Between COVID, our new normal, and the array of medical issues that you might be facing, there are dedicated specialists devoted to assisting you.
Dr. Jennifer Steiner is one of the first board-certified clinical health psychologists in Georgia and owner and founder of Beyond the Body Health Psychology Services, a private practice in Atlanta focusing on chronic pain and illness. An adjunct professor at Emory University School of Medicine, she received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in health psychology from Purdue University and worked with more than 1,200 individuals with chronic pain over a decade.
Dr. Steiner explained, “A health psychologist has special training in the integration of physical and emotional health. Health psychologists have received comprehensive training in the connection between the mind and body and a scientific understanding of the ways in which they impact one another. Health psychologists have typically completed coursework and/or training in anatomy, medical terminology, common chronic illnesses, and psychological treatments specific to working with medical conditions. I like to think of health psychologists as ‘therapists-plus’ which means they have a solid foundation in common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, plus specialty training related to coping with pain and illness.”
Inspired by her upbringing, Steiner shared, “I grew up in a family where several members of my family (and myself) lived with autoimmune conditions and chronic pain. I realized that no two people cope with pain and illness in the same way, and each has the potential to impact virtually all areas of your life. I also learned that there weren’t a lot of therapists who really understood pain or illness or how these medical conditions impacted emotional health.”
She continued, “Sometimes when you’re in a situation whether it’s big or small, it’s hard to see a potential solution. Having an outside expert connection can help teach you coping tools and offer support. Working with a health psychologist is only one piece of the puzzle, and when you live with a chronic medical condition, you must address both mental and physical. For example, after a heart attack, doctors may recommend changes in diet, exercise, and reducing stress; a health psychologist can help you come up with a plan to approach these behavioral changes as well.”
Adding how she supports patients, she commented, “I like to call the type of therapy I do ‘pain-focused psychotherapy’ or ‘therapy for coping with chronic illness’ to help people learn to live their best life possible even with chronic pain/illness. I also work with people who have insomnia and individuals coping with cancer. I primarily use two different evidence-based therapy approaches: cognitive behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. These approaches often include integration of relaxation training or mindfulness.”
She encourages, “Ask yourself what is your why? Why is living a healthier lifestyle important? We must meet people where they are at, understand things they are telling themselves and look at their motivators. One step at a time. Gradual progress. Think about goals, if you value being healthy, maybe taking a walk is possible; if not, maybe something smaller is a more manageable first step, start with one small step that feels reasonable based on where you’re at right now.”
Anxiety and Immune Systems
In addressing some of the top concerns, Steiner states, “Each individual is unique, and even anxiety can serve a function. We have the emotional and physical experience of anxiety for a reason. It can motivate us to act or signal there’s a dangerous situation out there; that’s why we have anxiety. The problem is when we get anxious over more and more daily things. When our stress response is activated repeatedly, for a long period of time, it can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health, which can negatively affect the immune system. It is also important to recognize that our stressful thoughts have the power to create emotional and physiological changes in ourselves. A psychologist can help you shift those thoughts to lead to more helpful outcomes.”
Breathwork and Mindfulness
Steiner said, “Some of the tools I teach have been around a long time, including breathwork and good relaxation training to calm the physiology associated with stress. We often hold our breath when we get nervous or anxious or stressed. That’s part of our body’s physiological response and does not help us in the long run. After understanding the person’s story, we often move into breathwork. It’s simple to teach, and people may feel a difference after the first or second time.
“A similar tool is mindfulness. Mindfulness is designed to help us focus our mind, not just quiet it. Paying attention on purpose to the present moment. In training our brain to be more mindful, it helps us to zone in on one thing at a time. Practicing mindfulness can help you focus on what matters and cope with worry. There are different kinds. You can begin with simple awareness exercises, like focusing on the sensations of your breathing or sounds in the room, and there are more formal exercises and apps to practice with as well.”
Managing Unhealthy Thinking
Steiner offered: “Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be used for a lot of different types of problems. In the case of a chronic medical condition, someone might think ‘I’m never going to feel better,’ and even though that might have some truth to it, that thought is often not serving them to manage daily emotions and coping. CBT helps to recognize unhelpful thinking, which then leads to shifts in behavior, thinking and emotions so you can live a better life.
“Acceptance and commitment therapy is also a huge tool in helping someone focus on the pieces of life that really matter to them and shape their behavior around those values. The reason that’s important to people with chronic medical conditions is we want to help people put their energy towards things that personally matter to them, rather than spreading their energy thin. That’s where the commitment part comes in. You make commitments to work on ways to put your key values into action, one manageable step at a time. The acceptance piece is where people get confused. Acceptance isn’t about giving up or giving in, it’s about saying to yourself, ‘This is my reality, this is the hand I was dealt. I am choosing to acknowledge that reality and move forward in the best way I can.’”
On a final note, she adds, “Getting help is an important part of managing difficult times in life. Seeing a professional can make a world of difference when you get the proper help and support you need and deserve.” Dr. Steiner concluded, “It is important to keep in mind that this information is for educational purposes only and not a substitute for individualized medical or mental health assessment, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, call the National Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 or 988.”
To learn more about Dr. Jennifer Steiner, visit: www.beyondthebodypsych.com.
- Health and Wellness
- Robyn Spizman Gerson
- Dr. Jennifer Steiner
- Beyond the Body Health Psychology Services
- Emory University School of Medicine
- Purdue University
- Immune Systems
- Mental Health
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
- National Crisis Line
- chronic illness
- health psychologist