The Science of Giving Thanks: A Proven Win-Win

By: Kristin A. R. Osborn & Dr. Maneet Bhatia, Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School) — Contributing Editors to The THX Co. Journal

Are people inherently self-interested or altruistic?

The answer based on scientific research is, we are both.

Humans want to grow, excel, succeed and survive. This means in many cases, we need to be competitive, and battle over limited resources and opportunities. However, what research continues to demonstrate is, despite these natural tendencies, humans are driven towards being altruistic and giving.

Neuroscientist, Dr. Jordan Grafman, has investigated the origins of empathy and generosity in the human brain by conducting fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of subjects’ brains while they had an option to donate or not donate to charity. fMRI scans measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. When we carry out certain tasks, different areas of the brain become active and engaged.

What did he find?

Interestingly, in this study, donating to a charity (being generous), triggered activity in the same parts of the brain that light up when we crave certain foods or engage in sex.

In other words: we are hard wired to be generous and giving — AND it feels good too.

In the field of psychology, we refer to one’s ability to give and receive as ‘Receptive Capacity.’ Receptive Capacity measures a person’s ability to provide and receive caring from others, to experience both positive and negative emotions in a healthy manner, to feel empathy and perceive others with accuracy and compassion while also seeing oneself as worthy of care.

It is this Receptive Capacity that mental health professionals’ work to instill and cultivate in their patients. Research shows that when patients are able to build this capacity, it strengthens their compassion for themselves and others, reduces maladaptive and negative emotional reactions, and increases adaptive and healthy expression of emotions and their overall emotional well-being.

Ultimately, people are able to live more authentic, genuine, and purposeful lives (e.g., Bhatia, et al, 2009; McCullough et al, 2003).

In all industries, be it health, corporate, or education, management leaders are implementing research from organizational psychology that identifies “giving” as an important and rewarding component in developing group cohesion and productivity. Whether giving your time to help a student learn new concepts and skills, or sharing ‘war stories’ of building your own company with aspiring entrepreneurs, it is in these moments of giving where we reap lasting benefits.

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An Intimate Letter to My Community Dealing with the Pandemic by Kristin Osborn

As a student of self-care, I’ve learned the importance of identifying what works and integrating it into my daily schedule. After three weeks of isolation, I’ve discovered that experiencing my emotions, following a schedule with set breaks, walking and connecting with others is what works-for now.

I learned from Una McClusky, author of Transference and Countertransference from an Attachment Perspective, how important it is for care providers to be in connection with others and I’ve taken that to heart, integrating as many moments of connection possible with my colleagues into my week. In the past, I might have shied away from the ringing phone, hoping to hold onto some silence in my busy days, but now I’m encouraging myself to move forward, pick up the phone, and connect.

Since my 2-day virtual conference that was supposed to take place in Los Angeles, I’ve had the privilege of working with psychiatry residents, psychotherapists, nurses, physicians and students from Canada, Denmark, England, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the US.  On March 26, I taught the basics of Affect Phobia Therapy to psychiatry residents at UC-San Diego online. I felt it was essential not only to demonstrate how these principles can be used with their patients, but also with themselves so they could experience less anxiety and more connection. On March 30th, The Stockholm Certified APT™-Core Training met with trainees from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Italy to ‘check in’ about how they are doing both professionally and personally. On April 3rd, I met with students from SAPU in Stockholm remotely and we discussed the importance of processing feelings of loss throughout the course of treatment, not just at the end.

In addition, I hosted our 2nd Therapist Affect Phobia Community Hour with guest, Dr. Michael Alpert of NYC. He explained why it can be difficult seeing our images online and demonstrated a technique anyone can use at home by themselves or with another person. To practice this exercise, you’ll need to look at your reflection in the mirror, or through your phone/ computer screen. As you look at your image, pay close attention to your eyes and begin to ask yourself questions like:


What do you see?

 What are you noticing as you see yourself? 

Can you accept what you are seeing? 

What does it feel like to accept yourself? 

What’s getting in the way of you accepting yourself? 

What feelings are you experiencing toward yourself? 

When did you feel like this in the past? 


