Sleep Deprivation: What Dreams May… Cure?

What happens to your mind and body when you’re sleep-deprived? Poor-quality sleep is linked to a variety of health conditions, including obesity and heart disease. Poor sleep leads to cognitive impairment and poor judgment. A lack of sleep can even lead to schizophrenia-like symptoms! Learn why sleep is essential for health and well-being.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 10% of Americans struggle with chronic insomnia and up to 35% of Americans experience insomnia at least occasionally. I’m part of the 10%. I’ve spent countless nights tossing and turning, dreading the obnoxious sound of “quantum bells” (my cell phone alarm) as daylight slowly creeps in. Due to this, I’ve done quite a bit of research on the subject. (And as a clinician, it’s important for me to know the relationship between restful sleep and mental health so I can educate my clients.)

Sleep recharges us; it makes it possible for us to remember what we learned throughout the day.

We all know that basic sleep hygiene is essential (i.e. having a regular sleep schedule, refraining from watching TV or reading in bed, avoiding alcohol before bedtime, etc.) And if you struggle with insomnia, you’ve probably heard of sleep medications and supplements like Ambien, trazodone, or melatonin. We also know how vital sleep is to health and wellness. Sleep significantly impacts mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. Sleep recharges us; it makes it possible for us to remember what we learned throughout the day.

Knowing how crucial sleep is for both physical and mental fitness, I set out to explore what happens when we don’t get enough. What exactly does a lack of sleep do to a person? I sifted through the research to learn more about the impact of sleep deprivation. This post explores how sleep deprivation affects physical health, perceptions, memory, and critical thinking.

SLEEP AND YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH

Sleep deprivation is associated with signs of aging

Sleep deprivation has been linked to aging skin. One study found that poor-quality sleepers had more fine lines, uneven pigmentation, and reduced elasticity.

It makes sense that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with signs of aging; sleep is needed for overall rejuvenation (mind and body), which includes skin cell renewal. For smooth and supple skin, high-quality sleep is essential.

Snoring and sleep deprivation are linked to obesity

A 2016 study looked at the relationship between sleep characteristics and body size/weight. Snoring was associated with having a higher BMI, a larger waist, and more body fat. (It should be noted that snoring doesn’t cause obesity; the two are simply related.)

Poor sleep quality and shorter durations of sleep were linked to larger body size and more body fat. The relationship between sleep and obesity is further explored in the next few paragraphs.

Sleep deprivation is related to weight loss and appetite

If you’re dieting, you’re more likely to lose body fat when you’re getting adequate sleep. Researchers studied participants who slept for either an average of seven and a half hours or five and a quarter hours per night over a 14-day period. Calorie consumption was the same; participants lost similar amounts of weight. However, when participants slept more, they lost more body fat; in fact, about half of the weight they lost was fat. Sleep-deprived participants lost only a pound of fat; the other five pounds were fat-free body mass. Furthermore, it was found that sleep helps with appetite control; this is due to ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and promotes fat storage. Sleep-deprived participants had higher levels of ghrelin.

If you’re watching what you eat, incorporate healthy sleep habits to maximize your efforts; adequate sleep is needed for optimal weight loss.

Sleep affects our food choices

Other studies have examined specific the ways sleep deprivation affects food choices and calorie intake. Sleep deprivation is associated with especially poor food choices the day following poor-quality or no sleep. One study found that sleep deprivation led to strong cravings for junk food. The researchers measured increased activity in the part of the brain that responds to rewards, but decreased activity in the “decision-making” part of the brain. Study participants choose unhealthy items (i.e. pizza, donuts) over fruits and vegetables.

Another study looked at total calorie intake; sleep-deprived participants consumed an extra 385 calories per day. They also ate higher-fat foods. Additionally, researchers found that a sleep-deprived person purchased items that were higher in calories when grocery shopping.

A 2016 study looked at the relationship between sleep deprivation and the consumption of high-calorie, sugar-sweetened caffeinated beverages in a sample of 18,000 adults. It was found that adults who averaged less than five hours of sleep per night were more likely to consume sugary drinks like soda or energy drinks than their well-rested counterparts. The researchers weren’t able to determine whether drinking caffeinated beverages caused people to sleep less or whether being sleep-deprived caused people to crave more sugar and caffeine; it’s likely that both are true.

Without high-quality sleep, it’s difficult to lose body fat.

