Evaluating Self Help: The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

There’s no shortage of self-help books on the market. There is, however, a paucity of research on whether those self-help books are actually helpful to the people who use them. In an ideal world, every self-help book would be submitted to scientific scrutiny to determine if people actually benefit from using them. Unfortunately, this happens only rarely.

Even a self-help book that is based on well-researched cognitive behavioral principles and written by leaders in the field is not guaranteed to be effective.  For example, one recent study found that college students with greater rumination exhibited more depressive symptoms after using Greenberger & Padesky’s Mind over Mood, a well-respected cognitive behavioral self-help book for depression. These findings suggest that evidence-based psychotherapy interventions don’t always translate into effective self-guided techniques that people can use on their own, and in some instances can actually be harmful.

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

Over 5 years ago, I wrote a few blogs posts about Forsyth & Eifert’s The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety in 2 prior blogs for which I used to contribute. The first, on my blog Scientific Mindfulness, reported on pre-publication research I heard about at a conference. (Unfortunately, it appears the other post has been taken down.) The first author of the workbook, SUNY-Albany professor John Forsyth, PhD, conducted 2 studies on his ACT-based self-help book. He gave copies of the book to people for free, and had them complete online self-report measures at various intervals.

Dr. Forsyth recently posted a summary of this research on his personal blog in anticipation of the upcoming 2nd edition of The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety that will be released April 1, 2016. One paragraph in his blog post caught my attention:

Reductions in anxiety and fear did not happen by going after anxiety and fear directly. It was just the opposite. By first focusing on the skills needed to live a more valued life, readers then experienced a decline in their anxiety, fears, and depression, and ultimate improvements in their lives. This is an important message––one that supports the approach we offer in this workbook.

The workbook emphasizes ACT skills to help people engage in meaningful living, and it appears that those skills—rather than interventions aimed at alleviating anxiety and worry—appear the most effective.  Said another way, the findings suggest that people using the workbook improved more from doing things that were important to them than from any particular technique. This is quite profound, if you think about it, and very different from how many people approach anxiety. Attempting to directly suppress or control anxiety-related thoughts and feelings can often backfire.

Because it’s one of the rare self-help books that has been researched specifically as a self-help book, I find myself recommending The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety more than any other self-help books, and I was excited to hear there’s an updated edition coming out. I encourage readers to check it out.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

The Difficulties of Accessing Effective Treatment: OCD as an Example

I resonated with a recent article in Psychology Today about the difficulties people have in finding therapists who offer effective treatment. The authors Dean McKay and Scott Lilienfeld—especially Dr. Lilienfeld—have been extremely active in promoting science-based psychotherapies.

As an example, they offer the experience of “Jerry” (a pseudonym). Jerry struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Having educated himself on OCD, Jerry knew that exposure and response (or ritual) prevention (ERP, for short) was the most researched and effective treatment for OCD. ERP involve systematically helping people with OCD learn to confront obsessions while resisting the urge to engage in compulsions or rituals.

Despite living in a major city, it took Jerry 3 years to find a therapist who offered and was proficient in ERP for OCD. Jerry’s experiences are similar to those of a Yale graduate student with OCD.

Many clients I’ve seen have similarly struggled. Some were misdiagnosed by prior therapists and did not even realize they had OCD until they did their own research. Some therapists correctly identified them as having OCD but when it came to treatment, they “just talked.”

Most people with OCD with whom I’ve worked have seen at least 1 or 2 therapists who have not been particularly helpful. Hair pulling (trichotillomania) and skin picking (excoriation) are two other problems that people with whom I’ve worked have struggled to find effective treatment.

The article by Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld provides a sober reminder that there are a number of people who would benefit from effective treatments such as ERP but cannot find therapists who practice it or are aware enough of their competency to refer out to a specialist. Unlike Jerry, many people with problems such as OCD, trichotillomania, and excoriation don’t even realize there’s a name for their struggles, let alone effective treatment, and they may drift in and out of therapists’ offices being misdiagnosed and receiving substandard treatment.

Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld recommend that:

The adoption of the new clinical practice guidelines is probably our field’s best hope for placing long overdue pressure on therapists to incorporate scientifically based approaches into their clinical practices. Practice guidelines would also assist mental health consumers with the daunting task of selecting more effective treatments.   

 

Sadly, there are many licensed therapists who do not believe in science-based approaches. For people with mild to moderate depression/anxiety, generic talk therapy and nonscientific approaches can offer some relief. For people like Jerry with OCD, these unscientific approaches are unlikely to be of much help.

I’m inspired that psychologists such as Drs. McKay and Lilienfeld take time from their busy schedules as full-time professors and respected researchers to promote scientific approaches. You can read their blog post here. I encourage readers to carefully research the therapists you or your loved ones see, and not to stay in therapy with someone who doesn’t seem to be very helpful.

A Brief Video about OCD

I ran across this excellent 5 minute video on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) by Helen Blair Simpson, MD, PhD through the Mental Health Channel. Dr. Simpson is a professor at Columbia University and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic. She is one of the leading experts on anxiety and OCD and related disorders.

In this brief video, Dr. Simpson walks through different types of OCD and describes the range of severity with which people may struggle. She provides specific examples of some of the people with whom she has worked. At the very end, Dr. Simpson gives provides a summation of our current understanding of OCD and the brain in plain language.

