Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Politics of Psychotherapy

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 2, 2017

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How do you teach psychotherapy? What does it mean to supervise? Who should teach psychotherapy? I am involved with this question at both psychoanalytic institutes where psychoanalysis is taught and in psychiatric residencies where psychiatrists are taught. In both institutions, the teaching is done by those willing to teach, and not necessarily by the best teachers. Further, as with all work environments, friends are tapped first, again based on personal relationships and not necessarily based on what is best for students. And despite my continued plea for humility in this field, the sad truth is that we don’t know how to teach it, and student satisfaction is no proof of good teaching. Like psychotherapy itself, we have no clear guidelines about what to do and we have no clear guidelines about how to measure our effectiveness. My answer, not surprising to my readers, is to accept that psychotherapy is an art, and as such, those who choose to enhance themselves our signing up for art school, learning ideas and concepts, but no firm path to doing the work. Further, I value my credentials and I think those are important, and as such, those who teach, in my opinion, should have completed training programs which are recognized by the field, such that dynamic psychotherapy should be taught by graduates of psychoanalytic institutes since they have spent hours reading and discussing psychoanalytic concepts, and without this rigor, the depth of discussion is limited. Yet, since teaching is mostly a volunteer activity, few leaders want to impose restrictions, and so quality control is often sorely lacking. Politics is everywhere. Friends take care of their friends, and so opportunities are shared, sometimes to the detriment of students. Navigating around these waters is the art of life. Recognizing that merit based promotion is often rivaled by cronyism. We help our patients wrestle with these ideas, and so as therapists, we should understand it. I think we do, but it is still a challenge.

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Why Dynamic Psychotherapy Is Important…

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 1, 2017

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Free Association: Making Meaning Unconsciously

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 30, 2017

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What has meaning in our lives? Why do we make the decisions we do? How do we choose our friends, our lovers, our jobs? When we lie to ourselves, how do we get at our authentic “truth”? The answer, according to psychoanalysts, is straight-forward: Free Associate! This means exercising the mind in an unrestrained way to determine what pops in and out at any given moment. For example, sitting in traffic, it is curious what thoughts arise to consciousness? Frustration, anger, acceptance, or imaginative thinking? Thinking about thinking takes time, and effort, and in the presence of a therapist, can present issues of shame and guilt. Sexual thoughts, greedy thoughts, competitive thoughts, can all bring a sense of unworthiness to the relationship, and as such, those thoughts can be suppressed leading to feelings of conscious anxiety without known antecedents. The hallmark of psychoanalytic work is allowing time, and openness to see what the patient brings to the relationship, which is in stark contrast to the “T” therapies (such as CBT, DBT, IPT) in which the therapist has an agenda. The lack of an agenda is KEY to understanding the meaning that patients’ assign to the experiences in their lives. The other KEY is time and patience. For patients to free associate, they must  speak without fear of judgment, and this can only happen in the context of a trusting and reliable relationship. This “frame” as you will, provides an opportunity for patients to feel safe to “free associate” since free associating is a scary activity. Being afraid of one’s own brain is the hallmark of anxiety disorders, and as such, to make friends with one’s thoughts is a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The length of this journey is not knowable from the outset, and hence restrictions on the number of psychotherapy visits is simply absurd. Thought suppression, the hallmark of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is antithetical to thought acceptance in that thought suppression might provide temporary relief, in the longer term, buried thoughts resurface in ways that can be more disturbing and more unpredictable, whereas free association offers the promise of a more sustaining treatment in that the technique helps the  patient cope with whatever uncomfortable thoughts come to mind. The point here is not to say that CBT is bad for everyone but rather to say that it is not good for everyone, and should not be a one size fits all approach to anxiety disorders and/or depression. Psychopharmacology is another intervention for anxiety/depression, and as such, medication can facilitate free association in that the patient may feel more relaxed in order to allow his brain to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. Hence medication can be a tool which eases the psychotherapeutic process, a benefit of medication which is usually not touted. In summary, it is the loss of free association in psychotherapy which saddens me. The restriction of thought takes away both a deeper relief in patients and a deeper sense of work satisfaction in the provider. Superficial treatments bring superficial results and thereby superficial feelings of job satisfaction. Deeper treatments bring the opposite. We have deeper treatments to offer patients, but as I have said many times, as a field, we have lost our way and forgotten about that.

See also..https://shirahvollmermd.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/free-association-not-so-free/

Posted in Free Association, Psychoanalysis, Teaching, Teaching Psychoanalysis | 6 Comments »

Meaning Making: Shameless Advertising

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 25, 2017

MEANING MAKING: HOW TO HAVE A THERAPEUTIC CONVERSATION  |  View Full Calendar

Presented by Shirah Vollmer, M.D.