Regarding obesity, sleep deprivation plays a significant role. A lack of sleep causes us to feel hungry. We crave junk foods and consume more calories. At the same time, sleep deprivation promotes fat storage while decreasing our energy levels. Without high-quality sleep, it’s difficult to lose body fat.

If you struggle with chronic insomnia, make an active decision to make healthy eating a habit; you’ll be less likely to submit to your cravings. Visit the grocery store only when you’re well-rested. Know that you may not feel like exercising; practice determination. Be mindful to counter some of the health risks associated with sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation is related to heart disease, hypertension, and stroke (especially if you’re a woman)

In addition to obesity, sleep deprivation is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. A lack of sleep takes a toll on the heart. In a recent study, researchers looked at 24-hour shift workers. It was found that sleep deprivation led to a significant increase in cardiac contractility, blood pressure, and heart rate. Furthermore, study participants experienced thyroid changes and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).

Research also indicates that chronic sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep are linked to an increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease or stroke. Diabetes and hypertension are associated with sleep deprivation as well.

A lack of sleep may impact women more than men. Researchers found that women who got less than eight hours of sleep per night were at a higher risk of heart disease and other heart-related problems when compared to men who got the same amount of sleep.

Chronic sleep deprivation is related to reduced immune function

Have you ever noticed that you heal slowly or get sick more often when you’re sleep deprived? According to research, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with reduced immune function. If you’re not regularly getting at least six to seven hours of sleep, you’re more susceptible to illness. Your immune system won’t be as effective at eliminating viruses and bacterial infections.

Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with bone loss

Sleep even affects your bones. One study found that chronic sleep deprivation was associated with a loss of bone mass (in rats, at least). The rats underwent sleep restriction measures for three months. A lack of sleep led to significant decreases in bone density, volume, and thickness.

SLEEP AND YOUR BRAIN

Sleep deprivation is associated with increased pain sensitivity

The first part of this post examined sleep’s impact on physical health; the next half will explore how sleep affects the mind, including the way we sense and perceive the world around us. Research indicates that sleep deprivation and/or disruption increase sensitivity to pain. Interestingly, in one study, stimulants like caffeine had the ability to “normalize” the pain sensation (meaning it would feel the way it would with adequate sleep).

Sleep and chronic pain seem to be intricately connected, but the relationship is not fully understood; up to 88% of individuals with chronic pain report sleep issues and nearly 50% of individuals with insomnia have chronic pain..

A lack of sleep affects the way you hear and process sounds

In addition to the sensation of touch, sleep deprivation affects the perception of sound. A lack of sleep impairs central auditory processing (CAP). CAP is crucial for aspects of hearing such as language comprehension, identifying sounds, and recognizing patterns.

In one study, participants took a longer time identifying sounds after being deprived of sleep for 24 hours. It appeared there was a “transfer delay” (from hearing to identifying and then interpreting). To be effective, CAP requires alertness and concentration.

Sleep deprivation affects the formation of memories

We know that sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment; the brain can only store so much information before it must recalibrate. During sleep, memories are encoded; the brain “consolidates” memories by strengthening them and transforming them from short-term into long-term memories. Without sleep, long-term memories can’t form. Short-term memories are lost and/or altered. Even procedural memories are impacted by sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep leads to forgetfulness and an inability to retain new information.

Sleep affects the way we interpret emotions

Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to interpret facial expressions. A recent study found that a lack of sleep made it difficult for participants to recognize the facial expressions of happiness or sadness. Interestingly, the ability to detect anger, fear, surprise and disgust was not affected. This suggests we’re biologically wired to recognize the emotions related to survival. The researchers hypothesized that the brain preserves functions that perceive life-threatening stimuli while sacrificing functions associated with empathy, bonding, and friendship.

“Real life” implications: If you’re majorly sleep-deprived, you could misinterpret the intentions of others, negatively impacting relationships with co-workers, family, friends, and others. Furthermore, you could read people wrong or miss important social cues; you might not respond appropriately or you could seem lacking in empathy.

When someone is sleep deprived, they’re slower to adopt another’s perspective

In addition to perception and memory formation, sleep deprivation impacts decision-making skills and thoughts, including the ability to accurately assess a situation.

If you have chronic insomnia, you might experience interpersonal problems.

