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Could studying about psychology cause me to ruminate and relapse into depression?

answered 06:36 PM EST, Thu April 25, 2013
anonymous anonymous
I have had bad bouts of depression. I am returning this fall to school as an adult student. I would like to major in psychology to become a counselor. I think I will really be able to empathize with what people are dealing with. Rumination is a problem for me. Is there a risk that by taking courses that cause me to focus my attention on the working of the mind I will become over vigilant of my own mind?

Art Matthews Says...

It looks as though you are about to become what we call in the thera-biz a "wounded healer", a person who has experienced behavioral health problems and turns that experience into a motivation to help others. It's not an uncommon path for some of us to take, but it does come with it's own risks and requirements. Without knowing the specifics of your depression or diagnostic history -- or what may have been at its genesis -- I can only provide my opinion as to what the general risks might be.

The direct question you asked is how this might affect your own mood and behavior: If your depression is under control, and you have a handle on your "ruminating" thinking, then there might be little to be concerned about with regards to how you will be impacted. When learning about counseling theory and practice, you will be thinking about thinking and thinking about emotions more than you are actually experiencing your own thoughts and feelings from the past. When we think about our thinking or feelings, we tend to actually be more distanced from them, rather than enmeshed and overwhelmed with them as we are when we are symptomatic. But it will be necessary for you to monitor yourself well for thinking and feelings that might indicate you are back-sliding and need to get in to counseling again.

It sounds like you might have an obsessive thought process that was part of the problem for you. If that is the case, you might get triggered back into obsessive thinking if you allow your brain to go on auto pilot and fall back into old patterns. Graduate school is not a cake-walk, and it is not an extension of undergraduate studies. There are greater stressors at the graduate level, and adults going back to school can often think they are brain damaged because they aren't learning as fast as they once did, or feel like an outsider because other students are younger, single, and don't have kids, or they can convince themselves they are frauds and it's just a matter of time before their professors figure it out and dismiss them. When people are under stress, they often revert to old patterns of behaving and thinking because they feel comfortable and it doesn't take much thought. I lived through my own graduate school daze, and I currently work for a graduate institution of health sciences now. I know what it can be like from both a personal and vicarious position. 

Now the following information you didn't ask for but it's the "value added" to the discussion. While it is important to think about the risks to you and your health, it's also important to think about the risks you and your mental health might pose to a client.

When people consider becoming helpers, it's important for them to make sure they have all their own s**t together so to speak. Being empathetic is only part of the recipe for creating a therapeutic relationship with those seeking help. There are listening skills, motivating skills, and influencing skills that must also be developed.

Another word for influencing is manipulation. While manipulation often has a negative connotation, I think it is an accurate word. We are often manipulating people to choose healthier ways of thinking and behaving. But people won't let someone manipulate them unless they choose to. We let people manipulate us when we like them, when we are intimidated by them, when we are scared of disappointing them or we want them to like us. Therapists have a good deal of potential power that they can use for better or for harm. That is why professors in counseling programs continuously emphasize knowing ones self and the legal and ethical guidelines of the profession. Be prepared to spend hours discussing some pretty ambiguous scenarios to help you understand the true nature of what you are getting in to.

At the core of the therapeutic relationship is the therapist as "tool" and the need for each helper to understand their own motivations, skills, abilities, and challenges. Therapists can sometimes get involved in dicey situations because they aren't paying attention to their own lives and try to get their own emotional needs met at the client's expense. If I were in your shoes, I would get back into counseling again (maybe your university offers free or low cost services) and talk to a therapist about your plans to go into psychology as a career field. Your academic program might even require that you fulfill counseling hours as a client before or during your enrollment in graduate studies. You might also want to have a psycho-educational assessment completed as well, if you can afford it, which will look at your cognitive abilities and personality traits and preferences.

You need to know as much as there is to know about who you are and how you might behave in a counseling setting and difficult situations, especially related to how you handle people who are suicidal, obsessed, or angry. If you don't explore this side of yourself, you may be caught off guard later in practicum or internship or even much later as a counselor working towards licensure.

I know many therapists and several are wounded healers themselves. You can do it and you can do it while protecting yourself and the client. Don't be afraid to look deep. It's necessary for the success of all.

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Page last updated Apr 26, 2013

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