The fear of disconnect from the world and others often drives people to withdraw even more. Why expose oneself to potential hurt? However, the real antidote is a greater connectedness with others and the world. Helpful is here often to start communicating about communicating, which is done in psychotherapy. I have developed Communication-Focused Therapy® particularly to address this, whereby greater awareness for communication patterns, reflection, experimentation, and feedback can bring about a lasting change within and without (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a, 2018c).

Curiosity and Wonder

Connectedness can be facilitated by the attitude one takes towards engagement with the world and other people. An attitude of curiosity and wonder, for example, affects how one selects and takes up information and processes it. At the same time, it creates also changes in the other person if one is communicating with someone else. If I talk to someone who is interested, curious and open to what I am saying, this not only changes how I perceive them, but also how I interact with them. It is therefore helpful to go mentally into oneself and light a candle of curiosity and wonder when communicating with another, be it at the workplace, on a date or in a shop.

Peace

Greater connectedness with ourselves and others brings about feelings of peace. Where there is nderstanding and insight, the disturbance of everyday life comes to rest. Anger, hate and resentment can only exist where there is a lack of understanding and insight, a lack of meaningful information. Communication is what allows us to see things with the eyes of the other and to understand what they must be feeling and thinking. However, fear is often in the way, a fear not only of the other but a fear also of themselves. Understanding another human being changes our world, even if that readjustment seems small. But it is this change which can cause enormous fears. When a new view of the world comes along, often people try to protect their own views, their own ego, because it seems to impart stability and safety. But what actually happens is a further instability and fragility by holding on rigidly instead of opening the heart and mind to more meaningful information.

Peace is not necessarily the full absence of any emotional pain and suffering one might still experience, but it means that there is at least insight into it, an awareness of them, for if we become aware of suffering it begins to self-transform and resolve itself. However, this requires connectedness with oneself, an inner meaningful communication, being open to internal information flows.

A Disconnected World

As I have outline before (Haverkampf, 2010e), we live in a world that is on one hand increasingly connected but on the other hand also increasingly disconnected. There is much on the Internet which provides us with the illusion of greater connectedness, but at the same time makes the exchange of information less meaningful. The emphasis is on meaningful information, that is information, which can bring about a change in another. Whether it is a change in perspective or a smile, meaningful communication changes how we process information in the future, it has a regulatory effect on communication among all that are directly or indirectly effected by it, which ultimately means the entire planet.

As peace is based also on understanding and meaningful communication, pockets in the world that do not communicate with each other can be at peace, but they do not contribute to the improvement and well-being of each other. Cutting off communication has been the instrument of dictators, but this is becoming less and less possible. While it is possible to cut a cable, information can travel in som many other ways. There is a point when it will ultimately seep through. The only question is then whether it will be decoded and processed adequately by the receiver or receivers. Decoding and understanding a message are skills that are to some extent innate, but mostly learned throughout life. And how do we learn them? Through practice, by exposure to meaningful information, together with curiosity, reflection, and feedback. The more meaningful communication there is around us and in us, the easier it becomes for us to work with messages from wherever they come. So, the best way to promote a connected world is to make available communication channels that stimulate the flow of meaningful information.

Intimacy

Intimacy, when it is fulfilling, is a mental and physical escalation of connectedness. While the dopamine rush of physical sex can lead to a transient high, research shows that sex just for the purpose of sex is usually less fulfilling if emotional and other forms of connectedness are missing. Practicing intimacy is the ability to make close connections with the openness to receive sensations, perceptions and other information which could be potentially hurtful. This means that one needs to overcome fear to be able to be intimate with another. The fear of being hurt is something that can arise from early experiences in life that are no longer accessible to conscious awareness. But it can also manifest at any later stage in life. Like a physical hurt, an emotional hurt occurs if something disturbs the sense of integrity, in this case the emotional one. Feeling hurt calls for repair of this loss of the sense of integrity, whether outside or inside. This does not mean reconstituting an original status quo, but to use the healing process to feel whole again. Connectedness with oneself and others is the means to get there. And, if one has confidence in one’s ability to connect, the fear of being hurt can be reduced considerably, which also increases the capability to be intimate.

Intimacy comprises the exchange of much information, tactile, visual, and otherwise, through a large number of communication channels synchronously. At the same time this information resonates with the information that already exists. A romantic date and intimacy are built on past communication experiences with the other person and on future expected ones. They have meaning and intensity because of their context within these past experiences and expectations of the future. Intimacy is exciting because of uncertainty, the mystery of how communication unfolds in the present and may be affected in the future. Emotionally powerful moments are powerful because they drive us towards change in some way, internally and externally.

That communication apart from the sexual act is the most powerful determinant of intimacy becomes clear in those cases where the communication is missing or gone horribly wrong, such as in cases of rape. One may speak here of sex, but not intimacy. It is ultimately not fulfilling and extremely destructive. The lack of meaning generated in such situation, the meaninglessness, reflects back on people will also feel internally. Communication can be highly destructive when it leaves a large hole where there should be meaning.

A fear of intimacy is quite common and basically not different from any other fear of connectedness. As will be illustrated in the example on romantic dating, the possibility that a connection can end, as in the form of rejection, for example, may lead to a fear of making the connection in the first place. The dilemma is that we want to see and feel a connection as important to us, but at the same time this raises the stakes, when the connection is lost.

Example: The Romantic Date

The author has explored the details of the communication dynamics of romantic dates elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2010c, 2010d, 2017e, 2020). What makes a romantic date so unique is that from an evolutionary perspective communication in the dating situation determines the future of the species. It is thus no wonder that it is one of the situations where we can observe communication at its most complex, even though it follows the same rules of communication and information.

The quality of communication seems to be related to attraction and the desire to see the other again. Its importance in a study by Sprecher and Duck, however, was greater for women than for men and greater for friendship attraction than for romantic attraction. (Sprecher & Duck, 1994) The connectedness itself is the important criterion whether a date will be successful. Maybe at first only some needs become clear, while values and aspirations develop over time. But they shine through the space between spoken words and within them, in gestures and all other behaviors and interactions which may constitute communication. If one makes another person laugh, it also shows an understanding of another person’s basic parameters. This can be quite general in the case of a comedian or quite specific as in two people on a date. The sense of connectedness facilitates communication, reducing the fears and increasing meaningfulness. Thus, building the feeling of connectedness can already have a significant positive influence on the dynamics of the interaction, whether a romantic date, a job interview or a presentation in an academic environment.

It may be possible to pretend, but only if there is inherently a disconnect with oneself, which in the future will make a real connection more difficult. A deep connectedness with oneself usually makes one strive for the connections that are really meaningful rather than wasting time and resources on the ones that are less so. However, it may first take some time to find out what really works for oneself. Over time it becomes clearer.

Avoiding Rejection

The emotional risks from rejection can influence how we choose our communication channels to make a connection (Haverkampf, 2010a). For example, online daters exploit certain communication features provided by dating website messaging services which allow new ways for romantic refusals to be performed that were not previously available in face-to-face communication or earlier forms of computer-mediated communication. (Tom Tong & Walther, 2011) No one likes to be rejected by another person, but there can be large individual differences in how bad it feels. Not taking it personally may be impossible, but the perspective one has and the communication patterns one uses with oneself and with others can make a large difference. Uniqueness and a perceived need for this uniqueness in another person can make rejection more hurtful. However, this is often a problem of misidentified needs. The better the basic parameters, the needs, values and aspirations are identified, the lower will be the emotional shock of rejection and the easier it will be to connect with another human being. Over time, we gain the insight that there is no rejection but only signals of imcompatibilty, and if there is no match on a deeper values in the parameters that count, the values, interests and aspirations, it is better not to invest energy in trying to make the impossible work.

You may disagree and say, we were ‘soulmates’. However, reality is that no matter what you say and do, the soulmate will remain in your life. Logic, on any level, just requires that. If there is a breakup, it means there is a misalignment in some area or areas that are important to the partners. But does that not negate the usefulness of any form of couples’ therapy? No, it doesn’t. Couple’s therapy, and psychotherapy in general, is often misunderstood as ‘changing’ someone. Instead, the real objective is to facilitate meaningful communication, outside and inside, that allows atoregulatory processes to readjust communication patterns in such ways that the partners can see, hear and understand each other again. But no therapy in the world will change who one is. It would be an apocalyptic world in which this were possible. Rather, connectedness creates confidence in oneself and others, awareness, and understanding to be able to experience that what connects a couple, and, in a broader light, underlies it all.

Communication Structures

Connecting with another human being has an emerging and changing dynamic within a structured framework (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2010c). This framework is determined by biology, psychological, social and situational factors, as well as the basic parameters (Haverkampf, 2019). Motives and expectations affect the courtship sequence as a function of a variety of individual and social variables (Cunningham & Barbee, 2008). Cunningham and Barbee describe three stages in the courtship process (Cunningham & Barbee, 2008):

  1. attract attention
  2. notice and approach
  3. talk and reevaluate
  4. touch and synchronize

It is easy to see how changes in communication patterns and variations in an individual’s effectiveness at the different stages of communication, from encoding a message to decoding it, can affect the progress along the phases of the courtship process. Since any communication process and structure serves the overall purpose of building and sharing meaning (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018g), the romantic partner’s ability to communicate and create meaning keeps the romance alive and moves it forward. The dynamics of changing communication patterns and the overall communication structure are the manifestations of changing relationships (Haverkampf, 2017d). To be aware of them and to work with them is key in establishing the level of connectedness one desires.

Clarity and Openness

The sheer quantity of dating advice, seminars and conferences out there, from little tips and tricks to reprogramming one’s personality, is mind boggling. It seems much of their appeal is to be able to communicate what one wants without saying it. Research, however, shows that the best strategy is actually saying it. Whether something is communicated or not determines what happens next, and connectedness with another person, which is the precondition for any form of relationship, requires communicating something about one’s needs, values and aspirations (Haverkampf, 2018b). There is some support that directness in communicating has a negative association with relationship uncertainty and with partner uncertainty that is mediated by relationship uncertainty (Theiss & Solomon, 2006). The communication dilemma (Haverkampf, 2018a) is that communication becomes easier if there is more certainty, but to reach more certainty one needs communication to provide the information.

Clarity and openness help to reduce uncertainty as more meaningful information is available. Relational uncertainty and intimacy are related. Relational uncertainty tends tobe high in non‐ intimate associations and substantially lower in highly intimate associations. (Solomon, 2015)Clarity and openness are thus important steps in intimacy.

Transition

As connectedness increases, a relationship usually goes through transitions. Changes in communication patterns and in the framework of the communication structure signify these transitions. In the case of a developing romantic relationship, Mongeau and colleagues describe three changes that occur (Mongeau et al., 2006):

  1. two people meet and talk for the first time,
  2. they communicate regularly and get to know and like each other,
  3. the discovery and consummation of mutual romantic interest; the romantic relationship transition between a man and a woman, when the relationship changes from being either platonic or nonexistent to being romantic

What these three changes have in common is that they describe changes in communication. But it goes even further, as relationship transitions are changes in both internal and external communication patterns (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2010c, 2018b). As relationships are kept alive and progress through communication transitions, they require an openness for external and internal changes. Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT), as developed by the author, works on both the internal and external communication patterns, which to a large extent reflect each other (Haverkampf, 2017a).

Communication about Communication

Communicating about how we communicate, internally and externally, is a powerful tool in changing communication (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a, 2018e). Since relationships and our experiences in them are determined by the communication dynamics in them, experience and communication are linked. Marston and colleagues found empirical evidence for the a strong coherence in lovers’ experience of love and in their reports of how love is communicated (Hovick et al., 2003; Marston et al., 1987). The link between our experience and the communication patterns we use is not only valuable from a therapeutic perspective, but it also provides an insight for the considerable stability of communication patterns and relationships patterns over time (Haverkampf, 2018e).

A deeper connectedness means that there are also deeper interactions with the ability to communicate about communicating.  The ability to change communication patterns by calling them into awareness and reflecting about them together, not only solidifies a relationship but also enables it to regulate itself better. When two partners in a relationship can talk about how they communicate, they are far less likely to get lost in details or in destructive exchanges. Awareness of the communication patterns also lets both of them look behind the veil of the seemingly important. If they watch their communication, they may, for example, see that behind the anger, that seems to drive then apart, is  really a helplessness, which drives them closer together.

Relational Uncertainty and Communication

The level of connectedness is determined by and determines the communication patterns we use, but it also influences the content of the communication. As we have seen above, the more meaning that can be communicated, the stronger the connectedness will be. Meaning and connectedness go hand in hand, which is one reason why helping a person communicate better also creates more meaning in the life of that person (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017a, 2018b). However, it is also possible that the individual meaning a person sees in life effects the openness and communication about meaning. At the same time, openness may be lower the less one knows about the other person and the nature of the relationship. In a study by McCurry and colleagues, results indicated that relational uncertainty was inversely associated with the frequency and comfort with which dating partners discussed religious and spiritual topics (McCurry et al., 2012). There is thus a vicious cycle between the fear of greater openness and less communication about meaning which could reduce the fear.

Uncertainty in the context of interpersonal interactions generally refers to an inability to predict and explain a communication partner’s behavior (Berger, 1997). Relational uncertainty is the degree of confidence people have in their perceptions of involvement in a relationship (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999). According to Knobloch and Solomon, relational uncertainty stems from three sources: doubts individuals have about their own involvement in the relationship (self uncertainty); questions about a partner’s participation in the relationship (partner uncertainty); and ambiguity about the status or future of the relationship itself (relationship uncertainty). Relational certainty exists when people clearly understand their own commitment to the relationship, when they are confident in their perceptions of a partner’s involvement (or lack thereof), and when they have few doubts about the enduring or fleeting nature of the association; relational uncertainty occurs when individuals are unclear about these aspects of the relationship. Indivdiuals experiencing relational uncertainty are more likely to describe their relationship as unsteady or unstable (Knobloch, 2007).

Meaningful communication by its definition can reduce uncertainty, if it is related to the locus of uncertainty. In every scenarios, whether on a date or at the workplace, it is not so much the quantity of communication but the quality that counts. There is too much ‘empty’ talk out there, which does not help the people involved in any of the situations mentioned. The reason is often that one ‘performs’ instead of being oneself, centered in oneself and mindful to the other person and the situation. Feeling like a guest in someone else’s reality does not help to communicate more authentically and meaningfully. On the other hand, if one watches with interest, communicates to build meaning, and is aware of one’s true needs, values and aspirations, something real can evolve, which maintains and kindles more meaningful communication.

Digital Communication

Online spaces are used infrequently for meeting romantic partners, but play a significant role in how teens flirt, woo and communicate with potential and current flames. (Lenhart et al., 2015) Digital communication offers fewer communication channels and a more controlled space than would be available when meeting another person in real life. It can make it easier for an individual to overcome the fears of direct communication and being overwhelmed by information. Many relationships have been made possible because they started with a small set of only a single communication channel. In times past, this may have been an exchange of letters. In today’s world, it may be a chat on a dating app.

Digital communication has the advantage that it allows the observation of how people connect and what their topics are when they do if they consent to it. A study by Dong and colleagues based on a survey of 240 individual MySpace users found that (Dong et al., 2008)

  • low self-esteem encourages young adults to engage in romantic communication (such as having intimate communication with the opposite sex and looking for romantic partners)
  • higher emotional intelligence discourages such activity
  • those who have a higher self-image, such as thinking themselves attractive and happy with their appearance, tend to engage in romantic communication.

Communication thus seems to fulfil an essential role in emotional regulation. It also appears that merely engaging in it can already have a positive effect. In many forms of digital communication, the other person is not physically present, but an image and a felt emotional connection with that person

Communication Styles

An overview of communication structure and patterns has been provided by the author in greater depth elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2019). All communication follows particular rules, which also gives rise to the evolution of distinct patterns and structures. Working with them is an essential pillar in Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a), and understanding them can be helpful in all situations in daily life, which required internal and external communication.

It is crucial to keep in mind that communication patterns depend on the kind of relationship one has with another person (Haverkampf, 2010a). Both cross‐sex platonic and romantically involved partners use flirtation to varying degrees. However, how flirtatiousness is actually displayed and how it relates to evaluations of appropriateness and communication competence differs between the two types of relationships. (Egland et al., 1996)

From a much more macroscopic perspective in the area of romantic dating, there is empirical support for five styles of communicating romantic interest in others (Hall et al., 2010): physical, sincere, playful, polite, and traditional. Following the argument above that open and full communication can help strengthen the connectedness, one would expect communication styles that help to share relationship affirming messages facilitate escalating a relationship faster. In a study by Hall and colleagues, dating success correlated with physical, sincere, and playful styles. The physical and sincere styles correlated with rapid relational escalation of important relationships with more emotional connection and greater physical chemistry. (Hall et al., 2010) In other word, it appears that

  • the physical style and
  • the sincere style

correlate with both dating success and the development of greater emotional connection and physical chemistry. These also appear to be the styles of communication which are less influenced by social convention (as in the polite and traditional style) or conscious communication techniques in response to what the other may be expecting (as in the playful styles). This would support the general communication hypothesis that people are at their most effective when they directly communicate the basic parameters, their needs, values, and aspirations (Haverkampf, 2018f, 2018b).

One has to marvel at the wide range of communication styles that are used in connecting with others. But this may not be as surprising when one considers that the use of particular communication patterns and styles also carries meaning (Haverkampf, 2018d, 2018g). This applies to all areas of human communication. Egland and colleagues identified four types of flirtation behaviour in their study through factor analysis (Egland et al., 1996), namely display, stereotyped, attentiveness, and conversational behaviours.

Transition and Uncertainty

The transition from casual to serious involvement in dating relationships largely corresponds with changes in internal and external communication patterns and changes in the overall communication structure (Haverkampf, 2010c). These changes often happen without conscious awareness of them. The partners do not even have to know that they are transitioning, but the communication patterns always change.

The relational turbulence model is an example of a framework that explains the increased conflict, negative emotions, and heightened relationship thinking in transition times. Relational uncertainty and interference from a partner are heightened when intimacy transitions from casual and independent relating to serious and mutually committed involvement. Empirical findings show that doubts about the relationship are salient even within very casual associations and resolving relational uncertainty may be an important part of forming an intimate bond. (Solomon, 2015) An existential uncertainty is present from the beginning of any relationship, and navigating through it with the use of communication can lead it through the transitions that ultimately result in a fulfilling committed partnership (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017e, 2017d, 2017c).

Relational uncertainty and interference from a partner have been linked to more pronounced experiences of negative emotions, such as hurt, jealousy, anger, and sadness, both in response to a partner’s behavior and in general. (Solomon, 2015) They can impair communication and lead to cognitive biases. Relational turbulence theory links cognitive appraisals and emotions to communication. It describes how episodes characterized by biased appraisals, intense emotions, and volatile communication coalesce into global evaluations of relationships as turbulent (Solomon et al., 2016). McLaren and colleagues proposed that relational communication (specifically, perceptions of dominance, and disaffiliation) is the mechanism linking relational qualities to hurt. Empirical data shows that people’s experiences of hurt vary as a function of both relationship characteristics and relational inferences, although there are differences between the sexes. (McLaren et al., 2012)

Not Communicating

While it may be impossible overall not to communicate, it is possible not to exchange specific information. Since meaningful information can trigger other meaningful information, for better or for worse, the fear of talking about a controversial subject is often greater when there is less certainty about the other person. In the beginning of any relationship, from business to romantic, there is usually a lack of knowledge about the other person, which impacts communication patterns and content (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018d). It has been shown that the higher (or lower) is the relational uncertainty the higher (or lower) is topic avoidance in romantic relationships (Knobloch & Carpenter-Theune, 2004). Knobloch and colleague also showed that relational uncertainty mediates the (convex) association between intimacy and topic avoidance.

One may wonder how deeper relationships get started at all. One reason why they can evolve is simply because they develop gradually and in stages. Even if the partners seem to skip a stage because it may be short or not as visible, usually they go through all of them. But all this can end when communication stops. How can people then still feel connected when they no longer communicate?

Connectedness is also a Feeling

People who do not communicate can still feel connected. One needs to keep in mind that the feeling of connectedness can be triggered by any information, which can also be the memory of a past event or the image of a future one. There does not have to be a constant stream of external information to feel connected. Information on the inside is fully sufficient. Another feature of the feeling of connectedness is that it can contain a wish, and quite often does so. It has a gravitational pull that aims at bringing the two individuals closer together. In an autoregultory feedback loop, connectedness breads greater connectedness.

The feeling of connectedness thus not depend on the actual physical presence of another being. Once could sit in a hut in the forest and still feel connected with people one know or imagines and with nature overall. One could even be drifting in a capsule in outer space and feel connected with people, animals, plants, or even the universe as a whole. The feeling is caused by flows of internal information, that may be influenced by external information. But the latter does not seem to be a requirement for it.

The Stability of the Self and One’s Values

Our values are mostly stable over time and allow us to pursue goals in life. Having insight into one’s true needs, values and aspirations can help to find greater stability in the world and to pursue and reach what is important to us. Sometimes they may appear to be in conflict, but the more basic needs and values can be explored by paying closer attention to the communication patterns used when engaging in activities and behaviors. When someone does something which brings about feelings of fulfillment or happiness it happens within flows of information that are sustainable (Haverkampf, 2012, 2018b, 2018a). Let us look at an example where this is not the case:

Peter talks to Jane. He tells her that he really believes in the common business venture of starting a steak restaurant. The more he talks about what this may grow into the future and how he feels this will be important to him also in the future, the more strenuous it becomes. The following days he reluctantly answers Jane’s calls. When he opens a new account for the business at the bank, he feels anxious.

Peter may not even know himself that he would rather start a vegetarian restaurant. However, once he observes his communication patterns with himself and others, it very likely would become clear to him that something is out of sync. In the moment, when he talks to Jane, it may not become clear to him, because he thinks about a specific content rather than how the content is being communicated. However, by observing how he communicates a specific content he can gain clarity and insight into the basic parameters of needs, values and aspirations (Haverkampf, 2018b, 2018f).

The meaning we see and share in the world depends on the exchange of information, both with ourselves and with the environment. One can be happy in solitude, but this happiness depends on how one communicates with oneself and interacts with the living world around. Most people need companionship on a regular basis, because they need more varied communication and a at least a certain minimum level of interactions with others to create and maintain meaning. Connectedness can thus take many forms, and it is important to find the right communication and interaction styles and intensities which lead to a high level of satisfaction, contentment and happiness.

Because connectedness offers more insight into the own needs, values and aspirations, it also helps to stabilize the own perception of them and the perception of those in others, which can contribute to a greater sense of stability within oneself and with the world. Thus, all opportunities to connect more deeply with another human being can further the sense of stability in the world. When the ability to connect with others in a meaningful way is impaired, the world is often a more frightening place. ‘Meaningfulness’ is an important criterion. For example, an inability to be intimate on a deeper level often causes those affected by it to try to compensate with more sex with more partners. However, sex without a deeper connection is usually not fulfilling and leads to a hunger which is not stilled no matter how often one tries.

Alignment

Connections need to align with the basic parameters, the needs values and aspirations. Otherwise the connection is not sustainable over the long-term. This does not mean that people in a relationship have to have the same basic parameters, but it requires that the connection aligns with them. As we have connections with many different people in different types of relationships, each connection has to have mutual benefits on a deeper level to be sustainable. ‘Deeper’ simply means that is not solely transaction based, such as the temporary connection between a customer and a shop assistant; the relationship has to have potential benefit over time to be sustainable, which goes beyond the benefit of a momentary transaction.

Communication that serves to test and experiment with the potential alignment between partners can be likened to a trial dance to see if sharing a rhythm is possible. This may also explain why the the choice of communicatioon patterns and styles in a dating situation may be more important than the actual content that is being talked about. The alignment manifests itself when new meaning is created.

Knowledge and Focus

A connection flourishes if there is some knowledge in each partner of the own needs and values to at least know what does not work for them. While explicit knowledge grows through awareness, an implicit knowledge which comes from experience is enough. There is thus a positive cycle between communication which delivers greater insight into needs, values and aspirations, and the latter, which help maintain and deepen the connection. Having a greater understanding of the own basic parameters and the communication patterns one uses with oneself and others is the key towards a better connectedness with oneself and with others (Haverkampf, 2010a). Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT), as developed by the author offers several approaches (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a) Finding meaning in things leads to greater happiness, and the basic parameters are ways to find and communicate what is meaningful. This requires doing what feels important, which can be a radically new way of doing things.

Connecting Across Time

Can we connect with someone we never met because they lived hundreds of years ago or with someone who is not present anymore? If that person leaves information, which we all do, we can connect. As mentioned, connectedness is a feeling that facilitates and s the result of the exchange of meaningful information. And wherever there is meaningful information, we can transform it in us and create new information from it. We do it all the time with a person who is in front of us. We cannot get immediate feedback to something we say from a person that is not present, but our mind can take the available information and create something new.

Connecting the Inside and the Outside

Sustainable happiness is when we are connected to the inside and outside worlds, when we can communicate freely within both. When an organization strives to be optimally adapted to itself and the environment, when it allows itself to be changed by it and to change it in beneficial ways, it can induce positive feelings and productivity. Fears, however, can be a significant hindrance.

Happiness does not require great activity. Even sitting in one’s chair at home can bring about happiness, when the feeling of connectedness with oneself and the world around is present. Happiness and the flow of meaningful information are linked. Happiness as an emotion is an indicator of how we process information, of how we think. Taking a step back and ‘observing’ how one process information on the inside (thinks and feels) and how one processes information on the outside (interacts with others) leads to greater connectedness and usually also higher satisfaction in life. Connectedness helps to optimize how we arrange our surroundings and ourselves in these surroundings.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. (Vienna) MLA (Harvard) LL.M. psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Zurich) trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy and counselling in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com. He is also a guest at http://www.askdrjonathan.com.

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Bupropion and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of the Sexual Side Effects of Antidepressants

Haverkampf-C.-J.-2021.-Bupropion-and-Psychotherapy-in-the-Treatment-of-the-Sexual-Side-Effects-of-Antidepressants.-In-Psychiatry-Vol-VI-pp.-1-10

Bupropion and Psychotherapy in the Treatment of the sexual side effects of Antidepressants

Dr Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Sexual dysfunction is a common side effect with many antidepressants, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). While the effects of the SSRIs are often very helpful in the treatment of depression, anxiety and OCD, sexual side effects are common but often not asked for by the prescriber. Two main strategies can be effective in treating sexual dysfunction. One is to add another medication, such as the dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor bupropion. Another is to use psychotherapy, particularly one that is focused on communication. Psychotherapy is not used often in this context, although its effectiveness for sexual dysfunction in general has been established, and even cases of medication induced sexual dysfunction are frequently multifactorial.

Keywords: sexual dysfunction, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, SSRI, serotonin, dopamine, antidepressants, bupropion, medication, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Table of Contents

Introduction. 3

Bupropion. 4

Bupropion as an Add-On. 4

Psychotherapy. 6

Attitudes towards Sex. 7

Communication-Focused Approaches. 7

Behavioural and Cognitive-Behavioural Approaches. 9

References. 11

 

Introduction

A significant number of patients undergoing treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) report sexual dysfunction. However, sexual dysfunction is also a common symptom of the underlying condition the medication is used for, such as depression and anxiety.

SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction can significantly lower the quality of life of the patient. SSRIs alleviate symptoms of depression primarily by selectively inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin in the central nervous system. An increase in serotonin may, however, affect other hormones and neurotransmitters, such as testosterone and dopamine. This may lead to side effects of sexual dysfunction, as testosterone may affect sexual arousal and dopamine plays a role in achieving orgasm.

The most common sexual side effect is delayed ejaculation.  Other types of sexual side effects include reduced sexual desire, reduced sexual satisfaction, anorgasmia, and impotence.  A prospective, descriptive clinical study of 344 subjects found that the incidence of sexual side effects was highest with paroxetine, followed by fluvoxamine, sertraline, and fluoxetine. The incidence of sexual dysfunction was similar between fluoxetine and escitalopram. (Jing & Straw-Wilson, 2016)

The best clinical evidence supports starting treatment with an antidepressant that has a better adverse sexual effect profile, such as bupropion or mirtazapine, particularly in patients concerned about their sexual functioning and in those with sexual dysfunction at baseline. (T. Lorenz et al., 2016) However, bupropion usually helps little in clinical practice against anxiety, or may even worsen it, which is often comorbid with depression.

Bupropion

Bupropion has been used as an antidepressant for decades, though its use as an antidepressant is generally not considered first-line. It has a unique pharmacology, inhibiting the reuptake of noradrenaline and dopamine, potentially providing pharmacological augmentation to more common antidepressants such as selective serotonergic reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Preclinical and clinical data show that bupropion acts via dual inhibition of norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake and is devoid of clinically significant serotonergic effects or direct effects on postsynaptic receptors. (Stahl et al., 2004)

Bupropion undergoes metabolic transformation to an active metabolite, 4-hydroxybupropion, through hepatic cytochrome P450-2B6 (CYP2B6) and has inhibitory effects on cytochrome P450-2D6 (CYP2D6), thus raising concern for clinically-relevant drug interactions. Common side effects are nervousness and insomnia. Nausea appears slightly less common than with the SSRI drugs and sexual dysfunction is probably the least of any antidepressant. (Foley et al., 2006)

Several large multi-medication trials, most notably STAR*D, also support a therapeutic role for bupropion. It demonstrated similar effectiveness to other medications, though this literature highlights the generally low response rates in refractory cohorts. Bupropion is generally well tolerated, it has very low rates of sexual dysfunction, and is more likely to cause weight loss than gain. (Patel et al., 2016)

Bupropion as an Add-On

Bupropion is used in clinical practice quite frequently as an add-on to a serotonergic antidepressant therapy if sexual side effects due to the latter drug emerge. There is support for this prescribing strategy in the literature. However, there are also some contradictory findings, which may be due to the complexity of human sexuality and the diverse manifestations of sexual dysfunction. In a literature review, Zisook and colleagues found that controlled and open-label studies support the effectiveness of bupropion in reversing antidepressant-associated sexual dysfunction, whereas open trials suggest that combination treatment with bupropion and an SSRI or SNRI is effective for the treatment of MDD in patients refractory to the SSRI, SNRI, or bupropion alone. (Zisook et al., 2006) In a later literature review, Valeska and colleagues found that most of the studies have noted that bupropion has the advantage of a lower impact on sexual functioning, and that it is effective, when combined with other antidepressants, in treating emergent sexual dysfunction. (M. Pereira et al., n.d.) There were also some studies indicating that bupropion enhanced sexual functioning in general.

In a study by Ashton and colleagues with 47 patients receiving 75 mg or 150 mg of bupropion 1–2 hrs before sexual activity, bupropion successfully reversed a variety of sexual dysfunctions caused by SRIs in 31 (66%) patients. Side effects of anxiety and tremor led to discontinuation of bupropion in 7 patients. Otherwise, bupropion was well tolerated. (Ashton & Rosen, 1998) However, in another study by Clayton and colleagues, patients were randomly assigned to receive either bupropion SR 150 mg b.i.d. or placebo for four weeks in addition to the SSRI. The difference in global sexual functioning, based on the total Changes in Sexual Functioning Questionnaire (CSFQ) score, was not statistically significant between the two groups at week four, nor were differences in orgasm, desire and interest as measured by sexual thoughts, or self-reported arousal. There was a statistically significant difference between the two groups at week four in desire as measured by self-report feelings of desire and frequency of sexual activity. Desire and frequency showed a significantly greater improvement among those patients receiving bupropion SR compared with placebo. Frequency was significantly correlated to total testosterone level at baseline. (Clayton et al., 2004)

Bupropion has shown effectiveness in both sexes. However, as sexual side effects can manifest differently it is informative to look at individual populations. In a study by Sararinejad with 218 women (25–45 years old), who were randomized to receive 12 weeks of double-blind fixed dosed treatment with bupropion sustained release 150 mg b.i.d. or placebo, the mean for Female Sexual Function Index total score was higher in the bupropion sustained release group than in the placebo group (p = 0.001). Mean Clinical Global Impression Scale score for the bupropion group was significantly lower than that for the placebo group (p = 0.001). At the end of the trial the mean scores for desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction were significantly higher in the bupropion group. The highest improvement was observed in sexual desire, followed by lubrication. (Safarinejad, 2011) In a randomized clinical trial was performed on 40 schizophrenic patients, participants were randomly divided into two experimental and control groups. The study group was medicated with bupropion 150 mg/day and the control group was given placebo for one-month. The study group showed significant improvement in sexual function, leading to significant change in the score of sexual desire, erection and orgasm. (Rezaei et al., 2018)

Psychotherapy

Many approaches have been adopted for management of patients with sexual dysfunction associated with antidepressant treatment, including waiting for the problem to resolve, behavioural strategies to modify sexual technique, individual and couple psychotherapy, delaying the intake of antidepressants until after sexual activity, reduction in daily dosage, ‘drug holidays’, use of adjuvant treatments, and switching to a different antidepressant. (Baldwin, 2004) Unfortunately, the potential benefits of psychotherapy are often overlooked. Given that sexual activity is sensitive to many psychological factors and based primarily on communication if experienced with another person, psychotherapy should be a primary therapeutic approach for sexual dysfunction, whether caused by a medication or otherwise.

In clinical experience, sexual dysfunction is rarely due to a single factor, even in many patients who are on a medication that can cause sexual dysfunction. It is thus important to look at the treatment of sexual dysfunction from a more global perspective. Psychological interventions usually place a significant emphasis on communication, which is at the heart of sexual functioning, whether in the form of internal or external communication. (Haverkampf, 2010b) In a systematic review and meta-analysis of all available studies on psychological interventions for sexual dysfunction from 1980 to 2009, the overall post-treatment effect size for symptom severity was d = 0.58 (95 % CI: 0.40 to 0.77) and for sexual satisfaction d = 0.47 (95 % CI: 0.27 to 0.70). Psychological interventions were shown to especially improve symptom severity for women with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder and orgasmic disorder, and evidence seemed to vary considerably across different disorders. (Frühauf et al., 2013)

Attitudes towards Sex

In a study of sexually functional males and females from the general population (43 males, 102 females) and clients attending a university clinic for the treatment of sexual dysfunction (1 14 males, 84 females), all groups of dysfunctional respondents were more likely than the functional group to report current negative attitudes towards sex. All groups of dysfunctional females were also more likely to experience deficits in both the sexual and non-sexual aspects of their current relationship, most particularly in relationship quality and range of sexual experiences. (McCabe & Cobain, 1998) This can raise the question whether sexual dysfunction leads to a more negative attitude towards sex or the negative attitude towards sex to greater sexual dysfunction. But maybe it is important to acknowledge that a clear line between sexual dysfunction and thoughts about sex does not exist. As mentioned above, sexual activity can be viewed as a form of communication (Haverkampf, 2010b), which is sensitive to many factors within and in the interaction with others. Messages containing meaningful information have a significant impact on a person’s thinking, feeling, and behaviours. (Haverkampf, 2010a) Communication-Focused Therapy®, for example, takes an approach that promotes awareness, reflection, and experimentation with respect to a patient’s communication patterns.

Communication-Focused Approaches

Communication with others can in itself have an antidepressant effect, depending also on the meaningfulness of the interactions. Since sex and intimacy are built on communication, both internal and external, they are very sensitive to changes in communication patterns. Depression can lead to less interactions, which then can also maintain the depression in a vicious cycle. Women with depressive symptoms, for example, have reported greater desire for sexual activity alone (masturbation) than the nondepressed women. (Frohlich & Meston, 2002) Thus, depression itself may be a barrier to the kind of communication that may be important for the enjoyment and initiation of fulfilling sexual activity with a partner.

Sexual activity occurs within a web of meaningful messages within and without the individual. A communication-focused approach means creating greater awareness in the patient for the communication patterns that have a large bearing on whether own needs, values, and spirations are satisfied or not. In one study investigating a community sample with 53 women and 34 men in long-term, heterosexual relationships, a majority of the men and women reported that they had experienced one or more sexual concerns or problems in the past 18 months. Both better communication in general, and disclosure of specific sexual likes and dislikes in particular, were  between sexual problems and concerns and sexual satisfaction. (The Relationships between Sexual Problems, Communication, and Sexual Satisfaction – ProQuest, n.d.)

The artificial distinction between sex therapy and communication therapy has fortunately vanished to a large extent. If they are viewed separately, they can lead to conflicting effects. In an earlier study from 1981 on sex therapy and communication therapy, the experience of sexual interaction and the orgasmic experience improved in males and females in sex therapy, and in females in communication therapy. The male experience of sexual interaction deteriorated in communication therapy, while the male orgasmic experience initially increased and subsequently diminished again. Satisfaction with the total relationship increased in the males in communication therapy, and in the females in sex therapy. (Everaerd & Dekker, 1981) However, it must be remembered that a large part of sex therapy can be subsumed within the wider range of communication-focused approaches. Sex with another person happens within the framework of the interactions in a relationship. The quality of the communication between the partners has a significant effect on all areas of the relationship, but particularly on intimacy, which is very sensitive to flows of meaningful messages. In another study, male and female partners from 76 heterosexual couples independently completed measures of their own and their partners’ sexual preferences, as well as measures of sexual and general relationship adjustment, sexual difficulties, marital role preferences, depression, and social desirability. Results indicated that sexual satisfaction in both partners was associated with men’s understanding of their partner’s preferences and agreement between their preferences. General relationship adjustment of both partners was associated with women’s understanding of men’s marital role preferences. (Purnine & Carey, 1997)

A communication-focused is not a quick fix. New communication patterns and insights have to be practiced and engrained as part of daily life. This also requires an openness to changes in communication patterns. Often, rigidity in a problematic relationship dynamic and the fear to address issues within the relationship causes an exacerbation and entrenchment of the relationship difficulties and any sexual dysfunction that goes with them. In a study, couples who reported less relationship adjustment prior to treatment showed greater overall gains in coital orgasmic frequency than couples who reported better relationship adjustment. (Kilmann et al., 1986) The treatment conditions consisted of a communication skills format, a sexual skills format, and one of two combination formats.