If you or someone you know struggle with OCD, I highly recommend you check it out. It’s very concise and yet covers a range of different OCD-related symptoms. You can watch the video here.

Huffington Post Article on Hair Pulling and Skin Picking

One of my specialties is working with people who struggle with repetitive hair pulling (called trichotillomania) and/or skin picking (called dermatillomania or excoriation). Individuals with these conditions often do damage to their appearance.

In the case of hair pulling, some people pull enough to create thinning in their hair and sometimes bald patches. They may be noticeably missing eye lashes or eye brows. People with excoriation may create noticeable marks, scabs, or scarring from frequent picking. Everyone I’ve worked with has experienced some degree of embarrassment or shame about their appearance. Many are able to hide the damage through cosmetic means so that most people are unaware or do not notice, but others cannot.

One of the saddest experiences I’ve observed is that many people struggle with these problems for years without realizing they: 1. Have a recognized problem, 2. That they are not alone, that others struggle with similar problems, and 3. That there are proven treatment options. Even many trained therapists are not familiar with what are collectively known as body-focused repetitive behaviors, let alone how to effectively treat these problems.

Because these are not well-known phenomena, I was particularly excited to see an excellent article in the Huffington Post about skin picking and hair pulling disorders. As the article notes:

There are very few resources for people who suffer from body-focused repetitive behaviors (although the Trichtillomania Learning Center (now The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors) is one good one), and no psychotropic medications that have been deemed effective treatments thus far. According to Science of Us, the results of trials of the most thoroughly tested medication, Prozac, were inconclusive. And for such a common disorder, practitioners specializing in behavioral therapy for hair-pulling, and especially for skin-picking, are few and far between. 

I will second the article’s recommendation of the Trichotillomania Learning Center (now The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors) as a great resource about hair pulling and skin picking.

The Huffington Post is not always a great resource for mental health information, in my experience, as it sometimes gives spotlights to fringe ideas, pseudoscience, and opinions or anecdotes that don’t necessarily reflect the research literature. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this article and think it is spot on.

This article on hair pulling and skin picking provides a concise and accurate overview of these problems, and I’m glad to see them getting more mainstream press. You can read it here.

Hair Pulling (AKA Trichotillomania) and Skin Picking Problems – Greater Research Support for Behavior Therapy over Medication

Trichotillomania (or trich for short) is a condition in which people repeatedly pull out their body hair, often leading to bald patches and thinning. The scalp is a common site—as are eyebrows and eyelashes—but some may pick at hair anywhere on the body. A related condition is repetitive skin picking. This condition did not have an official diagnostic name until 2013, when the most recent edition of the DSM psychiatric guide decided on the name excoriation. People with an excoriation disorder pick or scratch at their skin—often at perceived imperfections or blemishes—to the degree that they may cause marks, bleeding, and scarring.

Both are broadly categorized as body-focused repetitive behaviors, and these have recently been more broadly categorized and obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. People with these problems often experience a great deal of shame and embarrassment about their difficulties and have an extremely tough time stopping.

Unfortunately, both conditions are understudied and not well-known. Many people struggle with them without realizing there is even a name for their condition.

The treatment literature is relatively small compared to problems such as depression and anxiety. However, I recently came across a nice summary of treatment options for trichotillomania and skin picking, as well as other conditions more broadly called obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

For hair pulling, cognitive behavioral therapy has the greatest research support. An intervention called habit reversal training has been the most studied, either by itself or in combination with a more comprehensive cognitive behavioral treatment such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (called “act” for short).

With excoriation, there is evidence that treatments that work for hair pulling also work for skin picking. Unfortunately, the treatment evidence for excoriation is more limited. Although it was studied for decades before being given an official diagnosis in 2013, I suspect not having an official diagnosis slowed research interest. Hopefully, we will begin to see more research on skin picking.

Medication

Rigorous research on the use of medication is much less robust than the research on therapy. There’s some evidence that the antidepressant clomipramine may help reduce hair pulling, but controlled studies on the use of SSRI’s—the most common class of antidepressants—have not shown much effectiveness. Of the SSRI’s, fluoxetine has been the most studied, but it’s effectiveness with hair pulling has been very mixed.

There’s some research support for the use of antidepressants in reducing skin picking; however, there have been no large controlled trials.

My Impressions

The research matches my experience as a therapist. Many people I’ve treated for hair pulling or skin picking have tried medication first and have either not found it helpful at all or have been unclear about whether it was effective or not. If someone’s anxiety is contributing to pulling or picking behavior, medication may help reduce the tendency somewhat but is not likely to be a total cure.

I should also acknowledge that behavioral treatment for picking and pulling is hard work. It takes a lot of attention and effort to change these habits, and many people who do well with treatment continue to struggle with it to some degree. For these reasons, it is important to see a specialist in hair pulling and skin picking. Generic talk therapy is unlikely to be of much help.

Summary

In sum, some form of cognitive behavioral treatment—especially with habit reversal training—with an experienced specialist should be the first-line treatment for hair pulling and skin picking.

As I’ve written about before, the Trichotillomania Learning Center (now The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors) is a great grassroots resource for learning more about hair pulling and skin picking.

If you’d like to read the full article yourself, you can download it here.