I volunteered to help him demonstrate this technique and followed his directions to look at my image on the Zoom platform. Immediately upon looking at my image I noted the tiredness in my eyes, I felt I as though I looked older, wiser and concerned.

When he asked me to pay attention to my tiredness, I felt tears come to the surface and I experienced sadness. He asked me if I was feeling more compassionate toward myself, but my sadness deepened instead. I realized that I was experiencing loss, I was missing what was familiar to me, my offices, my clients, my friends, my colleagues and then I noticed that I was feeling worried too, I was worried about finances, my well-being and not knowing what life will look like when the pandemic ends. My feelings went deep during his demonstration and at a certain point, I became self-conscious and retreated from the demonstration to resume my role as host. I shifted my gaze from my own reflection and looked at the square boxes in front of me with the names and faces of mental health clinicians and researchers from all over the world.

After our Therapist Affect Phobia Community Hour ended, I noticed that I was teary at times, experiencing discomfort and becoming more aware of my losses. The next morning, I experienced separation anxiety with my trainees while having to meet them online and felt deeply sad for only seeing them through a computer because of our loss in ability to be with  each other in person. However, it’s important to note we all noticed that while we were personally connecting with one another, we were feeling more alive, less tired.

After our meeting, I joined a live stream yoga class and felt a deep longing for the comfort and warmth of my local studio, reluctantly adjusting to doing yoga at home. When my instructor asked us to name an intention for the class, I became acutely aware and distracted by an overwhelming sense of loss that settled inside of me as I realized I was far away from many meaningful people in my life and worried that I may never see some of them again.

Tears come to my eyes and I remembered the last time I felt this way was in August 2010 when I visited Leigh McCullough in San Diego before she completely lost her capacity to talk due to ALS. I remembered her weeping in my arms, deeply in touch with her sense of loss, loss of what was and loss of what was coming. Her capacity to experience the depths of her emotions was profoundly touching and I witnessed a ‘letting go’ happen inside of her followed by a sense of relief as she experienced her feelings with me.

As I remembered these memories of Leigh, I felt an old sadness rise to the surface and I grieved for that time long ago.  I realized that once again, I was explicitly aware of change in motion, not only experiencing it, but also witnessing the end of what was once before. A long time ago, I learned that the only option in these moments is to master a level of acceptance, acceptance of what is now.

Structure helps me show up and accept what is happening right now. It’s my answer to any problem, it keeps me accountable and enables me to work toward the goals that are important to me. What is difficult about the pandemic is that all of us are in a free fall together and we have to adapt to our circumstances as they arrive. When you create a structure of self care, it will eventually turn into a system. So it is important that you select behaviors that will address the issues that have risen to the surface in our changing times, like:


Discomfort seeing our images online

Tiredness, exhaustion 

Guilt for focusing on our families over others 


Panic Attacks 






To start developing your self care routine,  you need a daily schedule that includes a variety of breaks. Due to my domestic and international commitments, my work days begin early and end late, but I try to insert a 15 minute break for each hour that I work, a two hour break for lunch that may include a yoga class, cooking or relaxing, and an hour break for a quick walk and a snack. Once you commit to a structure that works for you, insert only the behaviors that you’ll find rewarding, enjoyable or fun. Some examples of self care activities that people have shared with me over the past few weeks include:

Drinking lots of water and herbal teas

Playing musical instruments

Playing games online or with family members

Having an exercise mat nearby

Listening to music

Reading a novel

Doing puzzles


Creating a theme to follow for the day

Experiencing your emotions

Taking longer breaks

Spending time with pets

Spending time with children

Starting your day with yoga or meditation

Trying an online exercise class like ballet

Waking in the woods, on the beach, in your neighborhood

Hosting dinner on zoom with friends and family

Talking on the phone

Creating a sanctuary at home

Taking baths and showers

Reaching out to others when feeling isolated and out of control


I had some misses this week. I missed two online meetings, I was an hour late for another, and on one day I worked through one of my breaks and didn’t get to my walk. It was no surprise to me that on that night, I woke up to an ‘acting out’ dream where I threw a party in a big house full of people coughing and sneezing. I woke up in a panic, engulfed in free floating anxiety and I remembered the guidance of Dr. Patricia Coughlin, author of Maximizing Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy, “What can you do to feel more in control?”