Behavioural and Cognitive-Behavioural Approaches

Psychotherapy often focused primarily on the underlying condition rather than the sexual dysfunction. In a study by Hoyer and colleagues with 451 outpatients treated with CBT, sexual dysfunctions improved in a significant number of patients but only after successful treatment for the psychological disorder. Results for patients suffering primarily from depression were similar to those who suffered from other psychological disorders. (Hoyer et al., 2009) When patients are treated with an antidepressant, whether with an SSRI or otherwise, it is important to keep in mind that the depression can also lead to sexual dysfunction, and that it may not be easy to distinguish whether it is pharmacologically induced or a manifestation or by-product of the underlying condition. In a study with 55 male and 79 female patients with major depression, over 40% of men and 50% of women reported decreased sexual interest. (Kennedy et al., 1999)

In a review of the literature, Berner and Günzler found that twelve out of 20 trials in men used either a concept derived from Masters and Johnson or a cognitive‐behavioural treatment program. Overall, psychosocial interventions improved sexual functioning. In men with premature ejaculation, behavioural techniques proved to be effective. Most of the compared interventions proved to be similarly effective. (Berner & Günzler, 2012) The results of a study of 23 couples, in which the wife was suffering from secondary orgasmic dysfunction, indicated that a cognitive-behavioural sex therapy program was effective in changing a wide range of subjective satisfaction and behavioural measures. (Libman et al., 1984)

In a study by Lorenz and colleagues, exercise immediately prior to sexual activity significantly improved sexual desire and, for women with sexual dysfunction at baseline, global sexual function. Scheduling regular sexual activity significantly improved orgasm function; exercise did not increase this benefit. Neither regular sexual activity nor exercise significantly changed sexual satisfaction. (Tierney Ahrold Lorenz & Meston, 2014) In another study by the same authors, exercise prior to sexual stimuli increased genital arousal. Women reporting greater sexual dysfunction had larger increases in genital arousal post-exercise. For women taking SSRIs, genital arousal was linked to SNS activity. (Tierney A. Lorenz & Meston, 2012)

Disclosure: The author is founder of Communication-Focused Therapy® but reports no other potential conflicts of interest.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. (Vienna) MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and articles on topics of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and communication, and is the founder of Communication-Focused Therapy®. He can be reached through www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and is a frequent guest on www.askdrjonathan.com.

References

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Berner, M., & Günzler, C. (2012). Efficacy of Psychosocial Interventions in Men and Women with Sexual Dysfunctions-A Systematic Review of Controlled Clinical Trials: Part 1-The efficacy of psychosocial interventions for male sexual dysfunction Berner and Günzler Psychosocial Interventions in Male Sexual Dysfunction. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(12), 3089–3107. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02970.x

Clayton, A. H., Warnock, J. K., Kornstein, S. G., Pinkerton, R., Sheldon-Keller, A., & McGarvey, E. L. (2004). A Placebo-Controlled Trial of Bupropion SR as an Antidote for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor–Induced Sexual Dysfunction. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65(1), 62–67. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.v65n0110

Everaerd, W., & Dekker, J. (1981). A comparison of sex therapy and communication therapy: Couples complaining of orgasmic dysfunction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 7(4), 278–289. https://doi.org/10.1080/00926238108405429

Foley, K. F., DeSanty, K. P., & Kast, R. E. (2006). Bupropion: Pharmacology and therapeutic applications. In Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics (Vol. 6, Issue 9, pp. 1249–1265). Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1586/14737175.6.9.1249

Frohlich, P., & Meston, C. (2002). Sexual functioning and self-reported depressive symptoms among college women. Journal of Sex Research, 39(4), 321–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490209552156

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Kilmann, P. R., Mills, K. H., Caid, C., Davidson, E., Bella, B., Milan, R., Drose, G., Boland, J., Follingstad, D., Montgomery, B., & Wanlass, R. (1986). Treatment of secondary orgasmic dysfunction: An outcome study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 15(3), 211–229. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01542413

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Lorenz, T., Rullo, J., & Faubion, S. (2016). Antidepressant-Induced Female Sexual Dysfunction. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 91, Issue 9, pp. 1280–1286). Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.04.033

Lorenz, Tierney A., & Meston, C. M. (2012). Acute Exercise Improves Physical Sexual Arousal in Women Taking Antidepressants. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 43(3), 352–361. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-011-9338-1

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Safarinejad, M. R. (2011). Reversal of SSRI-induced female sexual dysfunction by adjunctive bupropion in menstruating women: A double-blind, placebo-controlled and randomized study. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(3), 370–378. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881109351966

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Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) for Psychosis

Haverkampf-C.-J.-2020.-Communication-Focused-Therapy®-CFT-for-Psychosis.-In-CFT-Vol-IV-pp.-240-259

Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) for Psychosis

Dr. Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) is a psychotherapy developed by the author, which can be applied to several mental health conditions, including psychosis. Meaningful communication is at the heart of understanding psychosis. When a patient can no longer distinguish whether the information comes from the inside or outside world, we consider it a psychotic state. ‘Information’ can include anything from new thoughts to a sensory perception or sensations from inside the body. Since information transmission happens through communication, patients’ communication patterns influence the meaningful information they are exposed to, and the level of meaning they associate with themselves and the world. Psychosis is, in this sense, a distortion in meaning-making, which can be an impairment in everyday life. However, working on communication patterns can reverse the impairment and even bring out new resources to benefit the patient.

Keywords: psychosis, communication-focused therapy, CFT, communication, psychotherapy, treatment

Table of Contents

Introduction. 4

Reality. 4

Learning through Communication. 5

Resources. 5

Psychosis. 6

Misinterpretation of Sources of Information. 7

Misinterpretation of Messages. 9

A Diversity of Symptoms. 9

Connectedness vs Psychosis. 10

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) 11

Communication is Life. 11

Autoregulation. 12

Understanding Psychosis. 12

Meaningful Communication. 12

Learning about Communication. 13

Observing Communication. 14

Experimenting. 15

Reflecting. 15

The Communication Space. 15

Connectedness. 17

Experiencing the World. 17

Identifying Meaning in the World. 17

Increasing Interactions. 18

Values, Needs and Aspirations. 19

Communication Patterns. 20

Questions. 20

Confirmation. 20

Reflection. 21

Support. 21

Explaining. 21

Theory Building. 22

Experimentation. 22

‘You’ and ‘I’ 22

Time. 22

Metacommunication: Structure. 23

Testing. 23

Boundaries. 23

Communicating Internally. 24

Communication Attributes. 24

Communication Structures. 24

Communication Dynamics. 25

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change. 25

Knowing Where Information Comes From.. 26

References. 28

Introduction

Psychosis means losing touch with reality in one’s perception of what is real. It is thus a failure in meaningful communication since what is meaningful ultimately becomes real. Medication is often the first-line treatment, and many schools of psychotherapy are reluctant to work with people experiencing psychotic symptoms. On the other hand, psychotherapy can be a much more delicate instrument than medication. It also needs to be remembered that both medication and psychotherapy bring about changes in the neuronal network. Psychotherapy changes the streams of information, and meaningful information brings about a change in the neuronal network because the inherent definition of meaning is that it can affect a change. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018a)

From a perspective of everyday functioning more specifically than medication, which can be highly specific for certain molecular pathways, but does not have the specificity for the interactions of the patient with the real world.

Underlying most psychotherapies is the belief in the effectiveness of interpersonal communication, the ‘talk therapy’ as psychoanalysis was called at the close of the nineteenth century. Since in psychosis there are patterns of communication with oneself and others that are causing symptoms and are not helpful to the individual, using therapy to change offers more than hope in the treatment and management of psychosis. Communication-Focused Therapy® was designed by the author to work on the communication patterns that play a role in the exchange of meaningful information.

Reality

When people speak of reality, they really often mean shared reality. Shared reality is the perceptions the majority of people have. It does not necessarily mean that this is the ‘true’ reality, but it is how the majority of people see the world.

The shared reality may not necessarily be the ‘best’ reality. Someone could be happy interpreting the world in a different way. Part of the shared reality is due to shared anatomy and physiology; another part is due to the exchange of information between people. Psychosis affects how information is processed. Besides medication, helping people to have a different perspective on the flows of information and process them differently is an important way to treat psychosis. Assisting patients in selecting for, exposing themselves to, and as a result, receiving more meaningful information, they can ‘build’ a reality which causes less suffering and better meets their needs and wants.

An essential feature of experiencing reality is to be able to discriminate where the information is coming from. If one hears voices, one misattributes internal thoughts as external, or if one feels pursued by a secret agent, an aggressive inner emotion gets projected into the outside world. Both these examples are a consequence of how patients work with internal and external communication. Better insight into communication and learning communication skills can help to better localize sources of messages and build a more stable view and sense of reality.

Learning through Communication

Learning to identify better the sources of information, inside one’s own body and in the outside world, can help to attach the correct meaning to a sensation or a voice one hears. This can be trained in the communication space of a psychotherapeutic setting. Practising communication and reflecting on it helps the patient to develop greater insight and sharpen his or her communication skills.

Learning about communication usually includes a theoretical psychoeducational component and a practical component. Engaging in communication can be important to increase one’s confidence and skills in the process. At the same time, better proficiency in communication also makes any other learning processes easier.

Resources

Patients who have psychosis often lose a sense of their resources because the structure of the self feels less stable and reliable. In the therapeutic interaction, through the communication process, a more stable distinction between the inside and outside worlds can be established, which strengthens the sense of self, and thus makes the own resources more accessible. The self is an experience of internal information flows (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017b, 2017c). Therefore, it is not surprising that working on communication patterns can help arrive at a more stable sense of self.

Using communication more optimally can, for example, compensate for various cognitive impairments which are often a part of psychosis. Individual strengths can shine more if interactions with oneself and the world around improve. Resources can also be easier felt and relied upon if one communicates better with oneself. One aim of Communication-Focused Therapy® is to help the patient identify where information comes from, particularly if it represents a feeling or an emotion, what it means, and how one can react to it.

Psychosis

Psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that involves a loss of contact with reality. It is not a diagnosis but a bundle of symptoms. People experiencing psychosis may exhibit personality changes and thought disorder. Depending on its severity, this may be accompanied by unusual or bizarre behaviour, difficulties with social interaction, and impairments in carrying out daily life activities. Generally, psychosis involves noticeable deficits in normal behaviour and thought (negative symptoms) and often various types of hallucinations or delusional beliefs, particularly concerning the relationship between self and others as in grandiosity or paranoia (positive symptoms). Psychosis has such broad effects because it affects the flow of information, making interactions with others difficult. But it also affects the internal flows of information as discussed above, which can then lead to a misattribution of information. Internal information may then be mistaken as having an external source and vice versa. The paranoia of someone following me or a secret cabal of individuals influencing me is a projection fo the normal dynamics into the outside world. Our thoughts are questioned, obliterated, and threatened by other thoughts, as this is how normal rational thoughts processes work. The opposite happens when I am convinced that other people are influencing my thoughts directly.

Unfortunately, psychosis as a diagnostic term is often used after other reasons have been excluded. Therefore, it may be more illuminating to think of psychosis as a mental process involving changes in how information flows and how these flows are interpreted, which can occur in various psychiatric conditions.

Misinterpretation of Sources of Information

As discussed, in psychosis leads to a misattribution of information to an outside or an inside source. Patients experience their thoughts as coming from outside in the form of voices or people on the outside as part of internal mental processes. They might experience the latter as people influencing their own thoughts. From the differently perceived localization of perceptions and messages, a different reality is constructed. Since the pieces often do not integrate as well into it as in the shared reality, gaps can result, which then lead to fears, which are often of an intense and existential nature. There is evidence for an association between hallucinations and externalization errors in source monitoring. Neuroimagining results support hyperactivation of voice selective cortical regions (e.g. the superior temporal gyrus, STG) as underlying the cognitive operations shared between externalization errors in source monitoring and hallucinations. (Woodward & Menon, 2013)

From a communication perspective, an interesting question is whether the meaning that is given to the information content influences the misattribution. In one study, results suggested that external source monitoring bias may not be central to the cognitive processes underlying hallucinations early in the course of psychotic illness, and the theory linking childhood trauma and external source misattribution was not supported. (Bendall et al., 2011) Also, in dissociation, there is support for the association between errors attributing the source of self-generated items and positive psychotic symptoms and the absorption and amnesia measures of dissociation. (Chiu et al., 2016) This would also point more to an information processing problem that is relatively independent of meaning.

Another pertinent question is whether the misattribution may be due to an existing tendency to externalize, which may at least explain the inside-out misattribution or projection. Earlier findings have been that patients with hallucinations and delusions are prone to misidentifying their own verbal material as alien in a task which does not involve cognitive self-monitoring. This suggests that these symptoms are related to an externalizing bias in the processing of sensory material, and not solely a function of defective self-monitoring. (P. P. Allen et al., 2004) In a later study, Garrison and colleagues found no evidence of an impairment or externalizing bias on a reality monitoring task in hallucination-prone individuals. They also found no evidence of atypical performance on an internal source monitoring task in hallucination-prone individuals. (Garrison et al., 2017) Reality monitoring is the ability to distinguish internally generated information from information obtained from external sources.  

Impairments in self-recognition (i.e. recognition of own thoughts and actions) have been repeatedly shown in individuals with schizophrenia. Information flows in many different areas in the body, and this can also involve sensorimotor processing. Dysfunction of sensorimotor predictive processing can lead to altered self-monitoring in psychosis. (Salomon et al., 2020) In another study, individual differences in auditory hallucination-like experiences seem to be  highly related to the external misattribution of thought. (Sugimori et al., 2011) This is important because sensorimotor information also plays an important part in building the sense of self. Self-monitoring biases and overconfidence in incorrect judgments have been suggested as playing a role in schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Gaweda and colleagues found that both ultra-high risk and first-episode psychosis groups misattributed imagined actions as being performed (i.e., self-monitoring errors) significantly more often than the control group. They made their false responses with higher confidence in their judgments than the control group. There were no group differences regarding discrimination between the types of actions presented (verbal vs non-verbal). (Gawęda et al., 2018)

The misidentification of self-generated speech in patients with auditory verbal hallucinations is associated with functional abnormalities in the anterior cingulate and left temporal cortex. In a study by Allen and colleagues, individuals with hallucinations made more external misattributions and showed altered activation in the superior temporal gyrus and anterior cingulate compared with both other groups. This may be related to impairment in the explicit evaluation of ambiguous auditory verbal stimuli, according to the investigators. (P. Allen et al., 2007)

There seem to be self-recognition deficits in populations on the continuum of psychosis who are still lacking the full-blown psychotic symptoms. Lavalle and colleagues observed significantly reduced self-recognition accuracy in populations on the pyschosis-spectrum compared to controls. (Lavallé et al., 2020) Biological areas in the brain that are involved in both self-referential processing and the integration of sensory information, such as the right middle temporal gyrus (MTG) and left precuneus, may be involved. A study found that within a first-episode psychosis group, the level of activation in the right middle temporal gyrus was negatively correlated with the severity of their positive psychotic symptoms. y (Kambeitz-Ilankovic et al., 2013)

One needs to regard psychotic symptoms as being on a sliding scale, like many other mental health afflictions. For example, psychotic symptoms can occur in situations when otherwise healthy individuals are under significant psychological stress. Using a robotic device to introduce sensorimotor prediction errors (SPEs) in healthy subjects can induce a psychosis-like feeling of a presence (‘FoP’) (Blanke et al. 2014).  induction of SPE can cause self-other confusion in the auditory domain. This deficit in self-other discrimination could be correlated to specifically reduced connectivity in the fronto-parietal cortex (‘FoP network’) related to sensorimotor self-representation. (Salomon et al., 2018)

Misinterpretation of Messages

Misinterpretation of a message is different from the misattribution of the information source, but they often seem to go hand in hand in psychosis. The conviction that someone is pursued by a neighbour, who is a spy, can be a misinterpretation of a feeling towards the neighbour as a (real) outside event, while a smile from the neighbour in the hallway can be interpreted as her satisfaction about having made a plan to harm the patient, which would be a misinterpretation of her original message of saying ‘Hi’.

A misinterpretation of messages usually occurs with respect to the universe of the patient, emotionally and perceptually. When focusing on communication in therapy, it is therefore essential to first get a sense for the universe the patient finds himself or herself in, both perceptually and emotionally. This information allows the therapist to build a better rapport with the patient since the patient will interpret the therapist’s messages within the context of this universe.

A Diversity of Symptoms

A host of symptoms can follow from the underlying communication dynamics of psychosis. Psychosis is often used descriptive term for the hallucinations, delusions and impaired insight that may occur as part of a psychiatric disorder. More correct would be to use it to describe the alterations in information recognition and processing. Some symptoms can be due to a misinterpretation in the source of the information or misinterpretation of one’s own position relative to the source of information, while others are clearly due to a misinterpretation of the messages.

Connectedness vs Psychosis

Psychosis is a state in which information is no longer categorized and compartmentalized in the same way. This does not necessarily mean an increase in connectedness. Rather the opposite, as the categorization of information, such as what happens in the outside world and what happens on the inside, is important to effectively communicate with oneself and others. When it becomes distorted or breaks down, the boundaries between oneself and the other person are affected, which reduces the accuracy of encoding and decoding messages. If I cannot distinguish if a thought or emotion is mine or someone else’s, my interaction with the other person will be affected. If I am wrong, a message from the other person, or myself, will be read incorrectly, and I am more likely to respond in a way, which does not help myself or the other person. For example, if my anger about someone else is misinterpreted as anger coming from the other person, I am more likely to misinterpret their brief stare or silence. They may reflect on what I said while I could interpret their communication as aggressive.

However, connectedness can also be heightened in a psychotic episode if barriers break down, which have been impairing a free flow of meaningful communication otherwise. For example, among shamans, several may owe their visions to psychotic episodes, which brought information into conscious awareness, which may not have been as easily accessible otherwise. Several artists also had psychosis, such as Van Gogh who had schizophrenia, whose paintings with their bright colours and eerily straight forward yet fantastically distorted images remind of accounts of psychotic episodes. It does not mean that they were actually created in a psychotic episode, but a greater sensitivity and less filtering of certain types of sensory and other information in psychosis could be associated with more pronounced internal and external connectedness. How this connectedness plays out in everyday life depends on existing communication patterns, both within the person and with others. It also depends significantly on the environment, as the case of the shamans illustrated.

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT)

The author developed Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) to focus more specifically on the communication process between patient and therapist and help the patient acquire more insight and better skills. The central piece is that the sending and receiving of meaningful messages is at the heart of any process leading to changes in thoughts or external situations. CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy and IPT help because they define a format in which communication processes can bring about change without focusing on them. CFT tries to be more efficient in a therapeutic sense by focusing on them more directly.

At the start, when treating psychosis, it may appear challenging to engage in a constructive communication process. However, organisms, in general, tend to react to information if it reaches them somehow. Even in states that seem very closed off, the brain still receives and processes information streaming from the external world. Persistence, and in many cases antipsychotic medication as a supportive tool, often help to get the patient to a point where they get used to the constant messages, fears decline, and it becomes easier to initiate a response. It is important to remember that it is almost impossible to interact with someone who repeatedly sends out messages under normal circumstances.

Communication is Life

We continuously engage in communication. Cells in our bodies interact with each other using electrical current, molecules, vibrations or even electromagnetic waves. On a more macroscopic level, people communicate through a multitude of channels, which may depend on several technologies and intermediaries. It does not have to be an email. Spoken communication requires multiple signal translations from electrical and chemical transmission in the nervous system to mechanical transmission. Muscles and air stream determine the motions of the vocal chords. As a result, sound waves travel through the air, followed by various translations on the receiving end. At each end, in the sender and the receiver, there is a processing of information that relies on the nervous system’s highly complex networks. Communication, in short, happens everywhere all the time. It is an integral part of life. Specific communication patterns can, however, also contribute to experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.

Autoregulation

Communication is an autoregulatory mechanism. It ensures that living organisms, including people, can adapt to their environment and live a life according to their interests, desires, values, and aspirations. This does not only require communicating with a salesperson, writing an exam paper or watching a movie, but also finding out more about oneself, psychologically and physically. Whether measuring one’s strength at the gym or engaging in self-talk, this self-exploration requires flows of relevant and meaningful information. Communication allows us to have a sense of self and a grasp of who we are and what we need and want in the world, but it has to be learned similar to our communication with other people.

Understanding Psychosis

In psychosis the internal and external worlds cannot be distinguished as accurately anymore. They seem to blend into each other. This can cause various symptoms that are then summarised as ‘psychotic’. However, each symptom should make sense in the context of the patient’s communication patterns as well as the life experiences and emotions the patient faces, which influence the content of the psychosis. Having an understanding for what is happening, is important because it also helps make the patient feel more secure.

Another feature of psychosis is a more or less strong divergence from the patient’s perceived world from the shared reality, maybe one aspect which allows artists with intermittent moderate psychosis to paint stunning works of art. This divergence is largely driven by emotions or thoughts which become disassociated from the fabric of the patient’s self and personality.

Meaningful Communication

When an individual suffers from psychosis, a first important step is to help the patient see meaning in the communication process, particularly a relevance to own needs and interests. This helps to build and maintain the motivation which is necessary for a communication oriented therapeutic process. It also helps the patient build a greater sense of efficacy when interacting with his or her environment.

Since communication patterns are usually significantly affected in psychosis, a message can be given different meaning. If the information background of a message changes, the meaning attached to it changes. When information is no longer tagged correctly as to where it comes from, whether from the inside or the outside of a person, its meaning will change because it is put into a different information context. For example, ‘hearing’ a thought as if it comes from the outside world, leads the brain to create a whole setting for this ‘voice’. As the brain is constantly trying to extract simplicity from the information it has, it will offer the simplest explanation for this voice, even if it has to create a new reality where the voice fits in. The result can be a fantastic story built around the voice. Understanding these internal communication patterns, even if they cannot be seen directly, helps a patient to better live with the voice. Patients with psychosis may even understand the voice as thoughts they are having. As these may be thoughts they would not be consciously aware of otherwise, psychotherapy also needs to help the patient gain a better understanding of the content of the voice, which can be a stark distortion of the underlying thoughts.

Learning about Communication

The first step is to learn about communication, to see how it works, what its constituents are and the purposes it can serve, to talk about communication. Often it helps to go through examples that may be of special relevance to the patient. Analyzing them and looking at different options and different outcomes help to illustrate to the patient the importance of the process. Talking about communication also has the benefit that one can talk about something relevant apart from the content. Talking about communication allows to focus on something that not only underlies all the processes that produce content without talking about the latter, but also to move with the patient in a space where there are usually no discrepancies in beliefs or anything that is driven by content, which is largely superficial and dependent on the communication processes underneath it. Talking about communication also lets the therapist get a foot in the door of content. No matter how bizarre beliefs or views sound, there is some reason for the patient to have them, and to find one’s way into the deeper content is usually best via talking and learning about communication. Often, the more bizarre the belief sounds, the clearer may be the underlying thought content.

For the learning process, it is important that the therapist has a sense of the patient’s perceptual and emotional world. Understanding is here at the core, which involves the use of communication patterns that facilitate the exchange of meaningful information. Learning with the patient more about the communication patterns the patient (and the therapist) uses increases the amount of meaningful information that can be produced in the session. Insight into the patient’s communication patterns also enables the therapist to use communication styles and messages which are interpreted by the patient not as hostile, deferential or lacking in empathy. Early in the therapeutic process the interaction should help to build a strong and stable therapeutic relationship. An understanding of communication patterns is in this process more important than the content.

Observing Communication

Splitting up communication and identifying its components helps to observe the process and the variations, large and small, in it. Observing is a learning experience and helps develop an interest in communication and see the possibilities in influencing and shaping interactions with others. An interaction can exist in many shapes and forms, while the underlying communication processes adhere to common rules and laws. It helps the patient to appreciate the common underlying mechanisms, which can increase trust in the process and a sense of stability in the world, and, at the same time, to see an ecncounter as a dynamic group of interacting communication events.

Important is that the patient learns to look at the bigger picture and observe communication as it takes place, whether it involves the patient or not. This essentially requires being able to take a step out of the current interaction and to observe the dynamic without engaging in it at the same time. Over time, this becomes automatic enough that observation and engagement can alternate in one’s awareness so quickly that they seem to be simultaneous.

A patient can learn about communication if the therapist reflects and comments on what happens in the communication space the patient and therapist share. This teaches the patient patterns and skills through the expertise and experience of the therapist. However, it requires that the therapist has this expertise and experience. Especially for a psychotic patient, it is important to show this not just in theory, but also in practice through trying out new communication experiences which then translate into new perspective of the world and oneself.

Experimenting

Experimenting with communication in its different flavors can give the patient a greater sense of effectiveness with respect to the environment as well as oneself. It gives patients a greater sense of being in control, which is helpful because patients with psychosis often experience helpless and hopelessness, which can also cause some of the sudden emotional outbursts seen in severe cases of psychosis, such as schizophrenia.

A gradual increase in the scope or difficulty in the scope of experimentation probably works best. It can start with little everyday encounters and end with dating. People generally feel more vulnerable the more they feel they expose about themselves. For patients who have psychosis, this anxiety is much greater, because they sense that their perceived world and the shared reality diverge. Own emotions may also feel real, which makes their visibility to others even riskier. The fear of getting hurt at the core of one’s mental structure is universal. However, the hurt seems more devastating in a patient who has psychosis because the structure is already under considerable stress.

Reflecting

The newly gained knowledge and communication skills need to be processed, which can help increase the confidence and sense of effectiveness in the world. This should not be solely about control, but more about seeing oneself as a part of something bigger which is not something to be afraid of, but helps individuals to address and meet their needs and wants.

The Communication Space

Depending on the environment we move through different communication spaces in everyday life. The communication space is the space in which messages are being sent and received. If one is talking to someone over the phone who lives on a different continent, the communication space extends to this person, while not including the neighbor in the apartment next door, unless the walls are really thin.

To a patient suffering from psychosis the communication space can be extremely large or extremely small, but it usually diverges considerably from that of other people. Thoughts, for example, can be influenced from a large distance, or, at the other extreme, a patient could fully disconnect from the environment. To someone suffering from psychosis the internal world largely determines the communication space, while other people’s communication space is determined through an interaction with the environment.

In therapy, it is important to make the patient aware of the communication space he or she builds and what influences it. This is an important component of learning about communication and bringing about change through it. We all build our communication spaces in different ways. This does not only depend on individual communication patterns or structures, but also on other aspects of personality, individual life experiences, and more. The mental health condition, in this case the psychosis, should be viewed as something on top of it that affects the building of the communication space and the communication patterns in a fairly predictable yet somewhat crude way.

The communication space is built from communication patterns, yet it also influences communication patterns in a rather direct way. When I interact with another person, the communication patterns, and possibly also structures, I will be using, depend on the communication space I find myself in. As the communication space is subjective, it is only related to an actual physical space and situation, but it is not the same. Depending on how I feel I may perceive my external communication space as relatively large at a dinner party (good feelings, low social anxiety) or small (feeling self-conscious, distracted by internal thoughts). Although the external and internal communication space may both be large at times, they often grow at the expense of the other. When the experienced external and internal communication spaces in psychosis overlap less and less with the spaces as they appear to an observer, communication with the outside world becomes less efficient. There is more friction because the communication patterns an individual uses are adapted to the experienced communication space, which in psychosis, as also in several other mental health conditions, agrees less with the communication space another person uses to adjust their communication patterns and structures. Helping a patient identify these differences can already be very helpful. It is not necessary that people’s communication spaces agree all the time – they are not supposed to – as long as one can translate between the two and make modification. If a patient suffering from a psychosis sees her world as that of a microbe on an intergalactic sheep, it is still possible to talk about feelings thoughts and the conversation we may be having. As already discussed the content can pull the interaction, but reflecting together on the communication itself is often the technique that can lead to long-term stabilization.

Connectedness

The symptoms of psychosis can reduce the meaningful interactions a patient has with the world. The breakdown of boundaries between the outside and inside world and the changes in selecting and giving meaning to information, make communication between a patient with psychosis and someone else more difficult. These difficulties in communication can then have secondary effects, which lead to even more isolation and disconnect. The therapist can use communication patterns that lead to changes in the patient’s communication patterns, when they are combined with an overall strategy of creating more awareness and insight for the communication the patient has with the world and conducts internally.

Experiencing the World

Psychosis often leads to a vicious cycle which leads to less rather than more communication. Anxieties and a changed perception of reality can lead to a disengagement from it, which reduces the ability to distinguish internal from external reality even more. Practising and discussing new ways to communicate with the patient, including new communication patterns and better reflection on them, increases the patient’s ability to experience and bring about change in the world.

Next to improving interactions with others, better identification and understanding of meaning helps to anchor the patient better in the shared reality, making everyday life and planning for the future easier.

Identifying Meaning in the World

Fears brought about by the divergence of the perceived reality from the shared reality lead to social isolation and withdrawal, which reinforces feelings of fear and loneliness or frustrations. To break this cycle, it helps the patient find more relevance in aspects of the shared reality. This is usually not a process which happens from one day to the next, but over time leads to a closer alignment of the patient’s perceptions and intentions with the shared reality

Communication helps in identifying and finding meaning. Communicating with oneself and others raises one’s proficiency at identifying, finding and accumulating meaningful information. Organisms are already born with communication patterns they can use with themselves and the environment. These resources are encoded in the networks of cells within the organism, particularly the neuronal network. Through meaningful interactions, one accumulates more meaning, more connectedness with oneself and the world, which also provides a protective boundary against fears, guilt, self-blame and other negative emotions, depression and anxiety.

There are essentially two techniques to help the patient identify and interpret relevance and meaning in the world. One is by directly discussing the individual needs and how they can be met in the world, such as in a relationship or at the workplace. The second is by helping the patient have better internal and external interactions with the world, which make it easier to see relevance and meaning in the environment and provide the skills to attain them.

Increasing Interactions

Perceiving more meaning also makes interacting with others and oneself more meaningful. Communication patterns determine how one relates to the own environment and exchanges messages with it, which in turn affects the communication patterns. As long as this feedback loop works well, it contributes significantly to the patient’s autoregulation and a better adjustment to the environment. As the anxiety about interactions with others decreases, it should become easier to become more socially involved with others, at least to the extent that would feel comfortable to the individual.

In the beginning this often requires reducing situation- or person-dependent fears that are a consequence of the psychotic experience. Altered interpretations of information and its source lead to the perception of a less stable world, which seems to contain real threats, even if the latter is just own emotions or thoughts that have manifested as real to the patient. Meaningful interactions with the world can reduce the divergence of realities and fear because they stabilize the patient’s experience in the world. To be meaningful, the interactions should be an exchange of messages relevant to the patient’s interests, values or aspirations. This is why it is important to discuss with the patient and get a sense of the patient’s needs, wants and values. The next step is to help the patient find and make interactions that are helpful and meaningful to him or her. With the additional focus on communication, whether in a therapeutic session, internal thoughts or between the patent and others, interactions should become easier and less feared.

Values, Needs and Aspirations

Often, individuals suffering from psychosis become uncertain about what is really important to them and the fit between these values and interests and their current life situation. In all areas of life, having one’s needs, wants and values met, leads to a higher quality of life. If one values helping others in a specific way, it is important to find ways to engage in this activity, because it will result in a positive feeling. Harm to oneself and others is usually a consequence of some disconnect with one’s own feelings, needs, wants and values. Burnout or verbal abuse of another person may be examples.

The change in one’s relation with oneself and the environment, as well as the resulting change in the sense of self, make is usually harder for an individual suffering from psychosis to identify correctly the own needs, wants, values, and aspirations, partly out of fear that they could disturb a fragile feeling reality even more. In this situation, it is helpful to help the patient understand that connecting with them actually adds stability, rather than taking away from it. One way to reduce the fear of getting closer to and identifying key parameters about oneself is to help the patent emotionally reconnect. The emotions are the sum of vast amounts of information, such as a feeling of happiness as the product of perceptions of a situation and associated thoughts, and can, if they are owned by the patient, lead to a greater feeling of stability. Helping the patient to notice and identify them more accurately can lower fears and the make the inner world, and thus also the outer world in psychosis, seem more predictable. It is important to add in this context, that emotional instability is not so much due to a too much of emotions, but a consequence of impairments in a patient’s internal communication with the own emotions. The inability to read the emotions accurately leads to the sense of instability, or even the emotional and existential ‘void’ which is so prevalent in a patient with borderline personality disorder.

Communication Patterns

A more comprehensive overview of different communication patterns, elements, and structures is provided by the author elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2018b). A few will here be selected that may be particularly useful in patients with psychosis.

Questions

Questions are powerful instruments in changing communication patterns (Haverkampf, 2017a). There are many different types with vastly different effects. But what many of them have in common is that they have an influence on how information is selected and worked with. Many questions narrow the choice of communication patterns the other person can use in response. They often force the other to use a blended communication pattern and content they might otherwise not have volunteered at this point within the interaction. Questions can therefore also play a significant role to influence the timing of stages within an interaction.

Using questions in the interaction with someone experiencing psychotic symptoms should be done carefully. While it can be a challenge to preemptively analyze how a question could be interpreted by the other, it makes the interaction easier to try to stay with the patient and get a sense for how they are likely to experience the world and this interaction in particular. The advantage of using questions is that they are less overtly directive, which can help when talking with a paranoid patient. On the other hand, being more directive can help a patient who experiences a loss of structure in the world and within themselves. However, in order to provide this level of support it is important to have a proper sense of the world and the own person through the patient’s eyes. Psychotic patients are often grateful for the interaction with another human being. Important is to build enough insight that any remaining structures that provide the patient with stability are not under attack from the start.

Confirmation

Repeating the information the patient has said but with adding to it, and thus slightly altered meaning, can be helpful to strengthen the healthy resources the patient can still access in a psychotic episode. This can also be done outside the psychotic episode. Building on strengths and resources that are rooted firmly in the patient’s mental world creates greater resilience when the psychotic thought patterns try to loosen the connection with external and internal realities.

Reflection

Reflective communication patterns are mainly directed at inducing reflection in the other. This is often done by introducing something novel, such as particular observation by the therapist, which appears relevant to the patient’s basic parameters, namely the needs, values and aspirations. Reflection should help build on the healthy structures the patient uses to gain a greater sense of stability and support the grounding in reality which facilitates better communication with oneself and others.

Support

Supportive communication patterns give the patient the opportunity to narrate and explain about his or her world in a safe and non-judgmental atmosphere. At the same time, the therapist is present with a reflection on the own feelings and thoughts that are triggered by the patient’s narrative. Supportive communication uses communication patterns that make it easier for the patient to engage, while providing the openness the patient needs to do so. Statement that show genuine interest and caring can go a long way. Here it also helps if the therapist is alert to meaning within the patient’s words. As the decoding of meaning depends on the information one already has, getting meaningful information form the patient and trying to understand as much as possible about the world of the patient are important.

Explaining

Explaining something to the patient may seem one-directional and untherapeutic, but it is of particular importance when working with patients suffering from psychosis. A good explanation about something the patient is struggling with or about the interaction with the therapist, for example, can be helpful in giving the patient a greater sense of stability and safety. This, of course, requires that the therapist has enough insight to be meaningful and relevant to the patient in the explanations and to be understood. Explaining can sometimes work like a question, because the additional information can lead to further information from the patient. Particularly in psychosis, a clear and mostly unambiguous communication is essential. Good communication can help the patient put more structure into the experienced real world.

Theory Building

Considering and reflecting on options demonstrates openness. Particularly in the case of psychosis, in which patients experiencing the world becoming a smaller rather than a larger place, learning that openness in terms of looking for explanations is nothing to be afraid of can be helpful in containing the destabilizing effect of psychosis.

Experimentation

Experimenting with communication patterns is one of the most important tools in therapy. When the patient experiences that the therapist experiments with new communication patterns, it also makes it easier for the patient to experiment. Adjusting existing communication patterns or synthesizing new ones so that they are more effective and adaptive is an important step for the patient. The therapist can support this by being open, reflected and playful in communicating.

‘You’ and ‘I’

Communication patterns that highlight the individual realms of patient and therapist are important to help the patient to distinguish between the own inner and the outer world and to integrate the presence of the other into these worlds. At the same time, the important of communication as a bridge between ‘you’ and ‘I’ which can make a ‘we’ in defined areas helps the patient to experience the power of communication, which can work against feelings of helplessness and control from outside.

Time

 Patients suffering from psychosis are already under tremendous pressure. It is important not to rush it and allow communication patterns that may not be directed to a specific goal and to create the space in which relaxed experimentation without fear of failure can take place. Time can take on different qualities when a patient is in a psychotic episode, which should be taken into account. As with any communication dynamic, pattern or attribute, it is important for the therapist to use a combination of picking up the patient where he is and doing something new, which can bring about a change and help the patient to move to a better state.

Metacommunication: Structure

Communication patterns have structure and the communication patterns together give rise to structures. As mentioned under support, it is usually helpful for the patient to get greater insight into how communication works. This makes it also to build on it. Raising awareness in the patient for communication structure may include some explanation, but often it may be more a combination of reflecting with the patient on past communication experiences, and how they worked, and reflecting on the communication taking place in the current setting.

Testing

Testing out communication patterns can also be important particularly for patients with psychosis. For example, to know where the information one hears in a voice is coming from, being able to test communication patterns is important. In the session this is often facilitated, when the therapist displays openness and explores with the patient helpful questions to find answers that satisfy needs and aspirations. Testing out communication patterns is frequently done by talking about situations that did nor did not work and investigating with the patients what made them work or not work. Practicing this investigative thinking can be helpful in improving everyday situations. It has also the benefit that it entrenches a way of communicating internally that can keep a greater stability in a psychotic episode.

Boundaries

It is difficult to communicate without boundaries. If there is no marked off space one can claim for oneself and outside of which there is the other person’s space, it is easy to make other people’s unhealthy thought and emotional dynamics one’s own and see own thoughts and emotions as those of others. When the distinction between the internal and external world fades in a psychotic episode, helping oneself and making decisions become impossible. If structures and categories disappear, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ become even more of a challenge. A disconnect from vital internal information to make decisions, add to the indecisiveness.

Important communication patterns in building boundaries are those that help the patient become more aware of and identify the basic parameters, that is the own needs, values, and aspirations. As they are always present and do not change much over time, identifying them can often have a stabilizing and healing effect for the patient. But they also help establish boundaries, because they reinforce the sense of being distinct from others and unique in them. At the same time, boundaries make it easier to also explore what one has in common with others without having to be afraid to lose those attributes that are important to oneself.

Communicating Internally

Making it easier for the patient to talk about internal communication can also help in having more influence over the internal communication. One usually has more influence over communication one can communicate about. This ability to engage in meta-communication is something that is usually lost in a more severe psychotic episode in schizophrenia, for example. However, in more moderate psychotic episodes this can be possible provided one has practiced it beforehand and experienced it as useful.

Communication Attributes

Different communication patterns can have common attributes. For example, openness can be expressed through questions, statements, inviting gestures, and so forth. Particularly when working with patients suffering from psychosis, clarity is important, but so also is adjusting the amount of information that is being communicated. Providing spontaneous feedback, for example, while a generic communication pattern, can come with many different attributes. It can be information rich, have added information in the form of particular emotional undertones, invite or not invite a response, and so forth. Working communication patterns and attributes usually develop out of the interaction with the patient, which contains auto-regulatory mechanisms.

Communication Structures

More complex behaviors in life, such as socializing, doing therapy, or conducting a meeting in work, are ruled by communication structures, which specify the group of communication patterns that are most likely to be used during the event, and in what sequence and under which circumstances. More awareness of these structures can often provide additional support to patients when they feel overwhelmed and confused by the communication dynamics of the moment. It also helps the therapist to have these structures in mind when the patient discusses everyday situations that did not seem to work.

