Talking about mental health as something we all have, and approaching it with the same attitude, curiosity and openness as we do with physical health, helps give it equal weighting.
How did you become a clinical psychologist and what does your job involve?
I studied at University for six years and completed my clinical psychology training when I was quite young, at 25. Since then I have worked pretty much exclusively helping with people with anxiety. I joined the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma in 2001 and have been working here ever since. My work involves assessing people with different anxiety problems and doing therapy with them.
It’s a pretty hands-on type of treatment, very practical and solution-focused, which I think suits my personality well. I find it really rewarding to be able to interact with people and help them to make often very significant changes to their lives. Now that I manage the clinic, my work has also changed a little to include developing new services for people with different needs who may not previously have been able to access services for their presenting difficulties.
You’re a clinical director at one of the UK’s most prestigious clinics for treating anxiety - what happens there?
I'm lucky to be surrounded by lots of bright sparks who are very compassionate and good at what they do. The clinic provides cutting edge, state of the art psychological treatments to people who live locally in London, as well as across England. Our main job is to help people to understand and overcome specific anxiety problems like panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, OCD and social anxiety.
On top of that, we're always developing our service and what we offer. Recently we have been providing screening, assessment and treatment to people affected by London Attacks. We‘ve also started up a clinic for parents of young children where one or both parents have anxiety, as we know that helping parents to address their anxiety can help the whole family. It's a great place to work, and we have a steady stream of people doing training placements with us which keeps things fresh too.
You’re an expert in CBT - why do you think that CBT is so effective?
When I started my training I was drawn to deep, complicated psychological theories. I assumed at the time that if something was straightforward it couldn't be right, or helpful. These theories require psychologists and their patients to accept things on faith, and hope that change may occur after several years, without this being subject to any form of testing or review.
But at the same time I also realised that people were looking to me to help them with problems that were often having a profoundly negative impact on their lives. I was drawn to CBT because it has a format and techniques that have been extensively tested, and proven to help people. Over time I have really grown to appreciated the philosophy that underpins it. I am now completely converted to the idea that we should be able to demonstrate that the treatments we offer people do actually make significant and lasting differences to people's lives, as CBT does. And if that can't be proven, I think people have a right to be sceptical.
CBT works because it is based on psychological theories that have been rigorously tested, and shown to work, in a way that many other talking therapies have not. The treatment is focused on the presenting problem, is collaborative, transparent, and helps people to actively test out and change the unhelpful beliefs that cause problems. It’s based on science and theories of learning, rather than wishful thinking. In an age of fake news and quackery, I think this is a very important thing.
You must have helped countless patients with panic disorder. Do you have any advice for people who experience panic attacks?
Sadly it’s a really common problem that affects thousands and thousands of people every day. Of course the first thing to bear in mind is that no matter how unpleasant the sensations, panic can't harm you. Once you have that fixed in your mind, you can start to challenge the fear by taking yourself progressively out of your comfort zone, to learn that no matter how bad the sensations or emotions feel, they can't do anything to you. Lastly, there is a nasty paradox - panic attacks are likely to continue for as long as people keep checking whether they're still getting them. So acceptance of getting the panics and sensations really helps - once you no longer particularly care whether you get the sensations or not, they will start to abate. Easier said than done I know, but I promise that this is true.
Tackling Panic was your first series - what was it like writing a series for Unmind?
I thoroughly enjoyed it. It forced me to try to cut to the chase (something us psychologists often struggle with!). I liked imagining people who might be working their way through the series and what they would make of it. I hope that the series will be a springboard for people to commit to getting a sense of mastery over their panic.
And finally, tell us a fun fact about yourself!
This is kind of work-related so I'm not sure how fun it is, but I once did a TEDx talk about intrusive thoughts and a time when I got anxious flying.
To watch Blake’s TEDx talk, click here.
And to find out more about his work at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, click here.
Jonny Benjamin was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of 20 and he is now an influential activist and mental health...