In 2015, researchers hypothesized that sleep deprivation would impair the capacity to recognize sarcasm. Study results didn’t support the hypothesis, but the research generated an unexpected outcome. It was found that someone who was sleep-deprived was slower to adopt another person’s perspective. Implications? If you have chronic insomnia, you might experience interpersonal problems.

Sleep deprivation affects our moral judgment

Sleep deprivation affects moral judgment. In one study, participants were sleep deprived (awake for 53 continuous hours) and then faced with moral dilemmas. They had difficulty solving the dilemmas and making appropriate judgments. Other studies support this as well; a lack of sleep is related to decreased moral awareness. When you’re faced with a tough decision, especially one that involves ethics or morals, be sure to get adequate sleep. You can’t always trust your moral compass.

Sleep deprivation is linked to impaired decision making

Moral decisions are taxing if you’re sleep deprived… the opposite is true with risky ones. Sleep deprivation alters areas in the brain that assess positive and negative outcomes; sensitivity to rewards is enhanced while attention to negative consequences is diminished.

If you haven’t slept, tough decisions can wait.

Researchers found that when gambling, sleep-deprived individuals were more optimistic about their odds of winning. Another study found that sleep deprivation made it difficult for study participants to come to a quick decision when pressured. Sleep-deprived participants also made more mistakes. If you haven’t slept, tough decisions can wait.

A lack of sleep affects optimism

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you could lose your ability to remain positive-minded. Research indicates that individuals with insomnia have lower rates of self-esteem and optimism. In 2017, researchers found that sleep-deprived study participants were less likely to focus on positive stimuli. An inability to think positively is also a symptom of depression.

A lack of sleep can lead to schizophrenia-like symptoms

Sleep deprivation can lead to perceptual distortions, cognitive disorganization, and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure).In a 2014 study, participants experienced psychosis after staying awake for 24 hours. The sleep-deprived individuals reported attention deficits and being more sensitive to light, color, and brightness. They exhibited disorganized speech, which is a common symptom of schizophrenia. Participants also reported an altered sense of time and smell. Some of them actually believed they were able to read thoughts; others noticed an altered body perception. Implications? If you miss a night (or two) of sleep, don’t be surprised when you hear voices or when your reality is somewhat altered.

Conclusion

In conclusion, sleep deprivation, especially when it’s chronic, is detrimental to your health. Based on my review of the research, poor-quality sleep can adversely impact your skin, your weight, your cardiovascular system, your immune system, and your bones. (It should be noted that I barely skimmed the surface of an immense body of scientific data on sleep.)

Sleep is also related to brain health. Sleep deprivation impairs sensory perceptions, memory formation, the ability to assess your environment, moral awareness, critical thinking skills, and mood. Sleep deprivation can even induce psychosis.

If you’re like me (the one out of 10 Americans with chronic insomnia), in addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, go ahead and Google “CBT for sleep.” Research suggests that for some, CBT is more effective and longer-lasting than sleep medication. Do a little bit of research. CBT is not a quick fix for insomnia, but it’s worth a try; and your health and wellness are definitely worth it!

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Free Online Education for Mental Health Professionals

(Updated 9/20/20) A list of online education courses and trainings for mental health clinicians (some offering free CEs!)

Compiled by Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Are you looking to expand your clinical knowledge or do you need CEs to renew your license? In-person workshops and seminars are ideal for learning up-to-date practices and the latest research, but they’re often expensive and/or require travel. And while there are plenty of online programs that offer CEs, most charge a fee.

The following list is comprised of over 50 sites that offer free online courses and webinars. Please note that only a few of the sites offer CEs. However, all of the courses offer opportunities to grow as a clinician and expand your knowledge.


Free Online Continuing Education

Free Online College Courses


19 Unique Ways to Be More Charitable

(Updated 6/22/18) Ideas for charity contributions that are easy, cheap (or free!), and fun. An awesome list for people who may not have a lot of money or time, but still want to give back.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC

To build self-esteem, one must do “esteemable” acts.

I’m not sure who originally said this, but it’s something I (as a substance abuse counselor) often told my clients. I worked with adults who were worn down or broken from their battle with addiction; an individual with a substance use disorder often feels tremendous guilt and shame.