Communication Dynamics

Therapy has meaningful messages travelling in both directions most of the time. Even the most abstinent therapist can only have a positive effect on the patient because he or she communicates. When working with patients who are experiencing an episode of psychosis, the information flows have to be adjusted to the situation. Problems usually arise in any communication situation when the external and internal dynamics diverge too far from each other (Haverkampf, 2010b)

The needed communication dynamics depend on the individual and on the situation. In many mental health conditions, the self-regulation capabilities are impaired, and it is difficult for a patient to adjust the parameters of the dynamics, including intensity, directionality (for example, back-and-forth or one-way), repetitiveness, novelty, and more, to the current needs. In psychosis, the partial disconnect mentioned above makes it more difficult to perceive the own need and to communicate to others the adjustments that are needed. The therapeutic setting should be a place where this can be practiced.

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change

Communication is the vehicle of change. The instruments are meaningful messages which are generated and received by the people who take part in these interactions. In a therapeutic setting, keeping the mutual flow of information relevant and meaningful brings change in both people who take part in this process. The learning curve for the patient may be steeper in certain respects because he or she spends less time in this interaction style than a therapist.

The main objective is that patients can make communication work for themselves on their own. Looking at communication patterns and how meaning is generated in a therapeutic session should not only help with a concrete situation or problem in the moment but provide the tools to work with a multitude of situations or problems in the future. The key to build motivation and use communication processes, is to understand that meaning, information about information which is relevant to and resonates with the recipient of the message, is very much at the heart of it. Becoming better at sending and receiving, interpreting and working with meaning can make the world for an individual suffering from psychosis more stable and broadens the scope of change that can be affected on the world and oneself. Better insight and skills around communication and meaning take some time but can have a lasting beneficial effect for and individual suffering from psychosis.

Knowing Where Information Comes From

In the end, the patent should also have a better sense of communicating and knowing where information comes from. Not only does this help this reduce the divergence between the experienced world and the shared world, but it also helps to use information and communication better. Being able to identify a source of information can make it easier to identify meaning and respond to it. This helps build a stronger sense of self, better relationships and imparts greater confidence in dealing with everyday life as well towards fulfilling own aspirations. Greater insight and skills into communication can accomplish this.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie.

References

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Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) for Depression

Haverkampf-C.-J.-2020.-Communication-Focused-Therapy®-CFT-for-Depression.-In-CFT-Vol-IV-pp.-320-339

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) for Depression

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Depression is a mental health condition that affects a large part of the population at least once over their life span, significantly reducing life quality and impairing work and relationships. Psychotherapy and medication are the main treatments for the condition. Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) is a therapy developed by the author, focusing on communication processes to treat depression. Improvements in internal and external communication and awareness for a patient’s needs, values and aspirations appear to be effective against several symptoms of depression and increase motivation and compliance for therapy. This article provides an overview of a conceptual framework from a communication perspective and several approaches for treating depression with psychotherapy.

Keywords: depression, communication-focused therapy, CFT, communication, psychotherapy, psychiatry, treatment

Table of Contents

Introduction. 4

Depression. 6

Flattening of Emotions. 6

Negative Interpretations. 7

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®) 9

Communication Patterns. 10

Questions. 11

Timeline. 11

Getting Information. 12

Connecting. 12

Integration. 13

Analyzing Communication Patterns. 13

Emotional Signals. 14

Motivation. 15

Insight into Communication. 15

Building the Sense of Self 17

Meaning. 18

Resonance. 18

Relevance. 19

Communication Exchange. 21

Integration. 21

Values, Needs and Aspirations. 22

Internal Communication. 22

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change. 23

Broader Experience. 23

References. 25

 

Introduction

Depression is a general lowering of emotional experiences, while in the lighter forms, it may just be a reduction of positive emotional experiences. A dialling down of internal and external communication, such as thoughts, feelings and activities, usually accompanies it. Loss of energy, motivation, and initiative, loss of enjoyment and interest in pleasurable activities, and loss of concentration are just some of the possible attributes of depression.

All explanations for depression seem to depend on the framework of the school of thought that produced them. An early answer from ego psychology was that depression is the emotional expression of a state of ego-helplessness and ego-powerlessness to live up to certain strongly maintained narcissistic aspirations. (Bibring, 1953) This explanation is in some ways not so far from what we can observe in depression in every clinical practice, even if we rarely use the terminology anymore. Patients who are depressed indeed mostly feel helpless and powerless, which are practically requirements of the sense of feeling depressed. When we find ourselves in a situation where there seems no escape or where we have to decide quite literally between a rock and a hard place, we are more likely to feel depressed, unless we develop a new alternative and open a door we have not seen before. Unfortunately, depression makes it seem harder to innovate and be creative. One of the techniques of Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) is to restore the ability to see a broad range of options and innovate in depression. The path there is through work on communication patterns, as communication is how we all get our needs, values and aspirations satisfied.

Depression usually impairs the emotional communication one has with oneself and with others. (Haverkampf, 2017e) Experimental data has been showing quite consistently that depressive subjects exhibit disrupted emotional processing.  (Delle-Vigne et al., 2014) This emotional disconnect from oneself leads to a less complete sense of self and lower confidence in oneself and the world. (Haverkampf, 2012) The disconnect then leads to significant secondary impairments in everyday life.  It affects the interaction patterns one has with other people and oneself, leading to various relationship and workplace problems, and from here to further depression and anxiety. Thus, a neverending vicious cycle can pull the individual suffering from depression ever further down. Fortunately, in most people, depressive episodes are self-limiting as self-regulatory mechanisms usually kick in once it has reached a level where the quality of life is severely compromised. What then happens is that a shift or change in the internal and external communication happens that pulls the individual out of the depression. This latter process is what Communication-Focused Therapy® aims to bring about in patients where these auto-regulatory processes are absent or maladaptive. (Haverkampf, 2010b)

The symptoms of depression are the result of maladaptive internal and external communication patterns. A disturbance in the flows of meaningful information flows within the nervous system and between the nervous system and the outside world leads to a disconnect, resulting in less perceived meaning in the world and worse decisions because there is less available information. The informational deficit about oneself and the world leads to depression and anxiety, which causes even more withdrawal in a vicious cycle.

The link between communication patterns and mental well-being is an essential insight for its enormous ramifications on understanding and treating depression. However, one needs to view it as a large puzzle, where the pieces all fit in in the end. These puzzle pieces can come from many areas of an individual’s everyday life. In a study on monogamous romantic relationships, for example, mutual constructive communication was associated with decreases in depressive symptoms for males. In contrast, demand-withdraw communication correlated with increases in attachment avoidance and depressive symptoms. (Givertz & Safford, 2011)

An essential step in overcoming depression is becoming curious about how one communicates with oneself and others. Using constructive inquisitive communication patterns can have a healing effect (Haverkampf, 2017i). In therapy, the therapist can encourage observing the communication patterns a client operates and the assumptions made in them about intentions, wishes and needs, values, and other factors that determine the quality, quantity and future of human interactions. Since all psychotherapies to date, use human interaction as the main instrument in the healing process, even if they do not focus on it, most therapies can have a beneficial effect. Unfortunately, the focus is often not on communication patterns, which can, at least from a theoretical perspective, render them less efficient. While it is true that learned behaviour and past experiences influence the severity of the symptoms, they do so via internal and external patterns of communication. In any instance where therapy works, it is a change in information flows and communication behaviours that brings about changes in symptoms and quality of life. (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a)

Depression

Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings, and sense of well-being. A depressed mood can be a normal temporary reaction to life events such as loss of a loved one, a job loss, but also ‘positive’ ones, such as winning in a lottery or having sudden and spectacular success. All these events represent changes globally, requiring internal modifications to adjust internal and external communication systems to the new reality. A job that is now suddenly more practical requires a different internal dialogue, such as less analysis and more exploration. It may also require different external communication patterns with colleagues rather than work in front of a computer screen. If these changes have only occurred partially or not, the information exchange patterns do not fit the situation. This lack of fit can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, withdrawal, emptiness and feelings of depression, or in some cases (hypo)manic states.

The sum of the basic patterns of external and internal communication, an individual’s personality, remains relatively stable over time. (Haverkampf, 2010a) This also applies if a mental health condition, such as depression, improves. In a sample of depressed outpatients receiving a 5-week trial of pharmacotherapy, changes in neuroticism and extraversion scores were modestly or not accounted for by changes in depression scores. (Santor et al., 1997) However, how individual communication elements and patterns are used in given situations can be subjected to change, leading to significant changes in personal satisfaction, contentment and happiness.

Flattening of Emotions

Depression leads to a disconnect. A patient is no longer able to access positive emotions to the same extent as before. However, at the same time he or she may also become disconnected to a varying degree from ‘negative’ emotions, such as sadness. In all cases, the individual suffers from missing out on important information about the own person. This then leads to negative feelings, possibly also fears and anxiety, because meaningful information is missing. To some degree it is possible to counteract this with activities that are meaningful to oneself. One may even say that in the best a depression weeds out thoughts and activities that are less meaningful. And in most cases short and especially the reactive depressive episodes are self-limiting. But in the more severe and longer lasting depression the disconnectedness from emotional signals accelerates the downward spiral of decreasing emotional connectedness and increasing ability to correctly send and receive meaningful messages. (Haverkampf, 2010c, 2013)

Reconnecting with emotional signals can be helpful in depression. This should not add to the pressure on the patient ‘to feel better’. In Communication-Focused Therapy®, this is usually done by using the communication patterns in the session or memories of past interactions and experiences in the world to inquire into the feelings that were associated with them. However, the main technique is concerned less with individual emotional episodes, but with enabling a patient to become more aware of and influence communication processes and information, which lead to particular emotional signals. (Haverkampf, 2017a)

Negative Interpretations

Elevated levels of repetitive negative thinking are present across a large range of Axis I disorders and appear to be causally involved in the maintenance of emotional problems. It has also been argued that repetitive negative thinking is characterized by the same process across disorders due to the inherent similarities (Ehring & Watkins, 2008). A depression leads to more negative interpretations of messages from the environment and from within oneself. As one attributes the cause of negative experiences to oneself and engages in self-blame, feelings of guilt, failure and incompetence emerge. At the same time, the own person, others and the world as a whole appear to be less meaningful and less relevant. This loss of meaning can potentially lead to dangerous situations of self-harm or even suicide. To prevent this requires an insightful and caring use of communication between therapist and patient.

It is important to realize that it can be the same information which reaches the patient, but which is associated with more negative emotions and thus more hypotheses of negative consequences. A depressed affect can so lead to an increased selection of information associated with negative emotions, which can then lead to an even more depressed affect. This vicious cycle usually does not pose a problem because positive information becomes more appealing, which pulls the individual out of the negative affective state. In a depression where emotional and other communication is inhibited already, it is more difficult for the autoregulatory mechanisms to work, making a spiralling into an increasingly depressed affect more likely.

Analytical internal communication patterns can be helpful in many areas of life. However, in depression they are often used for the wrong purpose, possibly in the attempt to extricate oneself from the symptoms of depression. In a study by Rimes and Watkins, thirty depressed participants and thirty never-depressed participants were randomly allocated to ‘analytic’ (high analysis) or ‘experiential’ (low analysis) self-focused manipulations. As predicted, in depressed participants, the analytical self-focus condition increased ratings of the self as worthless and incompetent pre- to post-manipulation, whereas the experiential self-focus condition resulted in no significant change in such judgements. (Rimes & Watkins, 2005)

Negative thinking can often be triggered by some internal or external information, frequently an intrusive, which may be easier to shrug off for a non-depressed person. In this instance, it is as if the depressed person tries to preempt any disappoints or possible negative emotions from an adverse outcome, by already realizing them intracranially and fighting them with compensating emotions. However, this only leads to further negative thoughts and downward spiraling ruminations. One solution is to identify thoughts as mere thoughts and not real, another to build a sense of oneself as being able to deal with whatever may be coming one’s way, particularly the own emotions.

Repetitive negative thinking can, on the other hand, be distinguished from other forms of recurrent cognitions, such as obsessions, intrusive memories or functional forms of repeated thinking. (Ehring & Watkins, 2008) This illustrated how certain symptoms of a mental health condition can be grouped along the internal and external communication patterns they are associated with, and that they can be categorized into a moderate number of sets.

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®)

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®) was developed by the author to focus more specifically on the communication process between patient and therapist. The central piece is that the sending and receiving of meaningful messages is at the heart of any change process. Communication processes are at the same time the instruments of change and their target. Any therapy has to lead to change. This can include changes in acceptance levels, new insights, learning processes and more. All these aspects are determined by communication processes and some are communication processes themselves. For the acceptance of a certain situation or emotion, for example, with the aim of reducing conflicting emotions and anxiety, one needs to learn about the situation or emotions and identify them and then put them into context with information from memory and use internal and external communication flows to reflect on them. If fear inhibits the information retrieval from memory this will not fully work. CFT aims, among other things, at reducing the fear of information retained in memory or communicated from others. This requires more meaningful information rather than less which can be communicated more freely as the fears or other inhibiting factors decrease. The freer and more open the communication processes become, the easier it is for autoregulatory processes to counter unhelpful diversions from health affect states. However, this requires insight, reflection and experimentation in therapy.

Many popular forms of psychotherapy, such as Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) define a format in which communication patterns take place that can bring about change. However, they do not address and work with the communication processes directly. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, there is the concept of transference and counter-transference which focuses on the result of communication processes. CFT in contrast attempts to focus on the process itself. (Haverkampf, 2017a)

CFT attempts to analyze how information is exchanged, the various channels involved and how meaning is generated. Messages do not have to be contained in words, they can also be transmitted by facial gestures or any behavior of the send. To contain meaning they have to be relevant to the recipient and have the potential to bring about a change in the recipient. Working with and analyzing patterns of internal and external communication helps to make the exchange of meaningful information work more effectively, reducing anxiety, emotional, mood, psychotic and other disorder in the long-run. (Haverkampf, 2018b) This does not mean that medication and other forms of therapy do not have their places in treatment, it does not change that at all. However, CFT provides a theoretical and empirical framework that can enrich these other therapeutic approaches, while also being used on its own.

Communication Patterns

Humans interact on millions of communication channels at one point in time. Cells have their communication channels, and every information coming into the system and leaving it uses communication patterns. The reason why certain patterns have to be used is so that the other person can understand the message. A language can be seen as a form of communication patterns on a more complex level. We all communicate in patterns. However, unlike learning a language, people spend little time observing and reflecting on the other communication patterns they use all the time.

In biology, an emerging picture of interconnected networks has replaced the earlier view of discrete linear pathways that relate extracellular signals to specific genes, raising questions about the specificity of signal-response events (Kholodenko, 2006). In synthetic biology, researchers integrate basic elements and modules to create systems-level circuitry (Purnick & Weiss, 2009). The communication of the cells with each other and with the environment determines how effective they are in, for example, eliminating tumor cells. The important basic material is ‘information’, which is then activated and given influence over other factors through meaning, whether that is meaning in in an intracellular or an interpersonal context. Communication patterns and structures facilitate this process. (Haverkampf, 2018c)

Two cardinal symptoms of depression are ruminations and selecting negative information. Many therapeutic approaches focus on the negative, for example, and try to unlearn them. This may work in the short-term but often fails in the long-term if the internal and external communication patterns do not change. An external pattern may be how one could ask for information that could dispel the negative thoughts or an internal testing of the information. Changes in communication patterns means modifications in which and how information is sent, how it is received and how meaning is extracted from it. All these steps can either be adaptive or maladaptive. Depression comes with maladaptive communication patterns which then cause even more maladaptive communication patterns. The way out is to create awareness for, reflect and experiment with these communication patterns, at first in a therapeutic setting and then in the real world.

Questions

As has been pointed out by the author already elsewhere, questions are powerful communication patterns in effecting change in other communication patterns (Haverkampf, 2017i). In depression, they can mobilize resources and redirect thinking towards a different focus, and they can also help end ruminations and looping thoughts. Over time, the patient should become a personal expert in asking the right questions.

Questions represent a large group of communication patterns with very diverse combinations of communication elements. One needs to fine-tune questions to the present communication dynamics and the aim of the questioning. Using them is to cause a branching off in the communication dynamics, which then brings about change in everyone in the session. One should not forget that a question can also change the one asking it, even if one has used a particular type of question hundreds or thousands of times. Questions are so embedded in the social and interactional everyday life that we mostly are not aware of them more than the microtasks we carry out when driving a car. The author has written elsewhere much more in-depth about the question as a communication pattern that can be a potent therapy tool.

Timeline

Patients with depression often spend a considerable amount of time ruminating about the past. Those who also suffer from anxiety may also ruminate about the future. What frequently gets lost is thinking about the present, even though that is the point-like interval of time which is the only one that is ever real. To avoid the reality of the present can be due to various reasons. The depression can make existence so unbearable that one escapes into a different ‘time zone’, and that it is not real may even be wished for in the hope that this also makes the pain less real.

The use of observations, feedback and questions can help the patient to stay in the patient. Several other communication patterns can also achieve this goal. Whenever a communication pattern leads to greater internal and external connectedness, it helps to anchor the patient more firmly in the now. However, this does not lead to more intense suffering because it is the disconnectedness that usually causes suffering. Patients with severe depression do not feel sadder, but they often feel nothing. Truly experiencing an emotion like sadness, when one feels ready for it and while being connected with others and oneself, can be an essential step in dealing with and overcoming a loss or other saddening event. And nothing can be as connectivity promoting as communication itself.

Getting Information

Questions help the patient in changing communication patterns. Still, they can also produce information, which lowers uncertainty, brings new insight or leads to something new in the world, which is enjoyable and improves the overall mood. Often, patients with depression return to the same thoughts or situations because they do not see alternative actions or ideas, which may be enjoyable and lead to a better mood.  Ruminations result not from too much but too little useful information, yet finding the right information again depends on communication patterns.

When things look at their darkest, and everything around seems empty like a desert, it helps be aware of all the meaningful information that is already easily accessible.  Connecting within oneself and others can lead to insights that help in countering the depressed rumination. A therapist’s task is to help the patient build communication patterns that are more effective towards connecting with oneself and others. Doing so allows a patient to find more meaningful information in places such as the own life experiences, which are a treasure trove of information. If I ask what is important to me and what I value, I just have to look at situations in the past and probe how I felt, what I thought and whether my actions and interactions in these situations benefitted me. One only has to be more open to information that can be helpful, and one aim in therapy is to help patients become better at this without fear.

Connecting

Communication patterns that help the therapist and patient connect in the session can also help the patient connect with others and with themselves. As already pointed out, the internal and external communication is a reflection of the other. The ability to communicate with the outer world also increases the ability to communicate better on the inside. Communication-Focused Therapy® supports patients in becoming more aware of, reflecting on, and experimenting with communication, which leads to the flexibility and openness in communication that is very effective against many forms of depression.

Communication patterns to facilitate connecting may again include questions and other communication patterns that enable the flows of meaningful information. Patterns may be repeating a modified message, providing information about a feeling or thought triggered in response to the patient’s communication, making an observation that offers a new perspective, and so forth. It is more than small talk because the therapeutic communication patterns not only test and build relationships but should also provide greater insight. The latter also includes insight into the communication patterns themselves.

Integration

By talking about the communication between patient and therapist it is possible to help the patient see how communication can be influenced and shaped so as to lead to new insights and to make new connections between pieces of information. This integration of different strands of information flows are important in helping the patient to feel more integrated as a whole. For example, talking about communication can help the patient to associate an image with emotions, which in turn may connect with past memories. This integration, however, requires that it is first possible to talk about these thoughts and feelings, and secondly that it is possible to talk about communication in ways which helps the patient to make associations between the different flows of information.

Analyzing Communication Patterns

The first important step in therapy is to create awareness for the flows of information, and their patterns. (Haverkampf, 2018c) These dynamics happen largely outside of consciousness, but they are not random. Rather, they are a result of biology and the internal and external communication experiences of an individual over time. Complex organisms receive, combine transform and send millions of bits of information in the smallest fraction of a microsecond. To navigate within this sea of information successfully is the primary objective of every organism, humans included. Health conditions in general are a result if these processes no longer work adequately. Mental health conditions often also include a significant impairment in the external communication between a person and the environment.

The human brain is in a particularly good position to work with information, and one objective of therapy should be to help it work better with information, whether this is coming from emotional signals, sensory organs, or retrieved from within the neural network itself. Communication processes and information can be made conscious. We might not be able to identify the information stored in a neuron, which would not anyway, because that information only makes sense within the context of the neural network. However, we can become aware of information stored in the neural network, even if it is a tiny detail or something that does not seem to fit into an existing pattern.

Particularly in interactions with other humans and other living organisms, communication patterns have evolved that facilitate the exchange of meaningful information in an efficient way. They need to be largely automatic, such as a gesture in response or a change of voice, and it may be even more distracting to follow them all, but it is possible to discern and work with some universal patterns. For example, the sequence of a specific type of question and a specific type of answer can be universal, such as the nod of a waiter signaling attention, followed by a guest using the palm of her hand and finger to scribble in mid-air, which indicates that she wants the bill. A complex business negotiation, however, would also use the basic communication element of question and answer and build it into more complex patterns. Spiraling negative thoughts in depression, on the other hand, also use otherwise adaptive communication elements, however, they do so in unhelpful communication patterns. The problem is not the ability to worry and think, but how this is done, the pattern, which is not constructive and unhelpful.

Emotional Signals

The emotional signals contained in a message are important because own emotions one becomes aware of can contain a lot of information. The brain uses a lot of information to form an emotion. To yield an emotion of sadness requires not only the information that a relationship has ended, but also the information about the relationship itself and potentially the relationships before, including information from interactions with one’s parents, and so forth. In a therapeutic setting, all this information can be helpful to adapt strategies, or to design new ones, and help the patient to integrate all this information into his or her life.

The communication between therapist and patient gives clues about thought patterns and beliefs, which affect how messages from others are interpreted and how own messages are assembled and communicated. It also helps to get an idea for how a patient constructs meaning. What someone sees as meaningful and relevant is largely determined by own needs and wants, but also past experiences. When the patient begins to form new communication patterns or adapts old ones, it is helpful to help in identifying patterns that have worked well for him or her in the past. Sometimes new ones have to be constructed from scratch, if a patient has been socially isolated for a while, for example. It is then useful to rely more on the therapeutic interaction as a model to train new communication patterns. In some patients who have suffered from depression for a long time with social isolation this may be necessary, but also important to maintain the patient’s motivation for the therapeutic work.

The importance of awareness is that it gives the patient a greater sense of hope and control when the depression causes hopelessness and despair. The journey patient and therapist take together in exploring and experimenting with communication in itself has a major antidepressant effect. It requires openness and insight which cannot be manualized. Communication has, however, universal rules which can be understood and worked with.

Motivation

Decreased motivation is a central symptom of depression which often makes therapy more difficult. It is no different in a communication focused approach. Experiencing what is possible in therapy can raise motivation significantly, but this requires at least some motivation to begin a therapy and makes it through the early stages. A communication focused approach may have the advantage here that it has material to work with from the time the therapist opens the door and makes eye contact with the patient. Another advantage on the motivational side is that a communication focused approach places emphasis on the interaction between patient and therapist, and thus the relationship, which helps to motivate the patient to wait and see what the therapy has to offer.

Insight into Communication

In many instances, reflecting on one’s communication patterns and strategies with oneself and others in concrete situations leads to insight about them. This is quite practical in nature. Observing communication patterns and trying out new ones is an important part of therapy. Since communication has different components one can focus on its components:

Person A

  • Selecting information for a message
  • Encoding the information in a message
  • Sending the message through a communication channel (using the speech system to say the words)

Person B

  • Receiving the message through a communication channel (using the auditory system)
  • Decoding the message into information
  • Processing the information further

One will observe quite often that a message it not received accurately. For example, one may say “the weather is nice today”, and the other person may interpret this as a signal that one wants to go on a hiking tour. The easiest way, of course, is to ask the other person again if one is in doubt. However, patients with depression or anxiety are less likely to get the full information.

The communication patterns a depressed patient uses may have served some function in the past, as they could have protected from some negative emotional consequence. However, in the present they no longer promote an optimal outcome, one that takes into account both the own needs, values and aspirations. On the other hand, it is also easy to see how awareness, reflection and experimentation with new communication patterns can resolve the problem, reduce the anxiety in A and lift the mood of B. That is what a communication-oriented therapy should do.

Maladaptive communication pattern can lead to the perception of more negative consequences and less meaning in the world. The former can be a filtering and interpretation deficit, the second often follows the first in the form of a disconnect or disengagement from the world. Insight does not have to lead to a change of current communication patterns, but in many cases also the development of new ones. In practice, this may also include considering situations which can facilitate better communication patterns, as the communication patterns one uses also depends on the communication patterns of the people one interacts with. This is also the basic dynamic when an individual is constantly exposed to other people who are stressed, anxious or depressed. Especially in infants and children who are still in the process of acquiring and forming communication patterns, an anxious parent, for example, can pass on some of the maladaptive communication patterns to the child. Depending on any helpful communication patterns already in memory and the effectiveness of autoregulatory processes, the child may adopt less of the maladaptive communication patterns than it might otherwise.

Observing and insight into internal and external communication patterns are both important. An individual suffering from depression is less likely to see messages as relevant and meaningful if the communication patterns that make up the feeling of being oneself have been compromised. The feeling of being oneself is itself the own observation of internal flows of information or communication. There is thus a strong link between internal and external communication patterns, which also explains how individuals can spiral into a vicious cycle of depression where engaging with the world can make the internal sense of dread and depression even greater, and vice versa. For example, a depressed person who pushes himself or herself to be more outgoing in a social situation often feels worse in the end.

Building the Sense of Self

Seeing relevance in a message requires knowing what one needs, wants, as well as one’s values and aspirations. In short, it means knowing some basic parameters about oneself. When the self becomes more meaningful, the motivation and desires to learn or try out something new, including therapy, increase. To give the sense of self texture requires awareness and identification of the own needs, values and aspiration, thereby attaching more subjectively perceived value to it.

The sense of self is awareness of certain communication flows in one’s own body. These information flows can be sensory, emotional or other signals from cognitive processes or from memory. This is the reason why internal and external communication patterns play such an important role for the sense of self because they influence these information flows. If a patient uses an external communication pattern which interferes with social exchanges, the information flow from the outside world in this respect will be reduced which has as effect on the sense of self. Thus, exposure to meaningful communication and improvements in communication can be very effective in treating the symptoms of depression. Negative perceptions of oneself are reduced and the interactions with the environment improve, which in itself has an antidepressant effect. As the moods lift concentration, focus and memory problems tend to decrease because things feel more relevant consciously and subconsciously.

Meaning

Individuals suffering from depression often see less meaning in the things they do. In therapy an important part is to rediscover meaning, and find it in the things that are relevant to the patient. Relevant is anything that is close to his or her values, basic interests, aspirations, wants, wishes and desires.

Meaning requires that one can decode a message and extract some novel information form it which can potentially lead to change within oneself, a new thought, state or emotional signal, for example, which can then also lead to a change in the world. Helping patients to reassess and readjust communication patterns can be particularly helpful in therapy because the resulting change in perceiving and thinking usually also leads to a change in perspective (Haverkampf, 2018d), which then in turn also lead to changes in thinking, feeling, acting and interacting.

Resonance

Resonance is when synchronicity or similarity leads to a potentiation of a signal or piece of information. In a therapeutic setting, resonance can be important because it identifies information that may be important or relevant. A depressed patient who has lost a grasp of what is potentially enjoyable and meaningful can rediscover it when resonance is detected. When the therapist becomes aware of resonance in how a patient is communicating about something, it is often helpful to point that out. If there is true resonance, the patient will usually acknowledge it quite quickly. In other cases, the therapist may also identify it as a projection of something that is important to the therapist only. But if the patient sees a resonance, it can be helpful in getting more insight into the own needs, values and aspirations.

Resonance is when new piece of information becomes more meaningful because of the information that is already present (Haverkampf, 2018a). The interaction between therapist and patient is meaningful to the patient if what is happening resonates with the values, basic interests or aspirations of the patient. In therapy, often the technique of the ‘fishhook’ (Haverkampf, 2010b) may be used. One asks the patient to describe life in general, such as the events of the weekend. The more the patient learns to work with resonance, the easier it will be for her to find insight in these everyday events by using an increasing volume of information effectively, including emotional signals, perceptions, cognitive thoughts and more.

In therapy, patient and therapist look for resonance because it is necessary for the communication of meaning, which brings about a change in the patient. Often resonance can only be guessed by either patient or therapist, and it takes some amount of communication to find resonance. A good starting point is listening to what the patient is communicating, since it reflects the information the patient already has, and which represents the foundation for resonance. The question “how was life yesterday?” or “what did you do yesterday?” can be more powerful than a complex intervention, because it can serve as the starting point to greater insight if one is aware of information resonance.

Depression makes old and new information, particularly emotional information, less accessible, which lowers any potential resonance. However, in many patients suffering from mild or moderate forms of depression accessibility may not be greatly reduced. Rather, it is a question of whether a patient can still believe there is ‘something’ below the unpleasant state. Resonance can help to rebuild a connection with interests, needs, values and aspiration, whose pursuit can be enjoyable, below a surface of depressed feelings. Reflecting with a patient on everyday activities can help to find spots of resonance. If the therapist then uses an inquisitive and interested communication pattern to get information on what about this activity is valued, needed or aspired to by the patient, the patient’s internalization of this pattern can help to form more adaptive communication patterns which can help against and prevent a depression.

Relevance

Depression makes everything seem less relevant as it reduces the spectrum of information that is available, including emotional signals. Less available information leads to less resonance, and thus less meaning which is extracted from messages form internal and external sources as well as less openness to new messages. Looking at a tree may, for example, not be as enjoyable anymore. The visual information about the tree still arrives in the brain as it always did, but the information stored in memory about the good feelings associated with a tree is tuned down. The actual tress has not changed, but it has become less relevant to the person.

Less relevance also means less focus, which could support an evolutionary explanation of depression. In times of stress, it can be helpful if one sees less relevance in the situation and withdraws. However, this may not feasible in the world we live in today. One cannot just leave one’s job form one day to the next. Rather, a common response to stress is often to work even harder, which can the lead into burnout. However, the more one thinks about relevance on a smaller level, the easier it becomes to adjust larger constructs, such as ‘one’s job’. As mentioned before, it is the details which help to identify one’s needs, values and aspirations. On the smaller scale, the brain reorients focus to task-relevant stimulus information. Egner and Hirsch showed that, in response to high conflict, cognitive control mechanisms enhance performance by transiently amplifying cortical responses to task-relevant information rather than by inhibiting responses to task-irrelevant information (Egner & Hirsch, 2005). This also shows that the brain focuses on picking out potentially relevant information rather than by suppressing non-relevant one. Of course, what is relevant is subjective to the individual, but it must be based on existing information about the needs of the individual, one’s internal state and the state of the world.

From a broader and more long-term perspective, relevance is a connection one has with things, people and situations. If something is relevant to what one needs, wants, values or aspires to, one is more likely to be open to information associated with it. If one values being in a relationship, for example, one is more likely to be receptive to messages from a partner, if they are seen as relevant to the maintenance of the relationship. Although, one may not have enough information to judge what is relevant, and therefore focus on the wrong messages, or one may not understand a message. All this can be remedied with better communication patterns which lead to better information, and exposure to meaningful communication.

Changing a situation or one’s perception of it requires taking stock of one’s needs, wants, values and aspirations and then to make a change. If one is working in a job which does not seem relevant to oneself, an option, aside from quitting and finding another one, is to assess if a change in the work or one’s perspective of it is possible that could align it more closely with one’s needs and wants. This can be worked out in therapy. But whatever action one takes, just the doing it already helps against depression.

In therapy, rebuilding relevance through new communication patterns which bring a different focus and more useful information changes how the own person and the world are seen. It also puts the focus on better sources of meaningful messages. For example, if a patient gains the insight that he values staying in touch with a particular group of friends because they share his interests, he is more likely not to decline a lunch invitation by someone who is a part of that group. At lunch, this friend may tell him then what the other members of the group have been up to, which may help the patient with his own career choices as he shares their interests. Raising the level of resonance, and thereby the relevance one sees in oneself, others, activities, things and so on, is very effective in the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions because it lets through more and better information to make better decisions and raises the mood as the world as a whole seems more meaningful now.

Communication Exchange

Meaning is built within the communication processes in the therapy. The interaction between two minds can give rise to a dynamic, which carries the flow of meaningful messages and brings the process forward. Motivation for the process is usually maintained if the messages feel relevant and meaningful to the patient in the present. If emotions or thoughts about the past are brought to the center of attention, they are important to the extent that they are still relevant in the present. This relevance depends on the emotions they can induce in the moment.

The exchange of messages can be influenced by both partners to the interaction. The depression can be felt by both, since it interferes with the construction and free flow of messages. As long as the therapist is open and receptive to the patient’s messages and tries to understand the communication dynamics and the patient sees the process as relevant, it can move forward. Since the patient and therapist have different neuronal networks and past communication (life) experiences they can induce change in each other through the communication of meaningful messages.

Integration

As change in the communication pattern occurs, the information flows within the individual also change. Since the self is a reflection on these communication flows, it can bring about a change in how a person experiences the own self. In the long run, the identified meaning is integrated into the self, which, depending on the meaningful information perceived, can make the self itself more meaningful and valuable. One derives meaning from interacting with oneself and with other people, and this is also how people build their sense of self. Thus, while personality stays largely constant, the sense of self can get a boost form exposing oneself to the right communication environment.

Values, Needs and Aspirations

Depression blurs what feels important to a patient, and the fit between values, needs and aspirations and the current life situation is usually reduced. Whether in professional or personal life, getting what one needs, values and aspires to makes happiness, contentment and satisfaction more likely in the long run. If I value helping people, I know what makes me happy and gives me satisfaction. Communication, whether internal or external, is the instrument, that makes individuals aware of these basic parameters and helps them to pursue them.

The basic parameters, values, needs and aspirations, change little over time. One may alternate between being hungry and not being hungry within hours but eating as a basic need does not change and nor does someone who is happy with being a vegetarian. To some extent these basic parameters seem to be built into our biology, and it is not the therapeutic task to change them but to arrange the world around in such a way as to be able to live one’s values, needs and aspirations. Working with and improving communication with oneself and others usually accomplishes that.

Internal Communication

Exploring interests, values, needs and wants requires becoming sensitive to one’s own thoughts, emotions and physical sensation, to be open and receptive to the information coming in from one’s body and mind. It is about feeling what makes one feel good and what does not. At the same time, it has to make sense and should fit together. If specific values and needs appear to be in conflict with each other, a combination of emotions and rational thinking is often helpful. For a depressed patient, this may not be an easy task, but to bring more structure and sense into a seemingly chaotic and disconnected world, can be helpful.

Internal communication can be practiced in therapy. Since there is a correlation between the communication with others and one’s own internal communication, rehearsing and going through communication patterns in therapy, is often helpful to the patient outside of therapy, not only for the interactions with others, but also for the interaction with oneself. Values and needs can be clarified by talking to someone else and engaging in soul searching on one’s own. An important experience in therapy should be that one can clarify one’s needs and values by reflecting and communicating about them.

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change

Communication in its various forms needs to be the target of therapy because it can be fined tuned and a change here can bring lasting change. The author has described this elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2017a, 2018b) Communication-Focused Therapy has been developed by the author for several psychiatric conditions. (Haverkampf, 2017f, 2017b, 2017d, 2017c, 2017g, 2017h). In depression, the desired change is for a broader emotional experience, seeing more relevance in oneself, one’s thoughts, emotions, and in the world as a whole. Adjusting, discarding and forming new communication patterns can lead to a reduction in symptoms that is more permanent than techniques the focus less on communication.

The actual instrument of change are the meaningful messages which, provided they are encoded, sent and decoded, induce the change. As information in a message resonates and is processed with the already existing information, meaning is created which leads to changes in the future.

Broader Experience

If there is more meaning in oneself and the world, it is easier to focus on aspects of oneself and of the world. This expands one’s experience of oneself and of the world around. Seeing more relevance and more sources of novelty and change in the world, increases one’s experience of the world and makes this experience richer. However, it also requires that one engages with the world, which may be difficult due to anxiety cause by fears and other unresolved emotions. However, working with communication early in the therapeutic process often reduces any anxiety quickly as the patient learns to become aware of and experiment with communication and appreciates and gains insight into the predictability of communication.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. You can reach author by email at jonathan@jonathanhaverkampf.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie.

 

 

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Egner, T., & Hirsch, J. (2005). Cognitive control mechanisms resolve conflict through cortical amplification of task-relevant information. Nature Neuroscience, 8(12), 1784–1790. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1594

Ehring, T., & Watkins, E. R. (2008). Repetitive Negative Thinking as a Transdiagnostic Process. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 1(3), 192–205. https://doi.org/10.1521/ijct.2008.1.3.192

Givertz, M., & Safford, S. (2011). Longitudinal Impact of Communication Patterns on Romantic Attachment and Symptoms of Depression. Current Psychology, 30(2), 148–172. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-011-9106-1

Haverkampf, C. J. (2010a). A Primer on Interpersonal Communication (3rd ed.). Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication Publishing Ltd. https://jonathanhaverkampf.com/books/

Haverkampf, C. J. (2010b). Communication and Therapy (3rd ed.). Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication Publishing Ltd. https://jonathanhaverkampf.com/books/

Haverkampf, C. J. (2010c). Depression Mania and Communication (3rd ed.). Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication Publishing Ltd.

Haverkampf, C. J. (2012). Feel! (1st ed.). Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication Publishing Ltd. https://jonathanhaverkampf.com/books/

Haverkampf, C. J. (2013). A Case of Depression. J Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication, 2(3), 88–90.

Haverkampf, C. J. (2017a). Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) (2nd ed.). Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication Publishing Ltd. https://jonathanhaverkampf.com/books/

Haverkampf, C. J. (2017b). Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) for ADHD. J Psychiatry Psychotherapy Communication, 6(4), 110–115.

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Therapy of Social Anxiety Disorder (5)

Therapy-of-Social-Anxiety-Disorder-5-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-psychotherapy-series

Therapy of Social Anxiety Disorder

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Social anxiety disorder can significantly reduce an individual’s choices in life and the quality of life overall. Since communication is the process by which humans fulfil their needs, values and aspirations, its effectiveness is important for satisfaction, contentment and happiness in life. It is the main autoregulatory instruments, also in the psychotherapeutic process, to promote mental health. If interpersonal communication is interfered with by anxiety, these processes can no longer work effectively. As the individual withdraws further, the capabilities for needs fulfilment and autoregulation decline further.

Focusing on interpersonal and intrapersonal communication patterns can help to reverse the vicious cycle of social anxiety. Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®) provides a toolset, methodological and theoretical framework to facilitate the awareness for individual communication patterns and the interventions to improve them in line with the patient’s needs, values and aspirations.

