Peace River Psychology Center
Helpful Articles by Suzanne Spross, Ph.D.


What exactly is psychotherapy anyway?


by Suzanne Spross,

So your doctor has recommended that you see a psychologist for your anxiety, depression or whatever you have reported to him is wrong emotionally. So, being the good patient you have always been, you go ahead and make an appointment. As the date approaches you start to have second thoughts, wondering whether you really need to do this after all. But you decide to be responsible with your health and at least see what the visit will be like.

A good part of a person’s ambivalence about “seeing a psychologist” is based on not wanting to be labeled as “crazy;” but it also reflects not knowing what psychotherapy is all about. To that end, let me enlighten you…

Generally speaking the purpose of psychotherapy is to provide support, reduce distress and make behavioral changes that will improve your life. Many people experience it as an “unburdening” – of stress, negative thoughts and feelings, or longstanding secrets that are shameful or guilt-inducing. Usually people find being fully understood by someone they trust to be a validation of the impact of life experiences on their sense of self.

Psychotherapy is a collaborative verbal process with a professional who has your best interests at heart. Initially it involves building a trusting relationship, goal-setting and the development of insight into one’s “issues.” (We all have issues, right? It’s part of just being human in a rapidly changing and stressful world.) During psychotherapy a regular dialogue includes exploring, uncovering, understanding, validating, reassuring – all that good stuff. Ideally stuff that makes you feel good, if not just better than when you first walked into the office.

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom identifies an axiom in education that applies to therapy equally well: “we learn best about ourselves and our behavior through personal participation in interaction, combined with the observation and analysis of that interaction” (2002). Everyone – and I mean EVERYONE ! – can benefit from this kind of experience. So why not go ahead and try it…


Staying Sober


by Suzanne Spross,

For those of you out there who are struggling – courageously and with determination – to stay sober but can’t seem to get there, there is hope. But you have to be willing to do The Work.

By The Work I mean shedding your excess baggage, airing all those secrets you feel so ashamed about, completing unfinished business, etc. The large majority of people who relapse over and over again have issues they have not addressed and need more than 12 Step meetings. (This is not heresy, honest.) Many conscientious and sincere recovering people have old and ongoing problems with family dysfunction, trauma, grief, codependency that hold them down. It’s like that monkey on your back has become a gorilla.

Whether you consider yourself a chronic relapser or not, psychotherapy can provide a way out to get over whatever your obstacles to sobriety are. Putting it off or stuffing it down doesn’t fix anything – it only prolongs the underlying pain and enables your unhealthy behavior.

Individual psychotherapy with a psychology professional who has experience in addiction recovery can make a big difference in helping you stay sober. Along with attending other 12 Step meetings like AlAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) and Codependents Anonymous (CODA) – whatever fits for you. It’s an effective combination. But as with any other kind of behavior change, you have to be willing to work at it – consistently – even when it’s hard or inconvenient.

What kind of kind of psychotherapy are we talking about here? What works best for recovering addicts?

I believe in an eclectic approach – that is, a mix of theory and techniques that is appropriate for each individual. I always have 12 step philosophy in my back pocket. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is widely used and easy for people to apply, especially with relapse prevention, and involves looking at how your thinking affects your behavior. Insight-oriented psychodynamic therapy involves examining one’s psychological make-up, looking at one’s personal history and development over time, and identifying one’s shortcomings that need some work. And sometimes couples therapy is helpful regarding communication and resolving differences. So you see that The Work can consist of many different kinds of effort, and you can benefit from whatever options you choose and your therapist advises. Oh yeah, and you have to be willing to trust in the therapist and the process as well.

How many people does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change. So take a deep breath and take a leap of faith. Maybe you can get your act together after all.


The Senioritis Blues


by Suzanne Spross, Ph.D.old age -senioritis

Have you noticed how philosophical we all get as we grow older? Is it just the accumulation of wisdom we feel compelled to share with all those clueless young people? Is it being forced by aging, illness or loss to confront our own mortality? (oh that!)