One of the best things a person can do to build self-esteem or live a more meaningful life is to help others…

I taught my clients to cherish themselves, to forgive, and to find a purpose in life. One of the best things a person can do to build self-esteem or live a more meaningful life is to help others; random acts of kindness, volunteering at a homeless shelter, reading to children at a library, donating toiletries or blankets to someone who has lost their home in a fire… There are countless ways to help. Research indicates that practicing compassion and volunteering build self-esteem.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the time to volunteer (or the resources to donate). The purpose of this list is to provide ideas for charity contributions that are easy, cheap, and fun. I created this list for people who may not have a lot of money or time. I found some awesome ways to give back that aren’t time-consuming; many of the ideas require minimum effort and/or are 100% free. Build them into your life and feel happy about helping those in need!

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

UNIQUE AND FUN

1. Purchase Who Gives A Crap toilet paper. 

Products are environmentally friendly and 50% of profits go to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world.

Image by lyperzyt from Pixabay

2. Donate your wedding dress for a cause.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Wish Upon A Wedding: A nonprofit organization that grants weddings and vow renewals for couples facing serious illness or a life-altering circumstance.

Adorned in Grace: All proceeds are used to promote awareness and prevention of sex trafficking as well as crisis prevention for trafficked victims.

Cherie Amour: Proceeds from dress sales help low income individuals get jobs.

Fairytale Brides: Net proceeds from all sales are donated to charitable organizations supporting women’s empowerment programs.

3. Save a life by joining a marrow registry such as Be The Match or Gift of Life. 

Your donation may save the life of a person with a blood cancer like leukemia and lymphoma. You must be in good health and you must be prepared to spend 20-30 (non-consecutive) hours of your time if you are chosen. Not everyone is chosen; according to Be The Match, about 1 in 430 members goes on to donate marrow or peripheral blood stem cells. If you join Gift of Life, you have a 1 in 250 chance of being a match, but then only a 20% chance of donating.

You can also donate blood at a blood drive. O-negative is the universal donor type because it is compatible with any blood type, but only about 5% of the U.S. population have this blood type. There’s a great need for O-negative donations (Source: https://www.redcrossblood.org/learn-about-blood/blood-types.html)

4. With Kiva, lend as little as $25 to help a borrower start or grow a business, go to school, access clean energy or realize their potential. 

100% of every dollar goes to a loan. You can browse through different categories and attributes. According to Kiva, 97% of loans are repaid, but there’s no guarantee. You can read the borrower’s story before you submit your loan. (I loaned $25 to a woman in El Salvador to help her buy a sewing machine. Update: I received full repayment within three months.)

Image by Willfried Wende from Pixabay

5. Help the homeless.

Keep a pack of bottled water in your car. Alternatively, you can provide someone in need with a small bag filled with toiletry items, socks, tissues, granola bars, etc. (Take the extra shampoo, lotions, and soap when you’re at a hotel and put them to use!) If the weather is cold, buy gloves or hats from the dollar store to hand out. Give $5 gift cards for Burger King or Taco Bell. Personally, I choose to not give cash. (Many of the “homeless” individuals you see are panhandlers.) However, if I’m in an area with a large homeless population, I buy a pack of cigarettes; when someone asks for change, I offer a cigarette instead. Lastly, because of the work I do, I have business-sized cards with a crisis line, a phone number for local resources (including shelters), and a number for a substance use program, which I pass out if needed.

6. Host a closet swap party!

Exy Castellanos, a social worker from Chattanooga, Tennessee, provided this idea. “My friends and I have a closet swap party. We swap clothes and stuff and whatever is left over we donate to a local thrift store (not Goodwill).”

7. Volunteer with Idealist.

It’s free to sign up, to search for opportunities, and to connect with others. Idealist is a global network of people and organizations that connects individuals with advantages to work, volunteer, or intern. To give you a better idea, here are examples of some volunteer opportunities: Reading partner at an under-resourced elementary school, judging a local competition, playing with homeless children one night a week, coaching a sports team, volunteer zoo guide, volunteering at a museum, cleaning up a national park, and interpreter.

8. Run (or walk/march/bike) for charity!

Pick a cause and raise funds.

9. An Internet search led me to Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, which helps adults with spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments in the U.S. to live more independent and engaged lives. 

This is accomplished by providing the individuals with unique service animals (at no cost): Highly trained service monkeys to help with daily tasks.

