it works!

It seems astounding to me, although I grant you I’m biased, that people still question whether psychotherapy works.  The data is so compelling.  If you Google the issue you will find plenty of research proving that, yes, it heals.

At a more personal level, three examples come to mind, triggered by a patient who recently described her own astonishing response.  Even if you are among the converted who already know psychotherapy helps these are powerful and fun examples.

A man I know suffered his entire adult life from three very intrusive physical problems.  First, he had serious, almost debilitating seasonal allergies.  He had to take medications, including injections, and still he would sometimes be almost unable to drag himself to work because he was so tired from sneezing and lack of sleep.  Second, the allergies sometimes precipitated attacks of asthma; he needed an inhaler and on a few occasions hospitalization.  Finally, despite being athletic all his life he suffered bouts of pain and spasm in his lower back which also necessitated several hospitalizations.  He is not a psychologically minded person.  Until his wife said “either talk to someone or we’re done” he never gave psychotherapy of thought, except with some typically macho disdain.  The brief course of treatment may have saved his marriage – he often spoke of his therapist as “the smartest woman in the world” – but after about six months, once his marriage seemed back on track, he dropped out of treatment; his physical symptoms continued for another 10 years.  Then he retired.  Suddenly, quite miraculously it seemed to him and to all of us, his physical problems simply disappeared.  Within months he was free from allergies, asthma, and back pain.

Lucy Freeman was a New York Times reporter and a classic New York City type.  (I live here and clam the right to say that.)  She was high strung, angry, unhappy, and often unable to sleep; she suffered chronic and severe sinus headaches, stomach upset, and fatigue.  After medical treatments failed she sought psychoanalysis.   In her book “Fight against Fears” she describes how shortly after entering this treatment her physical symptoms suddenly, dramatically disappeared.

Finally, one of my own patients once described an episode of joint pain and headache so severe that she almost could not walk across a room.  This was a woman who had recently lost her job, was struggling with a series of painful family stresses, and had a chronic need to apologize, explain herself, and in general feel guilty and constricted.  The last thing she could do was acknowledge and attend to physical or emotional discomfort.  Particularly while searching for employment and struggling with other pressures she could scarcely consider anything but the next chore.  The physical symptoms had occurred in the past, but not since entering treatment; their re-emergence was frightening to her.  But over the course of our sessions, she had begun to realize a few things:  1) She was not always to blame for the discord around her, the squabbles and animosity among her family members and at her place of employment, or the assault she suffered at the hands of a mentally ill neighbor;  2) feelings are real and must be addressed just as one addresses a broken leg.

It was the second lesson in particular that she was forgetting.  This is why her anxiety, frustration, and despair intensified from behavioral symptoms – emotional tension, persistent apologizing, worry, disturbed sleep – into the physical symptoms of joint pain and headache.

When she managed to stop and reflect a little on what was going on in her life, she suddenly realized that all of this was happening on her father’s birthday.  She then found herself remembering the rest of her family situation – multiple estrangements and humiliations – and how sad and distressing it all was for her.  From here her mind went to a gentle inventory of her current situation and again she was able to let herself feel the pain of it all.  There was a bout of tears, after which her physical pain was gone.  It did not return.  By the way, this case example demonstrates one of the themes I’ve discussed in early blog entries (why get in touch, and others you can click through to see) about why it’s so damned important to do that awful-sounding task of “getting in touch with your feelings”:  Because when you don’t, you have symptoms; and when you do, the symptoms go away!

These three examples are, I admit, among the most dramatic.  More typical responses to psychotherapy are described elsewhere in this blog (see links in previous paragraph) and in the many case example in the website.  But let’s put to bed this archaic notion that psychotherapy is some kind of silly fad for whiny people and it doesn’t do anything.  Bad psychotherapy doesn’t do anything; the good kind does a lot.

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