2/4/2017

General Admission: $55.00

Student Rate: $30.00

How patients integrate events into their lives on a deep psychological level is
fascinating and psychoanalytically rich. One person’s motor vehicle accident is a
small matter, whereas the same intensity motor vehicle accident to another
person is a major catastrophe. Understanding the differences in how people
interpret their worlds is the fascinating work of using psychoanalytic thinking in a
therapeutic setting. This class examines how people have both conscious and
unconscious meaning associated with their lives and as such, they react in ways which both make sense to them and, at the same time, confuses them. As
these layers of meaning are uncovered, a therapeutic conversation ensues
which enriches the patient’s understanding of himself, and thereby creates a
calmness which allows them to get in touch with creative juices and along with
that, a deeper sense of vitality. They experience psychological freedom which is
liberating in ways they could not have imagined before they entered deep or
intensive psychotherapy.
 
Learning Objectives
As a result of attending this course, participants should be able to
• Learn how to probe for conscious and unconscious meaning in a patient’s
presenting complaint
• Recognize how psychoanalytic understanding can aid symptom relief
• Identify how stimulating thought in the patient and helping the patient to be
curious about themselves, produces therapeutic gain
Shirah Vollmer, M.D., is a member of New Center for Psychoanalysis, teaches
in the Training and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Programs, and maintains a
private practice in West Los Angeles.
 
Saturday, February 4, 2017, 9:30 AM – 12:30 PM • 3 CE/CME credits
$55 Pre-registration, $30 Student Rate, $65 at the door
At..
2014 Sawtelle Ave.
LA, Calif. 90025
In preparation for my upcoming class I am reading Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. as well as learning about cognitive semiotics. Semiotics is the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication. Plus, I am learning about Ikigai, the Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”, which is similar to the French phrase Raison d’etre. The word ikigai is used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile. These concepts arise in the consultation room where patients search to articulate distress. How does one talk about not having meaning in their lives? One common pathway is through psychosomatic illness. The patient feels convinced that there is something terribly wrong with them, but the doctors have not discovered it yet. Indeed, sometimes that is true, but it can also be true that the patient feels psychologically empty, and through a belief system that their body has betrayed them, they can focus their psychological distress on the search for a diagnosis. Psychopharmacology springs to mind, as many patients believe that antidepressants will give their life meaning, and indeed, this belief system, along with a relationship with the prescribing physician, can jump-start the patient to re-engage with life in new and exciting ways. Is this the placebo effect? Indeed, placebos give patients a sense of a before and after experience. “Now that I am taking this drug, now that I am doing this diet, now that I am meditating,” fill in the blank, patients have an opportunity to feel a new beginning, which sometimes gives the patient permission to feel excited and renewed. In other words, the patient imbues meaning into the new activity which gives them a sense of excitement and vitality. Meaning often comes from relationships, new or old, in which the patient seeks to feel a closeness and in so doing pursues activities that he/she feels the other person would also find meaningful. Patients, for example, suddenly feel they are going to change careers and become psychotherapists. In part, this may be a good career choice, but at the same time, it may be a way for the patient to feel closer to his therapist. These partly conscious, partly unconscious decisions are derived from a search for value and depth which goes beyond Freud’s dictum that what man seeks most is pleasure. So, you wanna take my class? I would love to have you.

Posted in Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Teaching, Teaching Psychoanalysis | 2 Comments »

Why I Blog? The List

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 16, 2017

Image result for blog1. I am overwhelmingly sad by what I see as the death of my profession, and the transformation of psychiatry into a specialty that has more similarities to Neurology than it does to Psychology.

2. As a result of number 1, I see patient care being compromised significantly, and as such, many vulnerable people are being mis-labeled and “educated” to see themselves as ill, as opposed to experiencing human suffering.

3. Also as a result of number 1, those attracted to the field of psychiatry are not necessarily interested in the human mind and the various nuances and uncertainties which flow from this immensely fascinating organ.

4. Although I have a passion for psychoanalysis, I am also concerned that psychoanalysts are trying to “justify” their position by developing outcome measures, when in fact, human beings, at least in terms of their mental state, are not measurable. I think we have to come to accept that if insurance companies what outcome measures for our work, then we cannot accept insurance.

5. Further from number 1 are patient expectations that human suffering can be significantly alleviated with a medication, which although sometimes that is true, for the vast majority of people, it is not true.

6. Psychiatrists, by my way of thinking, jumped on the ship of “medication management” and in so doing, committed professional suicide for all of us. The result is less job satisfaction, less patient satisfaction, and poor patient care.