10. Janelle Bennett from Michigan suggested Charity: Water, a great organization bringing people clean water. 

100% of donations go to actually helping people. You can start a fun campaign to raise funds; one guy actually rented his face and let a stranger shave his beard on the street to raise money.

11. Every time you buy concert tickets, donate to charity.

At one point in my life, I decided that if I could afford concert tickets, I could afford a small donation ($25) for a good cause. (And it doesn’t have to be concert tickets; it can be anything you want! Buying a piece of jewelry, purchasing an electronic device, dinning out, etc.)

EFFORTLESS

12. Instead wedding favors, make a donation to your favorite charity for each guest. 

At my wedding, my husband and I picked a lung cancer nonprofit to honor his father, who passed away from lung cancer. You can buy cards on Etsy or, just make them yourself with pearl cardstock paper! (See photo from my wedding.)


13. Tabs for a Cause is a free browser extension.

Every time you open a new tab, a donation is made to your favorite charity.

14. Lyft has a “round up and donate” setting; opt in, and your fare will round up automatically with each ride. 

There are a variety of causes to choose from.

15. “Click to give” at GreaterGood. 

It’s completely free. You can click once per day, and there are multiple causes to choose. I first discovered GreaterGood through The Animal Rescue Site; a single click helps to provide food and shelter to animals in need. (You can also do some shopping and a percentage of the item’s retail price is donated to a cause. I bought a beautiful handbag with a jungle print!)

16. Shop at AmazonSmile at no extra cost, and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to your favorite charitable organization.

You can choose from nearly 1 million charities, including local charities.

17. If you use Swagbucks, you can donate your Swagbucks to various charitable causes instead of redeeming for a gift card or cash. 

Similarly, some airlines will allow you to donate your miles to a cause.

18. If you’re a runner, download the Charity Miles app to earn money for charity for the miles you run. 

You can also earn money for walking and biking.

19. Play free vocabulary games at Free Rice and for each correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to World Food Programme to help end hunger.

Free Rice has two goals: To provide free education and to end world hunger

Additional Ideas: 

Wands for Wildlife: Donate old mascara wands! They’re used to gently remove fly eggs and larva from the fur of wild animals. (Wash in soap and warm water before mailing.)

Coin Up: Download the app to round up on credit or debit card transactions. Your “spare change” is then donated to the charity of your choice each month.

CoinStar Coins That Count: Take your change to a CoinStar kiosk to donate to a charity of your choice. A printed receipt will be provided.

Rake a neighbor’s yard or shovel their driveway. 

Pay for a stranger’s coffee, dinner, grocery item, etc. 


Before making a donation, you can check a charity’s credibility (including a financial breakdown of funds) at the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Alternatively, you can use Charity Watch, which grades charities and includes “red flag” information. The site also provides a list of the top charities. Also, Charity Navigator, which includes guides and tips for donating items, volunteering, informed giving, and more.


What are some creative and unique ways to donate to charity? Leave an answer in the “Comments” section!

Updated June 22, 2018



Karche, M. (2009). Increases in academic connectedness and self-esteem among high school students who serve as cross-age peer mentors. Professional School Counseling, 12(4), 292-299.

Mongrain, M., Chin, J., &, Shapira, L. (2011). Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12(963).

von Bonsdorff, M.B. &, Rantanen, T. (2011). Benefits of formal voluntary work among older people: A review. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 23(162).

What Are the Characteristics of an Effective Therapist?

Are you in therapy or have you sought counseling in the past? Are you currently practicing as a therapist or counselor? This article explores what makes a therapist effective (or not).

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

For readers less familiar with counseling as a profession, I’ll briefly review the mission, values, and ethics established by the American Counseling Association (ACA) to guide professional counselors. The ACA’s mission is “to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.”

 Professional values include the following:

  1. enhancing human development throughout the life span
  2. honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts
  3. promoting social justice
  4. safeguarding the integrity of the counselor–client relationship
  5. practicing in a competent and ethical manner

Ethics include autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, fidelity, and veracity.

The ACA outlines professional values and ethics, but for the purpose of this article, I wanted to learn about current perceptions and views. Also, how do counselors exemplify the code in their practices? Using social media (Reddit and Quora) as a survey tool, I reached out to mental health professionals and therapy participants; I also browsed through older threads and posts on the topic.

I read about traits (like active listening and compassion) that are important to both therapy participants and clinicians. Additionally, I learned about negative experiences, which was disheartening. So what makes a good (or bad) clinician?