Keywords: social anxiety, communication-focused therapy, CFT, CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy, treatment, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Contents

Introduction. 4

Self-Image. 4

External Image. 5

Focus. 5

Experiencing the Interaction. 6

Transparency. 6

Habituation. 7

Social Network. 7

Social Exclusion. 7

Hierarchies. 8

Technology. 8

Symptoms. 9

Measurement 9

Neurobiology. 9

The Amygdala. 9

Identity. 10

‘Lost Opportunities’ 11

Judgment 11

Location. 11

Treatment 12

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 12

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. 13

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) 13

D-Cycloserine. 13

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®) 13

Introduction. 14

Communication as Autoregulation. 14

Communication Patterns. 14

Attention. 15

Communication to Participate in Life. 15

Understanding Social Anxiety and Shyness. 15

Internal Communication. 16

Uncertainty. 16

Communication Deficits. 16

Avoidance. 17

Meaning. 17

Awareness of Thought Patterns. 17

Flow of Information. 18

Emotional Reconnection. 18

Experiencing the World. 18

Communication Techniques. 19

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety. 19

The Reward of Seeing More. 20

Values, Needs and Aspirations. 20

The Need for Communication. 20

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change. 21

Embracing Change. 22

Living. 23

References. 24

Introduction

A person suffering from social anxiety disorder feels unwell in social situations and begins to avoid them, which can not infrequently lead to significant problems in daily life. Social anxiety is more than just shyness. According to ICD-10 guidelines, the main diagnostic criteria of social anxiety disorder are fear of being the focus of attention, or fear of behaving in a way that will be embarrassing or humiliating, avoidance and anxiety symptoms. (World Health Organization, 1992) The prevalence of 12-month and lifetime prevalence of social anxiety disorder is around 3% and 5%, respectively. (Grant et al., 2005) It is the most common anxiety disorder; it has an early age of onset—by age 11 years in about 50% and by age 20 years in about 80% of individuals—and it is a risk factor for subsequent depressive illness and substance abuse. (Stein & Stein, 2008) In a study by La Greca and Lopez on adolescents, girls reported more social anxiety than boys, and social anxiety was more strongly linked to girls’ social functioning than to that of boys. Girls with higher levels of social anxiety reported fewer friendships, and less intimacy, companionship, and support in their close friendships. (La Greca & Lopez, 1998)   Social anxiety disorder is also sometimes referred to as social phobia.

Functional neuroimaging studies point to increased activity in amygdala and insula in patients with social anxiety disorder, and genetic studies are increasingly focusing on this and other (e.g., personality trait neuroticism) core phenotypes to identify risk loci. (Stein & Stein, 2008) There are several psychological and psychopharmacological treatments (Haverkampf, 2017h) available. Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®) as developed by the author is an approach that targets the processes and patterns which are underlying interpersonal interactions. (Haverkampf, 2013, 2017a, 2018f)

Self-Image

The sense of a stable self-image plays an important role in lowering social anxiety. The more confident one is oneself, and thus the more one is connected with oneself in a meaningful way, the lower the anxiety will be in interpersonal or social situations. Having a good and stable self-image requires connection with oneself, the ability to be open and receptive to information that originates within oneself, other than the information that is received from the external world through the sense, for example. Even though the distinction between the internal and the external maybe somewhat artificial, it is important to acknowledge that there are sources of information which are not in the external world. In some psychiatric conditions, such as in psychosis, this distinction between the external and the internal can get lost with potentially severe consequences.

How the internal self-image can affect the communication with others has been demonstrated by Hirsch and colleagues. One group was asked to hold in mind a negative self‐image, while the other held in mind a less negative (control) self‐image. When holding the negative image, the socially anxious volunteers felt more anxious, reported using more safety behaviors, believed that they performed more poorly, and showed greater overestimation of how poorly they came across (relative to ratings by the conversational partner). Conversational partners rated the socially anxious volunteers’ performance as poorer in the negative image condition. Furthermore, both groups of participants rated its quality as poorer in the negative image condition. (Hirsch et al., 2004)

External Image

Social anxiety arises when individuals are motivated to make a preferred impression on real or imagined audiences, such as when one tries to portray an image to others one believes others want to see, or where a person believes there is an external benefit to making oneself appear with certain characteristics. This is inextricably linked to the fear that just being oneself is not good enough, that one will be judged in unpredictable and possibly harsh ways by everyone or a defined group of others.

The cognitive state of the individual can mediate both affective arousal and behavior. (Schlenker & Leary, 1982) At the same time, external factors within the environment can have an effect on how an individual thinks and feels in a given situation, which is also influenced by individual predispositions and traits. In clinical experience, the more an individual tries to adhere to portraying an external image that is believed to be required by external factors and other people, but which does not match with the individual’s communication styles and personality traits, needs, values and aspirations, the less stable the interaction will become, leading to more anxiety and a mutually less satisfying experience. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2013)

Focus

When it comes to the important role of information dynamics in the epigenesis of social anxiety, focus is an important mediator because it selects the information that becomes available in an interaction. Since all forms of anxiety arise from a deficit of meaningful information or unhelpful ways of processing it, social anxiety can be improved by helping a patient to learn more helpful ways in selecting and focusing on particular types of information.

Socially anxious individuals are excessively concerned about negative evaluation by others. And they often focus more on threat cues or imagined threat cues. In a study by Mansell and colleagues, high socially anxious individuals when compared to low socially anxious individuals showed an attentional bias away from emotional (positive and negative) faces when under conditions of social-evaluative threat. (Mansell et al., 1999) As discussed above, this leads to a situation where less information is available to the socially anxious person, which does not help mitigate the social anxiety.

Socially-anxious individuals also have an increased number of negative cognitions and fewer positive cognitions, while situational factors appear to mediate the absolute level of reactivity. (Beidel et al., 1985) This probably turns the focus even more away from sources of information which could lead to a reduction in the anxiety, resulting in a vicious cycle in which social withdrawal and more negative interpretation of interpersonal interactions and the environment overall leads to even more social withdrawal. In Communication-Focused Therapy® this cycle can be broken by working on the communication patterns the individual uses, which are the structural entities that facilitate the information flow to him or her.

Experiencing the Interaction

Many people who are suffering from social anxiety are familiar with the feeling of continuously asking themselves what other people are thinking about them. In one study, anxious subjects were more likely to attribute more meaning to others’ thoughts. (Hezel & McNally, 2014) The same study interestingly also found that socially anxious individuals performed worse on theory of mind tasks. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and to others. It is necessary to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. In other words, to fully appreciate the separate mind of another person with its unique content and information processing requires a theory of mind, which seems impaired in individuals with social anxiety. However, to fully reflect on the information dynamics and communication patterns within an interaction it is important to have a basic working concept of an “I” and a “You”. Communication-Focused Therapy® also includes techniques aimed at strengthening this distinctions. (Haverkampf, 2017a, 2017e)

A person suffering from social anxiety takes great pains to not only try to follow the dynamics of an interaction but at the same time to interpret what the partners to an interaction are thinking and feeling about them. While individuals with social anxiety are often quite perceptive and sensitive to various channels of information, this can lead to an information overload, which as a result makes them turn away from the interaction, which increases the anxiety even to a higher level. Communication-Focused Therapy® attempts to reverse this vicious cycle by developing awareness for communication patterns and information flows and practicing communication in a way that leads to fulfilment of own needs, values and aspirations, which also lowers the anxiety.

Transparency

Being able to give oneself permission to practice greater openness in communicating with others is an important step towards overcoming social anxiety. The feedback and information from others help to lower the anxiety as others’ dreaded thoughts turn out to be untrue. However, many people suffering from social anxiety already believe that they are overly transparent to others, that others can see what they are thinking and feeling, such as the anxiety or negative feelings, such as anger or frustration, which could interfere with the social bond from the interaction. As the distinction between the inside and outside worlds of the mind are weaker, the socially anxious person tries even harder to control themselves. Individuals with social anxiety are often quite sensitive, but their interpretation of information is often more on the negative side. Depression with anxiety can mask as the ‘pure’ social anxiety disorder.

Interesting is that studies suggest that socially anxious individuals remember more negative memories than those less distressed. This may either have a biological explanation or be a learned phenomenon. However, since social anxieties do seem to run in families at least partially, there may be a biological explanation to it.  A 2006 study found that the area of the brain called the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is hyperactive when patients are shown threatening faces or confronted with frightening situations. They found that patients with more severe social phobia showed a correlation with the increased response in the amygdala.

Habituation

Habituation is the process by which through a ‘getting used’ to an anxiety or fear inducing stimulus the psychological and physical reaction to it decreases. One becomes less anxious or fearful in the face of information that otherwise induced anxiety or fear, such as the visual input that one is looking out high up on a tall building, if one exposes oneself repeatedly to the information. Social anxiety involves social cues that can induce anxiety. The latency at which habituation occurs, however, seems to be different in individuals that are suffering from social anxiety. (Beidel et al., 1985)

From the perspective of Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT), any information that is repetitive and has lost its characteristics of novelty will lead to a lesser response, whether in terms of feelings, emotions, thoughts or otherwise. Thus, the internal and external context matters whether habituation will take place. One may reach habituation in one type of situation and when experiencing a particular family of thoughts and perceptions, but conventional behavioural and cognitive methods in the form of CBT, for example, often lead to improvements that are limited in time and circumstance. However, changing one’s exposure to meaningful information, that is information which brings about a change in the recipient, through changes in communication patterns, can be highly effective. Changes in communication patterns also have a longer-lasting effect because the flow of information is permanently altered. CFT works to adjust the communication patterns in the session through awareness, reflection, experimentation and change. It is not primarily the change in perspective or learning new thought patterns that bring about change but changes in communication patterns that determine them through the information they make available, and how information is processed. (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a) Practising new communication patterns in the therapeutic session usually shows a significant over time with respect to anxiety, but also anxiety in general.

Social Network

Various aspects of social relations uniquely contribute to feelings of internal distress. In a study by La Greca and Harrison with adolescents, crowd affiliations (high and low status), positive qualities in best friendships, and the presence of a dating relationship protected adolescents against feelings of social anxiety, whereas relational victimization and negative interactions in best friendships predicted high social anxiety. In contrast, affiliation with a high-status peer crowd afforded some protection against depressive affect; however, relational victimization and negative qualities of best friendships and romantic relationships predicted depressive symptoms. (La Greca & Harrison, 2005)

Social Exclusion

Baumeister and Tice’s social exclusion theory of anxiety proposes that a primary source of anxiety is perceived exclusion from important social groups. The relationship between perceived social exclusion and social anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, and depression. Self-esteem can moderate reactions to perceived exclusion. (Leary, 1990) Relationships are expectations of future communication (Haverkampf, 2018c), and not being part of a web of communication increases anxiety. One of the reasons is that living organisms fulfil their needs, and in the case of humans also their values and aspirations, through communication, the exchange of meaningful information with others (Haverkampf, 2010a). Not just the shared reality, but even only the imagined reality can lead to significant anxiety.

Hierarchies

Social rank theory (Price and Sloman, 1987; Gilbert, 1989, 1992) argues that emotions and moods are significantly influenced by the perceptions of one’s social status or rank; that is the degree to which one feels inferior to others and looked down on. A common outcome of such perceptions is submissive behavior. Gilbert showed in a study that shame, social anxiety and depression (but not guilt) are highly related to feeling inferior and to submissive behavior. (Gilbert, 2000) Since these feelings develop from the workings of communication patterns as they determine the information that will ultimately reach various centers of the brain (Haverkampf, 2018c), an adjustment to these communication patterns changes feelings that can be associated with social anxiety. Especially with feelings that have a strong social context, such as shame, changes in communication patterns with the help of a therapeutic seeting can be very helpful. Shame is a result of internal and external communication patterns that are being used, while communication patterns can be influenced by a feeling of shame. Important is to remember that work with any communication pattern can be used to change the whole vicious cycle. (Haverkampf, 2017d, 2017a)

Technology

Increasing the number of available communication channels, such as adding communication via the Internet, can in theory help reduce the sense of isolation rather than increasing it. However, this has been hotly discussed. A study by Caplan supports the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious, and that social anxiety is the confounding variable. (Caplan, 2007) Communication means offered by the Internet are tools to interact with humans or human-designed programs in a meaningful way. It depends on what the individual makes out of them. How much one can use a technology to one’s advantage depends on the use of the right communication patterns and an insight into the own basic parameters, including one’s needs, values and aspirations. (Haverkampf, 2017f)

A ‘reduced channel’ communication offered, for example, by online chats or social networks may make it easier for a person suffering from social anxiety to connect with others, but to do in a less anxiety provoking and non-threatening way. As long as it is seen as steps on the way towards overcoming the social anxiety and adding more channels of communication, according to the individual needs, preferences and aspirations, it can be even helpful. For many people suffering from social anxiety the step from no communication to full interpersonal interaction in subjectively experienced high stakes settings can be too high. Online dating platforms, for example, can make it possible for people to go on dates who would otherwise never been able to do so.

Symptoms

Social anxiety often leads to physical symptoms that can worsen the vicious cycle of trying not to appear nervous and anxious, but by ‘fighting’ to do so the nervousness and anxiety just keep on getting worse. In adults, feelings of social anxiety may be associated with tears, blushing, excessive sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, shaking, and palpitations. They are somatic manifestations, though often experienced much more intensely subjectively than observed objectively, of the fight-or-flight-response, which is largely hardwired into our brains. Since as we have discussed previously, social success is as much a matter of survival as finding food or warding off an attacker, anything that seems to interfere with it can lead to negative emotional states, such as anxiety.

Research suggests that socially anxious individuals interpret ambiguous social information in a more threatening manner compared to non-anxious individuals. It has even been shown that experimentally modifying interpretation in non-anxious individuals affected their anxiety. (Beard & Amir, 2008) Since how information is interpreted depends on external communication channels and on how the information is communicated internally, the techniques of Communication-Focused Therapy work with communication patterns to affect a change. As external and internal communication patterns reflect each other (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2010b, 2017a), the work on communication patterns in therapy has a direct effect on the internal information processing that leads to and maintains social anxiety.

Measurement

The clinically most commonly used questionnaire to assess social anxiety is the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS). The LSAS has been empirically shown to be a reliable, valid and treatment sensitive measure of social phobia. (Heimberg et al., 1999) It lists a variety of different situations and asks to rate for anxiety and avoidance. This practical orientation is very helpful because it leads to greater insight into the underlying motives of the anxiety. For example, if the contexts of the anxiety provoking situations have in common that they are more of an interpersonal nature with people that are familiar (or strangers), awareness of it can lead to greater understanding of possible underlying causes. People adapt particular communication patterns as a reaction to the perceived need to manage interpersonal dynamics.

Neurobiology

The Amygdala

The amygdala is often implicated in social anxiety and the processing of social threats. In a quantitative meta-analysis, Etkin and Wager compared functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography studies of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, and fear conditioning in healthy individuals. Patients with any of the three disorders consistently showed greater activity than matched comparison subjects in the amygdala and insula, structures linked to negative emotional responses. Hyperactivation in the amygdala and insula were, of interest, more frequently observed in social anxiety disorder and specific phobia than in PTSD. Only patients with PTSD, on the other hand, showed hypoactivation in the dorsal and rostral anterior cingulate cortices and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—structures linked to the experience and regulation of emotion. (Etkin & Wager, 2007)

Amygdala activation to interpersonal threat has been linked to the severity of social anxiety symptoms. Phan and colleagues examined in a study the association between response to emotionally harsh faces in the amygdala and severity of social anxiety symptoms in patients with generalized social phobia. Relative to happy faces, activation of the amygdala in response to harsh (angry, disgusted, fearful) faces was greater in the patients than in controls, and the extent of amygdala activation was positively correlated with severity of social anxiety symptoms, but not general state or trait anxiety levels. (Phan et al., 2006)

However, it needs to be remembered in this context that information is stored in many areas of the brain which all contribute to the signals that then flow through and are integrated, compared, subtracted and processed in specific areas like the amygdala. (Haverkampf, 2018g) Thus, to understand the complexity, and at the same time simplicity of social anxiety one also needs to look at the actual communication patterns an individual uses, externally and internally, and how information is received, selected for, transported and stored. Meaning

Identity

An important question is why I as a socially anxious person feel as the center of attention if it is not what I want, or is it? Many people with social anxieties actually want to have good relationships and are often fond of people. The problem is how they see themselves or that in many cases they cannot really see who they are. Sometimes there may also be an ambivalence in one’s relationship with people, which might be a result of personal life experiences or some unresolved conflicts from another source.

The search for identity lies at the heart of any form of social anxieties. Often, if some fundamental questions about oneself can be answered the social anxiety decreases. Basic parameters are:

  • Needs
  • Values
  • Aspirations

(Haverkampf, 2018h)

An important method in therapy to have the client imagine a situation and run through it. This helps break down the distinction between reality and the imagined world. Many people suffering from social anxieties are very sensitive, which also contributes to the symptoms. Physical symptoms often include excessive blushing, excess sweating, trembling, palpitations, and nausea. There may even be stammering and rapid speech. Panic attacks can also occur under intense fear and discomfort.

Many people with social anxieties have difficulties imagining the future because it is too painful. Here it helps to identify emotions and feeling that underlie the negative thoughts. Often the tensions and anxieties have underlying processes that need to be identified.

People with social anxiety often set high standards for themselves for social situations. Since they believe they cannot reach these standards they have a lot of negative thoughts about how they do in those situations and the outcomes. The sense of failure can be reinforced in the situation by very minor mishaps, such as a stutter or notices sweating. This leads to even greater self-consciousness and the likelihood actually of sweating or stuttering increases. Anxiety can increase to panic attacks.

‘Lost Opportunities’

It is also important to deal with the losses patients subjectively think they have incurred as a result of their social anxiety. People avoid situations where the social anxieties cause the symptoms. In more severe cases this can mean that the individual has no romantic relationships and does not take up jobs that could be interesting and enjoyable. Here the first step it to acknowledge the problem and realize that while one may not have done the preferred choice in the moment, social anxiety is often a problem of not knowing what one really wants. Finding this out can be a tremendous chance.

Judgment

The sense of being judged is quite common in social anxiety disorder. The judgment by others gets a relatively high significance. People with social anxieties can be very competitive in professional or academic situations. It seems easier to believe the judgment of others. The combination of a greater focus on oneself, being more alert to anything other people may see or perceive, and reduced trust in oneself and others frequently gives rise to the fear of being judged. If there is a greater disconnect from oneself and others, this can cause additional problems and potentially more anxiety.

There is a perceived need for a more complete control of one’s external communication, out of fear that the connection with the world could be lost, but this sought-after control by necessity also has to extend then to the internal communication, which destabilizes further can causes additional anxiety. The ultimate fear in social anxiety is not of social situations per se, but that connections and relationships could be lost forever. Fears of loss of relationships and loss of control is often at the heart of social anxiety. Helping people with social anxiety means exploring new ways of communicating, so that they learn that communication and relationships are in their essence quite predictable and stable.

Location

The setting can also play a problem and may be worthwhile to thematize. Instead of making a new friend at a bar, a person with social anxiety might find this task easier to accomplish via an online friendship or dating site. As patients develop a greater understanding of their wants, needs and aspirations, they also develop a better understanding of how they interact and communicate with their environment in ways that are more helpful, more efficient and better suited to their own needs and personality.

Treatment

he most well-researched psychosocial treatments for social anxiety disorder are cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBTs). However, there are several other therapeutic approaches which have shown promising in the treatment of social anxiety disorder. There are also various psychopharmacological approaches which demonstrate effectiveness.

Medication can help. From clinical experience the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as be helpful, particularly in the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or sometimes serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) if needed over a longer interval. Selective Serotonin Inhibitors (SSRIs) are often used in generalized social anxiety disorders, if psychotherapy does not help fast enough or as a support. Historically, paroxetine and fluoxetine have often been used, but newer SSRIs, such as escitalopram, seem also to work. In clinical experience, some people benefit significantly from SSRIs, while others do not. One explanation is that it depends on the presence of other symptoms and psychiatric disorders, as well as how generalized the symptoms are, or how specific they apply to certain situations. Overall, there can be many different reasons, especially psychodynamic ones, that make up this diverse diagnosis, and they need to be carefully explored to increase the chances of therapeutic success.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Meta-analyses indicate that all forms of CBT appear likely to provide some benefit for adults. (Rodebaugh et al., 2004) On the behavioral side, exposure therapy, for example, involves exposing the patient to anxiety invoking interpersonal situations in a gradual fashion, beginning with less anxiety provoking scenarios, and moving up to the ones to which a greater level of potential anxiety is attached. Research suggests that anxious individuals show deficits in the mechanisms believed to underlie exposure therapy, such as inhibitory learning. (Craske et al., 2014) Exposure optimization strategies include the following:

  1. expectancy violation
  2. deepened extinction
  3. occasional reinforced extinction
  4. removal of safety signals
  5. variability
  6. retrieval cues
  7. multiple contexts
  8. affect labeling.

(Craske et al., 2014)

On the cognitive side, other techniques commonly used in CBT are to reflect on the negative thoughts and ruminations in interpersonal situations, identify unhelpful beliefs and biases, make more realistic probability estimates and use other more or less structured thought processes. The cognitive approach focuses mainly on intrapersonal rather than interpersonal processes. (Stangier et al., 2011)

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

In a large multicenter study Leichsenring and colleagues used a manual-guided form of psychodynamic therapy that was specifically developed for their trial. (Leichsenring et al., 2013) It was based on Luborsky’s model of psychodynamic therapy, including supportive and expressive interventions. A secure helping alliance is an important element of the model. Expressive interventions relate the symptoms of social anxiety disorder to the patient’s underlying core conflictual relationship theme, such as a wish, an anticipated response and a response from the self, in order to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. (Leichsenring et al., 2013) The response from the self represents the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. The core conflictual relationship theme is worked through in present and past relationships as well as in the relationship to the therapist. (Leichsenring et al., 2013)

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has shown in several studies to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. MBSR is believed to alter emotional responding by modifying cognitive–affective processes. Since social anxiety disorder is characterized by emotional and attentional biases as well as distorted negative self-beliefs, this can be a helpful approach. MBSR training in patients with social anxiety disorder may reduce emotional reactivity while enhancing emotion regulation.

Goldin and Gross examined MBSR-related changes in the brain–behavior indices of emotional reactivity and regulation of negative self-beliefs in patients with social anxiety disorder. Compared with baseline, MBSR completers showed improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms and self-esteem. During the breath-focused attention task, they also showed decreased negative emotion experience, reduced amygdala activity, and increased activity in brain regions implicated in attentional deployment. (Goldin & Gross, 2010)

D-Cycloserine

Clinical data with specific phobias has suggested that the treatment effects of exposure therapy for SAD may be enhanced with D-cycloserine, an agonist at the glutamatergic NMDA receptor, and its use has been suggested for social anxiety disorder. In a study by Hofmann and colleagues, patients receiving D-cycloserine in addition to exposure therapy reported significantly less social anxiety compared with patients receiving exposure therapy plus placebo. Controlled effect sizes were in the medium to large range. (Hofmann et al., 2006)

Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT®)

Communication-Focused Therapy (CFT) was developed by the author to focus more specifically on the communication process between patient and therapist. The central piece is that the sending and receiving of meaningful messages is at the heart of any change process. CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy and IPT help because they define a format in which communication processes take place that can bring about change. However, thy do not work directly with the communication processes. CFT attempts to do so.

Introduction

We engage constantly in communication. The cells in our bodies do so with each other using electrical current, molecules, vibrations or even electromagnetic waves. People communicate with each other also through a multitude of channels, which may on several technologies and intermediaries. It does not have to be an email. Spoken communication requires multiple signal translations from electrical and chemical transmission in the nervous system to mechanical transmission as the muscles and the air stream determine the motions of the vocal cords and then as sound waves travelling through the air, followed by various translations on the receiving end. At each end, in the sender and in the receiver, there is also a processing of information which relies on the highly complex networks of the nervous system. Communication, in short, happens everywhere all the time. It is an integral part of life.

Communication as Autoregulation

Communication is an autoregulatory mechanism. It ensures that living organisms, including people, can adapt to their environment and live a life according to their interests, desires, values, and aspirations. This does not only require communicating with a salesperson, writing an exam paper or watching a movie, but also finding out more about oneself, psychologically and physically. Whether measuring one’s strength at the gym or engaging in self-talk, this self-exploration requires flows of relevant and meaningful information. Communication allows us to have a sense of self and a grasp of who we are and what we need and want in the world, but it has to be learned similar to our communication with other people.

If one suffers from social anxiety, this autoregulation seems to fail. One reason why it fails is because communication is such an important and basic process that there is nothing that could hierarchically control it and put a problem in it right. Only changes in communication can put a communication failure right. This is why a therapy that focuses on communication by identifying communication patterns and reflecting on them is in a good position to treat social anxiety.

Communication Patterns

Communication patterns are sequences in which meaningful information flows between individuals who are interacting with each other. A question in one person leading to an answer in another person is an example, which also illustrates how one communication pattern gives rise to another one. Communication patterns exist as templates in a social or cultural setting. They are activated and modified by the person using them. In a therapeutic setting one may, for example, look with patients at which communication patterns they use and how. Since meaningful information can only flow if it is transmitted within the dynamics of communication patterns, no matter how simple and rudimentary they may be, improving one’s selection and use of communication patterns also leads to a more efficient transmission of meaningful information. This is particularly useful in anxiety conditions, which are characterized by a subjective lack of meaningful information. Since a socially anxious person may actually be very sensitive and perceptive, and thus have more information about interactional clues and the other person available, the focus in Communication-Focused Therapy®, for example, is not necessarily the quantity of information, but how the patient finds, absorbs and processes the information which is most helpful to further the own needs, values and aspirations. In clinical experience, the more competent a patient feels in this regard, the lower the anxiety usually is. This applies particularly to social anxiety, where the anxiety revolves around external communication.

Attention

Attention is the ability to notice new information within a defined space, but also the capability to attach relevance to it.  Both attention and focus are important in the acquisition of meaningful and relevant information form the environment. If they are interfered with or misdirected, there is less relevant information available, which can increase the experienced anxiety. The attention of highly anxious individuals is more automatically captured by sub-threshold cues.  (Mogg & Bradley, 2002) Attentional bias toward negative social cues is thought to serve an etiological and/or maintaining role in social anxiety disorder. As discussed above, anxiety in general is a result of the subjective perception of missing relevant information. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018f)

Schmidt and colleagues tested in their study whether training patients to disengage from negative social cues may ameliorate social anxiety in patients with a primary diagnosis of generalized social anxiety disorder. Patients who underwent attention training exhibited significantly greater reductions in social anxiety and trait anxiety, compared with patients in the control condition. At termination, 72% of patients in the active treatment condition, relative to 11% of patients in the control condition, no longer met the DSM-IV criteria for social anxiety disorder. At 4-month follow-up, patients in the attention training condition continued to maintain their clinical improvement. (Schmidt et al., 2009)

Communication to Participate in Life

Communication is important to be connected into the web of life. The exchange of meaningful messages helps one to get what one needs, wants and aspires to. This applies to communication with oneself and others. Finding out what one needs, wants and aspires to happens through communication with oneself. It requires openness and insight.

The feeling of being a part of ‘the whole thing’ is important to an individual, not jut because the individual is part of a chain of generations. When one exchanges meaningful messages with others, oneself and the world around become meaningful to oneself. Losing a part of oneself or a loss of meaning, however, represents an existential threat, which can induce anxiety. This is how social anxiety and a loss in meaningful connectedness with others can lead to more anxiety. To an extent, this can be compensated for with meaningful communication with oneself, but for most this is not enough.

Understanding Social Anxiety and Shyness

Social anxiety is often present from childhood. The fears already interfere with one’s development early on. Since some of the most experiences in a human life are the interpersonal ones, this can interfere with one’s personal development. As already mentioned, shyness is not a disorder, and a person may be happy about it. However, the potential loss to quality of life of social anxiety and shyness can be similar. Shy people often develop adaptive communication pathways, such as relying more heavily on the Internet and may be content with it. However, interpersonal communication is an important piece of change and of bringing about in the world, and without it some of this dynamic may be missed out on. Given the many possible channels of communicating with the world, it does not matter so much which one is used. The important factor is that it allows the exchange of meaningful messages, which aid the individual in becoming better connected with oneself and the world.

Internal Communication

Often, there are already maladaptive communication patterns before, that cause the problems in the relationship or interpersonal interactions. These patterns can be analyzed and changed. Another important element is that communication can also take place on the inside of the individual. Individuals with social anxiety are often very critical of themselves, and this is what is then projected into others, who then appear critical of oneself. An important, and often helpful, step is to become aware of this.

The internal and external communication go hand in hand. Thought patterns that are used in one’s communication with oneself are usually also used in the communication with others. If there are doubts and fears in the communication with oneself, they often will also be present in one’s communication with others.

Uncertainty

In life, one has to live with uncertainty. Uncertainty just means that there is no manual in the beginning and there are still unknowns which leave room for excitement and exploration. Life is a learning experience. An individual suffering from anxiety may have areas in life where she thrives on excitement, and other areas where images of worst-case scenarios cause her to freeze when she just considers a change in action or any action at all. Uncertainty to someone suffering from anxiety seems to be bearable in some areas and avoided in others. Often, the areas where it is not tolerated feel meaningful only to the person suffering from anxiety.

Studies have shown that the intolerance of uncertainty explains a significant amount of variance in social anxiety severity when controlling for several cognitive correlates of social anxiety, such as the fear of negative evaluation, and for neuroticism. Intolerance of uncertainty also seems to be related with symptom levels of GAD, OCD, and social anxiety, but not depression. (Boelen & Reijntjes, 2009) It seems to play a significant role in performance and interaction social anxiety, but probably a slightly greater role in the former. (Whiting et al., 2014) Intolerance of uncertainty also appears significantly associated with symptom levels of separation anxiety disorder. (Boelen et al., 2014)

Communication Deficits

Areas which people often feel anxious about are where there has been an issue with their interpersonal interactions in the past. Early traumata, like a disappearing or abusive parent, stay unresolved. For example, if a parent feels fearful and angry with himself and this is picked up by a child, the latter may decode these messages correctly in that the parent is angry, but since the parent may not be conscious about it, the child does not pick up on the second important half of the message, that the parent has a problem with himself and his issue is unrelated to the child. Of course, one can learn to pick up on the self-blame and frustration of the parent, and therapists should become experts at reading between the lines in this fashion, but it requires experience, reflection and insight into transference and counter-transference phenomena, for example, to use the psychoanalytic terms.

In one study, hildren with social anxiety disorder scored significantly higher than anxious children without on the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ), reciprocal social interaction, communication and repetitive, restrictive and stereotyped behaviors subscales. They were also three times more likely to score above clinical cut-offs overall. (Halls et al., 2015) This shows that these children have difficulties with certain communication patterns. However, this may not be due to a social skills defict, but they may believe that they appear nervous during social encounters. (Cartwright-Hatton et al., 2005) It would further support the view that it is the flow of information, internally and externally, which is really at the base of social anxiety disorder and many other mental health conditions (Haverkampf, 2018b). These can, on the other hand, be influenced and changed through work on the communication petterns and individual uses.

Avoidance

Anxiety can lead to avoidance, which in turn can attach even more anxiety to the situations or behaviors which are being avoided. In social situations, not interacting with others deprives the person of continuously updating and honing the skills and confidence of interacting with others. Avoidance can thus lead to an increase rather than a decrease in anxiety in the long-run. While smaller skillsets seem to pla role, it is also important to keep in mind that the avoidance of internal and external flows in itself lowers the available quantity of meaningful information, which plays a significant role in increasing uncertainty about the world and oneself (Haverkampf, 2010a) and thus the levels of anxiety, while holding the tolerance for uncertainty constant.

Meaning

Individuals suffering from social anxiety do not see less relevance in social interactions, but often even more. It is not necessarily seeing more meaning, though, but a different kind. In therapy an important part is to rediscover meaning and find it in the things that are relevant to the patient. Relevant is anything that is close to his or her values, basic interests, aspirations, wants, wishes and desires.

However, someone with social anxiety may see the meaning in things differently from someone what does not suffer from it. Approaching someone of the opposite sex may be seen differently because of life experiences. Also, if different meaning is seen in it, the expectations can be different. Expectations that are so high that they are self-defeating can be a problem. However, to set expectations that are not too high and not too low mean having a view of reality that works for oneself.

Awareness of Thought Patterns

An important step in therapy thus to make the person aware of how anxiety affects one’s thinking. Individuals from anxiety often focus differently from other individuals. There is often a focus on worst outcomes and strong fears which are caused by it. Underlying this are often strong emotions or conflicts which need to be defended against. The danger and uncertainty is quite frequently inside oneself, rather than on the outside. An individual with a fear of flying may be more afraid of not containing oneself and not being able to leave the plain than anything else. Anxiety is the fear of crashing psychologically and the feelings of a dreaded uncertainty about oneself and one’s emotional states.

Awareness means observing the own thought patterns and gaining insight into them. This requires being receptive to this information from oneself and the ability to reflect on it. Important is being able to perceive the flow of information between the parts of oneself, and the ability to let the information flow freely.

Flow of Information

A free flow of information within oneself and with the environment is important to reduce the anxiety and physical symptoms associated with social anxiety. Often, such an openness has become difficult for people because of inadequate interaction patterns and a fear to change anything. In a therapeutic session, this can be changed in two ways. Interaction patterns can be experimented with in a therapeutic session and reflected upon. One objective should be to help the patient develop greater efficacy and confidence in his or her interactions with the environment.

Emotional Reconnection

If there have been adverse life experiences as a significant factor in the social anxiety, there can still be unresolved emotions underlying the anxiety. To resolve them means answering the hypothetical question, what one may have felt in the difficult situation, but then also seeing the strength that allowed one to pull through, which only becomes visible now. The goal is not necessarily to reconnect with only negative emotions form the past, but also the good ones, and emotions as a whole today.

If there is a disconnect, and emotional reconnection would be helpful, one should approach one’s feelings gradually. Especially in cases of social anxiety, it could be problematic trying this too fast. In any case, as internal and external communication go hand in hand, so do internal and external emotional connection. Someone who is disconnected from oneself will have a more difficult time to emotionally communicate with others or stay reflected and calm in situations where there is a potential for greater emotional communication, such as in romantic situations.

Experiencing the World

Social anxiety means potentially experiencing less of the world, although the higher sensitivity can at the same time let someone experience more. It is important again to note that many patients suffering from social anxiety disorder put themselves under an enormous pressure. Their more frequent feeling that they need to interact with others and live their lives in certain can add to the anxiety, rather than diminishing it. The more permanent solutions to this dilemma are, as outlined above, a greater connectedness with oneself and better insight into the own needs, values and aspirations. Work with the communication patterns a patient uses, as well as reflection on how she felt when engaged in activities and with other people in the past, sheds light on the ‘truer’ needs, values and aspirations. The focus is here completely on the patient and her experiences, not on the expectations of others. This focus establishes more meaning in the life of the patient and helps is the acquisition of more helpful communication patterns.

Communication Techniques

Various communication techniques can be helpful, not as an end in themselves, but to help the person have more confidence in oneself and to see communication not as something dangerous one needs to be guarded against, but as something that can help one meet one’s needs, wishes and expectations. Thus, the reason for communication techniques should be not an end in itself, but to increase one’s repertoire, ease and confidence in communicating with oneself and others.

Openness to others, a positive and welcoming attitude towards the messages of others and engaging in reflection on the interaction are some helpful approaches towards communication, but there are many others as well. Important is not to be deterred from the interaction when something unsuspected or disappointing happens, but to reflect on what it could mean, whether it is a message from outside or inside oneself. Genuinely new information is never meaningless and reflecting on it helps to gain more insight into the world. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is often a result of engaging with messages only superficially, rather than letting them resonate with oneself and determining what they might mean.

Technology can also play a useful role in gradually exposing oneself to potentially more anxiety provoking situations. For example, beginning with interactions with fewer communication channels, such as an online dating site, can make it easier to then move on to an in-person date. More information could already be screened in a less communication intensive setting before exposing oneself to the many communication channels of an actual physical date. Pierce demonstrated in a study a positive relationship between social anxiety (not comfortable talking with others face-to-face) and (1) talking with others online and (2) talking with others via text messaging. In contrast, there was a positive relationship between the lack of social anxiety (feeling “comfortable” talking with others) and making friends online. (Pierce, 2009) Gender differences were also pointed out in the study.

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety

To break through the vicious cycle of anxiety, in which emotions like fear and anxiety cause safety thoughts and behaviors, which in turn reinforce feelings of fear, loneliness, sadness, and so forth, it is helpful to focus on identifying what is meaningful and having more of it in life. Communication helps in identifying and finding meaning, either communication with oneself or with others. The exchange of messages is like a learning process in which meaning can be identified, found and accumulated. Through meaningful interactions one accumulates more meaning, more connectedness with oneself and the world and reduces the need for thoughts and behaviors which are triggered by fears, guilt, self-blame and other negative emotions. This also helps against depression and anxiety.

Insight and connectedness reduce anxiety. Openness and receptiveness to information and messages can lead there. This can be practiced in therapy and brought from there into everyday life. The sense of competence helps build confidence in dealing with oneself and the environment. Important is to connect with oneself to a level that there is greater insight into what is truly important to oneself.

The Reward of Seeing More

Perceiving more meaning also makes interacting with others and oneself more meaningful. This has a positive effect on one’s interaction patterns, how and in which ways one relates to one’s environment and exchanges messages with it. People with social anxiety often see less in an interaction, although they often have a greater sensitivity and perceptiveness to see more. This has to do with a different focus on where to find a relevant and meaningful message in the interaction. For example, in an interaction with a romantic love interest, the socially anxious person may be too focused on signals and own thoughts about a possible rejection rather than on information from the other person that could help in getting to know that person.

An important step is therefore to become aware that what may be behind some of the social anxiety, or much of it, is actually something quite positive, something that can be used to one’s advantage. Central is merely how to use a heightened percetiveness and sensitivity to certain information signals for one’s benefit rather than to one’s detriment. In Communication-Focused Therapy, through work on communication patterns, within and without oneself, the selection and steering of information flows can be changed, which also directly impacts the information and meaning a person is exposed to. Since anxiety is tightly linked with the flow of information and the available information, changing internal and external communication patterns can lower anxiety quite substantially (Haverkampf, 2013, 2017i, 2017b).

Values, Needs and Aspirations

Beyond food, drink, a roof over one’s head and basic safety, humans have values, needs and aspirations that drive much of what they are doing throughout their lives. None of us is born to live the life of a Robinson Crusoe, and just like the fictional character, interpersonal interactions with others, as well as the intrapersonal communication that is tightly lined with it, are the main instruments to get these needs, values and aspirations met. The exchange of meaningful information is what brings about positive and lasting change in oneself and in the environment (Haverkampf, 2010b). The author has referred to the own needs, values and aspirations before as basic parameters because they can determine whether some information that has become available in a person is meaningful or not (Haverkampf, 2018h).