I’m experiencing daily tiredness that momentarily lifts and then settles back down, gently arriving and receding like the fog in San Diego. It’s unsettling, this sudden shift in my life, and I’m using everything I have learned about self-care to help myself adapt to what is my new normal-working from home, online appointments and virtual teaching.

What I learned from this week is that if I feel my feelings and connect with others, my tiredness retreats for a while and I’m able to access a healthy sense of activity and joy for being. I better understand that feelings of loss today are intermingled with feelings of loss from my past. Structure helps me do the things that are necessary so I can feel more balanced and connected, it allows me to get my walks in, do some yoga, get organized and experience things I enjoy with others.

On August 13, 2010, I wrote an email to Leigh McCullough, days before I was to meet her in San Diego so I could hear her voice for the last time. I wrote, “All I can do is get out of my way, leave my ego on the shore, float downstream and be still until more is revealed.” It strikes me that those were such wise words at the time, little did I know of the complex challenges facing me as she slowly, but surely became ‘locked in’ before her death in June 2012. That period of my life wasn’t my hardest period, that was yet to come, but it was my most constructive. I learned what I was capable of becoming- myself.

As we face this pandemic together, I trust that one day, we’ll remember the lessons we’ve learned, the feelings we’ve shared, the bonds we’ve built and experience a sense of letting go and accepting what is our new normal.

In parting, I want to share the wise words of my Swedish colleague, Jenny Svebeck- sometimes it helps to remember that  “Everything is Now!”



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Therapist Affect Phobia: Reflections from Kristin Osborn from our 2 Day Virtual Conference

On Saturday, March 21st and Sunday, March 22nd with only 5 days of preparation, I hosted a 2 day virtual event: Introduction to Affect Phobia Therapy: Our Patients, Our Own and Our Work with Clients organized with the help of Dr. Alexander BeeBee and Dr. Bruce Spring of the West Coast ISTDP Consortium (WIC).

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Affect Phobia in Practice

By Dr. Quin Dam, written in Dutch 

Affect Phobia in PracticeFeelings give energy and color to our lives. They help us make wise  choices, be close to others and set limits. However feelings can also be frightening.  If we are afraid of what we feel we can develop an affect phobia. We retreat, no longer dare to be vulnerable and suffer from stress, anxiety or vague physical complaints.

If clients suffer in this way, they may find it helpful to explore whether or not they have an affect phobia. APT was developed by Dr. Leigh McCullough. APT integrates psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral therapy and experiential techniques to help patients learn how to unlearn an affect phobia. Research shows that people with anxiety, depression avoidant and dependent personality disorders benefit from this form of treatment. 

In this book, you’ll find an overview of the model to help you learn how to do a core conflict formulation, restructure a defense, affect restructuring and self and other restructuring. All theoretical concepts are illustrated with insightful patient-therapist dialogues. 


“A clearly written workbook about APT, a proven effective psychodynamic form of treatment. The book is written in an easy to understand way so psychotherapists can focus on “doing” treatment. Concepts such as affect, resistance and transmission are well explained using practical examples and manageable. A “must” for every psychotherapist. ”

Thijs de Wolf, psychotherapist / clinical psychologist, master trainer psychotherapy

‘Affect Phobia Therapy (APT) has been developed from the practice of psychotherapy: how can patients face their feelings? Leigh McCullough integrated ideas and methods derived from different psychotherapeutic traditions.  Quin Dam has made this therapy available to the Dutch language in a readable, practical book. It will find its way in many psychotherapy trainings. ”

Sjoerd Colijn, psychotherapist / clinical psychologist, psychotherapist head trainer

This book is ideal for both psychologists, clinical psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists in training, as well as for those working in the clinical practice.

lichterDr. Quin Dam is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, supervisor NVP, NPaV and NVPP, and works in private practice in Leiden. He has over 20 years lecturer at RINO Amsterdam and supervises the peer of GPs with the Balint.