An effective therapist is someone who…

  • Actively listens
  • Is kind and compassionate
  • Practices honesty
  • Is transparent
  • Puts a lot of thought into what they say
  • Educates their clients (coping skills, symptoms, stress management, etc.)
  • Conveys warmth
  • Reflects and validates feelings
  • Understands human behavior and mental disorders
  • Is non-judgmental
  • Sets and adheres to healthy boundaries
  • Is genuine (and genuinely cares for their clients)
  • Has a wide range of techniques and a variety of tools
  • Is humble (and gives advice sparingly)
  • Creates a safe place for healing
  • Is knowledgeable (evidence-based practices, current research, etc.) and intelligent
  • Possesses emotional intelligence
  • Is respectful
  • Experiences and conveys empathy
  • Has a sense of humor
  • Is curious
  • Has patience
  • Is trustworthy
  • Recognizes and values other perspectives

Interestingly, a few responders took into account a therapist’s personal values and views (not just how they conduct themselves in a session). As a counselor, this resonated. For example, a therapist can’t be genuine if they’re empathetic with their clients, but rude or nasty otherwise. Being a counselor means fully embracing the code of conduct. Consider how it would feel to discover your therapist treats restaurant staff poorly or gets hammered and then drives. It would likely leave a bad taste in your mouth. A good clinician is a role-model. Furthermore, it’s important for a counselor to be emotionally stable and self-aware, which is something I’ll explore shortly.

Some personal values/traits for effectiveness include…

  • Resilience
  • Optimism
  • Faith in humanity
  • Courage
  • Self-acceptance
  • Holding others and self accountable
  • Self-awareness
  • Seeking to improve self and grow, both personally and professionally
  • Self-esteem and acceptance
  • Practicing self-care

Regarding professional development, it was noted by Lazar_Milgram (Reddit user) that a counselor must commit to “relearning,” meaning re-reading text books, literature, and research to prevent it from fading. As humans, we forget things. We need to go back to the original source of knowledge now and again. It’s not enough to go to grad school; a counselor must commit to a lifelong education. Along those lines, Lazara_Milgram reported that an effective counselor re-visits his/her failures. If we were unable to help a client for one reason or another, it’s worth it to review their file and our records, consult, and then learn from our mistakes.

On self-awareness, Reddit user Valirony, a marriage and family therapist, shared it’s important for a therapist to be aware of “[his/her] own existing issues and [be] either well-processed on those fronts and/or very capable of compartmentalizing the baggage that is less well-processed.”

To expand on this, consider the experience of emotional anguish. An empathetic person who has experienced a personal tragedy may consequently feel a desire to ease suffering in others. Naturally, they’re drawn to the counseling profession; but if their wounds haven’t healed, they lack the capacity to help their clients.

Sadly, some counselors enter the profession seeking to “fix” others as an attempt to compensate for being unable to face their own issues. In contrast, an effective therapist recognizes his/her limitations as a counselor, especially in the face of personal tragedy. They recognize when it’s their own “stuff” (and not the client) triggering a reaction. They leave the past where it belongs and carry little to no emotional baggage. This allows them to be fully present and engaged.

Valirony (Reddit user) also discussed constructive criticism. It’s essential for the effective therapist to remain open to constructive feedback in order to grow. Valirony explained, “I see a lot of defensiveness in some of my colleagues during consultation; I’m no saint and I feel defensive here and there, but I always take a look at that defensiveness for whatever it is in me that I need to change.” Defensiveness is a clue that something’s not right. On constructive feedback, Reddit user Lazar_Milgram suggested, “Embrace criticism – every criticism is a 50/50 package of perceptual information about you. 50% tells something about you and 50% tells something about client.” Providing it’s thoughtful and well-presented, criticism can inspire insight or provide a new way of looking at something.

Ann Veilleux, a private-practice psychotherapist and Quora user, identified emotional intelligence as a trait for effectiveness. “Intelligence comes to mind first, emotional intelligence certainly, a curiosity and interest in people [as] more [than] machines or plants.” Emotional intelligence is innate; it can’t be developed the way a skill can. Furthermore, a good clinician is curious, but their interest is attached to the well-being of their clients. Veilleux pointed out that an effective therapist must possess interest and ability – not one or the other – in order to sustain the level of investment therapy demands. It’s the “interest and ability to have intimate relationships with many people at the same time and not to tire of that.”