One of the most painful elements of social anxiety is that a person finds it more difficult to find the own needs met. It interferes with dating, in workplace situations or in academia. People suffering from this condition, do so in silence, which tends to make it even worse. To escape this vicious cycle, a new orientation towards the own values, needs and aspirations is needed (Haverkampf, 2013, 2017e). What helps to achieve this is through a better connectedness with oneself and others. The work on communication patterns in Communication-Focused Therapy can here be very helpful (Haverkampf, 2017e).

The Need for Communication

Living organisms constantly need to communicate within themselves and with others, and humans are not an exception. Close relationships in humans, for example, have been linked to a wide variety of psychological and other processes, including physical and mental health (Jones et al., 1990). Communication with others is needed to grow, innovate and propagate. Most of the human accomplishments in the arts, sciences and professions are based on the exchange of meaningful messages, communication. But communication is also to have one’s needs met and to survive in general. Even a hermit in the mountains needs to interact with his or her living mountain environment. People who enjoy nature usually do not want to shun communication but focus on an exchange with a nonhuman environment. Communication is fundamental to life itself.

Suffering from social anxiety does not mean a disinterest in people or an objection to being with them, rather the opposite. An indifference ot something does not lead to anxiety or the feelings that are commonly experienced by indidividuals with social anxiety. The latter are testamount to the importance a person with social anxiety attaches to interpersonal connections and the social realm. People with social anxiety may even be more sensitive and perceptive to social signals, though they may be minterpreted, and to the importance of social interactions. In one study, perceived closeness was greatest when the most socially anxious individuals interacted with each other (Kashdan & Wenzel, 2005). At the same time, in another study, when asked how an investigator viewed them based on that person’s facial expressions, socially anxious subjects made ratings that were consistently less favorable than the ratings made by subjects lower in social anxiety (Pozo et al., 1991). In other words, we have the semmingly paradoxical findings that people with social anxiety may experience social connections even mor eintensely, while possibly doubting them more in other situations. One explanation would be the fear of losing something very important. The more important social connections are to a person, the higher may also be the apprehensiveness about doing something wrong and losing it. Adding in higher anxiety levels to begin with, might give us a fairly adequate representation of the underlying dynamic in social anxiety.

Experimentation with adjustments to existing communication patterns and the development of new ones is the road that leads to less social anxiety (Haverkampf, 2017e, 2018d). The first steps can often be quite small for good reasons. It often helps people with social anxiety and shyness to connect with and appreciate their need and joy in communicating. Once communication is seen as a potential source of pleasure rather than a necessary task, it can become much easier, as ‘I want’ replaces ‘I should’. It often helps to take on a more investigatory perspective, donning a lab coat so to speak, and having fun observing the communication dynamics as they unfold in an interaction. The benefit is often twofold. Once one takes on an observer role it is easier to extricate oneself from the emotional vortex of being caught up insight a problematic interaction, while being able to better reflect and understand the dynamics. The greater awareness and space to experiment with new communication elements and patterns either in the current or a future situation can lead to a massive change in how effectively and satisfyingly one interacts with oneself and the world and thereby fulfils the own needs, values and aspirations.

Meaningful Messages as the Instrument of Change

Communication is the vehicle of change, and meaning drives it. The instruments are meaningful messages which are generated and received by the people who take part in these interactions. In a therapeutic setting, keeping the mutual flow of information relevant and meaningful brings about change in both people who take part in this process. The learning curve for the patient may be steeper in certain respects because he or she spends less time in this interaction style than a therapist. Over time, changes and sjudtments to in internal and external communication patterns facilitate a greater awareness for and processing of meaning (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017c, 2018i).

Information underlies practically everything from physical quantum states and classical processes to psychological ones (Haverkampf, 2018g). Information Perceived emotions are also communicated information (Haverkampf, 2012b). In an interpersonal conext, meaning is generated from the information carried by signs.  Creation of meaning events in-therapy, for example, are change episodes that occur when a patient seeks to understand the meaning of an emotional experience (Clarke, 1996). Meaningful information is information which can bring about a change in the recipient of the information (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018a). It has also been argued that information is objective, but inaccessible to humans, who exist exclusively in a world of meaning, while meaning is intersubjective, or based on shared agreement and understanding, rather than purely subjective (Mingers, 1995). However, the description of meaning as information that carries the potential to effect change may allow for a broader and more generally applicable delineation of the term. In Communication-Focused Therapy it is an important means of change dependent on the effective communication of the information that codes for it. Social anxiety illustrates quite brightly what happens when the process at one or more points affected by other factors, either within or outside the person. Social anxiety is primarily a communication problem, often alongside or based on generally higher levels of anxiety.

Embracing Change

In the case of social anxiety, embracing change can be associated with anxiety, while it can also be liberating because it means that there are no rigid rules one needs to adhere to other than those linked to the communication process itself, which has clear laws. Understanding these laws of communication, on the other hand, which humans subconsciously operate on and use as they accumulate experience in their interactions with others is essential to gain greater confidence in tolerating and working towards change. Basic communication concepts, such as what constitutes communication, how meaning is created, how information flows, and how communication processes are influenced, is usually not conscious. Reflecting on it and beginning to use it, however, can be especially helpful to sensitive people, who quite frequently have experienced social at some point in their lives. One might say that only those who do not care about people and themselves are entirely free from social anxiety, but this tantamount to the description of a sociopathic personality disorder.

Change should thus not be understood as changing oneself or one’s ability to perceive and be sensitive to the nuances of daily interactions, but to develop new communication patterns. Some of the techniques used in Communictaion-Focused Therapy have been described elwhere (Haverkampf, 2017a, 2017e, 2017i, 2018e). Important is the concept that external and internal communication patterns are closely related to each other, and that work on communication in therapy leads to change on both sides. Several of the techniques involve the use of certain communication elements and structures, such as a variety of the question (Haverkampf, 2017g) and other functional concepts.

Living

It is not the number of social contacts which is relevant. Having a few good friends is often worth more than thousands of contacts in an online social network. However, this does not mean friends have to be always physically present. Meeting friends online also allows for communication, while close physical contact in an intimate relationship is to most people important on a regular basis.

Important is that the communication patterns, the frequency and the interaction style fit the needs, values and aspirations of the individual. People who are shy can be quite happy with the intensity and frequency of their interactions, those with social anxiety are usually not. It is thus important to help individuals with social anxiety discover what is important to them and how they want to live their lives. Communication patterns change more easily when the change creates more meaning in the world of the patient (Haverkampf, 2012a). Communication-Focused Therapy thus aims first at creating greater awareness for the basic parameters of needs, values and aspirations to support the process of change in communication patterns (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a).

In the end, communication is an activity. One ultimately needs to do it. However, when one has worked on the own communication, developed awareness for them, gained insight into them and made it a habbit to experiment with them, communication becomes something to look forward to rather than something that causes apprehensiveness and anxiety.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. (Vienna) MLA (Harvard) LL.M. psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Zurich) trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com.

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Psychiatry (3)

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Psychiatry

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf M.D.

Psychiatry is the medical specialty devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, study, and treatment of mental disorders. These include various abnormalities related to mood, behaviour, cognition, and perceptions. Working on internal and external communication is a central focus in psychiatric treatment.

Keywords: psychiatry, psychotherapy, communication, medicine

Contents

Introduction. 3

Communication. 4

Biological and Social Science. 5

Approaches. 5

Software and Hardware. 5

The biopsychosocial Model 6

Diagnostic systems. 6

Diagnostic manuals. 7

Assessment. 8

Medication. 8

Psychotherapy. 9

Medication and Psychotherapy. 10

Ethics. 10

Health. 11

Into the Future. 11

References. 12

Introduction

The question what psychiatry is begins with the definition of the term ‘psyche’. The term “psychiatry” was first coined by the German physician Johann Christian Reil in 1808. The ancient Greek term ‘psyche’ is often translated as ‘soul’. However, it can also mean ‘butterfly’. While psychiatry was up until about a century ago more an occult art than a science, this has changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Within the last century, psychiatry began to make its terms, observations and inquiry much more structured and ‘scientific’.

Psychiatric illnesses all have in common that communication with others and the own person is disturbed. (Haverkampf, 2010b) These maladaptive communication patterns lead to the symptoms which are commonly observed. For example, in a case of schizophrenia the source of incoming information can no longer be correctly attributed to the outside world or the inside, and in a case of anxiety emotional signals are no longer correctly identified and processed. Communication, the transmission of messages, adheres to rules like any other natural phenomena and is relied on in nature from information carried in a beam of light to cells exchanging DNA. Humans can observe and reflect on these flows of information, also on information flows within themselves. The sense of self and the attribution of a mind to someone or oneself is a result of the ability to observe these flows of information, and as such of the communication one has with oneself or the world around.

Psychiatry refers to a field of medicine focused specifically on the mind, aiming to study, prevent, and treat mental disorders in humans. It is devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, study, and treatment of mental disorders. These include various abnormalities related to mood, behaviour, cognition, and perceptions. Psychiatry focuses on the interaction between patients and therapists in a way, which no other medical specialty does. While it is true that psychiatry has become more biologically based over the last century, it has also begun to look at the finer details of information transmission in the neuronal networks of the brain. Fortunately, gone are the times of lobotomies, where parts of the brain were removed, to make way for much more specific and finer treatment interventions, whether with psychotherapy or medication that works on specific neurotransmitter receptors or mimics certain neurotransmitters. The elaboration of the information transmission at the synaptic level has given us clues on how psychiatric illness is maintained, and medication works, within the larger system of an individual’s neuronal network.

The 20th century introduced a new psychiatry into the world, with different perspectives of looking at mental disorders. For Emil Kraepelin, the initial ideas behind biological psychiatry, stating that the different mental disorders are all biological in nature, evolved into a new concept of “nerves”, and psychiatry linked up with neurology and neuropsychiatry. Sigmund Freud, who early in his career searched intensively for explanations of psychiatric phenomena on a neuronal level, initiated the development of psychoanalysis, which shifted the emphasis on communication as an important instrument in the healing process. The psychoanalytic theory became popular among psychiatrists because it allowed the patients to be treated in private practices at a time when effective psychiatric medication was still in its infancy.

Psychopharmacology became an integral part of psychiatry starting with Otto Loewi’s discovery of the neuromodulatory properties of acetylcholine, which became the first neurotransmitter to be described. The discovery of chlorpromazine’s effectiveness in treating schizophrenia in 1952 revolutionized treatment of the disorder, as did lithium carbonate’s ability to stabilize mood highs and lows in bipolar disorder in 1948. Neuroimaging became an investigatory tool in psychiatry in the 1980s.

Communication

Psychopharmacological changes in the neurotransmission systems, the information interfaces where electrical signals are translated into chemical signals, and back again, affect how and what information is being transmitted. This in turn has an effect on a person’s internal communication and his or her communication with the external world, which are also the target of psychotherapy. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017c) Medication and psychotherapy can thus work together synergistically.

Unlike physicians in other medical specialties, psychiatrists specialize in the doctor–patient relationship and should be trained extensively in the use of psychotherapy and other therapeutic communication techniques. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, which can reduce the effectiveness in treating a mental health condition significantly, because treatment of a mental health condition implies working with and understanding communication on different levels. The patient uses communication with other people and the self-talk with him or herself to meat own needs, values, wishes, desires and aspirations, requiring a holistic approach to the communication patterns and mechanisms a patient uses.

Since communication plays such a central role in psychiatric treatment, the author has developed communication-focused therapy (CFT), which focuses on internal and external communication patterns to relieve the symptoms of a wide variety of mental health conditions (Haverkampf, 2017a, 2018c).

Biological and Social Science

Psychiatry is the most multidisciplinary medical specialty using research in the field of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, biology, biochemistry, even physics, and pharmacology. Since psychiatry looks at the patient who is interacting with the larger world around, the social and communication sciences, including even behavioural economics, and the humanities can make important contributions to the field of psychiatry. If one considers psychiatry as a specialty that focuses on improving meaningful communication within wider information systems, the biological and social viewpoints merely represent looking at the same processes with different magnifications.

Psychiatry addresses internal and external communication issues, which are usually multifactorial in their aetiology. Compliance and the effects of medication and psychotherapy depend on the interactions between the patient and the environment. There are branches of psychiatry which look at different environments and how they influence the mental well-being of a patient. Unfortunately, psychiatric hospitals and various public health clinics have been notoriously slow at implementing any recommendations from this research.

Approaches

Psychiatric illnesses can be conceptualized in several different ways. The biomedical approach examines signs and symptoms and compares them with diagnostic criteria. However, unlike the other fields of medicine, psychiatric diagnoses say little about underlying causes on a biological level but are mostly groupings of symptoms which seem to appear together. This is not to say that such groupings are not helpful. They can make it easier to describe conditions and often make it easier to pick specific therapeutic approaches and types of medication. However, since individual symptoms overlap and due to the complexity of the neural networks, it is usually not possible to follow a group of symptoms back to a specific biological variation. Since the brain is highly plastic, synapses rearrange their connections with each other all the time and assign varying weights to them. This means that a symptom of anxiety, for example, can be triggered by information stored over millions of nerve cells, and merely understanding how a biological component, such as a receptor, works does not help in understanding or treating the symptom.

Software and Hardware

Psychiatry is both ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ oriented, where ‘software’ refers to the information stored in the neural network and ‘hardware’ to the cellular network on a biological level. In the latter, there is an overlap with neurology and other medical sciences. What sets psychiatry apart is particularly the concern with information, the flows of information and how information is processed. New diagnostic systems and schemata have been developed on the psychotherapy side, which pay greater attention to the information dynamics. These models and systems can provide additional information to an experienced clinician who can then integrate these additional aspects with the diagnostic systems from the traditional medico-psychiatric side.

The biopsychosocial Model

The biopsychosocial model is commonly used to describe the three factors that play a role in the development and maintenance of a psychiatric condition:

  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Environment (social)

What is striking about these three domains is that all consist of the transmission of information in one way or another. Some describe more the internal communication (biology, neuroscience, psychology), while others describe the external communication (psychology, sociology, economics and others), but all work in parallel all of the time. Psychiatry thus works with very complex systems, which are much more elaborate than in any other field of medicine. This may also be the reasons why psychiatry was the field within medicine to develop rather late, because it uses the insight gained in several other fields.

Diagnostic systems

Psychiatric diagnoses take place in a wide variety of settings and are performed by many different health professionals. Therefore, the diagnostic procedure may vary greatly based upon these factors. Typically, though, a psychiatric diagnosis utilizes a differential diagnosis procedure where a mental status examination and physical examination is conducted, with pathological, psychopathological or psychosocial histories obtained, and sometimes neuroimages or other neurophysiological measurements are taken, or personality tests or cognitive tests administered. In some cases, a brain scan might be used to rule out other medical illnesses, but at this time relying on brain scans alone cannot accurately diagnose a mental illness or tell the risk of getting a mental illness in the future. A few psychiatrists are beginning to utilize genetics during the diagnostic process but on the whole, this remains a research topic.

The problem with most diagnostic systems in psychiatry is that they do not address the underlying causes of an illness but focus instead on bundles of symptoms. As a descriptive system this makes sense in many instances. However, from a treatment perspective this is often unhelpful. Since medication works on underlying neurotransmission system within a vast network of interconnected neurons, a system that makes diagnosis based on properties within that system and on the individual neuronal level would be more helpful. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, a focus on internal and external communication would be helpful. Both perspectives could lead to systems that would be compatible with each other or even to one system that combines features of the two.

Diagnostic manuals

Three main diagnostic manuals used to classify mental health conditions are in use today. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) is produced and published by the World Health Organization, includes a section on psychiatric conditions, and is used worldwide. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), produced and published by the American Psychiatric Association, is primarily focused on mental health conditions and is the main classification tool in the United States, although the ICD-10 has official status there as well. It is currently in its fifth revised edition and is also used worldwide. As already mentioned, the diagnostic systems are based on bundles of symptoms. Psychiatry has “a syndrome-based disease classification, which is not based on mechanisms and does not guide treatment, which largely depends on trial and error” (Stephan et al., 2016). The author of this article would not go so far. Greater clarity about a diagnosis or several diagnoses, even if we do not understand fully the underlying biological and psychological mechanisms, can be an important tool in formulating a treatment plan, which often also includes medication (Haverkampf, 2018a)

The diagnostic manuals overlap to a significant degree. One reason is that they describe groups of symptoms which are often seen together, and over time the use of their diagnostic terms has made it easier to provide treatment and conduct research. However, both suffer from the critiques mentioned above. They can give a rough idea of the symptoms, a suitable therapy and the prognosis. However, since the diagnostic systems say nothing about the underlying causes, the actual therapy needs to be individualized and its success depends on several factors inside the person and in the environment. Looking at the patient’s internal and external communication can help individualize the therapy. (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2012, 2013a, 2013b)

It is important to keep in mind the purpose served by diagnosis. It is ultimately to help a patient and raise his or her quality of life. While there may be other uses of it for forensic, insurance or other purposes, they should not lead to a different interpretation of what a diagnosis is for in a treatment context. Diagnoses can at least help to raise the probability that a specific medication or group of medication will alleviate certain symptoms (Haverkampf, 2018a, 2018f).

Assessment

The first step in treatment is traditionally assessment. This usually involves interviewing the person and often obtaining information from other sources such as other health and social care professionals, relatives, associates, law enforcement personnel, emergency medical personnel, and psychiatric rating scales. A mental status examination is carried out, and a physical examination is usually performed to establish or exclude other illnesses that may be contributing to the alleged psychiatric problems. A physical examination may also serve to identify any signs of self-harm; this examination is often performed by someone other than the psychiatrist, especially if blood tests and medical imaging are performed.

However, especially in psychotherapeutic treatment, assessment can still take place after the therapy has commenced. While it is important to have a working hypothesis for the condition, it is important to remain open to any new insights gained from observing and interacting with the patient over time. For this, it is important to be in the interaction with the patient, yet also to be able to take a step outside of the interaction and reflect on the communication dynamics.

Assessment with a focus on the internal and external communication can identify problems which are leading to the symptoms. This information is then helpful to make better decisions with respect to medication and psychotherapy. Communication-Focused Therapy, as developed by the author, focuses on communication patterns an individual uses, whether in everyday life or in a therapeutic setting (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a). Rather than looking primarily at the content of what is being communicated, the how it is communicated assumes an additional particularly important role. Since people, and all other living organisms, meet their needs and aspirations through the exchange of information withing themselves and with the world, it is important to encourage awareness, reflection and experimentation with communication to make it more efficient and satisfying for the individual. As life aligns more with the basic parameters, the needs, values and aspirations, as a result of better communication, the symptoms of a mental health condition often receded (Haverkampf, 2017f, 2017b, 2017d) .

Medication

Psychiatric medication represents a very heterogenous group of substances, which are among the most widely prescribe in the world. Psychiatric medication was usually available before one had an understanding for its effects on a cellular or neural network level. However, in all cases it has been shown that psychiatric medication affects the information transmission in the brain. This is a point where psychotherapy and medication could go well with each other hand in hand (Haverkampf, 2018f).

The efficacy of medication can often very significantly among individuals. One antidepressant from the most popular group of antidepressants, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), for example, may help against the symptoms of depression and anxiety, while another from the same group does not work in the same patient. The outcome is not always easy to predict, although one can have a sense of the medication that is most likely to work. It requires a proper assessment in the first place, but also a solid understanding of the desired changes and the expectations of the patient.

Like most medications, psychiatric medications can cause adverse effects in patients, and some require ongoing therapeutic drug monitoring, for instance, full blood counts serum drug levels, renal function, liver function, and thyroid function. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is sometimes administered for severe and disabling conditions, such as those unresponsive to medication. Although the literature reports on successes in treatment-resistant cases, its use remains controversial. Often, the available treatment options with medication and psychotherapy have not been fully exhausted when considering ECT.

To summarize, one may say that the support available form medication can be life-changing in some cases and increase the quality of life significantly. In contrast, in others, it may do little or lead to side effects, or there can be both positive and negative effects side by side. Several parameters have been studied to shape the recommendations of the professional. For example, in a study on the variables that could predict a successful treatment outcome in depression, chronic depression, older age, and lower intelligence, each predicted relatively weak response across psychotherapy and medication. On the other hand, marriage, unemployment, and having experienced a higher number of recent life events each predicted superior response to cognitive therapy relative to antidepressant medications (Fournier et al., 2009).

Psychotherapy

As already mentioned, increasingly psychiatrists are limiting their practices to psychopharmacology (prescribing medications), as opposed to previous practice in which a psychiatrist would provide traditional 50-minute psychotherapy sessions, of which psychopharmacology would be a part, but most of the consultation sessions consisted of “talk therapy.” This shift began in the early 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s. A major reason for this change was the advent of managed care insurance plans, which began to limit reimbursement for psychotherapy sessions provided by psychiatrists. The underlying assumption was that psychopharmacology was at least as effective as psychotherapy, and it could be delivered more efficiently because less time is required for the appointment. For example, most psychiatrists schedule three or four follow-up appointments per hour, as opposed to seeing one patient per hour in the traditional psychotherapy model. Because of this shift in practice patterns, psychiatrists often refer patients whom they think would benefit from psychotherapy to other mental health professionals, e.g., clinical social workers and psychologists.

However, this approach is short-sighted. It may be easier to prescribe medication, which is a concept familiar to most patients, than to explain how psychotherapy works, whose basic premises, tools and approaches are less well known. Psychotherapy often delivers a lasting effect in the long-term in cases of anxiety, mild to moderate depression and several other conditions, which goes beyond the ongoing support medication can offer (Haverkampf, 2017a). The reason is that changes in the internal and external communications usually bring about changes in a patient’s symptoms (Haverkampf, 2018d). While medication also has an effect on these communication patterns and, through learning effects, it can even last for some time after the drug is discontinued, the changes are usually less specifically tailored to the needs and personal history of the patient.

Medication and Psychotherapy

Psychiatric treatments have changed over the past several decades. In the past, psychiatric patients were often hospitalized for six months or more, with some cases involving hospitalization for many years. Today, people receiving psychiatric treatment are more likely to be seen as outpatients. In many cases, a combination of psychotherapy and medication can prevent relapse longer than either treatment type on its own. (Haverkampf, 2018f, 2018e) There is a substantial synergism between the two. Medication can provide the support which facilitates psychotherapy, while psychotherapy can increase the compliance with medication.

Ethics

Most unethical treatments in psychiatry have been a result of neglecting the importance of communication in treatment and seeing properties of interactions as being localized in a particular area of the brain rather than occurring in a network internally and through interactions with the world externally. Much unethical behaviour in psychiatry can be summarised by saying that the physician failed to interact, communicate and understand a patient in any meaningful way. When knowledge about psychiatric conditions is seen separate from the interaction with the patient, it becomes akin to playing the lottery of sorts. Treatment requires a focus on how the patient communicates internally and externally and how the world responds to these messages.

When a psychiatrist is connected on emotional and cognitive levels with himself or herself as well as the patient and has healthy boundaries in place, ethical lapses become less likely. However, this often requires substantial experience and skills in a psychotherapeutic technique that focuses on insight. It requires an interest in and experience with human communication.

Health

To have a definition of illness, one needs a definition of health. Psychiatry is not only concerned with psychiatric illness but largely also with the maintenance of mental health. Insight into the aetiology and pathogenesis of burnout, for example, helps to prevent it, (Haverkampf, 2013a, 2013c, 2017g, 2018b) which is not only good for the individual but society and the economy as a whole. (Haverkampf, 2013c) Knowledge about which work and communication environments are helpful in preventing a relapse of psychosis can help a person arrange life in ways which keep him or her mentally healthy for as long as possible. (Haverkampf, 2017e) Skills in connecting with oneself can help to understand the information contained in emotional signals underlying episodes of anxiety. (Haverkampf, 2012)

Into the Future

The biopsychosocial model reduces to the communication model. Internal communication and external communication are, to some extent, arbitrary distinctions because communication still adheres to the basic rules and laws of communication, whether it unfolds in a person or without. However, this requires an integrated and more universal view of mental health. What makes us all human are the mental processes which give us the ability to observe and reflect on these flows of information. Psychotherapy and medication are the tools to bring about change in these communication patterns, internal and external ones. Other supportive therapies, such as occupational therapy, meditation and various forms of bodywork, can provide crucial additional support towards a satisfied, content and happy life, one in which personal needs, values, wishes, desires and aspirations can be met.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. (Vienna) MLA (Harvard) LL.M. psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Zurich) trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com.

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The Misdiagnosis of ADHD in Adults (1)

The-Misdiagnosis-of-ADHD-in-Adults-1-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-psychiatry-series-1

The Misdiagnosis of ADHD in Adults

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults is a childhood-onset, persistent, neurobiological disorder associated with high levels of morbidity and dysfunction estimated to afflict up to 5% of adults worldwide. It includes a combination of persistent problems, such as difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, which can lead to unstable relationships, poor work or school performance, low self-esteem, and other problems.

The diagnosis is important to design an effective treatment plan with the patient, which often includes medication and psychotherapy or counselling. There is a wide variety of approaches in the diagnosis of adult ADHD, and this article aims at giving an overview of some of the more common ones. However, there is a high risk of misdiagnosing this condition. The ability to concentrate, for example, can also be affected in depression, PTSD, anxiety, psychosis and other conditions, as can the capacity for organizing and seeing through tasks, various aspects of memory and information retrieval and irritability.

Awareness for the communication patterns in the interaction with the patient, and how the patient communicates internally, are important tools in the diagnostic process and in treatment, improving the individualization of treatment and building and maintaining compliance. While the actual interaction with the patient is of primary diagnostic importance, standardized questionnaires and neuropsychological testing batteries are important to support a diagnosis and to adjust treatment.

Keywords: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, diagnosis, treatment, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Contents

Introduction. 4

Attention. 5

Executive Functioning. 5

Communication. 5

From Childhood to Adulthood: Hyperactivity vs Inattention. 6

Measurement Problems. 6

Misdiagnosis of ADHD.. 6

Autism.. 7

Trauma. 7

OCD.. 7

Bipolar Disorder. 7

Symptoms. 8

Diagnosing ADHD.. 9

Subtypes. 10

Assessment. 10

Communication. 10

The Clinical Interview.. 11

Semi-Structured Interviews. 11

CAADID.. 12

DIVA. 12

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis. 13

Questionnaires. 13

Self-Report Rating Scales. 14

Conners’s Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS) 14

Current Symptoms Scale. 15

Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale–version 1.1 (ASRSv1.1) 15

Retrospective Assessments. 16

Wender Utah Rating Scale (WURS) 16

Non-Self Report Assessments. 16

Brown Attention-Deficit Disorder Rating Scale for Adults (Brown ADD-RS) 16

ADHD Investigator Symptom Rating Scale (AISRS) 17

Neuropsychological Testing. 17

Neurobiological Parameters. 20

Malingering. 20

Differential Diagnosis. 21

Comorbidity. 22

Psychosocial Functioning. 22

Conclusion. 23

References. 25

 

Introduction

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults is a childhood-onset, persistent, neurobiological disorder associated with high levels of morbidity and dysfunction estimated to afflict up to 5% of adults worldwide (Kessler et al., 2006). It includes a combination of persistent problems, such as difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior, which can lead to unstable relationships, poor work or school performance, low self-esteem, and other problems. Due concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment, many children and youth diagnosed with ADHD still receive no treatment or insufficient treatment (Giuliano & Geyer, 2017).

Using DSM-IV criteria, in a study by Wilens and colleagues, 93% of ADHD adults had either the predominately inattentive or combined subtypes-indicative of prominent behavioral symptoms of inattention in adults. (Wilens et al., 2009) ADHD often presents as an impairing lifelong condition in adults, yet it is currently underdiagnosed and treated in many European countries, leading to ineffective treatment and higher costs of illness. Instruments for screening and diagnosis of ADHD in adults are available and appropriate treatments exist, although more research is needed in this age group. (Kooij et al., 2010)

The diagnosis of ADHD in adults is a complex procedure which should refer to the diagnostic criteria of a diagnostic manual, such as the DSM or ICD. It normally includes the following information:

  • retrospective assessment of childhood ADHD symptoms
  • current adult ADHD psychopathology including symptom severity and pervasiveness,
  • functional impairment
  • quality of life
  • comorbidity

In order to obtain a systematic database for the diagnosis and evaluation of the course ADHD rating scales can be very useful. However, the interaction with the patient in the clinical interview should remain the central part of the diagnosis. (Haverkampf, 2017c, 2017a) Integrating elements of semi-structured questioning into the clinical interview can be helpful, while awareness for the communication patterns the patient uses is crucial. (Haverkampf, 2018c) Still, specific diagnostic criteria that are more sensitive and specific to adult functioning are needed. (Davidson, 2008)

Attention

When focusing on the diagnostic details, one may sometimes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger defining symptoms of ADHD. Attention deficit needs to be present for the diagnosis. Studies of adults with ADHD suggest that the most prominent symptoms of ADHD relate to inattention as opposed to hyperactivity and impulsivity. In a meta-analysis, Schoenlein and Engel integrated 24 empirical studies reporting results of at least one of 50 standard neuropsychological tests comparing adult ADHD patients with controls. Complex attention variables and verbal memory discriminated best between ADHD patients and controls. In contrast to results reported in children, executive functions were not generally reduced in adult ADHD patients. (Schoechlin & Engel, 2005)

Executive Functioning

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with deficits in executive functioning. ADHD in adults is also associated with impairments in major life activities, particularly occupational functioning. Executive functioning deficits contribute to the impairments in occupational functioning that occur in conjunction with adult ADHD. Barkley and Murphy concluded in their study that ratings of executive functioning in daily life contribute more to such impairments than do executive functioning tests. The investigators hypothesize that one reason could be that each assesses a different level in the hierarchical organization of EF as a meta-construct. (Barkley & Murphy, 2010)

Communication

The exchange of information, internally and externally, is the process that is generally affected and gives rise to several of the observed symptoms. ADHD interferes with effective and helpful communication internally and externally, which causes several of the observed symptoms. (Haverkampf, 2010b) Internal and external communication patterns should thus be observed in diagnosis and worked with as an important focus later in treatment.

From Childhood to Adulthood: Hyperactivity vs Inattention

Prevalence of ADHD in adults declines with age in the general population, although the unclear validity of DSM–IV diagnostic criteria for this condition may have led to reduced prevalence rates by underestimation of the prevalence of adult ADHD. (Kessler et al., 2006) Symptoms start in early childhood and continue into adulthood. In some cases, ADHD is not recognized or diagnosed until the person is an adult. Adult ADHD symptoms may not be as clear as ADHD symptoms in children. In adults, hyperactivity often decreases, but struggles with impulsiveness, restlessness and difficulty paying attention usually continue. It is mostly these latter symptoms which can interfere significantly with an individual’s daily life.

Hyperactive–impulsive symptoms seem to decline more with increasing age, whereas inattentive symptoms of ADHD tend to persist. In a study by Millstein and colleagues, inattentive symptoms were most frequently endorsed in over 90% of ADHD adults. An assessment of current ADHD symptoms showed that 56% of adults had the combined ADHD subtype, 37% the inattentive only subtype, and 2% the hyperactive/impulsive subtype. Whereas females had fewer childhood hyperactive-impulsive symptoms than males, there were no gender differences in their ADHD presentation as adults. This suggests that the vast majority of adults with ADHD present with prominent symptoms of inattention. (Millstein, Wilens, Biederman, & Spencer, 1997) Decision-making is another important cognitive process which seems impaired in adults with ADHD (Mäntylä, Still, Gullberg, & Del Missier, 2012), and which can lead to impairment in several domains in life.

Measurement Problems

The decrease in ADHD symptoms over time may indicate true remission of symptoms, but it may also indicate that the symptom criteria are less robust in older rage groups. Michielsen and colleagues, for example, concluded in their epidemiological study on ADHD in older persons in the Netherlands that ADHD does not fade or disappear in adulthood. (Michielsen et al., 2012)

Misdiagnosis of ADHD

Rising rates of ADHD have led to the concern that ADHD is often misdiagnosed. The ability to concentrate, for example, can also be affected in depression, PTSD, anxiety, psychosis and other conditions, as can the capacity for organizing and seeing through tasks, various aspects of memory and information retrieval and irritability. There is evidence of medically inappropriate ADHD diagnosis and treatment in school-age children and less so for adults. In a study by Evans and colleagues, for example, age relative to peers directly affected a child’s probability of being diagnosed with ADHD. The relative age effect was present for both ADHD diagnosis and treatment with stimulants (Evans, Morrill, & Parente, 2010).

Autism

Because of the high frequency of ADHD symptoms in autism, children with autism may initially be misdiagnosed with ADHD. The core symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit, impulsivity, and hyperactivity) are part of autism, and autism and ADHD have similar underlying neuropsychological deficits (Mayes, Calhoun, Mayes, & Molitoris, 2012). On the other hand, the rate for children with autism spectrum disorder to be also diagnosed with ADHD is as high as 60% (Stevens, Peng, & Barnard-Brak, 2016).

Trauma

Trauma may also be misinterpreted as ADHD, particularly in children. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by “a stress response in overdrive” (Ruiz, 2014). Cognitive and emotional disruptions that occur in response to trauma, such as difficulty concentrating, dysregulated affect, irritability, and hyperarousal, either overlap with ADHD symptomatology or exasperate it (Szymanski, Sapanski, & Conway, 2011).

OCD

Manifestations of OCD-related inattention may be misdiagnosed as ADHD symptoms, particularly again in children. In OCD only, current ADHD symptoms correlate with obsessive-compulsive symptoms There is a risk of misdiagnosis, especially in children when primarily relying on informants (Abramovitch, Dar, Mittelman, & Schweiger, 2013).

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is also a neurodevelopmental disorder with onset in childhood and early adolescence and commonly persists into adulthood. Both disorders are often undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, and sometimes over diagnosed. The differentiation of these conditions is based on their clinical features, comorbidity, psychiatric family history, course of illness, and response to treatment (Marangoni, De Chiara, & Faedda, 2015). Children with bipolar disorder are more likely to present with

  • aggression and lack of remorse, while in ADHD a destructiveness is more likely due to carelessness.
  • severe temper tantrums, often of more than an hour in duration, which are less intense and shorter in ADHD
  • intentional misbehavior, which is in ADHD more likely to be due to inattentiveness
  • underestimating risk, while in ADHD there may be unawareness of risk
  • anger for longer periods of time, holding a grudge and being unforgiving, while in ADHD calm is usually restored within half an hour or considerably more quickly and the reasons for the anger forgotten
  • stimulation seeking due to boredom, while in ADHD the stimulation seeking is more general
  • amnesia for anger outbursts
  • flight of ideas (manic phase), while in ADHD the talkativeness is due to a lack of inhibition and can be influenced and redirected
  • decreased need for sleep
  • sleep inertia and slow awakening (unless in a manic phase)
  • rapidly changing mood shifts
  • suicidal ideation
  • symptoms that routinely improve on lithium, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics
  • symptoms that do not improve on stimulants

If both conditions are present, the mood disorder symptoms and the course of the bipolar condition are usually more severe, and the functional scores lower. Since the symptoms of a separate ADHD are often mistakenly assumed to be part of the bipolar conditions, patients with comorbid ADHD and BD are routinely underdiagnosed and undertreated (Klassen, Katzman, & Chokka, 2010).

Symptoms

Many people with ADHD have fewer symptoms as they age, but some adults continue to have major symptoms that interfere with daily functioning also in later stages of life. In adults, the main features of ADHD may include difficulty paying attention, impulsiveness and restlessness. This can make it more difficult to acquire new information, process it together with existing information and communicate with others.

Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger. The difficulties in persisting with a task is probably a consequence of ineffective information transmission internally.

Adult ADHD symptoms may include:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing
  • Poor time management skills
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Trouble multitasking
  • Excessive activity or restlessness
  • Poor planning
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Problems following through and completing tasks
  • Hot temper
  • Trouble coping with stress

Diagnosing ADHD

Extensive psychometric studies have provided empirical support for the symptom thresholds used to diagnose ADHD in children, and there is general agreement that ADHD can be reliably diagnosed in children using these formal diagnostic criteria. However, the reliability of the diagnosis of ADHD in adults is less clear. The task would become easier if there were a greater focus on operationalizing internal and external communication patterns, that can be observed, described by the patient or inferred from these observation and descriptions by an experienced therapist. These patterns have been described by the author in for ADHD (Haverkampf, 2017e, 2017a) as well as for several other mental health conditions (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017d, 2018b). Diagnosis of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) adults is difficult, as neither symptom report nor neuropsychological findings are specific to ADHD. However, the most information can still be gained in the clinical interview if the clinician is receptive to the various levels of information flows and integrates them into the overall assessment.

Subtypes

It is unclear whether the three subtypes recognized in the diagnostic manuals have a different underlying ethology or any other justification to separate them. However, they are frequently used in clinical practice and offer a rough symptom description which can also be useful for many non-medical questions, such as support in school or disability. The subtypes are:

  • ADHD combined type (ADHD-C; both inattentive and hyperactive–impulsive symptoms)
  • ADHD predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-I)
  • ADHD predominantly hyperactive–impulsive type (ADHD-H)

Assessment

The diagnosis of adult ADHD is a clinical decision-making process, where the emphasis lies on the clinical interview and anything that can support the information gained in it. There are no objective, laboratory-based tests that can establish this diagnosis. (Haavik, Halmøy, Lundervold, & Fasmer, 2010) Given the difficulties with the formal diagnostic criteria for ADHD, determining the diagnosis of ADHD in adults presents different challenges than determining the diagnosis in children (Riccio et al., 2005). There is no single neurobiological or neuropsychological test that can determine a diagnosis of ADHD on an individual basis (Rosler et al., 2006).

In most situations, an ADHD assessment should include a comprehensive clinical interview, as rating scales, an assessment of a broader spectrum of psychiatric and somatic conditions and information from third parties if available.

Communication

How patients exchange meaningful information with themselves and others to get their needs and aspirations met or in response to an interaction or a perception or sensation is of very high diagnostic values in most psychiatric conditions, including especially so also ADHD. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of focus on a patients’ internal and external communication, which could be diagnostically helpful in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. For example, the effectiveness of ADHD coaching in improving patients’ everyday life has been demonstrated. (Kubik, 2010) Since communication is the basic process by which individuals get their needs and aspirations met in everyday life, increasing their quality of life and integrating them into the community, which in itself can have a protective effect, exploring a patient’s communication patterns should be a primary goal of an assessment for the severity of ADHD. (Haverkampf, 2017f, 2017e, 2017b)

The clinical interview, and thus the interaction with the patient, is at the center of the diagnosis of ADHD. This may make the process more difficult to operationalize for randomized controlled studies if they fail to conceptualize information and communication in a clinical interview. A greater elucidation of communication processes has been described as beneficial by the author and several different techniques and approaches suggested.  (Haverkampf, 2010a)

The Clinical Interview

A comprehensive clinical interview is one of the most effective methods to make a diagnosis of ADHD (Adler, 2004; Jackson & Farrugia, 1997; Murphy & Adler, 2004; Wilens, Faraone, & Biederman, 2004). Open-ended questions about childhood and adult behaviors can be used to elicit information necessary to diagnose ADHD. Interviews also include questions regarding developmental and medical history, school and work history, psychiatric history, and family history of ADHD and other psychiatric disorders (Barkley, 2006).