My brother-in-law passed away last week and it got me thinking. I’ve noticed lately how much philosophy and spirituality converge – and how this often increases with age. I’ve always suspected that it’s about fear – whether you believe in an afterlife or not (since our non-existence on earth is really hard to wrap our brains around). Psychology has recently provided theories about adult development that have as much importance as those focusing on child development. We never stop developing psychologically as long as we retain our cognitive faculties. Even as we become more forgetful (“where are those keys?”), distractible (“what did you just say?) or lose our finely-honed (ahem) capacity for multi-tasking, it’s nice to think that we can still be smart, wise and competent. Under most circumstances.

And there’s the issue of emotional maturity, as illustrated by a comment like “I wouldn’t trade who I am on the inside today for the way I was on the outside as a 20 year old.” This highlights what may be the most important aspect of development: the self-acceptance and satisfaction we can ultimately achieve. When it comes to peace and happiness, one’s current internal status, one’s personal growth, trumps all external indications of success like social status or money.

We can achieve this at any point in our lives. The past can be easily reframed from negative to positive with self-awareness and the wisdom we can gain just from living life. Even if it isn’t until our senior years that we attain it, our current subjective experience of self in the present is all we really have. And who wouldn’t want the rest of their life to be as good as it gets?

Gee, I’m getting awful philosophical aren’t I?

If this essay resonates with you, I recommend that you give yourself the gift of reading some material on existentialism—where philosophy and psychology intersect. Expand your consciousness. Exercise those mental muscles. Try the authors Irvin Yalom and Bernardo Kastrup.


Put Some Gratitude in Your Attitude


by Suzanne Spross, Ph.D. gratitude

Why is it that so many people show up for therapy during the holiday season? You’d think everyone would be super busy with special events like the office Christmas party, and planning special family events. You hear various excuses for people not finding time for themselves when stressed out over being faced with another visit from their dysfunctional family – until one day they burst into tears and wonder why.

Holiday pressures are often minimized or denied by some people, especially those with adult children who might not live nearby. Emotional distress can be an unexpected experience when you’ve done this so many times before: “Oh, it’s our turn to go to their house this time, so no sweat, thank goodness I don’t have to cook!” or “Why am I so frazzled when I’ve done this a million times already, it should be a breeze.”

When we’re overwhelmed by the demands on our time and energy during the holidays it’s easy to get tense, irritable, oversensitive or REALLY tired. Sometimes you find yourself snapping at your spouse, losing your shopping list, forgetting appointments with the doctor, canceling a night out with the girls – because it’s just getting to be too much.

Life has become so much more complicated and fast-paced than we ever expected or evolved to be since cave-man days. Progress (usually technical, impersonal, usually not spiritual or emotional) is the pre-eminent value we have built our society around. Not being thankful for what we have.

To say “count your blessings” is so clichéd that most people can’t relate to it, and even turns some people off to hear it. Counting blessings is not something internal – it’s making a brief list of things you feel you should be appreciating. Developing a grateful attitude implies a deeper, more lasting personality adjustment that can be a reliable tool to help cope with adversities.

What people fail to realize is that gratitude feels good! It’s also one of those CBT techniques to change your thinking to improve your mood, and it really does work. Expressing appreciation such as spontaneous hugs, sending Hallmark cards creates intimacy, which most of us crave. The movie Pay It Forward is an example of giving to others, doing random acts of kindness, as a way of expressing gratitude in general and putting pennies in our karma bank.

So my advice to you all is to SLOW DOWN, regroup, find the sparkle, see what glitters.

The Perils of Codependency


by Suzanne Spross, Ph.D. co-dependency

I know there is a large community of recovering alcoholics and addicts out there in Charlotte County and surrounds. For those of you who have a solid foundation of recovery, say 5+ years of stable sobriety, you probably think that just as long as you continue to go to a few meetings a week you’ll be OK. Guess it depends on what you call OK. And on who you are as an individual with your personal history.