The Therapeutic Relationship

With regard to the client-counselor dynamic, an effective therapist recognizes that the relationship is central to the therapeutic process; it’s the key to healing and growth. A client must trust the counselor before they feel safe enough to share their pain or humiliation or guilt. Traits like warmth, humor, and transparency foster an honest and caring relationship. Counseling skills are important, but can only go so far without a trusting relationship.

To promote a supportive relationship, Reddit user RedYNWA suggested that counselors practice empathy without being overly emotional. RedYNWA described how they felt when their therapist cried in session. “I believe my topic brought up something personal for her. The minute she cried. I stopped talking, and changed the topic. I felt she was unable to hold my topic, and I felt a responsibility to ease her distress. It changed our relationship, I felt like the therapist, and it restricted my ability to divulge deep emotions. It was unintentional on her side. However, it destroyed the therapeutic relationship.”

In the above situation, a counselor’s emotional reactivity upset the balance of the therapeutic relationship. Unintentionally, the therapist sent a strong message. The message was that she was too fragile to hear her client’s pain. If the therapist can’t be strong, how can the client? A counselor who breaks that easily can’t be a source of unwavering support. It’s the client’s job to cry; the therapist’s job is to remain calm, to maintain a safe environment, and to instill hope.

I am acquainted with therapists (colleagues and former peers) who occasionally cry in sessions. Sometimes, it’s an instinctive reaction to hearing the horrors clients have gone through; the discrimination, the trauma, the abuse, and worse. There was a time I cried while facilitating a group, but it wasn’t related to anything being said. That morning, I had learned a former client died by suicide. He shot himself in the head. He was only 22. I felt vulnerable and self-conscious about crying in front of my clients. Later, my supervisor helped me to understand that crying can make a therapist seem more human and authentic, which has the potential to strengthen the counseling relationship while conveying empathy.

Some clients will feel closer to a therapist who cries; others will feel uncomfortable. There’s no right or wrong. Quora user Philippe Gross, Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Hawaii, pointed out that even with all the right qualities, a therapist will not be a good fit with every client. When this happens, Gross stated that “an effective therapist should be able to recognize this soon and refer the client to a more appropriate therapist.”

One Reddit user and professional counselor, ForeverJung, touched on the importance of not getting caught up in their clients’ pain to the point it becomes their own (also known as vicarious trauma). It’s having “the ability to care deeply and then shut it off,” which can be difficult, especially for new counselors. ForeverJung also shared that an effective counselor must be able to listen, while at the same time “synthesizing data,” and then provide a constructive response that the client will be able to make sense of.

Redddit user blueybluel shared about a therapist they described as absolutely wonderful. “She was incredibly empathetic and patient with me, almost to a fault I felt like sometimes. But it really helped me a lot with my self-hatred, self sabotage and suicidal thoughts because for the first time ever, I was regularly associating with a person who was so soft with me. She genuinely thought I was a great person just the way I was, and that I didn’t have to accomplish and be perfect all the time just to have worth and to deserve to live.”

Similarly, Gatopajama (Reddit user) described positive interactions with their current therapist, who shares their odd sense of humor. “[My therapist] is serious when the topic calls for it, but usually a session with her feels very comfortable and laid back, like having coffee with a girlfriend. She also shares a little bit about herself sometimes (not in an inappropriate or TMI way) — it makes me feel like I’m talking to a real person and not a human psychology textbook. Plus, she’s got a gigantic bowl of moonsand in her office. Sometimes I plop that thing on my lap and play with it the whole hour to keep my hands busy if I’m trying to talk about something difficult.”

What are the traits or characteristics of an ineffective therapist?

While some traits (such as having a gigantic bowl of moonsand!) positively impact the counseling process, others contribute to nonproductive (or even harmful) therapy. When I elicited feedback on effectiveness, I learned about some horribly ineffective and disturbing practices.

An incompetent clinician lacks self-awareness and insight in addition to the required knowledge and skill. They may have entered the field for all the wrong reasons. They’re rigid and closed to new ways of thinking. Most importantly, they don’t listen to their clients. Ssdgmok, a Reddit user, described a bad clinician as “someone who talks about themselves each session, poor listening and ‘giving advice.’” Contrary to popular belief, a counselor’s role is not to advise the client. A therapist is more like a collaborative partner who leads the client to their own insights while providing the tools for change.