The clinical interview also gives inside into the communication the patient uses, internally and externally, and how he or she attends to and processes meaningful information. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2018a) This is important for the diagnosis and treatment of any mental health condition, but particularly also ADHD. (Haverkampf, 2017a)

Semi-Structured Interviews

Although many clinicians use unstructured interviews to assess adult ADHD, semistructured interviews do exist. One does not necessarily have to choose between either one, but it can be helpful to at least integrate semistructured elements into a clinical interview, which still offers the latitude to explore more freely, which can be important in assessing any comorbidities. Research suggests that semistructured clinical interviews can reliably and accurately be used for determining a diagnosis of ADHD in adults (Epstein & Kollins, 2006).

Comprehensive diagnostic interviews not only evaluate diagnostic criteria, but also assess different psychopathological syndrome scores, functional disability measures, indices of pervasiveness and information about comorbid disorders. Comprehensive procedures include the Brown ADD Diagnostic Form and the Adult Interview by Barkley and Murphy. The Wender Reimherr Interview which follows a diagnostic algorithm different from DSM-IV. The interview contains only items delineated from adult psychopathology and not derived from symptoms originally designed for use in children. (Rösler et al., 2006)

From a communication perspective, the etiology of ADHD consists generally of the same maladaptive communication and information handling patterns, whether in a child or an adult. However, given differences in developmental stages and environmental factors the symptoms and impairments can be different. Also, the chronicity and entrenchment of a particular patterns, in connection with developmental progress, can influence the phenomenology of the condition. To consider all these factors a certain flexibility and openness in the clinical interview is of paramount importance.

CAADID

The Conners Adult ADHD Diagnostic Interview for DSM-IV (CAADID), for example, assesses for the presence of the ADHD symptoms listed in the DSM-IV and collects information related to history, developmental course, ADHD risk factors, and comorbid psychopathology. Epstein and Kollines examined the test-retest reliability and concurrent validity of the CAADID for DSM-IV in a sample of thirty patients referred to an outpatient clinic. Kappa statistics for individual symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity were in the fair to good range for current report and retrospective childhood report. Kappa values for overall diagnosis, which included all DSM-IV symptoms, were fair for both current (adult) ADHD diagnosis (kappa = .67) and childhood report (kappa = .69). Concurrent validity was demonstrated for adult hyperactive-impulsive symptoms and child inattentive symptoms. (Epstein & Kollins, 2006)

DIVA

Another semi-structured interview is the Diagnostic Interview for ADHD in adults, which has gone through improvement updates. It has been compared to the CAADID and other ADHD severity scales, following the DSM-IV criteria. Ramos-Quiroga and colleagues carried out a transversal study on 40 out-patients with ADHD to check the criteria and concurrent validity of the DIVA 2.0 compared with the CAADID. The DIVA 2.0 interview showed a diagnostic accuracy of 100% when compared with the diagnoses obtained with the CAADID interview. The concurrent validity demonstrated good correlations with three self-reported rating scales: the Wender Utah Rating Scale (WURS), the ADHD-Rating Scale, and Sheehan’s Dysfunction Inventory. (Ramos-Quiroga et al., 2016) One advantage of the DIVA is that it is free to use.

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

Supportive methods in diagnosing ADHD are being explored. Using computerized clinical decision support modules can in higher quality of care with respect to ADHD diagnosis including a prospect for higher quality of ADHD management in children. (Bergman et al., 2009) This is different from using computers for neuropsychological testing, where the patient interacts with the computer. Computer-assisted diagnosis tools could, for example, provide decision trees that are based on empirical insights. While this can be a valuable support for the clinician, it is important to keep in mind that the interactions with the patient is probably the most important instrument in the assessment of ADHD.

Questionnaires

Questionnaires may be underutilized in clinical practice. They often are easy to administer, score and interpret, while their reliability and validity can be quite high.

  • The Connors Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS)
  • the Current Symptoms Scales by Barkley and Murphy (CSS)
  • the Adult Self Report Scale (ASRS) by Adler et al. and Kessler et al. and
  • the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—Self Report Scale (ADHD-SR by Rösler et al.)

are self-report rating scales focusing mainly on the DSM-IV criteria, although the CAARS and CSS also have other forms.

  • The Wender-Utah Rating Scale (WURS) and

the Childhood Symptoms Scale by Barkley and Murphy aim at making a retrospective assessment of childhood ADHD symptoms.

  • The Brown ADD Rating Scale (Brown ADD-RS) and
  • the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Other Report Scale (ADHD-OR by Rösler et al.)

are instruments for use by clinicians or significant others.

Both self-rating scales and observer report scales quantify the ADHD symptoms by use of a Likert scale mostly ranging from 0 to 3, which makes comparison of follow-up tests easier.

Self-Report Rating Scales

Self-report checklists are commonly used in the assessment of ADHD. In addition to self-report rating scales, rating scales completed by an individual’s spouse or significant other can provide useful information in determining the individual’s overall life functioning. They are easy to administer, and a number of reliable and valid measures exist. Problems may be bias or malingering, which are difficult to control for. Distorted memories probably play a negligible role in rating scales that focus on current symptoms, but could become important in those screening for symptoms in childhood and adolescence.

Research has demonstrated that rating scales can accurately reflect the frequency and intensity of symptoms (Wadsworth & Harper, 2007) and, when used retrospectively, are valid indicators of symptomatology (Murphy & Schachar, 2000). Murphy and Schachar (2000) examined the validity of self-reported ratings of current and childhood ADHD symptoms by adults. In one study, participants’ ratings of their childhood ADHD symptoms were compared to their parents’ ratings of childhood symptoms. In a second study, participants’ ratings of their current ADHD symptoms were compared to a significant other’s rating of current symptoms. All correlations between self-ratings and parent ratings were significant for inattentive, hyperactive–impulsive, and total ADHD symptoms, as were correlations between self-ratings and significant other ratings.

Belendiuk and colleagues examined in 2007 the concordance of diagnostic measures for ADHD, including self-ratings and collateral versions of both rating scales and semistructured interviews. Results supported the findings of Murphy and Schachar, showing high correlations between self-reports and collateral reports of inattentive and hyperactive–impulsive symptoms. Results also demonstrated high correlations between self-report rating scales and diagnostic interviews. (Belendiuk, Clarke, Chronis, & Raggi, 2007)

Conners’s Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS)

The CAARS (Conners, Erhart, & Sparrow, 1999) assesses ADHD symptoms in adults and comprises short, long, and screening self-report and observer rating scale forms. The CAARS produces eight scales, including scales based on DSM-IV criteria and an overall ADHD index. Internal consistency is good, with Cronbach’s alpha across age, scales, and forms ranging from .49 to .92 (Conners et al., 1999; Erhardt, Epstein, Connors, Parker, & Sitarenios, 1999). Test–retest reliability (1 month) estimates are high, ranging from .85 to .95 (Conners et al., 1999; Erhardt et al., 1999). The ADHD index produces an overall correct classification rate of 85%, and the sensitivity of the ADHD index has been estimated at 71% and the specificity at 75% (Conners et al., 1999).

Adler and colleagues compared the reliability, validity, and utility in a sample of adults with ADHD and also as an index of clinical improvement during treatment of self- and investigator ratings of ADHD symptoms via the CAARS. They analyzed data from two double-blind, parallel-design studies of 536 adult ADHD patients, randomized to 10-week treatment with atomoxetine or placebo. The CAARS demonstrated good internal consistency and inter-rater reliability, as well as sensitivity to treatment outcome. (Adler et al., 2008)

Taylor and colleagues retrieved 35 validation studies of adult ADHD rating scales and identified 14 separate scales. The majority of studies were of poor quality and reported insufficient detail. Of the 14 scales, the Conners’ Adult ADHD Rating scale and the Wender Utah Rating Scale (short version) had more robust psychometric statistics and content validity. (Taylor, Deb, & Unwin, 2011)

Current Symptoms Scale

The Current Symptoms Scale (Barkley & Murphy, 1998) is an 18-item selfreport scale with both a patient version and an informant version. It contains the 18 items from the diagnostic criteria in DSM-IV. Validity has been demonstrated through past findings of significant group differences between ADHD and control adults (Barkley, Murphy, DuPaul, & Bush, 2002). An earlier DSM-III version of the scale correlated significantly with the same scale completed by a parent (r = .75) and by a spouse or intimate partner of the ADHD adult (r = .65; Murphy & Barkley, 1996a).

Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale–version 1.1 (ASRSv1.1)

The ASRS-v1.1 (Adler, Kessler, & Spencer, 2003) is an 18-item measure based on the DSM-IV-TR criteria for ADHD that produces three scale scores. Questions are designed to suit an adult rather than a child, and the language provides a context for symptoms that adults can relate to. Internal consistency estimates are high, and the ASRS-v1.1 has been shown to have high concurrent validity (Adler et al., 2006).

Adler et al conducted a study to validate the pilot Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (pilot ASRS) versus standard clinician ratings on the ADHD Rating Scale (ADHD RS). Sixty adult ADHD patients took the self-administered ADHD RS and then raters administered the standard ADHD RS. Internal consistency was high for both patient and rater-administered versions. The intra-class correlation coefficients (ICCs) between scales for total scores was also high, as were ICCs for subset symptom scores. There was acceptable agreement for individual items and significant kappa coefficients for all items. The pilot Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale symptom checklist was thus a reliable and valid scale for evaluating ADHD for adults and showed a high internal consistency and high concurrent validity with the rater-administered ADHD RS. (Adler et al., 2006)

Retrospective Assessments

Retrospective assessments collect information to help make a retroactive diagnosis of ADHD.

Wender Utah Rating Scale (WURS)

The WURS (Ward, Wender, & Reimherr, 1993) is based on items from the monograph Minimal Brain Dysfunction in Children (Wender, 1971), which is more detailed than the symptoms listed in the DSM or ICD-10. McCann and colleagues examined the factor structure and discriminant validity of the WURS in adults seeking evaluation for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Three factors (Dysthymia, Oppositional/Defiant Behavior, and School Problems) accounted for 59.4% of the variance. In a stepwise discriminant function analysis, age and childhood school problems emerged as significant variables. The classification procedure correctly classified 64.5% of patients. Among those who did not have ADHD, only 57.5% were correctly classified compared with 72.1% among those with ADHD. The WURS thus appears to be sensitive in detecting ADHD, but it misclassified approximately half of those who do not have ADHD. (McCann, Scheele, Ward, & Roy-Byrne, 2000)

Non-Self Report Assessments

Brown Attention-Deficit Disorder Rating Scale for Adults (Brown ADD-RS)

The Brown ADD-RS (Brown, 1996; Brown & Gammon, 1991) assesses symptoms of ADHD in adults. It was developed before the DSM-IV concept of ADHD was published and focuses more on symptoms of inattention rather than hyperactivity and impulsivity. The scale shows high internal consistency (α = .96) and satisfactory validity (M. Weiss, Hechtman, & Weiss, 1999).

ADHD Investigator Symptom Rating Scale (AISRS)

To measure treatment response, the Adult ADHD Investigator Symptom Rating Scale (AISRS) was developed to better capture symptoms of ADHD in adult patients. The AISRS uses a semistructured interview methodology with suggested prompts for each item to improve interrater reliability. (Spencer et al., 2010) The authors analyzed psychometric properties of the AISRS total and AISRS subscales and compared them to the investigator rated version of the CAARS and the Clinical Global Impression-ADHD-Severity Scale using data from a placebo-controlled 6-month clinical trial of once-daily atomoxetine. Results showed that the AISRS and its subscales were robust, valid efficacy measures of ADHD symptoms in adult patients. Its anchored items and semistructured interview are mentioned as advancements over existing scales. (Spencer et al., 2010)

Neuropsychological Testing

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behaviorally defined diagnosis. Despite the fact that neuropsychological tests have typically been used successfully to investigate the functional neuroanatomy of ADHD in neuroimaging research paradigms, these tests have been of surprisingly limited utility in the clinical diagnosis of the disorder. (Koziol & Stevens, 2012) Still, if used discriminatingly and with an understanding for their place in an assessment, neuropsychological testing can play a significant role in the assessment of ADHD. However, one needs to keep in mind that there is no single test or battery of tests that has adequate predictive validity or specificity to make a reliable diagnosis of ADHD. Although there seem to be differences between adults with ADHD and control participants on measures of cognitive functioning, these measures probably have limited predictive value in distinguishing ADHD from other psychiatric or neurological conditions that are associated with similar cognitive impairments (Wadsworth & Harper, 2007).

In adult ADHD, neuropsychological testing is most beneficial when the results are used to support conclusions based on history, rating scales, and analysis of current functioning. Cognitive assessments can be useful in that they can improve the validity of an ADHD assessment and be used in assessing the efficacy of pharmacological and/or psychological interventions (Epstein et al., 2003). Also, many researchers agree that a neuropsychological assessment will be most sensitive to ADHD when the assessment incorporates multiple, overlapping procedures measuring a broad array of attentional and executive functions (Alexander & Stuss, 2000; Cohen, Malloy, & Jenkins, 1998; Woods et al., 2002).

Important functional domains of neuropsychological tests are:

  • verbal ability
  • figural problem solving
  • abstract problem solving
  • executive function
  • fluency
  • simple attention
  • sustained attention
  • focused attention
  • verbal memory
  • figural memory

Woods and his colleagues (2002) reviewed the role of neuropsychological evaluation in the diagnosis of adults with ADHD. In their review of 35 studies, the authors found that the majority of the studies demonstrated significant discrepancies between adults with ADHD and normal control participants on at least one measure of executive function (i.e., the ability to assess a task situation, plan a strategy to meet the needs of the situation, implement the plan, make adjustments, and successfully complete the task; Riccio et al., 2005) or attention. Moreover, Woods et al. found that the most prominent and reliable executive function and attention measures that differentiated adults with ADHD were Stroop tasks (Stroop, 1935) and continuous performance tests (CPTs). (The Stroop phenomenon demonstrates that it is difficult to name the ink color of a color word if there is a mismatch between ink color and word. For example, the word GREEN printed in red ink. The CPT measures a person’s sustained and selective attention.)

Neuropsychological tests generally have a poor ability to discriminate between patients diagnosed with ADHD and patients not diagnosed with ADHD. Pettersson and colleagues investigated in their study the discriminative validity of neuropsychological tests and diagnostic assessment instruments in diagnosing adult ADHD in a clinical psychiatric population of 108 patients, 60 were diagnosed with ADHD. The Diagnostic Interview for ADHD in adults (DIVA 2.0) and Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS) v.1.1 together with eight neuropsychological tests were investigated. All instruments showed poor discriminative ability except for the DIVA, which showed a relatively good ability to discriminate between the groups (sensitivity = 90.0; specificity = 72.9). A logistic regression analysis model with the DIVA and measures of inattention, impulsivity, and activity from continuous performance tests (CPTs) showed a sensitivity of 90.0 and a specificity of 83.3. This means that while the ability to discriminate between patients with and without ADHD is poor, variables from CPT tests can contribute to increasing the specificity by 10% if used in combination with the DIVA. (Pettersson, Söderström, & Nilsson, 2018)

Schoechlin and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis integrating 24 empirical studies reporting results of at least one of 50 standard neuropsychological tests comparing adult ADHD patients with controls. The 50 tests were categorized into the following 10 functional domains: verbal ability, figural problem solving, abstract problem solving, executive function, fluency, simple attention, sustained attention, focused attention, verbal memory, figural memory. For each domain a pooled effect size d′ was calculated. Complex attention variables and verbal memory discriminated best between ADHD patients and controls. Effect sizes for these domains were homogeneous and of moderate size (d′ between 0.5 and 0.6). In contrast to results reported in children, executive functions were not generally reduced in adult ADHD patients. (Schoechlin & Engel, 2005) Woods et al. (2002), on the other hand, concluded that although a general profile of attentional and executive function impairment is evident in adults with ADHD, expansive impairments in these domains (i.e., impairments on all attention and executive function tasks) is not common. Their review demonstrated inconsistencies in specific instruments across studies, indicating that adults with ADHD may not perform poorly on all attentional measures all the time. This finding is not surprising given the fact that adults with ADHD often demonstrate sporadic or inconsistent attention, which can be difficult to identify given the structure provided by the one-on-one testing environment (Barkley, 1998).

One popular family of measures for the assessment of attention and executive control is the continuous performance test (CPT). A review of the available research on CPTs reveals that they are quite sensitive to CNS dysfunction. This is both a strength and a limitation of CPTs in that multiple disorders can result in impaired performance on a CPT. The high sensitivity of CPTs is further complicated by the multiple variations of CPTs available, some of which may be more sensitive or demonstrate better specificity to ADHD in adults than others. If CPTs are to be used clinically, further research will be needed to answer the questions raised by this review. (Riccio & Reynolds, 2006).

Several theoretical models suggest that the core deficit of ADHD is a deficiency in response inhibition. While neuropsychological deficits in response inhibition are well documented in ADHD children, research on these deficits in adult ADHD populations is minimal. In a study by Epstein and colleagues, twenty-five adult ADHD patients, 15 anxiety-disordered adult patients, and 30 normal adults completed three neuropsychological tests of response inhibition: the Continuous Performance Test, Posner Visual Orienting Test, and the Stop Signal Task. ADHD adults demonstrated response inhibition performance deficits when compared to both normal adults and anxiety disordered adults only on the Continuous Performance Test. A similar pattern of differences was not observed on the other two neuropsychological tests. Differing results between tasks may be due to differences in test reliability, task parameters, or the targeted area of brain functioning assessed by each test. (Epstein, Johnson, Varia, & Conners, 2001)

Neurobiological Parameters

Abibullaev and colleagues proposed a decision support system in diagnosing ADHD through brain electroencephalographic signals. (Abibullaev & An, 2012) Lenartowicz and Loos concluded that while EEG cannot currently be used as a diagnostic tool, vast developments in analytical and technological tools in its domain anticipate future progress in its utility in the clinical setting. (Lenartowicz & Loo, 2014) However, the overall assessment still requires a clinical decision, which may depend on many factors, including the individual attitude towards the diagnosis held by the therapist.

Malingering

Malingering is an important issue in ADHD diagnosis and is defined as the conscious fabrication or exaggeration of physical or psychological symptoms in the pursuit of a recognizable goal. A diagnosis of ADHD can provide an individual with several benefits, including stimulant medication, disability benefits, tax benefits, and academic accommodations, and such benefits may motivate adults undergoing diagnostic evaluations for ADHD to exaggerate symptomatology on self-report measures and tests of neurocognitive functioning. Musso and colleagues identified and summarize nineteen peer-reviewed, empirical studies published between 2002 and 2011 that investigated malingered ADHD in college students. Few of the measures examined proved useful for detecting malingered ADHD. Most self-report questionnaires were not sensitive to malingering. While there is some variability in the usefulness of neuropsychological test failure, profiles between malingerers and individuals with ADHD were too similar to confidently detect malingered ADHD. Failure of three or more symptom validity tests proved most useful at detecting malingered ADHD. The authors concluded that there is substantial need for measures designed specifically for detecting malingered ADHD simulators are able to produce plausible profiles on most tools used to diagnose ADHD. (Musso & Gouvier, 2014)

Detection of faking can prove difficult with adults in particular, as clinicians often do not have access to a parent or sibling who can attest to prior history of ADHD symptoms or the resources to follow up do not exist. Moreover, adults often lack developmental documentation such as report cards, teacher evaluations, or prior psychological testing reports.

Quinn (2003) examined the issue of malingering by comparing the susceptibility of a self-report ADHD rating scale and a CPT to faking in an undergraduate sample of individuals with and without a diagnosis of ADHD. Results indicated that the CPT showed greater sensitivity to malingering than did the self-report scale and that a CPT can successfully discriminate malingerers from those with a valid diagnosis of ADHD. Given the potential benefits associated with an ADHD diagnosis, clinicians should include a symptom validity measure in their assessment battery. At present, however, there is no demonstrated best practice for this.

Suhr and colleagues utilized archival data from young adults referred for concerns about ADHD, divided into three groups: (1) those who failed a measure of noncredible performance (the Word Memory Test; WMT), (2) those who met diagnostic criteria for ADHD, and (3) controls with psychological symptoms but no ADHD. Results showed a 31% failure rate on the WMT. Those who failed the WMT showed clinical levels of self-reported ADHD symptoms and impaired neuropsychological performance. Neither self-report measures nor neuropsychological tests could distinguish ADHD from psychological controls, with the exception of self-reported current hyperactive/impulsive symptoms and Stroop interference. (Suhr, Hammers, Dobbinsbuckland, Zimak, & Hughes, 2008) These results underscore the effect of noncredible performance on both self-report and cognitive measures in ADHD.

It is difficult to tell how much a greater focus on the communication dynamics in a clinical interview can improve the problems around malingering. However, communication in its diverse synchronous forms is probably much more difficult to consciously influence and ‘fake’ than a simple task. However, a greater focus on communication patterns and dynamics also requires the skills and experience in the clinician to work with them.

Differential Diagnosis

Diagnosing ADHD in adults requires careful consideration of differential diagnoses, as it can be difficult to differentiate ADHD from a number of other psychiatric conditions (Pary et al., 2002), including major depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), substance abuse or dependence, personality disorders (borderline and antisocial), and learning disabilities (Searight, Burke, & Rottnek, 2000). For example, differential diagnosis of ADHD from mood and conduct disorders may be difficult because of common features such a mood swings, inability to concentrate, memory impairments, restlessness, and irritability (Adler, 2004). Differential diagnosis of learning disabilities can also prove difficult because of the interrelated functional aspects of the disorders that have the common outcome of poor academic functioning (Adler, 2004; Jackson & Farrugia, 1997).

Comorbidity

High rates of comorbidities are also seen in adults with ADHD, with the majority having at least one additional psychiatric disorder. ADHD is associated with a high percentage of comorbid psychiatric disorders in every lifespan. In adulthood between 65–89% of all patients with ADHD suffer from one or more additional psychiatric disorders, above all mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and personality disorders, which complicates the clinical picture in terms of diagnostics, treatment and outcome issues. (Sobanski, 2006) Outcome studies have demonstrated that individuals diagnosed with ADHD in childhood are at risk for developing comorbid conditions, some of which are likely secondary to ADHD-related frustration and failure.

The most frequent comorbid psychopathologies include mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and personality disorders. (Katzman, Bilkey, Chokka, Fallu, & Klassen, 2017) Biederman and colleagues (1993) found a relatively high incidence of lifetime diagnoses of anxiety disorders (43% to 52%), major depressive disorder (31%), ODD (29%), CD (20%), antisocial personality disorder (12%), and alcohol and drug dependencies (27% and 18%, respectively) in their sample of clinic-referred adults with ADHD. There are strong familial links and neurobiological similarities between ADHD and the various associated psychiatric comorbidities. Comparable rates of comorbidities have been found in men and women with ADHD, with the exception of men having higher rates of antisocial personality disorder. (Millstein et al., 1997)

With respect to ADHD subtypes in adults, Millstein and colleagues found higher rates of ODD, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders in patients with the combined type of ADHD than in those with other subtypes and higher rates of ODD, OCD, and PTSD in patients with the hyperactive type than in those with the inattentive type.  In their study, Sprafkin and colleagues found that all three subtypes reported more severe comorbid symptoms than did a control group, with the combined group obtaining the highest ratings of comorbid symptom severity. The authors found that the ADHD symptom subtypes in adults are associated with distinct clinical correlates and conclude that the diversity of self-reported psychopathology in adults who meet symptom criteria for ADHD highlights the importance of conducting broad-based evaluations. (Sprafkin, Gadow, Weiss, Schneider, & Nolan, 2007)

Psychosocial Functioning

In addition to comorbid psychiatric disorders, adults with ADHD often complain of psychosocial difficulties, which can manifest in a significantly higher rate of separation and divorce and lower socioeconomic status, poorer past and current global functioning estimates, and higher occurrence of prior academic problems relative to the control group.

Murphy and Barkley (1996a) documented high rates of educational, employment, and marital problems in adults with ADHD. Multiple marriages were more common in the adult ADHD group, and significantly more adults with ADHD had performed poorly, quit, or been fired from a job and had a history of poorer educational performance and more frequent school disciplinary actions against them than did adults without ADHD. Low self-concept and low self-esteem are common secondary characteristics of adults with ADHD, often resulting from problematic educational experiences and interpersonal difficulties (Jackson & Farrugia, 1997). Adults with ADHD often have strong feelings of incompetence, insecurity, and ineffectiveness, and many of these individuals live with a chronic sense of underachievement and frustration (Murphy, 1995).

Conclusion

Variations in communication processes and patterns, both internally and externally, play an important role in the etiology and the symptomatology of ADHD. Unfortunately, there is not enough focus on them in diagnosis and treatment. The author has proposed a theoretical approach and several practical approaches elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017e, 2017d, 2018b) Since the symptoms of ADHD are consequences of maladaptive internal communication and processing mechanisms of meaningful information, while at the same time there are maladaptive external communication patterns with the world, which lead to the observed difficulties in the personal and professional life of the patient, a greater focus on communication is important.

The use of DSM-IV criteria for ADHD in adults has been criticized. Barkley (1998) suggests that applying current ADHD criteria to adults is not developmentally sensitive. The DSM-IV criteria for ADHD were designed for and selected based on studies with children (Riccio et al., 2005), and validation studies of ADHD criteria in adults have not been conducted (Belendiuk, Clarke, Chronis, & Raggi, 2007). It has thus been suggested that the symptom lists in DSM-IV may be inappropriately worded for adults and that diagnostic thresholds may be too stringent or restrictive when applied to adults (Heiligenstein, Conyers, Berns, & Smith, 1998). The level of impairment caused by ADHD symptoms may also be different between adults and children, and symptoms will likely affect more domains in adults. However, when looked at from a communication perspective, and when focusing on the basic of ADHD, such as the attention deficit, it seems possible to view ADHD as a condition where external and internal communication, including the receptiveness for and decoding of information, is altered in predictable patterns. (Haverkampf, 2017f)


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com.

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Body Work and Exercise for Anxiety Panic Attacks Depression and OCD

Body-Work-and-Exercise-for-Anxiety-Panic-Attacks-Depression-and-OCD-2-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-life-improvement-series

Body Work and Exercise for Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Depression and OCD

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Working with the body is often neglected in major schools of psychotherapy, such as psychodynamic psychotherapy and CBT. Depression and anxiety disorders are some of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders with close to one in five of adults exhibiting symptoms. Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with these disorders, has the potential to increase the effectiveness of psychopharmacology and to reduce depenndance on it in specific cases. The balance seems to be important between too little and excessive exercise.

Keywords: body work, exercise, treatment, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Communication-Focused Therapy, CFT, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Contents

Introduction. 4

Reconnection. 4

Communication. 4

Information Processing. 4

Integrative Therapy. 5

Exercise and Mental Health. 5

Depression and Anxiety. 5

Age. 6

Neurophysiology. 6

Hippocampal Volume. 6

Endocannabinoids. 6

Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH) 6

Serotonin. 7

Depression. 7

Body Image. 7

Body Image as a Problem.. 7

Obesity. 9

Breast Cancer. 9

Exercise as an Adjunct to Medication. 10

Techniques. 10

Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT) 10

Pilates. 11

Body Psychotherapy (BPT) 11

Tai Chi 11

Yoga. 11

Exercise Dose. 12

Exercise and Anxiety. 12

Anxiety Sensitivity. 13

Body Dysmorphic Disorder: OCD.. 13

Hypochondriasis. 14

Risks. 15

Prevention. 15

Conclusion. 15

References. 17

Introduction

Much of the information the brain processes is received from and through the body. Since anxiety, depression and OCD are disturbances in the communication and processing of information, it makes theoretical and practical sense to involve the body in the therapeutic process.

While studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, healthcare professionals irregularly suggest and rarely prescribe it. In their depression treatment guidelines, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that exercise may be of value but does not consider it as a first-line treatment. The National Guideline Clearinghouse states in a consensus-based recommendation that exercise is recommended as an adjunctive treatment to antidepressants or psychotherapy.

Chronic major depressive disorder and dysthymia are associated with a high burden and substantial care costs. New and more effective treatments are required. Besides case series and small uncontrolled studies, recent well-controlled studies suggest that exercise training may be clinically effective, at least in major depression and panic disorder. (Ströhle, 2009)

Reconnection

Information comes in through the body. Types of body work and exercise which increase the sense of the body appear to be helpful in various psychiatric conditions. It helps to lessen the focus on a particular bodily function or organ and opens the inflow of information from more points in the body. This can help lower the partial disconnect which is usually present in conditions, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, OCD and more.

Communication

The body is a communication device, receiving information from the environment and allowing one to send messages, whether verbal or non-verbal. (Haverkampf, 2018) Communication is also the process which brings about change (Haverkampf, 2010a) and takes a preeminent place in communication-focused therapy (CFT) (Haverkampf, 2017a), which has been developed by the author, and plays a role in all psychotherapies.

Information Processing

The body also uses information that is communicated to it. As the nervous system innervates most parts of the body, there is a fast and ubiquitous connectedness throughout the body. While much information is relayed in the central nervous system (CNS) and then send out again, there are relatively autonomous neural networks distributed throughout the body. From a communication viewpoint one needs to look at them as doing something similar to the brain, though on a simpler level. Information is received, processed and new information is sent out again.

Integrative Therapy

The work with the mind and the work with the body in various shapes and form should be seen as two ways to work on communication systems inside the person. The objective is to make communication work better for the patient. This may require a new perspective on how the mind and the body interact, but communication is how things get done inside the body and with the rest of the world.

Exercise and Mental Health

Early large population studies examined the relationship between exercise behavior and mental health . The relation between self-reported physical activity and depressive symptom was analyzed for 1,900 healthy subjects aged 25–77 years in the Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (1982–1984) to the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES I) and found that physical inactivity may be a risk factor for depressive symptoms.

Weyer found the odds ratio for depression to be significantly higher (OR 3.15) for the physically inactive compared to regular exercisers in a sample of 1,536 individual 15 years of age and older.

Subsequently, physical activity has been shown to be associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety in numerous studies. For example, in a nationally representative sample of adults ages 15–54 in the United States (n = 8,098), regular physical activity was associated with a significantly decreased prevalence of current major depression and anxiety disorders.

Depression and Anxiety

There is a general belief that physical activity and exercise have positive effects on mood and anxiety and a great number of studies describe an association of physical activity and general well-being, mood and anxiety. (Ströhle, 2009) In a study of 19,288 individuals, De Moor found that regular exercise was associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and neuroticism.

Cooney and colleagues conducted a search of the Cochrane Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis Review Group’s Controlled Trials Register up to 2013, www.controlled‐trials.com, ClinicalTrials.gov and the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform and any potentially eligible trials not already included are listed as ‘awaiting classification.’ Exercise appeared moderately more effective than a control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression, but analysis of methodologically robust trials only showed a smaller effect in favor of exercise. When compared to psychological or pharmacological therapies, exercise appeared to be no more effective, though this conclusion was based on a few small trials. (Cooney et al., 2013)

Habitual exercise correlates to a heightened level of mental health and wellbeing and reduced feelings of anxiety regardless of the gender of the individual. Relative increases in maximal cardiorespiratory fitness and habitual physical activity appear to be associated with lower depressive symptoms and greater emotional well-being. Ohta noted that 30 minutes or more of walking or cycling while commuting to work might be associated with an increased perception of mental health in men.

Age

The age of the individual may affect the relationship between physical activity and mental health. Exercise has a very small but statistically insignificant effect on reducing anxiety in adolescents. In contrast, Fox found that a population of European adults over the age of 70 had perceived levels of health and quality of life that were positively correlated to higher levels of physical activity.

While regular physical activity appears to be related to mental well-being, physical inactivity appears to be associated with the development of psychological disorders. Some cross-sectional and prospective-longitudinal clinical and epidemiological studies have shown a direct relationship between physical inactivity and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Neurophysiology

Physical activity and exercise have been shown to induce widespread neurobiological adaptations. Imaging studies have demonstrated structural changes associated with early-onset depression in the hippocampus, amygdala, striatum, and frontal cortex; areas that are all extensively interconnected. Most consistently associated with depression are the findings of volume loss in the hippocampal formation. Increased levels of hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels are associated with decreased anxiety. Exercise is associated with the increased synthesis and release of both neurotransmitters and neurotrophic factors, and these increases may be associated with neurogenesis, angiogenesis and neuroplasticity (Portugal et al., 2013).

Hippocampal Volume

As noted above, imaging studies have shown that depressed patients have decreased hippocampal volume. Brain neurogenesis is increased by antidepressant medications. Ernst and colleagues hypothesize that exercise similarly decreases depressive symptoms by increasing brain neurogenesis. They outline four possible molecular mechanisms for this increased neurogenesis, all of which both promote hippocampal neurogenesis and increase with exercise: B-endorphins, vascular endothelial growth factor, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and serotonin.

Endocannabinoids

Other possible mechanisms for exercise’s ability to improve mood include the association with exercise and increased levels of endocannabinoids, which are associated with analgesia, anxiolysis, and a sense of well-being.

Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)

Changes in the hypothalamo-pituitary adrenal axis, including increased adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and decreased cortisol production, are associated with exercise and thought to be part of the mechanism of its positive effects on mood.

Serotonin

A randmoised prospective study by Wipfli and colleagues showed that the exercise group had lower levels of depression than the stretching‐control group after the intervention. The exercise group also showed a larger percentage decrease in serotonin than the stretching‐control group. This reduction in blood serotonin after exercise is similar to the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Additionally, percent change in serotonin was found to partially mediate the relationship between exercise and depression. (Wipfli, Landers, Nagoshi, & Ringenbach, 2011)

Depression

Multiple studies exist that suggest that exercise is an effective treatment for depression. A Cochrane meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials comparing exercise and placebo or a control intervention found that the exercise groups had a significant improvement in depressive symptoms when compared to the placebo or control group. Only three trials with sufficient allocation concealment, intention to treat analysis, and blinded outcome assessment were found. When these three trials were analyzed together, the effect size was not significant.

There is empirical evidence that exercise compares favourably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression. Blumenthal and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial in which they assigned 156 adults over age 50 to either aerobic exercise, sertraline, or both. After four months, all three groups had a statistically significant improvement in their depressive symptoms with no statistically significant difference between the groups. The medication group did have a faster response to treatment in the first four weeks, however. However, in a more recent study, the remission rates were also very similar (45-47%), while the rate in the placebo group was moderately, yet not statistically significantly, lower (31%).

Body Image

Exercise improves self-concept in depressed patients, possibly leading to decreased depressive symptoms. Bodywork is related to body image. Bodywork allows us to become more aware of our bodies. It is not necessarily the aim that one builds muscles or achieves a body ideal, which changes as soon as the new magazine ad replaces the old one. But working on and with anything increases our awareness for it. This also applies to the body. By working with the body, we learn about the body. Out of the interaction with the body we get new meaningful information and vice versa. Our bodies are powerful information processing entities, and the information we put into it can bring about significant changes. Exercising is a form of interacting with the body and having the body interact with the world, which leads to a range of changes.

Body Image as a Problem

With a healthy sense of self and a positive body image to go with it, the psyche and the body can work together well and lead to an experience of happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, body image disturbance is an increasing problem in Western societies and is associated with several adverse mental health outcomes, including anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and depression. (Pimenta, Sánchez-Villegas, Bes-Rastrollo, Lpez, & Martínez-González, 2009)

Body image is, of course, a subjective perception, something that is built from information from the outside (such as a visual image from a mirror) and the inside (perceived needs, values, aspirations, expectations). Body image thus also depends on what we believe is essential and what we think we need, value and should aspire to. It depends on how we communicate and interact with ourselves and other people. (Haverkampf, 2010a, 2017a)

How one sees one’s body affects how one shapes one’s body in the future. It also influences how one feels about the body and, as a consequence, about oneself. Pimenta and colleagues studied the association between body image disturbance and the incidence of depression in 10,286 participants from a dynamic prospective cohort of Spanish university graduates, who were followed-up for four years on average (the SUN study). The difference between BMI and body size perception was considered as a proxy of body image disturbance. Men who underestimated their body size were much more likely to be overweight and obese, whereas women who overestimated their body size were much more likely to be underweight. (Pimenta et al., 2009) However, the authors found no association between body image disturbance and subsequent depression.

Different population may place different emphases on different body attributes. Body fat may, for example, play a greater role in one population than in another, which is probably influenced to a large extent by socialization and communication with others. A study that looked at muscle dissatisfaction, body fat, and height dissatisfaction as predictors of signs of psychological distress, such as depression, eating restraint, eating concerns, and social sensitivity) in a community sample of 228 gay men found that body fat dissatisfaction was predictive of all four distress signs (controlling for muscle dissatisfaction). Conversely, muscle dissatisfaction was only associated with social sensitivity, while height dissatisfaction failed to significantly predict any of the criterion variables for distress. (Blashill, 2010) Another study found that women were more likely to engage in indoor tanning and perceived greater susceptibility to photoaging than men. Body image and depression were found to be associated with tanning behaviors and attitudes. (Gillen & Markey, 2012) Since preferred skin tone, and the behaviors to achieve it, has changed significantly throughout the ages, from very light in past centuries to suntanned in the 1970s and 1980s, social trends must play a significant role. Identifying how one takes in outside preferences and makes them one’s own is an important step in identifying more closely the own needs, values and aspirations, which has a direct effect on quality of life and mental health (Haverkampf, 2010b, 2017a).

Mood plays a large role in how one perceives one’s body. If one sees things more negatively overall, this can also affect one’s view of the own body. Joiner and colleagues examined the relationship between body dissatisfaction, depression, and bulimia in 119 female participants and found that depressed symptoms, but not whether the individual was bulimic, were associated with body dissatisfaction. (Joiner, Wonderlich, Metalsky, & Schmidt, 1995) It is thus important to keep in mind that aside from the effect of variations of the body on mood, the latter does have a significant effect on how we perceive the former. A significant aspect of how depression reduces the activity radius and the quality of life is through a distorted perception of the body.

Obesity

There is a relatively close link between obesity and depression, although it is unclear what is the cause and what the effect. Depression may cause obesity, for example through changing eating patterns or reduced physical activity. But it is also possible that obesity may cause depression through an even more negatively perceived body image, which is a result from an interaction between the obesity and experienced social norms and interactions. The author has discussed possible etiologic factors from a communication perspective elsewhere (Haverkampf, 2017b). In any case, it is easy to see how a vicious cycle can form at the intersection between the psychological and the physical. Breaking that cycle requires awareness for an individual’s internal and external communication.