7. The “is bad care better than no care question” plagues all of health care, and in particular mental health care. I blog to struggle with those issues.

8. I blog to focus my teaching, to learn to make my points concisely and directly.

9. I blog to think clearly about hypothetical, or fictionalized patient scenarios. It is a “consultation,” if you will.

10. I blog to describe the thoughtfulness that goes into listening; to review the lost art.

 

Posted in Musings, Psychiatry in Transition | 6 Comments »

Can A Patient Have A Bad Attitude?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 14, 2016

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A bad attitude can be a symptom of depression. Depression is a mood state we psychiatrists treat. So, is it possible that a psychiatrist says to a patient “the reason you are not getting better is that you have a bad attitude,”? As the story relates to me, I have no way of knowing the validity of that tale, but I want to take a moment to consider the notion of a psychiatric patient with a “bad attitude”. The idea feels so shaming and so blaming to me, I can hardly believe a psychiatrist could express this notion, and yet, at the same time, as more psychiatrists are “pill-mills” and as we know that our pills have limited efficacy, the frustration from the psychiatrist could translate to blaming the patient. Maybe we do not understand our tools, or for that matter, the human mind, enough to understand why people either get better or do not get better. Can we accept that amount of humility in our profession, or do we need to assume that a poor outcome has to do with the patient? The absurdity makes me laugh. If the patient had a “good attitude” what is he doing in our office? We treat “bad attitudes,” not by being accusatory, but by trying to understand the underpinnings of this “attitude,” or to put it another way, we try to understand it in historical context. Of course, historical context takes time and energy, along with carefully honed listening skills, a set of strengths that are no longer taught in Psychiatry Residencies, leading, to what I see, as professional suicide for all of us. The hard truth is that when our pills fail, which they often do, we must be able to use listening skills to help patients sort out their mental suffering so that they can have a narrative which helps them navigate their life, both past and present. If we lose these skills, the job satisfaction will be poor, and patient satisfaction will also be poor. The result, as I see it, will be a complete disillusionment with the field. There, I have ranted again. I just cannot say this too many times or too many ways. The state of my profession is dire, and we need to have an open discussion before we die completely. That is my hope, that these posts will stimulate a forum to push back and encourage psychiatrists to listen deeply, to learn how to listen in a therapeutic manner. The “good ol days” were indeed better than our present. I maintain that point of view and I am open to talking about that further. The gauntlet has been laid. I wait.

 

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Marketing Psychoanalysis

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 13, 2016

Marketing psychoanalysis used to be an unspoken taboo, meaning that patients were supposed to come and seek our intensive help, rather than clinicians seeking patients to treat. This worked well when the supply of psychoanalysts outstripped the demand. In the 60’s and 70’s, and even in the 80’s most analytic institutes did not allow non-MDs to enter training, thereby limiting the available psychoanalysts. Further, in the 60’s psychoanalysis was a popular treatment modality, particularly in big cities in which it was fashionable to say, “my analyst says….” There was status to having an analyst and there was a sense that as a result of being in analysis, deeper creativity and deeper meaning in life could be obtained. Further, many insurance companies paid for the treatment, so the cost was not a big issue for some, leaving only the large time commitment the major barrier to care. As time marched on, the 90s brought us SSRIs and with that limited insurance coverage for psychotherapy. In the 80s, non-MDs sued the American Psychoanalytic Association for discrimination, and they won, opening the doors to non-MD therapists to enter in psychoanalytic training. Now, we have many more providers and much less demand, creating a situation in which marketing is essential to prevent professional death. Yet, how do we teach marketing when our senior colleagues find marketing offensive, in that it might diminish the élite aspect to the field? Marketing gives up the notion that we are a sought after commodity. It makes us be more honest with our environment, which of course, is what psychoanalysis claims to do to help patients. This massive shift in supply and demand is the subject of my class entitled “Building A Psychoanalytic Practice.” As I come to the end of my seminar, I hope to convey that our hard-earned psychoanalytic skills cannot be honed unless we have patients, and we can’t have patients unless we announce to the world what we do. Supply and demand has flipped since psychoanalysis came to America. We either adapt or die. It is that simple.