You’ve heard the metaphor I’m sure that a recovering person’s experience is like peeling an onion – there are layers beneath the behavioral aspects of addiction that can fuel a relapse, layers consisting of things like ongoing family problems, work stress, history of trauma, depression, etc. I think one of the most dangerous issues to emerge once sobriety is gained is….(drum roll)…CODEPENDENCY. That dreaded word. Not a diagnosis, not an illness, but an interpersonal dynamic, a role, that plagues many members of families where addiction has reigned.

I’m not going to get into a long-winded explanation of the clinical definitions of codependency – those people who recognize the concept know what I’m talking about. (Check out the Laundry List online.)

Being in a codependent relationship can have a corrosive effect on someone’s recovery, and gets played out in a variety of settings. How many of you think you’ve been in a codependent role with a parent? How many of you think your current love relationship is codependent – for you or the other person? How many of you recognize that you have a codependent relationship with work – with a system in an office or with your boss? Maybe with your best recovery friend even. Do you really want to risk your hard earned recovery by making excuses and justifications for it?

Understanding the impact of codependency on your life, on your mental health, is important to maintaining a stable and healthy recovery. Otherwise, you’re doomed (yes doomed!) to repeat the dysfunctional patterns of relating to others that probably started in your family of origin and get expressed by your own substance abuse. Being codependent is not easy: it’s painful and depressing, you can end up with insomnia, stomach ailments, obsessing constantly about it if you don’t take care of yourself.

The good news is that many people who experience this repeatedly can break the chain by making a concerted and honest effort at working it out in a therapeutic dialogue with a psychotherapist. There’s no judgment here, but support and encouragement at learning to make different decisions in how you choose the people you want to be close to. And how to safely accept the dysfunctional loved ones you still care about. Codependency can be overcome with the right kind of help. Oh, and by the way, there are 12 step programs out there (e.g., Codependents Anonymous) that can help as well. With motivation, there is always hope.


The Power of Communication


by Suzanne Spross, Ph.D.

People are endlessly fascinating to me. Everyone has a story about their life, a tale of their past and recent experiences that describes who they are, how they became that way, and what they hope for the future. Whenever a person starts to suffer, develop symptoms of emotional distress, or find themselves going backwards instead of forward in their life, then that story needs to be told. I’m sure you’ve heard that saying “you’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Communication can be an endless source of support and healing when talking to someone you can trust and respect. And individual psychotherapy (otherwise known as talk therapy) is the most effective way of telling one’s story.

On the other hand, don’t you hate it when someone says to you “Oh, you really should go talk to someone.” It often sounds like an insult, even if the person is trying to be helpful. This has created a stigma about psychotherapy it doesn’t deserve. As if talking to a professional is something to be ashamed of. It’s a bum rap I say!

Of course, sharing your feelings, your secrets, your story can feel risky. But secrets especially can “ferment” when hidden inside and tend to give rise to various unwanted symptoms. But most people have not been taught the language of feelings either by their family or in their school. It can feel hard at first to articulate your inner experience, develop some insights and understand your needs. And it can feel scary to open up the Pandora’s Box of unresolved personal issues like grief, guilt, low self-esteem, unhealthy habits, etc. But it is often a relief to have someone just listen in a non-judgmental way, and unburden some of the psychological weight we carry around with us.

Everyone knows that communication is essential to developing and maintaining intimate relationships. It is usually the core problem that couples bring to marital counseling, for example. So many times we can misinterpret our communications with family, co-workers and friends. We hope and expect easy, honest and respectful communication from our loved ones – but our egos are oversensitive about some things, and our psychological defenses are quick to kick in and difficult to penetrate. Having an objective, professional third party in the room can facilitate a dialogue that can lead to positive results.

So open up to someone – they will probably feel complimented that you did.

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