That internal or external communication dynamics may play a significant role could explain why being ‘overweight’, but not the extremes of being underweight or severely overweight, is most highly correlated with depression. De Wit and colleagues showed in their study a significant U-shaped trend in the association between BMI and depression. (De Wit, Van Straten, Van Herten, Penninx, & Cuijpers, 2009) Externally, the social context seems to play a role. Xie and colleagues investigated in a prospective study the associations between overweight and depressive symptoms in Asian and Hispanic adolescents. Significant mediation effect was found only in Asian girls and girls with high acculturation. Overweight significantly predicted higher body image dissatisfaction, which in turn was significantly related to depressive symptoms. (Xie et al., 2010)

On the other hand, there is data which shows an independence from social factors and current comorbidities. Zhao and colleagues examined the associations of depression and anxiety with BMI after taking into consideration obesity-related comorbidities and other psychosocial or lifestyle factors. They analyzed the data collected from 177 047 adults in the US. Within each gender, the prevalence of the three psychiatric disorders was significantly higher in both men and women who were underweight (BMI<18.5), in women who were overweight (BMI:25–<30) or obese (BMI⩾30), and in men who were severely obese (BMI⩾40) than in those with a normal BMI. Compared with men with a normal BMI, severely obese men were significantly more likely to have current depression or lifetime diagnosed depression and anxiety. Underweight men were also significantly more likely to have lifetime diagnosed depression. Overweight or obese women were significantly more likely than women with a normal BMI to have all three psychiatric disorders. (Zhao et al., 2009)

Breast Cancer

A condition that threatens the body’s integrity also tends to have a psychological effect. If the condition represents a serious threat, fear and anxiety are normal reactions to it. In one study with female survivors of breast cancer of all ages, 56% of the participants had scores that would correlate with potential depression (Begovic-Juhant, Chmielewski, Iwuagwu, & Chapman, 2012). The majority of women felt less attractive and less feminine. Low body image, attractiveness, and femininity positively correlated with depression and negatively with overall quality of life. (Begovic-Juhant et al., 2012) However, this may also provide an approach for ameliorating the depression through work on body image and the self-perception of attractiveness and femininity. Much of this could involve work with communication (Haverkampf, 2017a).

The body and the mind are inseparable. If the integrity of one is in danger, that will reflect of the sense of wholeness of the other. Lasry and colleagues investigated the psychological and social adjustment following total and partial mastectomy. Total mastectomy patients showed higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with body image. Partial mastectomy patients did not display any measurable increase in fear of recurrence. Patients undergoing radiation therapy showed a surprising rise in depressive symptoms, which could be related to an underestimated anxiety they experience. (Lasry et al., 1987)

Exercise as an Adjunct to Medication

Exercise has also been shown to improve depressive symptoms when added to medication. There seems to be an added benefit beyond the direct effect of the antidepressant. In one study, exercise significantly improved symptoms when added to an antidepressant in a group of older patients with depression that had not responded to 6 weeks of antidepressant medication alone. Unlike its benefit as an adjunct to antidepressant medications, exercise in addition to cognitive therapy was found not to be more beneficial than either one by itself. (Ströhle, 2009)

Techniques

Many types of bodywork exist, and several are generally assumed to maintain and improve overall health and raise the quality of life. Important is as already mentioned above, aside from the physical exercise, the greater awareness and the better more meaningful information about the body and how it interacts with the psyche and the outside world. However, there is still far less knowledge of movement-based treatments focusing on body awareness than medication or psychotherapeutic approaches.

While more research is needed on the type of exercise needed for depression treatment, available research indicates that the type of exercise may not be as important as having the physical activity reach a sufficient intensity. For example, both running and weightlifting were found to significantly decrease depressive symptoms with no significant difference found between these two forms of physical activity and the decrease in symptoms.

Basic Body Awareness Therapy (BBAT)

Danielsson and Rosberg explored the experiences of basic body awareness therapy (BBAT) in 15 persons diagnosed with major depression who participated in the treatment in a randomized clinical trial. The participants’ experiences were essentially grasped as a process of

  • (Danielsson & Rosberg, 2015)

Five constituents of this meaning were described (Danielsson & Rosberg, 2015):

The authors conclude that the process of enhanced perceptual openness challenges the numbness experienced in depression, which can provide hope for change, but it is connected to hard work and can be emotionally difficult to bear. (Danielsson & Rosberg, 2015)

Pilates

Mokhtari and colleagues investigated the efficiency of 12-week Pilates exercises on depression and balance associated with falling in thirty elderly participants. The Pilates exercises decreased depression and improved the balance related to falling in participants. (Mokhtari, Nezakatalhossaini, & Esfarjani, 2013)

Body Psychotherapy (BPT)

Body Psychotherapy (BPT) may be an effective treatment option for patients with chronic depression. Rohricht and colleagues studied the effectiveness of BPT in patients with chronic depression. Patients with chronic depressive syndromes and a total score of ≥20 on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAMD) were randomly allocated to either immediate BPT or a waiting group which received BPT 12 weeks later. Thirty-one patients were included and twenty-one received the intervention. At the end of treatment patients in the immediate BPT group had significantly lower depressive symptom scores than the waiting group (mean difference 8.7). (Rohricht, Papadopoulos, & Priebe, 2013)

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) pursues the development of a heightened awareness of one’s body, and its effectiveness has been shown in several empirical studies. Research has focused on the interactions between bodily, cognitive, and emotional processes. Michalak and colleagues argue that considering embodied processes might be a useful perspective for research on the etiology of depression and for mechanisms of action in MBCT. (Michalak, Burg, & Heidenreich, 2012)

Tai Chi

Tai Chi has also been explored in its effectiveness against mental health conditions. It has soft movements, slower speeds, and is relatively easy to learn. The posture of high or low and the amount of exercise can be different according to individual physical fitness. It can meet the needs of different ages and physical fitness. Data from a small study with a single-case design suggests that the intervention had the strongest effect on the participant who presented with hyperactivity and heightened anxiety. (Baron & Faubert, 2005)

Yoga

Field and colleagues compared the effects of yoga (physical activity) versus social support (verbal activity) on prenatal and postpartum depression. Ninety-two prenatally depressed women were randomly assigned to a yoga or a social support control group at 22 weeks gestation. The yoga group participated in a 20-min group session (only physical poses) once per week for 12 weeks. The social support group (a leaderless discussion group) met on the same schedule. At the end of the first and last sessions the yoga group reported less depression, anxiety, anger, back and leg pain as compared to the social support group. At the end of the last session the yoga group and the support group did not differ. They both had lower depression, anxiety, and anger scores and improved relationship scores. In addition, cortisol levels decreased for both groups following each session. Estriol and progesterone levels decreased after the last session. At the postpartum follow-up assessment depression and anxiety levels were lower for both groups. (Field, Diego, Delgado, & Medina, 2013)

Exercise Dose

A dose-response effect with exercise in the treatment for depression has been noted. In one study, high-intensity weight training was more effective than low-intensity weight training in treating depression. Low-intensity weight training and general practitioner care were found to have nearly the same improvement in depression that is consistent with the widely accepted number of the 30% placebo effect in depression treatment. With aerobic exercise, intensity equaling the energy expenditure in public health recommendations was more effective than a program of guided movements of low intensity that had a reduction in depressive symptoms equal to the placebo group.

Aerobic exercise at a dose consistent with public health recommendations is an effective treatment for MDD of mild to moderate severity. Dunn and colleagues studied whether exercise is an efficient treatment for mild to moderate major depressive disorder (MDD), and the dose-response relation of exercise and reduction in depressive symptoms. Participants were randomized to one of four aerobic exercise treatment groups that varied total energy expenditure and frequency or to exercise placebo control. A 17.5-kcal/kg/week dose is consistent with public health recommendations for physical activity. The main effect of energy expenditure in reducing Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD17) scores at 12 weeks was significant. Adjusted mean HRSD17 scores at 12 weeks were reduced 47% from baseline for the 17.5-kcal/kg/week dose, compared with 30% for a lower dose and 29% for control. There was no main effect of exercise frequency at 12 weeks. (Dunn, Trivedi, Kampert, Clark, & Chambliss, 2005)

Exercise and Anxiety

Compared to the wide range of research on the positive effects of exercise on depression, anxiety disorders have been less frequently studied. In general, aerobic exercise has been shown to be an effective and cost-efficient treatment alternative for a variety of anxiety disorders. Several studies have indicated that aerobic exercise may be as effective in reducing generalized anxiety as cognitive behavioral therapy.

In general, exercise does appear to be effective in reducing symptoms associated with anxiety. Furthermore, symptoms improve following both an acute episode of physical activity as well as following a program of routine exercise.

In treating anxiety, exercise has been shown to alleviate anxious feelings. While useful in treatment, exercise does not seem to reduce anxiety to the level achieved by psychopharmaceuticals. In a study of patients suffering from moderate to severe panic disorder, both a 10-week protocol of regular aerobic exercise and clomipramine were associated with significant improvement of symptoms compared to placebo. In comparison with exercise, clomipramine improved anxiety symptoms more effectively and significantly earlier.

In another study, the effects of a Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement program and relaxation procedures were assessed on a volunteer sample of 54 undergraduate physiotherapy students over a 2-week period. Analysis of variance showed that anxiety scores for all groups varied significantly over time and, specifically, that participants reported lower scores at the completion of the fourth intervention. Further, compared to the control group, females in the Feldenkrais® and relaxation groups reported significantly lower anxiety scores on completion as compared to the beginning of the fourth session, and this reduction was maintained one day later. (Kolt & McConville, 2000)

Anxiety Sensitivity

Exercising at 70%–90% of maximum heart rate for 20 minutes three times a week seems to reduce anxiety sensitivity significantly (Carek, Laibstain, & Carek, 2011). Self-reported fears of anxiety sensations, fears of respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms, publicly observable anxiety symptoms, and cognitive dyscontrol decrease following a prescribed exercise program (Carek et al., 2011). In a study by Cox and colleagues, the most substantial reduction in state anxiety occurred 90 minutes following 20 minutes of aerobic exercise at 80% of maximal oxygen uptake (Cox, Thomas, Hinton, & Donahue, 2004).

Body Dysmorphic Disorder: OCD

The relationship between obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is unclear. BDD has been proposed to be an OCD‐spectrum disorder or even a type of OCD. There is a growing literature on the concept of an obsessive–compulsive spectrum of disorders. (Lochner & Stein, 2006)

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a distressing and impairing preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance, with depression as its most frequent comorbid condition. (Nierenberg et al., 2002)

BDD is frequently comorbid with major depression, is associated with an earlier age of onset of depression and longer duration of depressive episodes, and is found more frequently with atypical than non-atypical depression. Nierenberg and colleagues evaluated the rate of BDD in a cohort of consecutive outpatients with typical and atypical major depressive disorder in 350 outpatient participants. Twenty-eight (8.0%) subjects had a lifetime history of BDD and 23 (6.6%) had current BDD. Those with comorbid lifetime BDD had an earlier age of onset of depression and longer duration of the current episode, but not a greater number of depressive episodes or greater severity of depression. Subjects with and without BDD were similar with respect to age, gender, and marital status. There was a higher rate of lifetime and current BDD in subjects with atypical depression than in those with non-atypical depression. Subjects with BDD also had higher rates of social phobia, any eating disorder, and any somatoform disorder but not OCD. They also had higher rates of avoidant, histrionic, and dependent personality disorders. (Nierenberg et al., 2002)

OCD and BDD do not significantly differ on many variables but did have some clinically important differences. In one study, the comorbid BDD/OCD group evidenced greater morbidity than subjects with OCD or BDD in a number of domains, but differences between the comorbid BDD/OCD group and the BDD group were no longer significant after controlling for BDD severity. However, differences between the comorbid BDD/OCD group and the OCD group remained significant after controlling for OCD severity.

Lochner and Stein conducted a computerized literature search (MEDLINE: 1964–2005) to collect studies addressing different dimensions on which the OCSDs lie. Their cluster analysis found that in OCD there were 3 clusters of OCD spectrum symptoms:

  • “Reward deficiency” (including trichotillomania, pathological gambling, hypersexual disorder and Tourette’s disorder),
  • “Impulsivity” (including compulsive shopping, kleptomania, eating disorders, self-injury and intermittent explosive disorder), and
  • “Somatic” (including body dysmorphic disorder and hypochondriasis).

It is unlikely that OC symptoms and disorders fall on any single phenomenological dimension; instead, multiple different constructs may be required to map this nosological space. Although there is evidence for the validity of some of the relevant dimensions, additional work is required to delineate more fully the endophenotypes that underlie OC symptoms and disorders. (Lochner & Stein, 2006)

It has been argued that body-focused repetitive behavior disorders (e.g., trichotillomania and skin-picking disorder) should be included within the obsessive-compulsive and related disorders category, as this is how most clinicians see these behaviors, and as this may optimize clinical utility. The descriptions of these disorders should largely mirror those in DSM-5, given the evidence from recent field surveys. (Stein & Bouwer, 1997)

Hypochondriasis

The symptoms of HC overlap to an extent with certain anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and OCD. The results of a study using discriminant function analysis indicated that whereas individuals with hypochondriasis experience panic attacks, obsessions, and compulsions, these symptoms are markedly less pronounced than among those with panic disorder and OCD. Conversely, overlaps were found in terms of cognitive biases, with hypochondriasis patients demonstrating elevated levels of intolerance of uncertainty, body vigilance, and fear of cardiovascular symptoms. (Deacon & Abramowitz, 2008)

Risks

While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that individuals should engage in 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most (preferably) all days of the week, physical activity and exercise have risks that need to be considered. The most common risk of physical activity in adults is musculoskeletal injury. The risk of injury increases with obesity, volume of exercise, and participation in vigorous exercise such as competitive sports.

Furthermore, vigorous physical activity acutely increases the risk of sudden cardiac death and myocardial infarction among individuals with both diagnosed and occult heart disease.

Prevention

Reduced incidence rates of depression and (some) anxiety disorders in exercising subjects raise the question whether exercise may be used in the prevention of some mental disorders. A review of studies showed a bidirectional relationship between physical activity, exercise and adolescent mental health (Pascoe & Parker, 2019). The results suggested that physical activity and exercise programs designed to increase the level of activity in young people should be implemented to be attractive and achievable to young people that may have poor psychological health (Pascoe & Parker, 2019). Another study found that participating in diverse leisure activities and longer exercise time decreases older adults’ risk of having depression. Additionally, the results confirmed that depression is positively correlated with chronic diseases (Lee, Yu, Wu, & Pan, 2018). On the other hand, data from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study did not find evidence for a dose–response relationship between exercise levels and mental health. Among those with mental disorder at baseline, exercise participants were more likely to recover from their illness compared to their counterparts who did not take exercise, but the authors pointed out that it remains uncertain whether this association truly reflects a causal effect of exercise (Ten Have, de Graaf, & Monshouwer, 2011). In a 2010 meta-review, an ssociation between physical activity and mental health in young people was evident, but research designs were described as often weak and effects small to moderate. Evidence showed small but consistent associations between sedentary screen time and poorer mental health (Biddle & Asare, 2011). In another study involving 42 undergraduates, vigorous exercise had mental health benefits beyond moderate physical activity, was associated with less stress, pain, insomnia and depression, more favorable objective sleep patterns, and fewer mental health problems if the individual was exposed to high stress (Gerber et al., 2014).

Conclusion

Depression and anxiety disorders are some of the most prevalent neurological disorders with close to one in five of adults demonstrating symptoms. Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with these disorders and has the potential to lessen the dependability on psychopharmacology. Physicians should recommend that adults participate in at least 30 minutes of accumulated moderate-intensity physical activity (for example, walking fast) on most days of the week. (Phillips et al., 2007) The balance seems to be important. The term ‘exercise addition’ has been coined for another extreme, in which an individual experiences a need to engage in excessive exercise, has the potential to have adverse effects on both physical and mental health (Berczik et al., 2012).


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com.

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ADHD and Medication (3)

ADHD-and-Medication-3-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-psychiatry-series

ADHD and Medication

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has become treatable with medication and psychotherapeutic approaches that have become available recently. This article provides a brief overview of some aspects of the medication used for ADHD.

The most widely used group of medication for ADHD comprises the stimulants. Stimulants such as methylphenidate and amphetamine are currently the most common treatment for ADHD. The substance used should fit the particular individual and the particular condition and situation.

Open and transparent communication between clinician and patient is of paramount importance in the case of ADHD for a successful treatment outcome.

Keywords: ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, medication, psychiatry

Table of Contents

Keywords: ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, medication, psychiatry. 1

Introduction. 5

The Prefrontal Cortex. 5

Substance Abuse. 6

Psychotherapy. 6

Social 6

Diagnosis of ADHD.. 7

Different Types of ADHD.. 7

EEG.. 8

Diagnosis of ADHD in Children. 8

Stability over Time. 9

Adult ADHD.. 10

Baseline assessment. 11

Medication. 11

Long-Term Effect. 12

Anxiety. 12

Tics. 12

Emotional Lability. 13

Smoking. 13

Medication Groups. 13

Methylphenidate. 13

Atomoxetine. 14

Extended Release. 14

Sex. 14

Medication for Children. 14

Consider offering. 15

Medication for Adults. 15

Consider offering. 15

ADHD Type and Medication. 16

Subtype. 16

Sleep. 16

Anxiety. 16

Genotype. 17

Dose Titration. 17

Abuse. 18

Coexisting Conditions. 18

Caution. 18

Psychosis. 19

Bipolar Disorder. 19

Aggression. 20

Seizures. 20

Priapism.. 20

Peripheral Vasculopathy, Including Raynaud’s Phenomenon. 20

Visual Disturbance. 20

Drug Dependence. 20

Pregnancy. 21

Monitoring. 21

Behavior. 21

Height. 21

Weight. 22

Cardiovascular System.. 22

Children and Adolescents. 23

Adults. 23

Tics. 23

Sexual Dysfunction. 23

Seizures. 23

Sleep. 24

Compliance. 24

Psychotherapy. 24

References. 25

Introduction

The use of medications to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has increased. Using a common protocol and data from thirteen countries and one SAR, Raman and colleagues show increases over time but large variations in ADHD medication use in multiple regions across the world. (Raman et al., 2018)

While medication is effective, one needs to keep in mind that most mental health conditions, and particularly ADHD, is caused and maintained not only by neurobiology, but also by psychological, environmental and social patterns. Most patients would thus benefit from a combined approach. Safren and colleagues, for example, studied cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who have been stabilized on medications but still show clinically significant symptoms. The data showed that CBT for adults with ADHD with residual symptoms can be a feasible, acceptable, and potentially efficacious next-step treatment approach. (Safren et al., 2005)

The most widely used class of medication for ADHD is the group of stimulants, including methylphenidate and other substances. A stimulant is a drug that stimulates the central nervous system, increasing arousal, attention and endurance. For years, it was assumed that stimulants had paradoxical calming effects in ADHD patients, whereas stimulating ‘normal’ individuals and producing locomotor activation in rats. It is now known that low doses of stimulants focus attention and improve executive function in both normal and ADHD subjects. Stimulants are frequently used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Because the medications can be addictive, patients with a history of drug abuse are typically monitored closely or treated with a non-stimulant. It is argued that the risk of addiction in patients diagnosed with ADHD is much lower. On the other hand, well-monitored stimulant treatment may even reduce the risk for alcohol and substance use in adolescent ADHD. (Hammerness, Petty, Faraone, & Biederman, 2017)

The Prefrontal Cortex

At low doses that improve prefrontal cortex-dependent cognitive function and that are devoid of locomotor-activating effects, methylphenidate substantially increases norepinephrine and dopamine efflux within the prefrontal cortex. In contrast, outside the prefrontal cortex these doses of methylphenidate have minimal impact on norepinephrine and dopamine efflux. (Berridge et al., 2006) The prefrontal cortex regulates behavior and attention using representational knowledge, and imaging and neuropsychological studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is weaker in subjects with ADHD. This cortical area is very sensitive to levels of catecholamines: moderate levels engage postsynaptic α2A-adrenoceptors and D1 receptors and improve prefrontal regulation of behavior and attention, while high levels impair prefrontal function via α1-adrenoceptors and excessive D1 receptor stimulation. Administering low doses of methylphenidate to rats improves the working memory and attentional functions of the prefrontal cortex, while high doses impair working memory and produce a perseverative pattern of errors similar to that seen in patients. The low dose improvement is blocked by either an α2-adrenoceptor or Dl receptor antagonist, suggesting that both norepinephrine and dopamine contribute to the beneficial actions of stimulant medications. (Arnsten, 2006)

Substance Abuse

Chang and colleagues found no indication of increased risks of substance abuse among individuals prescribed stimulant ADHD medication; if anything, the data suggested a long‐term protective effect on substance abuse. (Chang et al., 2014) However, one should still be vigilant towards stimulant misuse and diversion in ADHD patients.

Careful therapeutic monitoring can reduce medical misuse and diversion of controlled medication among adolescents. They appear to be more prevalent among adolescents who misuse their controlled drugs. In a survey study by McCabe and colleagues, misusers were more likely than non-misusers to divert their controlled medications and to abuse other substances. The odds of a positive screening result for drug abuse were substantially higher among medical misusers compared with medical users who used their controlled medications appropriately. The odds of drug abuse did not differ between medical users who used their controlled medications appropriately and nonusers. Most adolescents who used controlled medications took their medications appropriately. (McCabe et al., 2011) In a literature review by Torgersen and colleagues, psychopharmacotherapy did not seem to affect substance use disorder. (Torgersen, Gjervan, & Rasmussen, 2008)

It is is also important to keep in mind the risk of not medicating ADHD. Empirical data indicates that ADHD is a significant risk factor for the development of SUDs and cigarette smoking in both sexes. (Wilens et al., 2011) One would also need to include the risk of self-medication with illegal drugs due to problems that can be caused or maintained by ADHD, such as unemployment or relationship difficulties (Haverkampf, 2017a).

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is often very valuable in combination with medication to alleviate the impairments of ADHD. The author has described communication-focused therapy for ADHD elsewhere. (Haverkampf, 2010, 2017d, 2018b) Unfortunately, while the efficacy of stimulants in reducing ADHD symptoms for adults is well documented in meta-analyses, there is a concerning lack of meta-analysis about other treatment interventions (Moriyama, Polanczyk, Terzi, Faria, & Rohde, 2013). Apart from reports using behavioral therapies, there are also several studies on the successful use of psychodynamic techniques

Social

The social and environmental aspects are often underestimated in the case of ADHD. Pfiffner and colleagues evaluated in their study the efficacy of the Child Life and Attention Skills (CLAS) program, a behavioral psychosocial treatment integrated across home and school, for youth with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder-inattentive type (ADHD-I). CLAS resulted in greater improvements in teacher-reported inattention, organizational skills, social skills, and global functioning relative to both PFT and TAU at posttreatment. Parents of children in CLAS reported greater improvement in organizational skills than PFT and greater improvements on all outcomes relative to TAU at posttreatment. Differences between CLAS and TAU were maintained at follow-up for most parent-reported measures but were not significant for teacher-reported outcomes. Direct involvement of teachers and children in CLAS appears to amplify effects at school and home and underscores the importance of coordinating parent, teacher, and child treatment components for cross-setting effects on symptoms and impairment associated with ADHD-I. (Pfiffner et al., 2014)

There are also several psychological models that have been helpful in the treatment of adults. Solanto and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of a new manualized group Meta-Cognitive Therapy (MCT) for adults with ADHD that extends the principles and practices of cognitive-behavioral therapy to the development of executive self-management skills in thirty patients. General linear modeling revealed a robust significant posttreatment decline on the CAARS DSM-IV Inattentive symptom scale as well as improvement on the Brown ADD Scales. The findings indicated that participants in the MCT program showed marked improvement with respect to core ADHD symptoms of inattention, as well as executive functioning skills, suggesting that this program has promise as a treatment for meta-cognitive deficits in adults with ADHD. (Solanto, Marks, Mitchell, Wasserstein, & Kofman, 2008)

Charach and colleagues in a review of the literature between 1980 and 2010. The available evidence suggested that underlying prevalence of ADHD varies less than rates of diagnosis and treatment. Patterns of diagnosis and treatment appeared to be associated with such factors as locale, time period, and patient or provider characteristics. The strength of evidence for parent behavior training as the first-line intervention for improved behavior among preschoolers at risk for ADHD was high, while the strength of evidence for methylphenidate for improved behavior among preschoolers was low. Evidence regarding long-term outcomes following interventions for ADHD was sparse among persons of all ages, and therefore inconclusive, with one exception. Primary school–age children, mostly boys with ADHD combined type, showed improvements in symptomatic behavior maintained for 12 to 14 months using pharmacological agents, specifically methylphenidate medication management or atomoxetine. (A Charach et al., 2011)

Diagnosis of ADHD

The clinical interview is the most important pillar in the process of diagnosing ADHD. Reflecting on the interaction with the patients and observing the communication patterns used is very helpful in the diagnosis and in the treatment of ADHD.

There is also the overall problem in the case of ADHD that, while the diagnostic criteria in the diagnostic manuals are quite clear, it may sometimes be diagnosed based on the individual heuristic criteria the therapist has developed over time. Since attention deficit can occur in several disorders and is not as pathognomonic as, for example, feeling depressed or anxious for depression and anxiety, respectively, it takes more complex algorithms to formulate a diagnosis. However, there still seem to be problems, which, however, are not uncommon in psychiatric diagnosis. The accuracy itself even seems to depend on the diagnosis. For some diagnoses, especially psychotic categories, administrative data were generally predictive of true diagnosis. For others, such as anxiety disorders, the data were less satisfactory. (Davis, Sudlow, & Hotopf, 2016)

Different Types of ADHD

ADHD is to a certain degree heterogeneous which can have a n efefct of how well a particular treatment modality or even a specific treatment works. Unfortunately, there are not many clear parameters that can help to optimize treatment. However, in speical circumstances there may be information available that can be helpful in designing a treatment plan.

  1. ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Presentation (ADHD-I)

Patients have difficulty paying attention. They are easily distracted but do not have significant symptoms of impulsivity or hyperactivity. This is sometimes called attention-deficit disorder (or ADD).

  • ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation (ADHD-H)

Patients who have this type of ADHD have symptoms of hyperactivity and feel the need to move constantly. They also struggle with impulse control. Inattention is not a significant issue. This type is seen most often in very young children.

  • ADHD, Combined Presentation (ADHD-C)

Patients with this type of ADHD show significant problems with both hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention. Children may gradually have less trouble with hyperactivity/impulsivity as they get into their teen years.

In a study by Mullins and colleagues, children with ADHD varied more in the size and direction of their time reproduction errors than control children. Those with ADHD-C demonstrated more intraindividual variability than did those with ADHD-I in the size of their errors. The data provided support for a relationship between sustained attention and time reproduction.(Mullins, Bellgrove, Gill, & Robertson, 2005)

EEG

Arns and colleagues demonstrated in their study that the EEG phenotypes as described by Johnstone, Gunkelman & Lunt are identifiable EEG patterns with good inter-rater reliability. Furthermore, it was also demonstrated that these EEG phenotypes occurred in both ADHD subjects as well as healthy control subjects. The Frontal Slow and Slowed Alpha Peak Frequency and the Low Voltage EEG phenotype discriminated ADHD subjects best from controls (however the difference was not significant). The Frontal Slow group responded to a stimulant with a clinically relevant decreased number of false negative errors on the CPT. The Frontal Slow and Slowed Alpha Peak Frequency phenotypes have different etiologies as evidenced by the treatment response to stimulants. In previous research Slowed Alpha Peak Frequency has most likely erroneously shown up as a frontal theta sub-group. Furthermore, the divergence from normal of the frequency bands pertaining to the various phenotypes is greater in the clinical group than in the controls. Investigating EEG phenotypes provides a promising new way to approach EEG data, explaining much of the variance in EEGs and thereby potentially leading to more specific prospective treatment outcomes. (ARNS, GUNKELMAN, BRETELER, & SPRONK, 2008)

Diagnosis of ADHD in Children

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood and can profoundly affect the academic achievement, well-being, and social interactions of children; the American Academy of Pediatrics first published clinical recommendations for the diagnosis and evaluation of ADHD in children in 2000; recommendations for treatment followed in 2001. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000)

Bruchmüller and colleagues sent a case vignette to 1,000 child psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers and asked them to give a diagnosis. The results were that in the non-ADHD vignettes, 16.7% of therapists diagnosed ADHD. In the boy version of these vignettes, therapists diagnosed ADHD around 2 times more than they did with the girl vignettes. Their study suggested that there may be an overdiagnosis of ADHD and that the patient’s gender influences diagnosis considerably. (Bruchmüller, Margraf, & Schneider, 2012) It is unclear whether the problem is that therapists do not adhere enough to diagnostic manuals and diagnostic criteria, or if there are other factors, such as issues with the diagnostic criteria or diagnostic algorithms. Another explanation could be that a significant amount of information gets lost in the interaction with the patient. Especially, if the time allowed for the meeting is very limited, there is the risk of both over- and underdiagnosis where maybe several other issues are involved, such as trauma, anxiety or depression, for example.

This guideline has been developed to advise on the treatment and management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The guideline recommendations have been developed by a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, service users and carers, and guideline methodologists after careful consideration of the best available evidence. It is intended that the guideline will be useful to clinicians and service commissioners in providing and planning high-quality care for people with ADHD while also emphasizing the importance of the experience of care for them and their carers (see Appendix 1 for more details on the scope of the guideline). Although the evidence base is rapidly expanding, there are a number of major gaps; future revisions of this guideline will incorporate new scientific evidence as it develops. The guideline makes a number of research recommendations specifically to address gaps in the evidence base. In the meantime, it is hoped that the guideline will assist clinicians, people with ADHD and their carers by identifying the merits of particular treatment approaches where the evidence from research and clinical experience exists. ((UK, 2018)

While the disorder continues to be viewed as one of inattention and/or hyperactive-impulsive behavior, theories of ADHD are beginning to focus more on poor inhibition and deficient executive functioning (self-regulation) as being central to the disorder. Clinicians should be aware of these problems and the adjustments that need to be made to them when dealing with special populations that were not represented in the field trials used to develop these criteria. (Barkley, 2003)

Kadesjo and Gillberg examined patterns of comorbid/associated diagnoses and associated problems in a population sample of children with and without DSM-III-R attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Half (N = 409) of a mainstream school population of Swedish 7-year-olds were clinically examined, and parents and teachers were interviewed and completed questionnaires. The children were followed up 2–4 years later. Eighty-seven per cent of children meeting full criteria for ADHD (N = 15) had one or more—and 67% at least two—comorbid diagnoses. The most common comorbidities were oppositional defiant disorder and developmental coordination disorder. Children with subthreshold ADHD (N = 42) also had very high rates of comorbid diagnoses (71% and 36%), whereas those without ADHD (N = 352) had much lower rates (17% and 3%). The rate of associated school adjustment, learning, and behavior problems at follow-up was very high in the ADHD groups. We concluded that pure ADHD is rare even in a general population sample. Thus, studies reporting on ADHD cases without comorbidity probably refer to highly atypical samples. By and large, such studies cannot inform rational clinical decisions. (Kadesjö & Gillberg, 2001)

Stability over Time

Children rarely remain in the HT classification over time; rather, they sometimes desist from ADHD but mostly shift to CT in later years.  In a study on a sample of 118 4- to 6-year-olds who met DSM-IV criteria for ADHD, Lahey and colleagues showed that the number of children who met criteria for ADHD declined over time, but most persisted. Children who met criteria for the combined subtype (CT, n = 83) met criteria for ADHD in more subsequent assessments than children in the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive subtype (HT, n = 23). Thirty-one (37%) of 83 CT children and 6 (50%) of 12 children in the predominantly inattentive subtype (IT) met criteria for a different subtype at least twice in the next 6 assessments. Children of the HT subtype were even more likely to shift to a different subtype over time, with HT children who persisted in ADHD mostly shifting to CT in later assessments. The subtypes exhibited consistently different mean levels of hyperactive-impulsive symptoms during years 2 through 8 that corresponded with their initial subtype classifications, but initial subtype differences in inattention symptoms diminished in later years. Conclusions  In younger children, the CT and IT may be stable enough to segregate groups for research, but they seem too unstable for use in the clinical assessment of individual children. (Lahey, Pelham, Loney, Lee, & Willcutt, 2005) The authors suggested a continuous hyperactivity-impulsivity rating model in the diagnosis.

Adult ADHD

The diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults is a complex procedure which should include retrospective assessment of childhood ADHD symptoms either by patient recall or third party information, diagnostic criteria according to DSM-IV, current adult ADHD psychopathology including symptom severity and pervasiveness, functional impairment, quality of life and comorbidity. The author has discussed the diagnosis of adult ADHD in greater depth elsewhere. (Haverkampf, 2018c)

A valid and reliable assessment should be comprehensive and include the use of symptom rating scales, a clinical interview, neuropsychological testing, and the corroboration of patient reports. Specific diagnostic criteria that are more sensitive and specific to adult functioning are needed. In treatment, pharmacological interventions have the most empirical support, with the stimulants methylphenidate and amphetamine and the antidepressants desipramine and atomoxetine having the highest efficacy rates. Scientific research on psychosocial treatments is lacking, with preliminary evidence supporting the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. (Davidson, 2008)

The Wender-Utah Rating Scale (WURS) and the Childhood Symptoms Scale by Barkley and Murphy try to make a retrospective assessment of childhood ADHD symptoms. The Connors Adult ADHD Rating Scales (CAARS), the Current Symptoms Scales by Barkley and Murphy (CSS), the Adult Self Report Scale (ASRS) by Adler et al. and Kessler et al. or the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—Self Report Scale (ADHD-SR by Rösler et al.) are self-report rating scales focusing mainly on the DSM-IV criteria. The CAARS and the CSS have other report forms too. The Brown ADD Rating Scale (Brown ADD-RS) and the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Other Report Scale (ADHD-OR by Rösler et al.) are instruments for use by clinicians or significant others. Both self-rating scales and observer report scales quantify the ADHD symptoms by use of a Likert scale mostly ranging from 0 to 3. This makes the instruments useful to follow the course of the disease quantitatively. Comprehensive diagnostic interviews not only evaluate diagnostic criteria, but also assess different psychopathological syndrome scores, functional disability measures, indices of pervasiveness and information about comorbid disorders. The most comprehensive procedures are the Brown ADD Diagnostic Form and the Adult Interview (AI) by Barkley and Murphy. An instrument of particular interest is the Wender Reimherr Interview (WRI) which follows a diagnostic algorithm different from DSM-IV. The interview contains only items delineated from adult psychopathology and not derived from symptoms originally designed for use in children. (Rösler et al., 2006)

Baseline assessment

Before starting medication for ADHD, people with ADHD should have a full assessment, possibly through their GP, which should include also:

  • a review to confirm they continue to meet the criteria for ADHD and need treatment
  • a review of mental health and social circumstances, including:
    • presence of coexisting mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions
    • current educational or employment circumstances
    • risk assessment for substance misuse and drug diversion

care needs There should also be a review of physical health, including also:

  • a medical history, taking into account conditions that may be contraindications for specific medicines
  • current medication
  • height and weight (measured and recorded against the normal range for age, height and sex)
  • baseline pulse and blood pressure (measured with an appropriately sized cuff and compared with the normal range for age)
  • a cardiovascular assessment
  • an electrocardiogram (ECG) if the treatment may affect the QT interval.

One should refer for a cardiology opinion before starting medication for ADHD in cases including also:

  • history of congenital heart disease or previous cardiac surgery
  • history of sudden death in a first-degree relative under 40 years suggesting a cardiac disease
  • shortness of breath on exertion compared with peers
  • fainting on exertion or in response to fright or noise
  • palpitations that are rapid, regular and start and stop suddenly (fleeting occasional bumps are usually ectopic and do not need investigation)
  • chest pain suggesting cardiac origin
  • signs of heart failure
  • a murmur heard on cardiac examination
  • blood pressure that is classified as hypertensive for adults

Medication

Stimulants are the classic medication which is used in the treatment of ADHD. If it is used correctly and for the correct indication, it can help patients have a significant improvement in their quality of life.

However, treatment success in the individual and treatment success on average in a large group can diverge significantly. A clinician’s skills in using the medication can play a significant role. In a large Canadian study, Currie and colleagues found little evidence of improvement in either the medium or the long run. Our results are silent on the effects on optimal use of medication for ADHD, but suggest that expanding medication in a community setting had little positive benefit. (Currie, Stabile, & Jones, 2014)

Long-Term Effect

While methylphenidate (MPH) often ameliorates attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) behavioral dysfunction, it there is little evidence that methylphenidate (MPH) medication leads to long-term-term academic gains in ADHD. In a study by Hale and colleagues, children aged 6 to 16 with ADHD inattentive type (IT; n = 19) and combined type (n = 33)/hyperactive-impulsive type (n = 4) (CT) participated in double-blind placebo-controlled MPH trials with baseline and randomized placebo, low MPH dose, and high MPH dose conditions. Robust cognitive and behavioral MPH response was achieved for children with significant baseline executive working memory (EWM) / self-regulation (SR) impairment, yet response was poor for those with adequate EWM/SR baseline performance. Even for strong MPH responders, the best dose for neuropsychological functioning was typically lower than the best dose for behavior. (Hale et al., 2011)

There is overall little evidence to suggest that the type of treatment in the present affects the severity of ADHD in the future. A study by Molina and colleagues has shown that or intensity of 14 months of treatment for ADHD in childhood (at age 7.0–9.9 years) does not predict functioning 6 to 8 years later. Rather, early ADHD symptom trajectory regardless of treatment type is prognostic. This finding implies that children with behavioral and sociodemographic advantage, with the best response to any treatment, will have the best long-term prognosis. As a group, however, despite initial symptom improvement during treatment that is largely maintained after treatment, children with combined-type ADHD exhibit significant impairment in adolescence. (Molina et al., 2009)

Anxiety

Compared to parent and teacher reports of anxiety, child reported comorbid anxiety shows foremost the largest associations with the neurocognitive dysfunctions observed in children with ADHD. (Bloemsma et al., 2013) In another study, overall rates of individual anxiety disorders, as well as age of onset and severity of illness were not significantly different in the presence of comorbid ADHD. School functioning in children with anxiety disorders was negatively impacted by the presence of comorbid ADHD. Frequency of mental health treatment in children with anxiety disorders was significantly increased in the presence of comorbid ADHD. ADHD had a limited impact on the manifestation of anxiety disorder in children suggesting that ADHD and anxiety disorders are independently expressed. (Hammerness et al., 2010)

Tics

Findings in a study by Gadow and Nolan suggest that the co-occurrence of diagnosed ADHD, chronic multiple tick disorder and anxiety represents a particularly troublesome clinical phenotype, at least in the home setting. Comorbid anxiety disorder was not associated with a less favorable response to immediate release methylphenidate in children with ADHD and chronic multiple disorder, but replication with larger samples is warranted before firm conclusions can be drawn about potential group differences. (Gadow & Nolan, 2011)

Emotional Lability

Emotional lability, or sudden strong shifts in emotion, commonly occurs in youth with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Although these symptoms are impairing and disruptive, relatively little research has addressed their treatment, likely due to the difficulty of reliable and valid assessment. Promising signals for symptom improvement have come from recent studies using stimulants in adults, children and adolescents. Similarly, neuroimaging studies have begun to identify neurobiological mechanisms underlying stimulants’ impact on emotion regulation capacities. (Posner, Kass, & Hulvershorn, 2014)

Smoking

Individuals suffering from ADHD have a significantly higher risk of cigarette smoking. Stimulant treatment of ADHD may reduce smoking risk. Schoenfelder and colleagues examined the relationship between stimulant treatment of ADHD and cigarette smoking in a meta-analysis. The study revealed a significant association between stimulant treatment and lower smoking rates. the effect was larger in samples with more severe psychopathology. Implications for further research, treatment of ADHD, and smoking prevention are discussed. (Schoenfelder, Faraone, & Kollins, 2014)

Medication Groups

Common stimulants include:

Methylphenidate (Methylphenidate®, Concerta®), a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor

Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®), the dextro-enantiomer of amphetamine

Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin®), the active dextro-enantiomer of methylphenidate

Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse®), a prodrug containing the dextro-enantiomer of amphetamine

There are also mixed amphetamine salts, such as Adderall®, a 3:1 mix of dextro/levo-enantiomers of amphetamine.