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Analysis as Apprenticeship

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 8, 2016

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How do you make a psychoanalyst? No one knows, is the short answer. The tradition has relied on a tripartite model in which the student, a licensed clinician, enters into a personal analysis, attends four years of classes which are four hours a week, associated with one-hundred pages of reading per week, and has three psychoanalytic case control patients, which means three patients come four times a week, and each of those patients is associated with a supervisor who discusses the clinical work. This is a daunting task for most students who have loans to pay and children to raise, and yet, year after year, the five psychoanalytic institutes in town, get students, and every year there are students who graduate, now thinking of themselves as psychoanalysts. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of psychoanalysis are premature. Having said that, there is no agreement about how to develop a psychoanalyst, or how to develop a psychoanalytic practice, and yet, my task is to teach this subject to first-year students. As you could predict, I pull the curtain back and expose the fact that we do not know precise definitions of a psychoanalyst or psychoanalytic treatment, but we accept that we work in a fuzzy field, in which we cannot scientifically prove that we offer help, and yet, we have the conviction that we do. To work with conviction sounds awfully like a religion, and so we discuss that too. In essence, we have, what amounts to apprenticeships, where students find mentors who guide them through their work, and so traditions are passed down, which may or may not be helpful. The student, I emphasize, must find the path that makes sense for them. This provides little comfort, as the mandate is purposefully vague. I have one more class to teach. My students are enthusiastic and confused. I think I did my job.

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The Shame of Ambivalence

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 6, 2016

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The grey areas of life tend to be the most anxiety provoking. The desire for a black and white world is universal, and this desire increases under stress. Tolerating mixed feelings, as a parent, as a spouse, as a professional, is the challenge of deepening one’s psychic existence. Tomorrow, as we explore the prospect of building a psychoanalytic practice with new students in the profession, we will discuss how, just like with our patients, the biggest obstacle may not be the fees requested from patients, the time required from the patient, but rather self-sabotage, the reluctance in these students to push forward with their stated goal for career development. Clearly, the patient has fears about deepening psychic work in that the digging up of past experiences can be fraught with pain and anxiety, but perhaps less well known, is the fear in the analyst which makes the psychoanalyst half-halfheartedly promote intense psychological discoveries. According to Roy Schafer, becoming an analyst entails an unending effort that includes tolerating confusing uncertainties about our understanding of our patients and our role in effecting therapeutic change. In other words, the psychoanalyst, but first accept a lack of understanding of his patient, and second accept that if he does understand his patient, he may not be able to bring about symptom relief, or psychic growth. According to RS Wille, the analyst must trust in the relationship between patient and analyst and in the analytic setting as sources of meaning. He suggests that in varying degrees, all analysts struggle to maintain their analytic identity. Lena Ehrlich says we, as psychoanalysts have a reluctance “to recognize the limitations of our influence and how, despite our best efforts, our patients are ultimately responsible for how they lead their lives.” This is challenging work because the psychic arena, the material in the office, as described by Parsons is make up of “symbolism, fantasy, transference and unconscious meaning.” As such, psychic reality becomes the domain, a reality that cannot be proven by fact, but rather can feel right, or resonate with the patient. It is this search for resonance which guides the work, but this search comes with great humility, that resonance may or may not reflect deep meaning. In essence, working as a psychoanalyst stems from a conviction, not a science, not a religion, but a conviction, that engaging with people in a deep way, keeping the patient’s interest in the foreground, allows for psychic growth. This conviction is shake-able, and so we, as psychoanalysts, must allow ourselves to question and consider alternatives, while at the same time, remind ourselves that all intense relationships are ambivalent, even therapeutic ones.

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Analytic Stance

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 30, 2016

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The patient comes in with a stomach-ache, many things could explain it, but the psychoanalyst wonders about the psychology, the historical roots, and the meaning of the  stomach-ache, while the patient wants her stomach to feel better. This cross-purposes describes the “analytic stance” where the therapist is thinking on multiple levels, even if the patient is not. The stomach ache could be present as a way to communicate that she needs nurturing, but rather than asking for nurturing, or saying she needs nurturing, she presents with a stomach-ache because as a child she learned that the only way she could get attention was by being physically sick. So now, as an adult, she experiences psychological distress through her body. In other words, her psychological stress transforms into a bodily complaint, because talking about how her body is betraying her is a comfortable way for her to communicate with a doctor, even if that doctor is a psychiatrist. To say, that she is lonely or scared, or at loose ends, are feelings that she is not at ease to discuss. By contrast, complaining about her stomach is familiar and, in the past, has rewarded her with attention which helps her feel cared for. To understand her stomach ache in context, as code language for asking for emotional support, is the beginning of a psychoanalytic process which might grow into a deep treatment, that is, a deep understanding of her distress. The patient may walk out with the same stomach-ache she walked in with, but at the same time, she is stimulated to consider her distress in different ways, and in so doing, the stomach-ache could gradually recede, and with further work to understand her issues, her stomach-ache may not  come back.  She will discover more direct ways of communicating her feelings and in so doing, her relationships with others, and with herself will feel fulfilling. The psychoanalytic process will pay off, but not in the immediate way of relieving her chief complaint.

Posted in Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Teaching Psychoanalysis | 2 Comments »

 
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