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Affect-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy: Theory, empiricism and practice

by Peter Lilliengren, Patrick Lindert, Linda Hellquist, Kristoffer Pettersson, Lasse Almeb¨åck, Katja Bergsten

This is the first Swedish book about the affective-focused psychodynamic therapy. Our affect theory guides our attention and prepares us for action. They tell us what is important and helps us communicate it to others.

How we manage our emotions depends largely on the relational experience we have. An affective-focused psychotherapy gives the possibility of a close and trusting relationship recognize and approach their emotions in depth so that a ominlärning and integration can take place. To get more in touch with their genuine feelings and needs of the patient needs to be helped to see and let the defense that is not adaptive, to replace them with more balanced ways to regulate emotions and anxiety. Therefore, the therapist is active and focused as close as possible experience.

The book gives a good understanding of both theory and research, practical application. The authors addressed, including affect theory and attachment theory related to psychotherapy. With the help of many cases vignettes and dialogues illustrated different interventions for working with defense, control of anxiety and shame and deepening of emotions.

The book is written for students in psychotherapy and psychotherapists active – and for anyone who wants to know more about affective focused work in psychotherapy.

The authors work as therapists, tutors, trainers and researchers in the affective-focused psychodynamic therapy.

Note: This book is only available in Swedish.

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Changing Character: Short Term Anxiety-Regulating Psychotherapy

by Leigh McCullough Vaillant

The mechanism of emotional change is central to the field of mental health. Emotional change is necessary for healing the long-standing pain of character pathology, yet is the least studied and most misunderstood area in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.

Changing Character at its heart is about emotion—how to draw it out, recognize it and make it conscious, follow its lead and, equally important, use cognition to guide, control, and direct our emotional lives.

This treatment manual teaches therapists time-efficient techniques for changing character and helping their patients live mindfully with themselves and others through adaptive responses to conflictual experiences.

Leigh McCullough Vaillant, a nationally recognized expert on short-term dynamic psychotherapy, shows therapists how to identify and remove obstacles in one’s character (ego defenses) that block emotional experience. She then illustrates how the therapist can delve into that experience and harness the tremendous adaptive power provided by emotions.

The result? She shows us how to have emotions without emotions “having” their way with us. Vaillant’s integrative psychodynamic model holds that the source of psychopathology is the impairment of human emotional experience and expression, which includes impairment in drives and beliefs but is seen fundamentally as the impairment of affects.

In this short-term approach, psychotherapists are shown how to combine behavioral, cognitive, and relational theories to make psychodynamic treatment briefer and more effective. Vaillant illustrates how affect bridges the gap between intrapsychic and interpersonal approaches to psychotherapy. Affect, she argues, has the power to make or break relational bonds. Through the regulation of anxieties associated with affects in relation to self and others, therapists can help their patients undergo meaningful character change.

A holistic focus on affects and attachment has not been adequately addressed in either traditional psychodynamic theory or cognitive theory. Clearly and masterfully, Vaillant shows therapists how to integrate the powers of cognition and emotion within a dynamic short-term therapy approach.

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Treating Affect Phobia: A Manual for Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy

by Leigh McCullough, Nat Kuhn, Stuart Andrews, Amelia Kaplan, Jonathan Wolf, Cara Lanza Hurley.

This hands-on manual from Leigh McCullough and associates teaches the nuts and bolts of practicing short-term dynamic psychotherapy, the research-supported model first presented in Changing Character, McCullough’s foundational text.

Reflecting the ongoing evolution of the approach, the manual emphasizes “affect phobia,” or conflict about feelings. It shows how such proven behavioral techniques as systemic desensitization can be applied effectively within a psychodynamic framework, and offers clear guidelines for when and how to intervene.

Demonstrated are procedures for assessing patients, formulating core conflicts, and restructuring defenses, affects, and relationship to the self and others. In an easy-to-use, large-size format, the book features a wealth of case examples and write-in exercises for building key clinical skills. The companion website ( offers useful supplemental resources, including Psychotherapy Assessment Checklist (PAC) forms and instructions.

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