Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mental Health Awareness Month
May is mental health awareness month and now more than ever, it is important we pause to take time and reflect on mental health. Covid-19 has affected all of us in one shape or another, some more than others. If you’ve never practiced or thought about mental health, just being aware and making time for mental health can make a big difference. We’re fortunate to have our very own Pamela Greenberg, People Program Manager at HackerOne to share her knowledge and expertise around mental health in this blog post.
My name is Pamela Greenberg and I’m the People Program Manager at HackerOne. I’ve been at HackerOne just about a year and have been working in the tech industry for about 5 years, but my previous career had been as a psychotherapist. I have a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and previously held a license in California as a Marriage and Family Therapist. So as a former therapist (and someone who has been a consumer of therapy for decades), mental health is a topic that’s close to my heart and informs a lot of the work I do on HackerOne’s Employee Success team.
People often ask me about the transition from working as a clinician to working in tech because it can seem like a pretty drastic change. The way I see it though, my whole career has been about people and helping to find or develop the tools they need. As a therapist, I was helping my clients build coping strategies and work towards their goals for health and happiness. In the work I’ve done since leaving the mental health field, I’ve continued to help people in variations of the same ways--I don’t call them clients and we don’t work in 50 minute sessions, but many of the same tools that were helpful to my therapy clients are helpful to the employees I’ve managed and supported in my tech jobs. And with the onset of the global pandemic, a nearly overnight switch to working remotely, and more uncertainty in the world than any of us would like, my clinical skill set feels even more useful than ever.
In the last 5 years of my clinical career, I practiced and trained other clinicians in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and it’s the tools I learned in that work that I have been thinking of most in recent weeks.
So what is CBT? If we break it down, ‘cognitive’ means related to thinking and ‘behavioral’ relates to our actions so CBT is a kind of therapy that focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. I like to say it’s the radical idea that what we think affects how we feel and what we do. Since feeling, thinking, and doing make up the repertoire of most humans, it’s a pretty useful bag of tricks.
Most people think that their feelings are directly related to what happens to them: I won the game so I feel happy or I failed the exam so I am miserable. If we look more closely though, we find that it is how we think about these events or circumstances that actually leads to how we feel. That’s why two people looking at a glass with some water in it might differ in their description — it’s half-full vs it’s half-empty. The glass and the water are the same, but the way the person viewing it thinks about it is different. And while it may be tempting to believe that the two people in this example were just born with different personalities (an optimist vs a pessimist), it’s actually possible for anyone to learn to change the way they think, and therefore the way they feel.
But CBT is not about magically transforming our negative thoughts into only positive ones. It’s about looking for the bugs in our own thinking and fixing those mistakes so they don’t become vulnerabilities that weaken our resilience. Just because we think something, doesn’t make it true. In fact, there are some predictable ways that most people’s thinking can go off-track. For instance, one common cognitive mistake is mental filtering, where we only notice all the bad things, but block out anything good. Another one is catastrophizing — a person engaging in that distortion believes the worst case scenario is the only possible outcome. A third example is black-and-white thinking, where we fall into a trap of either/or scenarios, and lose track of all the nuance and subtlety that exists in between.
CBT is a way of learning to recognize these and other thinking mistakes and practice developing new, more realistic and helpful ways to view things.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to ‘hack’ your thoughts using some basic CBT principles, I created a 35 minute video on the topic, with a special focus on working with the anxiety that the pandemic has raised.
Overall Health is Mental Health
Of course CBT isn’t the only way to improve how you’re feeling. Just as there are many ways for people to get physical exercise to keep their bodies healthy, there are myriad ways to improve or maintain mental health, too (and actually a lot of overlap between the ways we stay mentally and physically healthy).
For most of us, getting enough sleep is closely tied to how well we feel physically and mentally. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, meditation, and social connectedness are all also highly correlated with good mental health. The world has been changed by COVID-19 and for many of us that has impacted the activities, relationships, and strategies we relied upon to stay mentally healthy before. So in addition to facing the uncertainty about the post-pandemic world and our place in it, we have been forced to consider what we each need to feel healthy and strong, and to actively rebuild our own personal coping mechanism ‘toolbox’ in real time.
Maybe before the global pandemic you were someone who thought regularly about mental health. Maybe you were even struggling with your own. Or maybe it was a problem that seemed to impact other people and it did not have much importance in your own life. COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have shed a light on how quickly our mental health can be impacted by circumstances largely out of our control. While that is a frightening proposition for many (understandably), I also think there’s an opportunity here to have empathy for each other in a new way.
Mental health isn’t simply a gift that some people have and others do not. It’s something that all of us need to nurture, support, protect, and sometimes rebuild. The pandemic has created a seismic shift for almost everyone on earth and brought into focus the tools we rely on for our health and happiness, that some of us may have taken for granted before, but most of us can see more plainly now. Moving forward, maybe we can all see there is no shame in hitting a rough patch — it could happen to anyone, as we can see from what is currently happening to many of us. And if there’s no shame, then maybe it can be easier to talk about and feel safer for those of us who need help to reach out for it. Because even though events and circumstances outside of us can have a big impact on our mental health, there’s still a lot we have control over when it comes to building healthy habits, changing harmful patterns, and seeking help when we need to.
There are many tools and resources available to help you. We’ve compiled this list below.
• Free online mini-course to reduce Coronavirus-related stress: https://coachingbysharon.teachable.com/p/mind-ninja-your-stress/?preview=logged_out
• Articles, meditations, other resources specific to Covid-19 anxiety: https://www.virusanxiety.com/
• Site with all the CBT worksheets from the video presentation: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/freedownloads.htm
• Mental Health America’s site with information about Mental Health Month May 2020: https://www.mhanational.org/mental-health-month
Suicide Prevention Resources:
🇺🇸 In the US:
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255
• The Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org) is the only 24/7, nationwide crisis-intervention text-message hotline. The Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741-741 .
🇬🇧 In the UK:
• 111, Option 2 is the National Health Services’ First Response Service for mental health crises and support (this is not available in all areas of the country yet) .
• Samaritans (https://www.samaritans.org/) is a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in distress or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom. They provide a 24/7, toll-free crisis line, as well as local branches. The Samaritans Helpline can be reached at 116-123 .
🇳🇱 In the Netherlands:
• Stichting 113Online (https://www.113.nl/) provides a 24/7 national suicide prevention phone line and webchat. 113Online hotline can be reached at 0900-0113. 113Online Webchat can be found at https://www.113.nl/ik-denk-aan-zelfmoord/crisislijn .
🇸🇬 In Singapore:
• Samaritans of Singapore (https://sos.org.sg/) is the only 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline in Singapore, for anyone having difficulty coping during a crisis, who are thinking of suicide or affected by suicide." The 24-hour hotline can be reached at 1-800-221-4444 .
🌍 For suicide prevention hotlines and resources in other countries:
🇺🇸 In the US:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has highly trained expert advocates that are available 24/7 to talk confidentially with (https://www.thehotline.org/help/).
🇬🇧 In the UK:
The National Help Hotline is an organization that has a freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808-2000-247 or can be contacted online (https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/).
🇳🇱 In the Netherlands:
Amsterdam Mamas is a great resource that lists organisations that can help with domestic violence (https://amsterdam-mamas.nl/articles/how-get-help-domestic-violence-netherlands). The first resource, Veilig Thuis, has the 24/7 help tel:08002000 (https://veiligthuis.nl/).
🇸🇬 In Singapore:
The Association of Women for Action and Research (aware) has a helpline 1-800-777-5555 to seek guidance on family violence (https://www.aware.org.sg/information/dealing-with-family-violence/).