Couch Session Alternatives

Throw your mental woes for a loop by trying out some unconventional therapies.
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As a belated winter drags into March, some of us may be hitting the couch -- of a therapist, that is, in hopes of shaking various neuroses, psychoses, or just the chill blues that old man winter has left us with.

Last month's weather left me sulkily coasting into spring with programs like "Tuesdays Are Just as Bad" from my local blues radio station.

But for others with serious depression and gripping phobias, like a woman with flight fear who attempted to jump out of a moving airplane, something beyond talk therapy or an upbeat ditty is required.

Experts say that depression, anxiety and even PMS can worsen in the winter months, so rather than the regular couch session, look to one of these unique therapies to help thaw out your cranium for spring.

Facing Unreality

After being taken off the plane in a straightjacket, the aforementioned woman contacted Robert Reiner, clinical psychologist and executive director of

Behavioral Associates in New York. Her job as a trial lawyer was in jeopardy because she could not set foot on a plane.

She ran out of the office -- ripping off the virtual reality gear -- during her first session. However, she was completely cured after four months of therapy, and her career was saved.

The majority of Reiner's clients fear flight and public speaking, but he also gets lizard phobias, and fear of left turns (perhaps due to internal political conflicts). The good news is that he has a 93% success rate, often with clients who have gained no solace in talk therapy.

Reiner's patients find salvation in what he calls a revolutionary technique. It builds upon psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe's systematic desensitization method developed in the 1950s, where patients used a relaxation technique while recalling anxiety-causing events.

While theoretically sound, Wolpe's methods overestimated the ability of patients to accurately imagine something they have spent their lives avoiding. "I couldn't do

the treatment with a straight face," says Reiner, because he doubted its efficacy.

Then, in 1999, virtual reality changed Reiner's career.

Reiner uses a combination of a virtual reality environment and biofeedback instruments that provide physiological feedback like perspiration, heart rate, brain waves and muscle tension. This allows Reiner to get baseline data and learn which aspects of the simulation are most stressful to the patient.

Like Wolpe, Reiner's treatment teaches mind over matter. "It's still the concept of pairing what makes you nervous with relaxation," says Reiner, but the feared object is much more realistic.

For me, turbulence while flying poses the biggest problem. Although the idea of breathing calmly from my diaphragm when the "fasten seat belt" sign is on and my plane seat feels like an overactive massage chair seems nearly impossible, Reiner assures me that exposure through virtual reality can make it happen.

Rates vary from $125 to $400 a session and treatment usually involves 10-15 visits.

On a Different Note

When Lou Reed proclaimed that his life was saved by rock 'n' roll, he may have been on to something.

Doctors first noticed that music was more than a recreational diversion after WWII, when despondent veterans didn't react to anything but music. Now highly trained music therapists use aural treatments to combat anxiety and depression, or work on a patient's self expression.

The goal isn't to make a person musically proficient, explains Al Bumanis, director of communications at the

American Music Therapy Association in Maryland, but to explore the music-making process.

"It's almost like jamming with clients,

and much more beneficial than learning notes," says Bumanis.

Music psychotherapist

Andrea Frisch Hara treats patients at her practice in New York City. She has been practicing for 20 years and has seen music breathe life into people ranging from Alzheimer's patients to someone upset over not getting a promotion.

Frisch Hara and her patients make live music, which is sometimes combined with talk therapy, in a studio filled with every instrument imaginable -- some too weird for her to describe.

Tone deaf or rhythmically inept? No problem. All that counts is what you get out of it.


Patients may think 'Oh my god, this sounds terrible ... but a musical relationship grows and develops," says Frisch Hara. 'There's something life-giving in the creative exchange."

Every ancient civilization has used music in the service of health and spiritual practices, Frisch Hara notes, and people use it in their everyday lives without being aware.

Frisch Hara finds the therapy particularly useful for people who have suffered early emotional deprivation because it recreates a nonverbal, nurturing experience. "Individual music psychotherapy creates this structure and safety," she says. Treatment is charged based on a sliding scale.

Often, if you match the music to the mood, the mood will shift, says Frisch Hara, explaining my preference for Ella Fitzgerald as a pick-me-up in February.

Dorsal Healing

In a recent

New Yorker

cartoon by Paul Noth, two dolphins reveal their dreams of swimming with a middle-aged couple from Connecticut.

Underlying this role reversal is the long-observed phenomenon of human-dolphin communication.

Despite being dismissed as a hokey New Age cure, frolicking with dolphins can have major health benefits, says Sarah Hamilton, marine science education coordinator for

Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Fla.

"We see some amazing things happen," says Hamilton. "Children come to the program who have never spoken, and will often say a few words

after being with the dolphins."

The nonprofit program works primarily with the young, including foster-care charges and children that have been sexually abused. "You name a diagnosis, and we've seen it," Hamilton says.

Sessions were also modified to target adult issues. "Every time I go in the water, my blood pressure

goes down a bit," says Hamilton, which is an unusual experience "because of the stresses in life." Most importantly, swimming and interacting with dolphins gives families the tools to reach their children, explains Hamilton, who suggests the therapy as a supplement to conventional therapy.

"The dolphins provide an unconditional love which is often a great feeling for people," says Hamilton. "In their world, you can let everything go."

Island Dolphin Care offers their core five-day program for $2,200 per week with a scholarship option, which includes five half-hour dolphin swims and four classroom sessions.

As the weather takes its time to warm up, make a resolution for mental spring cleaning using the unconventional. Just the act of trying something new may be the jolt you need.

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