To give a personal example of a therapist who talked too much (although not about herself) and didn’t listen, I’ll use myself – but in the role of the client, not the clinician. I was in my late teens and it was one of my first experiences seeing a counselor (a middle-aged woman). The therapist had apparently just finished a session with a young woman who had attempted suicide. And the therapist proceeded to tell me all about it. Meanwhile, I was bursting with pain and self-doubt; and the therapist continued to talk about the client who had just left her office. She went on and on about how she couldn’t believe “that little girl” swallowed an entire bottle of Tylenol. It was like she didn’t hear a word I said, and I left feeling even worse. (Luckily, that experience didn’t poison my view of the profession or dissuade me from entering the field a decade later.)

A Reddit user shared about expressing thoughts of suicide to their therapist

Jwaggin
“Therapist: Are you suicidal
Me: Yea…
Therapist: You hate your mom?
Me: uhhh no
Therapist:Well if you kill yourself your mom would be very hurt
Me: uhhh ok (thanks for the guilt)”

If this happened, it’s clear that the therapist lacked not only empathy, but a basic understanding of mental illness. An effective therapist never shames or “guilts” a client. The client is already in pain (which is what brought them to therapy in the first place). Also, when a client says they’re suicidal, it’s the therapist’s responsibility to explore this with the client while ensuring the client’s safety. An effective therapist helps the client to identify what (if anything) would prevent them from killing themselves; the clinician won’t admonish the client for their hopelessness. To do so would be demeaning, with a disregard to human dignity.

Reddit user blueybluel shared, “When I told [the therapist] all my struggles, she seemed empathetic, but then got on this weird shtick of telling me to do homework of writing down things I like about myself, in an aggressive, demanding, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way, and said, “Can you do that for me? By next week?” I canceled the next appointment and never saw her again.”

There’s no room for aggression in this profession. A good therapist is gentle; they don’t give orders. Instead, they explore, listen, and ask questions. It’s a respectful partnership between client and counselor.

After tragically losing their infant son, a Reddit user sought therapy 

wonder-maker
“I explained my situation about having lost my infant son in a tragic household accident. She asked me to wait a moment, got up, walked to the front desk, came back with a sticky note from the receptionist and told me to come back and see a different therapist at a later date, then refused to make eye contact with me.
The next therapist said to my face ‘Boohoo, your kid died, get over it.'”

In the above example, the first therapist was a woman in her early 40s and the second was a male in his 60s. I’m disturbed by what happened to wonder-maker (Reddit user); and I’m horrified that these “helpers” are out there providing counseling services. The female therapist’s reaction could be explained by lack of experience or skill; alternatively, hearing about the accident could have triggered her (which is why self-awareness is so important). However, there is no excuse or explanation for what the male clinician said. You don’t have to be a therapist to feel empathy or compassion (but you do have to be a jerk to tell a grieving parent to “get over” the loss of a child).

Final Thoughts

In summary, there are many things that positively impact a counselor’s effectiveness, while opposite traits are related to incompetent practice. An effective counselor is an active listener, expresses empathy and compassion, and is genuine and transparent. They promote healing and self-exploration. The therapeutic relationship is also important. An effective clinician creates a safe environment for building trust while providing support. Additionally, to be effective, a therapist must commit to a lifelong pursuit of knowledge to learn new techniques and evidence-based practices, to understand how scientific developments will change the counseling profession, and to keep up-to-date on relevant research.

In contrast, a therapist who is uncaring, uninterested, and who doesn’t listen will never be effective. A counselor who constantly advises their clients or who shames their clients is incompetent and unethical. Furthermore, the absence of emotional intelligence greatly impacts a clinician’s counseling abilities.

Regarding personal values and lifestyle choices, there’s a gray area. Can a therapist who gossips or who abuses sleeping pills provide effective services? What about a marriage counselor who cheats on his wife? While a few therapy participants and mental health professionals emphasized the importance of a therapist’s personal integrity, most responders viewed effectiveness in the context of therapy alone.

Lastly, therapy participants who reported unproductive or even damaging experiences received services from therapists who did not adhere to the ACA code. Conversely, positive and effective experiences were related to ACA values.

Were there any surprises in this post? Were any important traits not mentioned? Please provide feedback in the comments section!