Atomoxetine (Strattera ®) is a norepinephrine (noradrenaline) reuptake inhibitor which is approved for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There are also some antidepressants that have mild stimulant effects. Further information can be found in the author’s book An Overview of Psychiatric Medication (Haverkampf, 2018a)

Methylphenidate

Methylphenidate is indicated as an integral part of a total treatment program which typically includes other remedial measures (psychological, educational, social) for a stabilizing effect in children with a behavioral syndrome characterized by the following group of developmentally inappropriate symptoms:

  • moderate-to-severe distractibility
  • short attention span
  • hyperactivity
  • emotional lability, an
  • impulsivity.

The diagnosis of this syndrome should not be made with finality when these symptoms are only of comparatively recent origin. Non-localizing neurological signs, learning disability, and abnormal EEG may or may not be present, and a diagnosis of central nervous system dysfunction may or may not be warranted.

Atomoxetine

In pediatric patients with ADHD and comorbid symptoms of depression or anxiety, atomoxetine monotherapy appears to be effective for treating ADHD. (Kratochvil et al., 2005) In the study by Kratochvil and colleagues, anxiety and depressive symptoms also improved, but the absence of a placebo-only arm did not allow the investigators to conclude that these effects are specifically the result of treatment with atomoxetine. Combined atomoxetine and fluoxetine therapy were, however, well tolerated.

Extended Release

When prescribing stimulants for ADHD, one needs to consider modified-release once-daily preparations for the following reasons:

  • convenience
  • improving adherence
  • reducing stigma (because there is no need to take medication at school or in the workplace)
  • reducing problems of storing and administering controlled drugs at school
  • the risk of stimulant misuse and diversion with immediate-release preparations
  • their pharmacokinetic profiles.

Immediate-release preparations may be suitable if more flexible dosing regimens are needed, or during initial titration to determine correct dosing levels.

Sex

ADHD was once thought of as a predominantly male disorder. While this may be true for ADHD in childhood, extant research suggests that the number of women with ADHD may be nearly equal to that of men with the disorder (Faraone et al., 2000). There is accumulating research which clearly indicates subtle but important sex differences exist in the symptom profile, neuropathology and clinical course of ADHD. Compared to males with ADHD, females with ADHD are more prone to have difficulties with inattentive symptoms than hyperactive and impulsive symptoms, and females often receive a diagnosis of ADHD significantly later than do males (Gaub & Carlson, 1997; Gershon, 2002a, 2002b). Emerging evidence suggests differences exist in the neuropathology of ADHD, and there are hormonal factors which may play an important role in understanding ADHD in females. Although research demonstrates females with ADHD differ from males in important ways, little research exists that evaluates differences in treatment response. Given the subtle but important differences in presentation and developmental course of ADHD, it is essential that both clinical practice and research be informed by awareness of these differences in order to better identify and promote improved quality of care to girls and women with ADHD. (Nussbaum, 2012)

Medication for Children

Drug treatment is not indicated for all children with this syndrome. Stimulants are not intended for use in the child who exhibits symptoms secondary to environmental factors and/or primary psychiatric disorders, including psychosis. Appropriate educational placement is essential and psychosocial intervention is generally necessary. When remedial measures alone are insufficient, the decision to prescribe stimulant medication will depend upon the physician’s assessment of the chronicity and severity of the child’s symptoms.

Methylphenidate should not be used in children under 6 years, since safety and efficacy in this age group have not been established.

Consider offering

  1. Methylphenidate as the first line pharmacological treatment,
  2. Lisdexamfetamine for those who have had a 6‑week trial of methylphenidate at an adequate dose and not derived enough benefit in terms of reduced ADHD symptoms and associated impairment,
  3. Dexamfetamine for those whose ADHD symptoms are responding to lisdexamfetamine but who cannot tolerate the longer effect profile,
  4. Atomoxetine or Guanfacine if:
  5. they cannot tolerate methylphenidate or lisdexamfetamine or
  6. their symptoms have not responded to separate 6‑week trials of lisdexamfetamine and methylphenidate, having considered alternative preparations and adequate doses.

Medication for Adults

Consider offering

  1. Lisdexamfetamine or Methylphenidate as first-line pharmacological treatment,
  2. Lisdexamfetamine for those who have had a 6‑week trial of methylphenidate at an adequate dose but have not derived enough benefit in terms of reduced ADHD symptoms and associated impairment,

Methylphenidate for those who have had a 6‑week trial of lisdexamfetamine at an adequate dose but have not derived enough benefit in terms of reduced ADHD symptoms and associated impairment,

  • Dexamfetamine for those whose ADHD symptoms are responding to lisdexamfetamine but who cannot tolerate the longer effect profile,
  • Atomoxetine if:
  • they cannot tolerate lisdexamfetamine or methylphenidate or
  • their symptoms have not responded to separate 6‑week trials of lisdexamfetamine and methylphenidate, having considered alternative preparations and adequate doses.

Do not offer any of the following medication for ADHD without advice from a tertiary ADHD service:

  • guanfacine for adults
  • clonidine for children with ADHD and sleep disturbance, rages or tics
  • atypical antipsychotics in addition to stimulants for people with ADHD and coexisting pervasive aggression, rages or irritability
  • other medication than that listed above.

ADHD Type and Medication

Subtype

In a study by Barbaresi and colleagues, there was no association between DSM-IV subtype and likelihood of a favorable response or of side effects. Dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate were equally likely to be associated with a favorable response, but dextroamphetamine was more likely to be associated with side effects. (Barbaresi et al., 2014)

Sleep

Differences in sleep problems seem to be a function of ADHD subtype, comorbidity, and medication. In a study by Mayes and colleagues, children with ADHD-I alone had the fewest sleep problems and did not differ from controls. Children with ADHD-C had more sleep problems than controls and children with ADHD-I. Comorbid anxiety/depression increased sleep problems, whereas ODD did not. Daytime sleepiness was greatest in ADHD-I and was associated with sleeping more (not less) than normal. Medicated children had greater difficulty falling asleep than unmedicated children. (Mayes et al., 2008) Linear regression analyses by Corkum and colleagues showed that (1) dyssomnias were related to confounding factors (i.e., comorbid oppositional defiant disorder and stimulant medication) rather than ADHD; (2) parasomnias were similar in clinical and nonclinical children; and (3) the DSM-IV combined subtype of ADHD was associated with sleep-related involuntary movements. However, sleep-related involuntary movements were more highly associated with separation anxiety. (CORKUM, MOLDOFSKY, HOGG-JOHNSON, HUMPHRIES, & TANNOCK, 1999)

Anxiety

ADHD co-occurring with internalizing disorders (principally parent-reported anxiety disorders) absent any concurrent disruptive disorder, ADHD co-occurring with ODD/CD (oppositional defiant disorder / conduct disorder) but no anxiety (ADHD + ODD/CD), and ADHD with both anxiety and ODD/CD (ADHD + ANX + ODD/CD) may be sufficiently distinct to warrant classification as ADHD subtypes separate from ADHD without this phenomenology. Jensen and colleagues found evidence of main effects of internalizing and externalizing comorbid disorders. Moderate evidence of interactions of parent-reported anxiety and ODD/CD status were noted on response to treatment, indicating that children with ADHD and anxiety disorders (but no ODD/CD) were likely to respond equally well to behavioral and medication treatments. Children with ADHD-only or ADHD with ODD/CD (but without anxiety disorders) responded best to medication treatments (with or without behavioral treatments), while children with multiple comorbid disorders (anxiety and ODD/CD) responded optimally to combined (medication and behavioral) treatments. (JENSEN et al., 2001)

Genotype

Stein and colleagues studied the relationship between DAT1 3′-untranslated region (3′-UTR) variable number tandem repeats (VNTR) genotypes and dose response to MPH. Children were genotyped for the DAT1 VNTR and evaluated on placebo and three dosage levels of OROS® MPH. Children who were homozygous for the less common, 9-repeat DAT1 3′-UTR genotype displayed a distinct dose–response curve from that of the other genotype groups, with an absence of typical linear improvement when the dose was increased from 18 mg to 36 and 54 mg. (Stein et al., 2005)

In a study by Epstein and colleagues, youths and adults with ADHD showed attenuated activity in fronto‐striatal regions. In addition, adults with ADHD appeared to activate non‐fronto‐striatal regions more than normals. A stimulant medication trial showed that among youths, stimulant medication increased activation in fronto‐striatal and cerebellar regions. In adults with ADHD, increases in activation were observed in the striatum and cerebellum, but not in prefrontal regions. Conclusions: This study extends findings of fronto‐striatal dysfunction to adults with ADHD and highlights the importance of frontostriatal and frontocerebellar circuitry in this disorder, providing evidence of an endophenotype for examining the genetics of ADHD. (Epstein et al., 2007)

Some medication which is licensed for use in childhood may have to be continued off license in adults if there are no better alternatives and the patient has benefitted from it significantly. Psychotherapy may have to be adjusted to external and internal changes that are part of growing up.

Dose Titration

The dose should be titrated against symptoms and adverse effects in line with guidelines until optimized. This means reduced symptoms, positive behavior changes, improvements in education, employment and relationships, with tolerable adverse effects.

During the titration phase, ADHD symptoms, impairment and adverse effects should be recorded at baseline and at each dose change on standard scales, in children also by parents and teachers, and progress reviewed regularly.

Dose titration should be slower and monitoring more frequent if another condition is present, such as

  • neurodevelopmental disorders (for example, autism spectrum disorder, tic disorders, learning disability)
  • mental health conditions (for example, anxiety disorders [including obsessive–compulsive disorder], schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorder, eating disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance misuse)
  • physical health conditions (for example, cardiac disease, epilepsy or acquired brain injury).
  • Think about using immediate- and modified-release preparations of stimulants to optimize effect (for example, a modified-release preparation of methylphenidate in the morning and an immediate-release preparation of methylphenidate at another time of the day to extend the duration of effect).
  • Addictions

Abuse

One needs to be particularly careful about prescribing stimulants for ADHD if there is a risk of addictions and/or diversion for cognitive enhancement or appetite suppression. One should not offer immediate-release stimulants or modified-release stimulants that can be easily injected or insufflated, if this may be an issue.

Coexisting Conditions

In ADHD the comorbidity for other conditions is quite high, which can play a significant role in treatment. The same medication choices can be offered to people with ADHD and anxiety disorder, tic disorder or autism spectrum disorder as other people with ADHD.

Studies indicate that co-occurrence of clinically significant ADHD and autistic symptoms is common, and that some genes may influence both disorders. However, the DSM basically does not allow for the concurrent diagnosis of ADHD and autism.

Children with the combination of ADHD and motor coordination problems are particularly likely to suffer from an autism spectrum disorder. These co-occurrences of symptoms are important since children with ASD in addition to ADHD symptoms may respond poorly to standard ADHD treatments or have increased side effects. Such children may benefit from additional classes of pharmacologic agents, such as α-agonists, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and neuroleptics. They may also benefit from social skills therapy, individual and family psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and other nonpharmacologic interventions. (Reiersen & Todd, 2008)

Caution

Stimulants need to be used with care and caution, and it is important to have as much information about the medical and psychological state of the patient as possible. The following list just gives some examples, but is by no means comprehensive or factually up to date:

  • Some contraindications for methylphenidate are marked anxiety, tension, and agitation are contraindications to Methylphenidate, since the drug may aggravate these symptoms. Methylphenidate is contraindicated also in patients known to be hypersensitive to the drug, in patients with glaucoma, and in patients with motor tics or with a family history or diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome.
  • Methylphenidate is contraindicated during treatment with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and within a minimum of 14 days following discontinuation of a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (hypertensive crises may result).
  • Because of possible effects on blood pressure, methylphenidate should be used cautiously with pressor agents.
  • Methylphenidate may decrease the effectiveness of drugs used to treat hypertension. Human pharmacologic studies have shown that racemic methylphenidate may inhibit the metabolism of coumarin anticoagulants, anticonvulsants (e.g., phenobarbital, phenytoin, primidone), and tricyclic drugs (e.g., imipramine, clomipramine, desipramine). Downward dose adjustments of these drugs may be required when given concomitantly with methylphenidate. It may be necessary to adjust the dosage and monitor plasma drug concentration (or, in case of coumarin, coagulation times), when initiating or discontinuing methylphenidate.

Stimulant medications cause a modest increase in average blood pressure (about 2-4 mmHg) and average heart rate (about 3-6 bpm), and individuals may have larger increases. While the mean changes alone would not be expected to have short-term consequences, all patients should be monitored for larger changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Caution is indicated in treating patients whose underlying medical conditions might be compromised by increases in blood pressure or heart rate, such as those with preexisting hypertension, heart failure, recent myocardial infarction, or ventricular arrhythmia.

Psychosis

Psychosis is an important, unpredictable side effect of stimulant medication. In the case of acute psychotic or manic episodes, ADHD medication should be stopped because it can exacerbate or even trigger them under certain conditions. Restarting the ADHD medication after the episode has resolved can be considered, taking into account the individual circumstances, risks and benefits of the ADHD medication. The potential for psychotic side effects are well known, but usually reported as rare. Long acting preparations appear to be a contributory factor to the development of psychotic side effects, while symptoms resolve with discontinuation of treatment. (Shibib & Chalhoub, 2009)

Administration of stimulants may exacerbate symptoms of behavior disturbance and thought disorder in patients with a preexisting psychotic disorder.

Mosholder and colleagues analyzed data from 49 randomized, controlled clinical trials in the pediatric development programs for these products. A total of 11 psychosis/mania adverse events occurred during 743 person-years of double-blind treatment with these drugs, and no comparable adverse events occurred in a total of 420 person-years of placebo exposure in the same trials. The rate per 100 person-years in the pooled active drug group was 1.48. The analysis of spontaneous postmarketing reports yielded >800 reports of adverse events related to psychosis or mania. In about 90% of the cases, there was no reported history of a similar psychiatric condition. Hallucinations involving visual and/or tactile sensations of insects, snakes, or worms were common in cases in children. (Mosholder, Gelperin, Hammad, Phelan, & Johann-Liang, 2009)

Bipolar Disorder

ADHD in combination with bipolar disorder may be associated with more severe symptoms and worse outcomes of both conditions. Prior to initiating treatment with a stimulant, patients with comorbid depressive symptoms should be adequately screened to determine if they are at risk for bipolar disorder; such screening should include a detailed psychiatric history, including a family history of suicide, bipolar disorder, and depression. The frequent coexistence with alcohol and substance abuse may further complicate treatment management. A hierarchical approach is desirable, with mood stabilization preceding the treatment of ADHD symptoms.

Atomoxetine may be effective in the treatment of ADHD symptoms in patients with bipolar disorder, with a modestly increased risk of (hypo)manic switches and destabilization of the mood disorder when utilized in association with mood stabilizers. (Perugi & Vannucchi, 2015)

Aggression

Aggressive behavior or hostility is often observed in children and adolescents with ADHD and has been reported in clinical trials and the post-marketing experience of some medications indicated for the treatment of ADHD. Patients beginning treatment for ADHD should be monitored for the appearance of or worsening of aggressive behavior or hostility.

Seizures

There is some clinical evidence that stimulants may lower the convulsive threshold in patients with prior history of seizures, in patients with prior EEG abnormalities in absence of seizures, and, very rarely, in patients without a history of seizures and no prior EEG evidence of seizures. In the presence of seizures, the drug should be discontinued.

Priapism

Prolonged and painful erections, sometimes requiring surgical intervention, have been reported with methylphenidate products in both pediatric and adult patients. Priapism usually developed after some time on the drug, often subsequent to an increase in dose. Priapism has also appeared during a period of drug withdrawal (drug holidays or during discontinuation). Patients who develop abnormally sustained or frequent and painful erections should seek immediate medical attention.

Peripheral Vasculopathy, Including Raynaud’s Phenomenon

Stimulants are associated with peripheral vasculopathy, including Raynaud’s phenomenon. Signs and symptoms are usually intermittent and mild, although less frequently permanent tissue damage can occur. Signs and symptoms often improve after reduction in dose or discontinuation of the drug. Careful observation for digital changes is necessary during treatment with ADHD stimulants.

Visual Disturbance

Difficulties with accommodation and blurring of vision have been reported with stimulant treatment. However, in a study by Martin and colleagues in children, visual acuity increased significantly in the ADHD group after treatment with a stimulant. Also, more ADHD subjects had subnormal visual field results without stimulants, compared with controls, but with stimulants the difference was no longer significant. (Martin, Aring, Landgren, Hellström, & Andersson Grönlund, 2008)

Drug Dependence

Methylphenidate should be given cautiously to patients with a history of drug dependence or alcoholism. Chronic abusive use can lead to marked tolerance and psychological dependence with varying degrees of abnormal behavior. Psychotic episodes can occur, especially with parenteral abuse. Careful supervision is required during withdrawal from abusive use, since severe depression or another underlying condition may surface.

Pregnancy

The number of pregnancies exposed to ADHD medication has increased similarly to the increase in use of ADHD medication among women of childbearing age. Use of ADHD medication in pregnancy was associated with different indicators of maternal disadvantage and with increased risk of induced abortion and miscarriage.

Haervig and colleagues studied data from the Danish national health registries to identify all recorded pregnancies from 1999 to 2010. From 2003 to the first quarter of 2010, use of ADHD medication during pregnancy increased from 5 to 533 per 100 000 person‐years. Compared with unexposed, women who used ADHD medication during pregnancy were more often younger, single, lower educated, received social security benefits, and used other psychopharmaca. Exposed pregnancies were more likely to result in induced abortions on maternal request, induced abortions on special indication, and miscarriage compared with unexposed pregnancies. (Haervig, Mortensen, Hansen, & Strandberg-Larsen, 2014)

However, ADHD treatment could put both mother and baby at risk. This has to be balanced against the possible risks to the baby of continuing treatment. Although the data remain inadequate, the risk of the latter appears to be quite small overall, at least for methylphenidate, (Besag, 2014) while there is evidence, that the rates of fetal loss both through abortion and through miscarriage are increased with methylphenidate. Discussions about ADHD treatment with women of childbearing age should be balanced, open and honest, acknowledging the lack of information on the possible risks to the offspring of continuing treatment, while also drawing attention to the possible risks to both mother and child of discontinuing treatment. (Besag, 2014)

Monitoring

Medication is an important element of therapeutic strategies for ADHD. While medications for ADHD are generally well‐tolerated, there are common, although less severe, as well as rare but severe adverse events that can occur during treatment with ADHD drugs. Cortese and colleagues reviewed the literature. The review covers monitoring and management strategies of loss of appetite and growth delay, cardiovascular risks, sleep disturbance, tics, substance misuse/abuse, seizures, suicidal thoughts/behaviors and psychotic symptoms. Most AEs during treatment with drugs for ADHD are manageable and most of the times it is not necessary to stop medication, so that patients with ADHD may continue to benefit from the effectiveness of pharmacological treatment. (Cortese et al., 2013)

Behavior

Monitor the behavioral response to medication, and if behavior worsens adjust medication and review the diagnosis.

Height

Growth should be monitored during treatment with stimulants, and patients who are not growing or gaining height or weight as expected may need to have their treatment interrupted.

Research on the issue of growth suppression is lacking, mostly owing to insufficient follow-up on patients’ final heights. However, it has been argued that the rate of height loss seems relatively small and is likely reversible with withdrawal of treatment. (Goldman, 2010)

Weight

Some young adults are misusing prescription stimulants for weight loss. This behavior is associated with other problematic weight loss strategies. Interventions designed to reduce problematic eating behaviors in young adults may wish to assess the misuse of prescription stimulants. (Jeffers, Benotsch, & Koester, 2013) In the study by Jeffers and colleagues, undergraduates who reported using prescription stimulants for weight loss had greater appearance-related motivations for weight loss, greater emotion and stress-related eating, a more compromised appraisal of their ability to cope, lower self-esteem, and were more likely to report engaging in other unhealthy weight loss and eating disordered behaviors.

Weight should be measured at least once at 3 and 6 months after starting treatment in children over 10 years and young people, and at least once every 6 months thereafter. In adults, weight should be measured at least once every 6 months. Monitoring the BMI of adults is in many cases important.

If a child or young person’s height over time is significantly affected by medication (that is, they have not met the height expected for their age), stopping the medication or at least a break in treatment over school holidays to allow ‘catch‑up’ growth may be considered.

Cardiovascular System

Stimulants agents can increase heart rate and blood pressure and cause other cardiovascular symptoms. Since increased BP and HR in general are considered risk factors for cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, heart rate and blood pressure should be monitored closely. Patients who are being considered for treatment with stimulant medications should have a careful history (including assessment for a family history of sudden death or ventricular arrhythmia) and physical exam to assess for the presence of cardiac disease and should receive further cardiac evaluation if findings suggest such disease (e.g., electrocardiogram and echocardiogram).

Statistically significant pre–post increases of SBP, DBP and HR were associated with amphetamine and atomoxetine treatment in children and adolescents with ADHD, while methamphetamine treatment had a statistically significant effect only on SBP in these patients. These increases may be clinically significant for a significant minority of individuals that experience larger increases. (Hennissen et al., 2017)

Among young and middle-aged adults, current or new use of ADHD medications, compared with nonuse or remote use, does not seem associated with an increased risk of serious cardiovascular events. Habel and colleagues examined whether current use of medications prescribed primarily to treat ADHD is associated with increased risk of serious cardiovascular events in young and middle-aged adults. Participants were adults aged 25 through 64 years with dispensed prescriptions for methylphenidate, amphetamine, or atomoxetine at baseline. The sample size was 443 198 users and nonusers. The multivariable-adjusted rate ratio (RR) of serious cardiovascular events for current use vs nonuse of ADHD medications was 0.83. Among new users of ADHD medications, the adjusted RR was 0.77. The adjusted RR for current use vs remote use was 1.03; for new use vs remote use, the adjusted RR was 1.02. (Habel et al., 2011) In the study including data about 1,200,438 children and young adults between the ages of 2 and 24 years and 2,579,104 person-years of follow-up, including 373,667 person-years of current use of ADHD drugs, Habel et al showed no evidence that current use of an ADHD drug was associated with an increased risk of serious cardiovascular events, although the upper limit of the 95% confidence interval indicated that a doubling of the risk could not be ruled out. (Habel et al., 2011)

Children and Adolescents

Sudden death has been reported in association with CNS stimulant treatment at usual doses in children and adolescents with structural cardiac abnormalities or other serious heart problems. Although some serious heart problems alone carry an increased risk of sudden death, stimulant products generally should not be used in children or adolescents with known serious structural cardiac abnormalities, cardiomyopathy, serious heart rhythm abnormalities, or other serious cardiac problems that may place them at increased vulnerability to the sympathomimetic effects of a stimulant drug.

Adults

Sudden death, stroke, and myocardial infarction have been reported in adults taking stimulant drugs at usual doses for ADHD. Although the role of stimulants in these adult cases is also unknown, adults have a greater likelihood than children of having serious structural cardiac abnormalities, cardiomyopathy, serious heart rhythm abnormalities, coronary artery disease, or other serious cardiac problems. Adults with such abnormalities should also generally not be treated with stimulant drugs.

Tics

If a person taking stimulants develops tics, one should consider whether the tics are related to the stimulant (tics naturally wax and wane) and the impairment associated with the tics outweighs the benefits of ADHD treatment. If tics are stimulant related, one may need to reduce the dose or switch the medication.

Sexual Dysfunction

Erectile and ejaculatory dysfunction are potential adverse effects of atomoxetine.

Seizures

If a person with ADHD develops new seizures or a worsening of existing seizures, their ADHD medication needs to be reviewed and any medication that might be contributing to the seizures stopped.

Patients with ADHD seem to be at a higher risk of seizures. However, ADHD medication was associated with lower risk of seizures within individuals while they were dispensed medication, which is not consistent with the hypothesis that ADHD medication increases risk of seizures. Wiggs and colleagues followed a sample of 801,838 patients with ADHD medication. Patients with ADHD were at higher odds for any seizure compared with non-ADHD controls (odds ratio [OR] = 2.33). In adjusted within-individual comparisons, ADHD medication was associated with lower odds of seizures among patients with (OR = 0.71) and without (OR = 0.71) prior seizures. Long-term within-individual comparisons suggested no evidence of an association between medication use and seizures among individuals with (OR = 0.87) and without (OR = 1.01) a seizure history. (Wiggs et al., 2018) Koneski and colleagues evaluated 24 patients ranging from 7 to 16 years of age who took MPH for 6 months. Inclusion criteria were at least two epileptic seizures in the previous 6 months and a diagnosis of ADHD based on DSM-IV criteria. There was an overall improvement in ADHD symptoms in 70.8% of patients, and there was no increase in frequency of epileptic seizures in 22 patients (91.6%). (Koneski, Casella, Agertt, & Ferreira, 2011)

Sleep

Changes in sleep pattern should always be asked for, the timing and dose of the medication adjusted. Immediate release methamphetamine should usually not be administered after 4pm.

Compliance

Experiences of adverse effects are a frequent explanation for discontinuation among youth. Despite impaired functioning during adolescence, many discontinue medication treatment. Beliefs and attitudes may differ widely. Some families understand that ADHD is a neurobiological condition and accept that medication is indicated, for others, such treatment is unacceptable. Converging evidence describes negative perceptions of the burden associated with medication use as well as concerns about potential short- and long-term adverse effects. Ways to improve shared decision making among practitioners, parents and youth, and to monitor effectiveness, safety and new onset of concurrent difficulties are likely to optimize outcomes. (Alice Charach & Fernandez, 2013).

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy should always be part of a comprehensive treatment plan for ADHD. Communication-Focused Therapy® (CFT) as it was developed by the author focuses on internal and external communication patterns which has shown to be helpful in ADHD. (Haverkampf, 2017b, 2017d, 2017c)


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie.

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CBT and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

CBT-and-Psychodynamic-Psychotherapy-Christian-Jonathan-Haverkampf-2-psychotherapy-series

CBT and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Christian Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy, the less intensive form of psychoanalysis, are arguably the most prominent and well-researched schools of psychotherapy, apart from interpersonal therapy (IPT) models.

Essentially all psychotherapies go back to the revolutionary concept of the ‘talking cure’ in the late nineteenth century, the use of communication as an instrument of healing. CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy as descendants from the same concept should be viewed as complimentary rather than as substitutes. Technical approaches from both can be helpful in individual situations.

Keywords: CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy, Communication-Focused Therapy, CFT, communication, psychotherapy, psychiatry

Table of Contents

Introduction. 3

Philosophical Differences. 3

Practical Differences. 4

Example: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) 5

Example: Depression. 6

Into the Future. 7

References. 9

Introduction

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy, the less intensive form of psychoanalysis, are arguably the most prominent and well-researched schools of psychotherapy (see Lambert and Bergin, 1994), apart from interpersonal therapy (IPT) models.

Essentially all psychotherapies go back to the revolutionary concept of the ‘talking cure’ (Breuer et al, 2000)  in the late nineteenth century, the use of communication as an instrument of healing. CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy as descendants from the same concept should be viewed as complimentary rather than as substitutes. Technical approaches from both can be helpful in individual situations.

Philosophical Differences

The late nineteenth century with new discoveries in biological medicine and neurology and the emergence of Darwinian evolution provided the background for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis regards the mind as a complex yet structured system that produces and is affected by communication and meaningful information, not unlike individual cells in an organism. The patient’s free associations  are reflected upon by patient and analyst to explore and resolve intrapsychic conflicts and their defences, which cause ‘neurotic’ symptoms, such as anxiety, OCD, depression. Symptoms contain not only hints of repressed feelings and emotions, but also information about the patient’s authentic wishes and desires for individual growth.

CBT delivers a more action-oriented and problem-focused approach, in which treatment plans and goals are formulated without a prior analysis of the meaning of the symptoms.  CBT goes back to a merger of the behaviourism based on studies on conditioning and learning  and studies into cognitive processes by students of Freud , who believed cognitive processes to be closer to consciousness than their mentor. CBT focuses on an understanding of the mechanisms of present thoughts and behaviours rather than their pathogenesis. Both, however, teach their patients to become experts in their respective skills.

In psychodynamic theory, the development stages in childhood play an important role,  as do other past experiences, which are largely organised around interpersonal relations. In CBT, the focus is on conscious processes and the present. Psychoanalysis assumes that communication phenomena  between therapist and patient allow insight into partly unconscious intrapsychic processes, which are organised in a structured system (such as the tri-partite model of ego, superego and id) .

From a CBT perspective, distorted thought processes and maladaptive behaviours are direct causes of mental health symptoms (Hollon and Beck, 1994),  in psychodynamic theory they are ‘only’ symptoms and not to be confused with the underlying causes.  In CBT, logic, for example in the form of the Socratic dialogue, can be used to identify and discard false beliefs that cause unwanted thoughts and emotions (Beck at al, 1979). Psychodynamic therapy enables reason (the ego) to break down the defences, which protect from underlying conflicts.

In CBT, unhelpful thought patterns are made clear in the beginning (assessment phase), which, however, requires a norm  of ‘helpful thinking’ (Fancher, 1995). In psychodynamic psychotherapy, what is ‘helpful’ depends on the individual and has to be worked out in the exploratory process.

Both therapeutic approaches are growing organically, though unfortunately with less than optimal cross fertilisation. Emotional, motivational and relational aspects have been added to CBT.  Neural networks and neural computation models are used in psychodynamic research (Peled, 2008), as well as in the cognitive sciences which underlie CBT. The neurosciences , infant research , neurobiology , attachment psychology and other fields have contributed significantly to psychodynamic theory.

Practical Differences

Treatment in CBT is usually shorter, often below twenty sessions, and with longer inter-session intervals.   There is an evidence-based short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (STPP) which, however, has in a meta-analysis shown to be “significantly” less effective than the longer version (LTPP) (Leichsenring and Rabung (2008).

Both therapies transfer skills. In CBT the therapist is “very active” (Hofmann, 2011) and the approach is highly structured (Gatchel, 2008) , often with homework and including an initial assessment, education on the course of therapy (Hofmann, 2011), a reconceptualization of the problem, skills acquisition, skills training, generalisation and maintenance, and another assessment. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, patients learn in the therapist-patient interaction to gain insight into their unconscious dynamics and to become their own analysts.

Since CBT assigns lower priority to the specific thought content and the communication dynamics between patient and therapist and defines problems more narrowly, psychoeducation and ‘manualisation’  are easier to integrate, particularly in clearly defined situations, such as drug addiction (Carroll, 1998) . CBT also lends itself better to conduct therapy over a distance (Weiss et al, 2012; Himle et al., 2006) , including the use of e-mail therapy (Vernmark et al, 2010). Computer programmes (CCBT) can make therapy available to millions of previously underserved populations. 

Both, CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy have proven their effectiveness in numerous studies and large meta-analyses.  However, direct comparisons of the effectiveness of CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy can be flawed by design if the two therapies are complementary and conceptually related. Bram and Björgvinsson (2004), for example, have successfully integrated exposure-response prevention into their psychodynamic therapies. Measuring success in completed therapy phases seems equally problematic, but is still often used.

CBT is likely to deliver quicker results in motivated patients with clearly defined symptoms, low resistance levels and relatively intact personality structures (with the exception of borderline personality disorder and DBT). Psychodynamic psychotherapy may have advantages in dealing directly with personality disorders,  which are traditionally derived from psychodynamic models.

Leichsenring and Leibling (2003) demonstrated in a meta-analysis a better long-time effectiveness of psychodynamic psychotherapy than CBT, while CBT on its own has shown to prevent relapses in the long-run (Driessen et al, 2013). Much of the apparent diversity in opinion may depend on the specific diagnosis in question.

CBT may have higher drop-out rates (Cuijpers et al, 2008; Whittal et al, 1999). Motivation seems more external in CBT (see Haddock et al, 2012) than in psychodynamic psychotherapy with its emphasis on the therapeutic relationship  and the integration of the more recent motivational systems research (see Lichtenberg at al, 2016). Adding these psychodynamic elements in CBT therapies may lead to better outcomes.

Example: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

In psychodynamic theory, the anxiety underlying OCD is a result of conflicting dynamics (including emotions), often with a strong relationship component. A conflict may arise in an unstable relationship to an important other, such as a primary caretaker in early childhood, as the feelings of love for the idealised mental representation of the other (longing for attachment) and the frustration, sadness and/or abandonment about the reality of this person’s unpredictability or unreliability cannot be resolved by the child.  Higher levels of aggression and distrust in other people have indeed been found in OCD (Moritz, 2011), and infant research has demonstrated how the interaction between primary caretaker and child can affect the child’s evolving sense of self and feeling of secure attachment . Obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals are aimed at temporary relief from the heightened anxiety in present situations which trigger the situational and associated emotional memory systems of previous situations . Awareness of the underlying emotional conflict, which manifests through the symptoms, helps the patient to recognise, identify the ‘free-floating’ anxiety in the past experience, which reduces the anxiety from experienced emotional uncertainty and the OCD symptoms in the present.

                The cognitive-affective schemata of newer developments in psychodynamic theory  have considerable overlap with CBT concepts of the effect of learned cognitive schemata. From a CBT perspective, obsessive thoughts are otherwise ‘normal’  negative thoughts which may be misinterpreted as personally significant (Rachman, 1997) or as a potentially dangerous situation for which the patient feels responsible (Salkovskis, 1985), response patterns which are largely learned (Taylor and Jang, 2011). Compulsive rituals are efforts to control these intrusive thoughts. After performing the rituals, individuals usually report a temporary decrease in their obsessional distress (Rachman and Hodgson, 1980), which negatively reinforces these behaviours, a mechanism similar to CBT models on addiction.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)  tries to break this cycle of negative reinforcement, in which the patient is repeatedly exposed to an anxiety-provoking thought or situation stimulus, but the self-calming ritual is reduced or suppressed. The anxiety may increase in the beginning, but then reach a peak and fade away.  Exposure necessarily leads to an involvement of the patient’s emotional memory and an emotional processing of the anxiety (Foa and Kozak, 1986), which seems a point where CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy again intersect. Basically, both approaches try to give patients a greater sense of positive control over their lives.

Example: Depression

                Freud considered the internalisation of object loss as a normal part of life, and depression as a reaction formation in the face of a particularly severe super-ego , which holds in check our basic desires and wishes (the ‘id’) with the help of conscious cognitive functions (reason, the ‘ego’). In CBT, the super-ego could be compared to the messages we learn over time and the believes we construct of how we ‘should’ live our lives. And similar to the concept of limited cognitive resources in CBT, the rational ‘ego’ function in psychodynamic theory may get overwhelmed in stressful and traumatic situations and become unable to reconcile the super-ego and the id, leaving an unresolved emotional conflict,  which the ego (reason) needs to defend against. Loss and the emotions associated with this conflict (such as anger, sadness or helplessness) are important themes. Anxiety and avoidance have been shown to be greater in people with more insecure attachment (Bateman & Fonagy, 2012),  who are often more dependent and self-criticising, eliciting responses from others that confirm their fears of rejection and abandonment (see Blatt, 1974; Blatt, 1992). The negative emotions then lead to a ‘withdrawal’ from one’s own emotions (repression), reminiscent of learned helplessness in CBT. Awareness of the underlying dynamics and their origin in the past, helps the patient to understand and integrate them in the present.

                In CBT, thoughts, behaviours and feelings are directly interrelated, which can lead to a circularity that is in psychodynamic theory ‘impossible’. Negative thoughts can lead to depressed feelings, which again lead to negative thoughts and ‘depressed’ behaviour, such as social withdrawal, reinforcing the depression. Maladaptive cognitive patterns, such as negative thinking about oneself and one’s experiences (McGinn, 2000), increase the vulnerability for depression.   In learned helplessness, for example, the sense of low self-efficacy brings about behaviour that just reaffirms the low self-efficacy.

In the cognitive aspect of CBT, a person learns to recognize and turn negative automatic thoughts into realistic  beliefs. More realistic beliefs lead to more adaptive thoughts and less depressed feelings. Patients are taught to deconstruct problems into the actual situation, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that occur before, during and after the situation, an external correlate to the internal deconstructive process in psychodynamic psychotherapy. In Mindfulness CBT (MCBT)  the emphasis is on experiencing one’s thoughts as mental events rather than interpreting them as representations of oneself or reality. This detachment from negative thoughts and feelings is also useful in preventing relapse (Teasdale, 1999).

Into the Future

The aim of psychotherapy is not merely to eliminate suffering (WHO, 1946), but to help patients develop as humans. The primary tool is communication, in CBT to provide information that generates change and in psychodynamic psychotherapy to reveal the information that brings about change.  There are synergistic effects from using both. Zipfel et al (2014) showed in a large sample of anorexic patients, that CBT was associated with weight gain, while psychodynamic psychotherapy with lower relapse rates at the 12-month follow-up. McFall and Wollersheim (1979) in an early study successfully used a combination of CBT and psychodynamic psychotherapy in anxiety . Given the widely-perceived need for multimodal approaches , it is difficult to comprehend that this should not apply to the most important therapeutic models we have. In ancient Greece, knowing oneself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “know thyself”) and the process of the Socratic dialogue were inextricably linked. Psychodynamic psychotherapy and CBT should be viewed as complementary rather than substitutes.


Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. MLA (Harvard) LL.M. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of several books and over a hundred articles. Dr Haverkampf has developed Communication-Focused Therapy® and written extensively about it. He also has advanced degrees in management and law. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie and www.jonathanhaverkampf.com.

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This article is solely a basis for academic discussion and no medical advice can be given in this article, nor should anything herein be construed as advice. Always consult a professional if you believe you might suffer from a physical or mental health condition. Neither author nor publisher can assume any responsibility for using the information herein.

Trademarks belong to their respective owners. Communication-Focused Therapy, the CFT logo with waves and leaves, Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, Journal of Psychiatry Psychotherapy and Communication, and Ask Dr Jonathan are registered trademarks.

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